Interview: James Franco on Sal, James Dean and Gay Subculture

A chat with the multihyphenate star about his latest film, a look at the final days of the gifted Rebel Without a Cause actor.

by | October 31, 2013 | Comments

Franco and Val Lauren, his lead actor in Sal.

When it comes to James Franco, the notion that he’s “having a busy year” is kind of a redundant point. Nonetheless, the actor-director-novelist-artist-film professor-future Galactic President is on a roll in 2013, even by his hyper-productive standards. He’s starred in one of the year’s highest-grossing movies (Oz: The Great and Powerful), given one of its best performances (in Spring Breakers), and appeared in several more films, all while generously lampooning his dilettante public persona both on screen (in This is the End) and off (for Comedy Central’s Celebrity Roast). Oh yeah, he’s directed some movies, too: a riff on William Friedkin’s Cruising (Interior. Leather Bar), adaptations of Faulkner (As I Lay Dying) and Cormac McCarthy (Child of God), and this week’s
Sal — an intimate portrait of the final day in the life of the gifted, tragic Rebel Without a Cause star Sal Mineo, who was murdered in 1976, at age 37.

We caught up with Franco (who was on-set shooting another movie, obviously) for a chat about Sal, his interest in James Dean and gay subculture, and — most importantly — where he thinks Daniel Desario would be today.


I think everyone’s first exposure to Sal Mineo is Rebel Without a Cause, which is a heartbreaking performance and in many ways the soul of the movie. You, of course, played James Dean, and now you’ve made a movie about his co-star. Have you always had a fascination with these guys?

James Franco: Yeah. I remember watching Rebel Without a Cause in high school, before I was a professional actor, and just being drawn to it, you know, like a lot of teenagers over the last 50 years, because it spoke the language of youth. I guess I could relate to the feelings, and I was drawn to the performances and the characters. So I’d been a fan of that film for a long time, and then eventually I played James Dean, so I learned a lot more about what went into that film and the people behind it. I guess I was so interested in it, and my relationship to the film and the material changed or developed over time. I played James Dean, and I’m a fan of James Dean, but I also knew that film, in particular, was a kind of a seminal film in Hollywood history, and in American history, because it was really kind of the first film to talk to teenagers on their level — and to deal with their problems in a very honest way, without, you know, pandering or talking down to them. And then, just because of the people who were involved and the legends that surround it, I felt like there was a lot of material to mine that hadn’t been touched on.

So I ended up doing this big art collaboration at the Museum of Contemporary Art that was centered around that film, that involved great artists like Paul McCarthy and Douglas Gordon and Harmony Korine, and around that time, a new biography of Sal Mineo had come out; and because I was thinking about all the people involved in that film already, that book sparked an interest in Sal, particularly. What I realized, after reading the biography, was that there were certain things that I could hopefully express with a depiction of Sal, and his character and his life. I thought it was a tragic life, for several reasons. He was a very talented person, even when he was young, as a teenager; he was a very successful person, very attractive; he was nominated for two Oscars [for Rebel Without a Cause and Exodus] before he was 20 — and then, when he got older, his star faded a bit, and eventually he was tragically murdered. I thought, you know, “Here’s somebody I can relate to a lot.” He was very passionate about what he does, but he’s living a tragic life because he can’t practice his art as much as he’d like to, in the same way that he once could. And that’s the tragedy of the artist, you know. If someone is talented and passionate and can’t do his work, for whatever reason, that’s just a tragedy. So I thought, “Well, I’ll tell his story, just at the last day of his life” — for several reasons. It’s unconventional, but also, I could tell everything I wanted to about his life through the last last day, because it shows him still working at his craft and, you know, everything about his personal life that you could say could be told through his interactions in that last day. And we get that horrible murder.

I liked the intimacy of the film, particularly in the way it was so tightly framed in parts. It also showed him working on his stuff, which underscored the tragedy of his death — especially the way you presented it as an almost throwaway moment.

Right, yeah.

It was also interesting that you chose a story partially set in the gay subculture of the time, just pre-Cruising [1980] and Interior. Leather Bar. Is that an area that attracts you as a filmmaker?

