The Mercury sat down with James Franco on November 14, just before the benefit premiere of Gus Van Sant's Milk. Franco plays Harvey Milk's boyfriend, Scott Smith. For the Mercury's review of the film, click here. The complete text of the interview, edited for clarity, is below.
MERCURY: Scott Smith was barely mentioned in the previous film about Harvey Milk, the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.
JAMES FRANCO: He was there for five seconds.
So how did you flesh him out? And what was it like having some of Smith's friends on the set of Milk?
Well, Scott and Harvey were together for like four years, and everything that people tell me, everything that Harvey and Scott's friends have told me, [is that] he was a very important part of Harvey's life, and he was there for all the big things in Harvey's life.
They met in New York when Scott was a struggling actor and Harvey was living in the closet. I have some old photographs of him in his actor days. He's from Mississippi, but he moved to New York to act—and I don't think he got very far with that—and met Harvey. Harvey was an investment banker and living in the closet, and then Scott was there when Harvey decided to come out. They both decided to move to San Francisco, to the Castro, and open this camera shop together.
Scott helped run the campaigns, but he wasn't a huge part of Harvey's political career—especially after Harvey was elected, because they were kind of broken up at that point, even though they were still important to each other. So Scott doesn't play a big part in the documentary. Neither does Cleve Jones [who was a consultant on the film, and is played in the film by Emile Hirsch]. Cleve, I think has held resentment over that for like 30 years. I don't think he's rewriting anything, but making sure he's a part of it, as he was.
And in the book The Mayor of Castro Street, by Randy Shilts—it's the best book I've found on Harvey Milk—I think Scott gets the biggest acknowledgement in the front. But it's about Harvey, so there's not enough information in there about Scott to build a character on. So, basically, it's a matter of just talking to friends and people that knew him, and everybody has a slightly different perspective on who he is just as you would on any person.
So what did they tell you about him?
Everything! From like who was a top, who was a bottom, to what he dressed like, what kind of sense of humor he had, how he was in the camera shop. Even though neither one knew anything about cameras, Scott took on the responsibility [of running the business].
Neither of them knew anything about cameras?
I don't think so. I still don't know why they decided to open it.
And then also what I got was that basically it was a very loving and fun kind of relationship. There was a lot of humor and they really liked to have fun. I got all that from the friends. So I kind of had an idea of the relationship, kind of an interior life of the person, but I still didn't have the physicality.
How does this compare to playing James Dean? [Franco was nominated for an Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie Emmy Award for the 2001 TV movie about Dean.]
Here's the difference. People know what James Dean sounded like, and how he moved, and what the mannerisms were—and if they don't, they can go out and rent one of the movies and look at it. So people will know how accurate I am as far as the physicality of James Dean.
As far as Scott Smith, most people, except the handful of people that knew him, won't know how accurate I am. But as an actor I like to—and I can't say I'll do this with every person, maybe the role will be rewritten like we're telling this story and it's a historical thing and we're making this character serve some other function, or whatever—but for this movie, I thought it was important to honor the memory of Scott Smith, to really try to get it as accurate as I could, despite nobody knowing how accurate I was or not. I just find it inspiring, I find it inspiring as an actor to observe behavior and try to capture that.
And finally, Rob Epstein, the director of The Times of Harvey Milk, I knew that he was a very meticulous documentarian. So he did interviews and pre-interviews, basically cut the whole movie together before he even had any footage, just using pre-footage. That's his way of shaping it before he makes it. So I went to him and said, "Do you have anything on Scott that didn't make it into the movie? Any of these pre-interveiws or anything?" And he said, "I might, I might." And he went in this old vault and found this old reel of film that had this old interview with Scott and transferred it to DVD. I don't think anyone had seen these since 1982. I could finally hear Scott and see how he moved and all of that, so after that I kind of had it all. I had the stories, and I could see him, and that's how I did it.
What was it like being around Sean Penn as he was playing Harvey? He obviously had tons of stuff to work with to portray Milk, and he really hit it.
It was great. I mean, I've known Sean for a while. I've never worked with him but we've been friendly, but I mean—he's Sean Penn! He could easily go on the set and make everyone feel intimidated if he wanted to. On this set, there were a lot of younger actors and he could really just scare the shit out of everybody if he wanted to, but he did the opposite. I'm sure he's that way with every movie because I get the feeling that he really loves actors and he really genuinely loves acting. And I think there's something also about playing Harvey Milk, who was, from what I can gather, an incredibly loving and extroverted charismatic person that loved bringing people together. And Sean did that on set. He set a high bar with his dedication and his talent, but I think everyone felt really comfortable around him and brought a lot to it because they felt the movie was important. But he didn't scare anyone. The opposite—he made everyone feel like a team player.
