What It’s Like To Be James Franco’s Professor

His English professor at Yale reveals that the actor rarely missed a discussion, even when filming in Detroit.

James Franco.
What is James Franco like as a reader of scholarly work?

Photograph by John M. Heller/Getty Images.

When I read that an NYU professor was allegedly fired for giving James Franco a “D,” I was shocked for several reasons. First, that any college could be so stupid as to fire a professor for not giving a good grade seems ridiculous, so much so that I imagine there will be an enormous burden of proof on the part of the accuser even if it is true. Second, I was shocked that James got a “D” for not attending class. I doubt that assertion shocked anyone else, since James is often written about as though he were coasting through the system, playing off the college “cred” he gets by enrolling in as many programs as possible. But I’ve been James’ professor, and it struck me as highly uncharacteristic for him to just “blow off class,” as several articles are suggesting.      

When I was assigned to be James Franco’s adviser in the English department at Yale, I was not exactly sure what to think. I was not on the admissions committee that had enrolled him, and to be perfectly honest, I’d never read anything he’d written. (I had, of course, seen a few James Franco films, but who hasn’t?) I am also fairly new at Yale, and so was not sure what sort of “advice” I could offer beyond, I guess, “study hard, and good luck.” When he came to my office, he was already deep into classes on Romanticism, Walt Whitman, and modern American literature. He had also just received an Oscar nomination. James’ personal assistant had called the day before to ask if I could meet in the afternoon, rather than the morning, since he had been invited onto the Colbert Report that day. I was flexible, and happy to accommodate, but remember feeling a little stunned at having to speak with one of my students in such a Hollywood manner—his people calling my people.

In any case, he looked exhausted, but was respectful, interested, and eager to find out more about how he could pursue his interests in both film and literature during his time at Yale. Directed reading is a fairly common practice in graduate school that allows small groups of students with more specific interests to pair up with a professor and read through a list of texts, more or less like a seminar, but with less lecture and more discussion. Over the next few months we agreed on the topic of film language and drew up a list of important texts on film history and theory all dealing with the question of film as a kind of language or grammar. Another graduate student, Matt Rager, also expressed interest in joining us, and so, last August we began meeting once a week to discuss our readings. [Read James Franco’s film language reading list.]

The catch was that this was also the semester that James was going to be in Detroit filming for the new Disney blockbuster Oz, the Great and Powerful, which meant he wasn’t going to be able to meet with Matt and me in New Haven. However, I didn’t feel comfortable carrying on a Ph.D-earning conversation over the phone each week, and so I told him he’d have to agree to take the time away from whatever he was doing (which just happened to be shooting a multimillion dollar film) and at least have a video conference call for several hours each week. Otherwise, it just wasn’t going to work. I would have expected as much from any other graduate student. He was more than happy to do so, and over the course of our reading I imagine he enraged more than one Disney executive in adhering faithfully to our scheduled “meetings.”

One week, however, the Oz shoot went over schedule and he was stuck on set. Rather than answering the texts from his personal assistant about the possibility of rescheduling, Matt and I carried on the discussion without him. Later, when James meekly offered to meet with me another time to make up the session, I declined and told him, “I respect your effort to test the boundaries of what is humanly possible within normal space and time, but this is one of those boundaries. You’ve got to meet when we agree to meet.” But that happened only once over the course of the semester and James was remarkably punctual to every other discussion. He always came prepared, and at one point even followed through on our scheduled meeting from Palo Alto where he was attending his father’s funeral. That’s right—he actually did the reading and scheduled discussion the same week his father suddenly died. “I’d still like to have the discussion,” he said when I realized that he was preparing for a funeral and offered to postpone. “My dad was very proud that I was at Yale, so this is what he’d want.” Blowing off class? I certainly would have blown it off under similar circumstances.  

I won’t pretend that it hasn’t been interesting, even thrilling, to be studying film theory with James Franco. When, for example, we were reading Jerome Christensen’s America’s Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures, it occurred to all of us that there was probably no better environment to see Christensen’s theory in action than on the set where James was currently working. So, for one of our weekly meetings, Matt and I flew to Detroit. (I paid for both tickets, since I didn’t want Matt to miss out and I didn’t feel right letting James pay for it.) Having studied film for so many years, it was breathtaking to see it happening on such a grand scale. Imagine six Costco-sized warehouses, each one fitted with enormous blue-screen walls and gigantic sets: yellow brick roads, emerald cities, poppy forests, flying monkeys, little people, and on and on.

So what is James like as a reader of scholarly work? I’ve often heard it expressed that he must be a mountebank, since no single person could be doing as many things as he does. How could he possibly be simultaneously reading for a Yale Ph.D and filming a multimillion-dollar motion picture? How could he possibly have time to write anything when he’s also teaching a class at NYU and starring so many films? I’ve wondered the same thing myself. But on that trip to Detroit, I learned a secret. People think that when you’re the star of a film, your time must be chock-full with endless minutia—appearances, conversations, getting “into character,” and so on. But when you’re the star, you end up just sitting around a lot. For a single shot to take place, for instance, a whole series of organized events have to be set in motion: The 3D crew has to gauge the shot, the cinematographer has to line up the camera, the lighting crew has to arrange its lights and shades, the set has to be rearranged or otherwise moved into place, the wardrobe and hair departments have to prepare the actors—and through all of this, the actor just sits and waits. In fact, actors will often sit and wait so for so long that “body doubles” will sometimes be hired just to sit and wait in the appropriate place for the actors. So when you see James’s character with his arm trapped under a rock in 127 Hours, what you don’t see is that there was an assigned reading under the rock with it.  When he’s playfully wrestling with a genetically-enhanced chimpanzee in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, just off to the right of the shot was a stack of books.

The truth is, if you’re an A-list Hollywood star like James Franco, and are willing to put the time into earning a Ph.D, you may actually have more time to read than many of your colleagues. Heck, you don’t even have to worry about the grocery shopping, laundry, and other sundry tasks that every other poor graduate student in the country has to worry about. After visiting Detroit, the thing I found myself wondering was not “How does James do it?” but rather “Why aren’t more Hollywood actors earning Ph.Ds?”

I’m no longer surprised, then, when James comes online for our chat and has not only done the assigned reading, but gone ahead and read a few extra texts as well, watched a few extra films, seen the DVD “special features,” and is prepared with several written pages on what we’re studying. So while a lot of actors turn to knitting, James Franco is becoming a scholar, and I suggest we take him seriously. Pay attention to that man behind the curtain. He’s doing a lot of reading.