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James Franco Sued for Fraud, Sexual Harassment by Two Students of Shuttered Acting School

James Franco seated among other guests.
James Franco seated at the 24th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 21, 2018, in Los Angeles.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Lawyers for two women previously enrolled in James Franco’s now-closed acting school, Studio 4, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Thursday accusing the film and television star and his partners of creating “an environment of harassment and sexual exploitation both in and out of the class.” They are suing for sexual harassment and fraud, among other charges, which Franco has denied through his lawyer.

Sarah Tither-Kaplan, who publicly accused Franco of misconduct along with four other women in a January 2018 article in the Los Angeles Times, was joined in the suit by another former student, Toni Gaal. According to the complaint: “As Plaintiffs experienced and observed, Studio 4 served no other legitimate purposes other than to dupe unsuspecting and often very young ‘students’ out of their money and talent to serve Defendants’ financial and exploitative desires.”

Among the many allegations detailed in the 34-page civil suit, Kaplan and Gaal single out a Sex Scenes master class “personally taught” by Franco himself, for which aspiring students were apparently required to be filmed simulating sexual acts as part of the audition process. “At no time did Franco or the Master Class provide students with any knowledge or guidance as to the logistics and sensitivities surrounding the filming of a sex scene,” according to the complaint, “such as those provided by the SAG/AFTRA guidelines regarding nudity and an actor’s rights.”

Franco’s lawyer Michael Plonsker denied the accusations in a statement to the New York Times and said that “[Franco] will not only fully defend himself, but will also seek damages from the plaintiffs and their attorneys for filing this scurrilous publicity-seeking lawsuit.”

According to Tither-Kaplan and Gaal, students were not only enticed into performing nude scenes or simulated sex with often empty promises of roles in Franco’s productions, they were also allegedly threatened by members of the school when they took issue with its environment. One unnamed male student who had complained about the conditions at Studio 4 was reportedly called by Jay Davis, general manager of Franco’s production company Rabbit Bandini, and told, “This is how Hollywood is,” and that if he continued with his public objections, he would “never work again.” (Davis has not publicly responded to the allegations in the lawsuit.)

Franco, who is currently starring in the final season of HBO’s The Deuce and won a Golden Globe for his performance in The Disaster Artist, founded Studio 4 in 2014 through his Rabbit Bandini production company. The acting school closed its doors in the fall of 2017. Tither-Kaplan told the New York Times that she was particularly galled by Franco’s empty promises on late-night television made after the Los Angeles Times article’s publication, during which he had promised to “fix” anything he had done wrong. “There still has been no action, publicly, that shows me that these people know what they did is wrong and harmful and can’t been repeated,” she said.

Attorneys for the two women are actively seeking information from additional former students who believe they might qualify as victims for a larger class-action suit. Both the current and prospective class-action suits will pursue monetary damages as well as the return or destruction of any questionable video recordings depicting former Studio 4 students.