Yeah. I think so. It’s both coincidental and, probably, deliberate — because there is something interesting about that gay subculture of that time. The other connection, of course, between Sal and Interior. Leather Bar, is that Val Lauren is the lead in both. I guess the thing about Cruising, and specifically the gay kind of club subculture of the late ’70s, is that it really was a subculture on the brink of the AIDS epidemic, and so it was a lifestyle or a culture that would change drastically within a few years. So I liked the freedom that I saw — or at least that I could sense from movies, or reading about it — and I like the rebelliousness of it. The gay rights movement was still coming up, and Stonewall was not that far in the past, and so I like how free and rebellious it felt. Also there was the tragedy of that situation, where it would change drastically after AIDS hit the scene.

Sal Mineo with Natalie Wood and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

You end Sal with the scene from Rebel where Sal Mineo explains the the intimacy of calling James Dean’s character “Jamie.” I was wondering why you chose to go with that. Was it a remark on Dean’s and Mineo’s relationship, or the subtext of the film?

Yeah, I mean I guess just putting the film together I was focusing on his last day, and I felt that there were things about his personal and professional life that I wanted to say, but I also knew that I was doing it in a very — as you said — a very kind of intimate way. So I wanted to do a couple of things, maybe at the beginning and the end, that would tie us back to who Sal really was. So we have the very kind of matter-of-fact, almost crass, or just callous news reporter in the beginning, that was an actual news brief from the time, and then I knew I wanted a clip of the real Sal at the end. I was just looking for some kind of poignant clip of Sal, whether it was from an interview with him or something from his films, and I guess I liked Rebel ’cause it’s my favorite film of his, but also because I guess it was a way — if I used Rebel, and if I used a clip of that character talking about James Dean’s character — not only would it reference the gay subtext to the character he played in that film, it would be a way of saying, “Here is a movie he did,” and there’s a lot to read into that movie, both about the characters and the actors behind the characters. And in a way that’s what I’m trying to do with my movie, Sal — meaning, “Here’s a movie about an actor, so his profession is to play roles, but you’re also going to see a person behind the roles.”

Looks like we’ve only got one time for one more question. So here it is. Will you ever make a Freaks and Geeks movie, and where would you hypothetically see Daniel Desario as being now?

[Laughs] Okay. My guess is that it’s not going to happen, sadly. I’m sure everybody would like to have that happen.

And Daniel?

I guess the best case scenario is that he started a band. I don’t know how successful he’d be, but I guess the best case is if he’s playing music somewhere, in Detroit or elsewhere.

Maybe he’s moved to Seattle — it would be the early ’90s by now in the show.

Yeah. [Laughs] Maybe he’s traveling around the world with his successful band. The worst case scenario is that he hasn’t left the town, and he’s just chugging away. But I like to think that, you know, even though he didn’t work hard in school he was passionate about certain things, like music, so I’d like to thing that somehow he made his way out of that town and has evolved his music somehow.

I guess that’s why we don’t really need to see a Freaks and Geeks continuation, ’cause it’ll live in out imaginations in whatever way.

[Laughs] Yeah. I mean, I am doing another movie with Seth [Rogen].

There’s something of Daniel and [Rogen’s character in Freaks] Ken in everything you two have done since.

Yeah, you could say that the spirit of Freaks and Geeks definitely lived on through our later work.


Sal opens in limited theatrical release this weekend, and is available on VOD.


