James Franco can’t catch a break. Despite his acting accolades, the would-be Renaissance man is often dismissed as more of a hipster dilettante, stumbling at everything he attempts outside of acting. The New York Times excoriated him for his “excruciatingly sophomoric poems,” “entitled narcissism,” and “confused desperation” in pursuit of the visual arts. Acculturated’s own RJ Moeller skewered him as a morally suspect pseudo-intellectual. But I’m going to stick up for him for another reason.
Franco left college at 18 and launched a successful acting career. But eight years later in 2006, weary of that narrow (for him) focus, he enrolled in the English department at UCLA. “When I went back,” Franco explained in a recent interview with Forbes about the role of education in his life, “I was there strictly to learn, and not just to get skills to find employment. Being there to learn what I wanted to learn made all the difference. I focused solely on classes that interested me.” And he was interested in a great deal; he piled on 62 units of classes (most students take a maximum of 24).
An advisor recalls that Franco’s “was truly just a thirst for knowledge, a sense that ‘I've waited this long, I'm going to take advantage of everything, I don't want to miss anything.’” He studied the philosophy of science, American literature, American Holocaust literature, French and more. “I love school, Franco has said. “I go to school because I love being around people who are interested in what I’m interested in and I’m having a great experience… I’m studying things that I love so it’s not like it’s a chore.”
As reported in The Guardian, Franco continued acting while studying, reading Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer on the set of Spider-Man 3, 16th-century Jacobean drama during the filming of Pineapple Express, and the novels of Thomas Pynchon while filming Milk. Franco points out that there is a lot of down-time on-set, and he prefers to fill that time reading. “He’s a very education-minded person,” says director Judd Apatow, who has worked with him on numerous projects. “We used to laugh because in between takes he'd be reading The Iliad on set... With him, it was always James Joyce or something.”
He received his undergraduate degree in 2008 with a GPA above 3.5. “After that,” Franco told Forbes, “I went on to graduate school in writing, art, filmmaking, and English lit. I’ve had tons of incredible professors along the way. I want to now give some of that knowledge back to others.”
I get this. I understand that thirst for knowledge and the compulsion to share it. I too dove into college late; when I was 18 I wasn’t ready or especially interested, but by the time I did go back to school years later, I was chafing at the bit. It unleashed in me an obsession with a wide range of interests like Franco’s in culture and the arts. I double-majored in English and the Humanities, absorbing as much as I could as fast as I could. And from my very first semester back, I knew I wanted to teach.
Considering the false notes he seems to be hitting while dabbling in the visual arts, maybe Franco should consider being a teacher himself, in between acting gigs. He actually already is one, to some extent: he teaches university screenwriting courses at UCLA, USC and Cal Arts, and acting classes at Studio 4. Perhaps he should focus on that. I suspect he will be more successful at it, and it will be more meaningful to him, than indulging in failed artsy projects.
Whatever complaints his critics may have, and whatever his personal faults may be (like his habit of posting semi-nude Instagram selfies), I admire James Franco’s wide-ranging curiosity, his passion for learning, and his urge to share that intellectual excitement. They’re the qualities of a born teacher. And as a celebrity, he is in an influential position to inspire young fans and steer them toward an appreciation of literature and the arts. Franco said he’d had many “incredible professors” along the way; if he got serious about sharing his love of learning, perhaps one day students could say the same of him.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/3/14)