From teen movie star to high art to Disney prince: the mad world of James Franco

NORMAL PEOPLE don’t have “projects”. Normal people have jobs, social lives and hobbies; things they do for a living and things they do for fun. Projects fill the twilight of illustrious careers – they’re what successful people do when they’re bored with success. James Franco is famous for his projects. Since his career took off in the late 90s he has been a performance artist, a filmmaker, a dance-theatre director, a t-shirt designer and author. What he really loves, though, is “going back to school”.

Where some celebrities have alcohol or drugs, Franco has graduate degree programmes. Over the last decade, he has enrolled at Columbia University, New York University, Brooklyn College, Rhode Island College of Design and North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College. He received his MFA in 2010 and is a currently a PhD student in English at Yale. It’s rumoured that he once flew from filming on location in California to attend a seminar on Brechtian precepts in New York.

As celebrity vices go, it’s at the healthier end of the spectrum, although it has got him into a few sticky situations. Last year he was covered in honey and gold leaf (turned into a “living demi-god”) by performance artist Marina Abramovic. One of his more recent projects involved covering a giant teddy bear in paint and throwing it onto a bed in a surreal mock-up of a murder scene. Following a less successful class, Franco was sued by NYU professor Jose Angel Santana after criticising the teacher in an interview (when asked why he got a D in his “Directing the Actor” class, Franco said he chose to film 127 Hours with Danny Boyle rather than “waste time with a bad teacher”).

The surreal twists and turns of his recent career can be seen as a yellow brick road leading to Oz: The Great and Powerful, a prequel to the 1939 Judy Garland classic. Franco plays the eponymous wizard (real name Oscar Diggs), a fairground huckster from Kansas who goes on a balloon ride to the magical world of Oz. Franco’s Diggs is a steam-punk mad-professor – it’s about as far as you can get from his first major movie role as a popular high school womaniser in Whatever It Takes (2000). Gothic and surreal, Oz: The Great and Powerful aims to capture the same audience as Alice in Wonderland, the $1bn grossing Tim Burton fantasy, without which it would never have been made.

The film is also a departure for director Sam Raimi, most famous for the Spiderman franchise, on which he first worked with Franco. After signing up for Oz, Raimi personally chose Franco for the lead role.

The inhabitants of Oz hail Oscar Biggs as a saviour wizard, but a few local witches aren’t so sure. Comparisons with his real life are tempting. Is Franco the oddball renaissance man his Sylvia Plath-reading fans think he is? Or is he just a pretty face using his high profile to inflict ever more pretentious vanity projects on an increasingly bemused public? Either way, the days of playing jocks in early noughties teen movies are a distant memory.