Tag Cloud

Amazon Prime Video sequel Sony Pictures universal monsters spanish language supernatural Amazon Studios 2018 USA Network PaleyFest Comedy Central E! concert breaking bad Film children's TV Fall TV American Society of Cinematographers reviews Logo cars natural history rotten movies we love Grammys spinoff Comic Book Emmys El Rey robots Drama slashers Elton John animated The Witch Schedule Disney Channel psychological thriller adaptation ghosts jamie lee curtis Spike IFC Films canceled TV shows independent doctor who Quiz stand-up comedy Sundance TV Disney Plus Starz Chernobyl Pop TV The Walking Dead batman renewed TV shows SundanceTV Red Carpet Mystery comic DC streaming service Holiday Discovery Channel joker spider-man boxoffice USA 2020 Election transformers Apple comiccon tv talk casting werewolf MTV Family singing competition Syfy Kids & Family Heroines mockumentary foreign Adult Swim chucky Horror Apple TV Plus NYCC Summer MCU Ellie Kemper toy story Writers Guild of America Ghostbusters Pirates TV renewals Cartoon Network Mindy Kaling video Emmy Nominations zero dark thirty Disney+ Disney Plus FX ITV Mary Tyler Moore Calendar mutant Superheroes festivals FOX BBC America Valentine's Day TLC Disney streaming service Nominations crime drama Cosplay Paramount Network dc 2019 aliens historical drama Pet Sematary ABC 71st Emmy Awards game show YA OWN RT History Sundance GLAAD spy thriller disaster GoT Walt Disney Pictures Cannes Nat Geo zombies TBS christmas movies WGN Video Games reboot based on movie FXX DGA Brie Larson YouTube Premium NBC ESPN cancelled 2015 Epix Netflix Christmas movies SXSW Paramount Academy Awards Esquire Funimation anthology child's play cinemax BBC Box Office Musicals Countdown blockbuster First Look VICE a nightmare on elm street BET police drama unscripted Turner richard e. Grant cooking documentary YouTube Red The CW Awards Tour HBO Max Western Lucasfilm award winner 2017 space Action justice league VH1 ratings theme song FX on Hulu A24 latino Oscars comics Pixar GIFs canceled indie cancelled TV series Arrowverse Character Guide dramedy vampires Marathons binge green book Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt TCA Winners Country die hard Trailer Freeform Rock IFC television Photos Lionsgate parents Star Trek Nickelodeon Toys Classic Film finale psycho franchise Trivia Martial Arts Awards movies Disney Mudbound Polls and Games LGBT Lifetime Hulu movie Netflix dark medical drama CMT TV free movies 007 romance composers name the review cancelled television TCM romantic comedy Sundance Now what to watch Amazon Prime Rocky CNN 21st Century Fox game of thrones History Creative Arts Emmys Film Festival President directors 45 Watching Series hist YouTube Apple TV+ Biopics Mary Poppins Returns kids PBS cats Sneak Peek DC Universe Marvel Studios Certified Fresh quibi Women's History Month Masterpiece Reality Competition asian-american stoner Universal teaser adventure Ovation Music DirecTV Stephen King dceu Premiere Dates Hallmark Christmas movies Baby Yoda Shondaland Dark Horse Comics Warner Bros. anime Pride Month Year in Review X-Men zombie Song of Ice and Fire Columbia Pictures sitcom TCA Winter 2020 travel Tumblr Holidays Crackle witnail social media dragons comedies biography CBS Thanksgiving hispanic Television Academy Fantasy Sci-Fi war politics crime Musical Best and Worst facebook The Arrangement discovery Reality National Geographic WarnerMedia See It Skip It screenings revenge HBO technology Avengers Endgame Teen Winter TV Turner Classic Movies Hear Us Out AMC Tomatazos harry potter Animation E3 Comics on TV series Christmas miniseries Spectrum Originals Opinion Black History Month SDCC MSNBC Amazon sports Shudder TV Land Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Tarantino scary movies TIFF A&E Britbox serial killer OneApp Trophy Talk versus TNT San Diego Comic-Con halloween crossover Marvel diversity Fox News Extras ABC Family Binge Guide cartoon First Reviews Super Bowl Mary poppins best mission: impossible Interview true crime elevated horror Travel Channel Anna Paquin TCA 2017 Captain marvel The Purge Infographic criterion 2016 Podcast science fiction CBS All Access Comedy period drama talk show DC Comics golden globes Acorn TV blaxploitation Spring TV LGBTQ Showtime cops south america Bravo New York Comic Con nature 20th Century Fox RT21 cancelled TV shows Marvel Television Rocketman Crunchyroll book Hallmark political drama 4/20 crime thriller docudrama streaming thriller Tubi TruTV strong female leads Superheroe dogs Pop Food Network Set visit CW Seed Vudu Rom-Com sag awards 24 frames Peacock Lifetime Christmas movies APB cults Black Mirror spain Star Wars screen actors guild