Why is this film so important?
Harvey Milk is like the first openly gay official elected in the country, and that didn't just happen. He had to run four times. It was a real struggle, and in a time, 30 years ago, when there was a lot more discrimination against gay people. For that reason alone, I think it's important to tell this story—not only what he accomplished there, but also [show him] as an inspiring figure for people who feel strongly about something. He wasn't a politician, he had no political experience. He decided to run just because he was unhappy with the lack of equal rights and what was going on around him. No one was doing anything about it, so he decided he was going to do something about it. And that example I think is the point of it.
I grew up in the Bay Area, 45 minutes from San Francisco in Palo Alto. And when I heard about this movie, I did some research, and the first thing I did was watch the documentary. Harvey's image seemed familiar. Like maybe I'd seen a poster of him in San Francisco when I was younger. But nobody taught me anything about who he was, and I grew up in the Bay Area!
So I'm just hoping that this movie raises the awareness of who he was and shows a figure who made significant change happen because of his actions. That's how it happens—people make it happen, not because miraculously one day a prejudiced environment decides they want a gay city supervisor, it happened because he got out there and rallied people and made it happen.
Did his friends think he was crazy for running for political office? Especially four times? Scott left him after the third one....
Sure. I'm sure in the beginning, in the first [campaign], I think it was kind of a fun, let's just do it. Who is going to tell us no? It'll be crazy and we'll just try it because we can. And then it became something much more serious as he realized (A) it could actually happen, and (B) how important it was that it did happen.
So I'm sure people thought it was crazy the first time, but after the second, third, fourth time, people saw that it wasn't so crazy—maybe he could be elected. And even before he elected, what he was doing... he started the gay pride parade. He successfully boycotted Coors beer. He was making significant advances and alliances, he was doing great things. So maybe in the beginning, he seemed a little crazy and over ambitious but in the end it was proved that he was right.
What's your sense of Milk and Smith's relationship after they broke up? There's a scene of the victory party when Milk finally wins, and Smith is outside on the sidewalk. What was the somber look on your face standing outside the victory party? Was it regret at having left? Were they still in love?
I think so. It's not depicted in the movie, but when Harvey was elected, there was a celebratory dinner and even though he and Scott were broken up, he thanked Scott in a speech. And after Harvey was killed, Scott was one of the main people to carry on Harvey's memory. He was called the Widow Milk—I don't know who came up with that name, but he was called the Widow Milk—and he was still in the will too, he inherited some or all of Harvey's things. So I think they were still very important to each other. I'm sure Scott had a lot of mixed feelings when Harvey was elected. I'm sure he was very happy, and I think he was still running the camera shop, at least in real life, so I'm sure there were a lot of weird mixed emotions. But I think they were each the love of each other's lives.
I want to talk about the politics of this film. I know the film was a long time coming, but the timing of it, with Proposition 8 passing in California just two weeks ago, removing the right to same-sex marriage, and the parallels to Milk's fight to defeat Proposition 6, which would have mandated that any gay teacher be fired. What do you make of the timing? Is this a political movie?
I think what it shows is that this is not just a history lesson. That a lot of the issues presented in the movie are still very alive today. And that if Harvey Milk was alive today, there's no doubt he'd be fighting as hard as he could.
When we had the premiere in San Francisco in late October, it was before the election, and there were all these No on 8 people outside, and they all had these pins that were inspired by the No on 6 pins—Proposition 6 was a measure in the '70s that would have prevented gay teachers from being able to teach in schools. When that proposition was introduced, the polls said the odds were 60 to 30 that it was going to pass, and somehow—because of Harvey and others who fought against it—somehow they pulled off a miracle and somehow it did not pass. And I think in the past 30 years, there have a been a lot of great changes as far as gay rights and civil rights, but Proposition 8 shows that there still is discrimination, and people are being isolated and told that they can't have the same rights as everyone else—and that shit's discrimination! It's even more ridiculous to me than Proposition 6, because for Proposition 8, gay people getting married has no effect on anyone else! Where at least for 6 it was like, okay if you're a bigot and don't want gay people teaching your children—I think it's still insane, but at least your children are involved. This has nothing to do with you, so just fuck off. It shows that these issues are still a big part of life.
I had someone ask me after I saw the preview if it was more of a gay movie or a political movie. I wanted to get your thoughts on that.
I think it's a bit of both. From what I've been told, Gus has been trying to make this movie for 12 years. And the earlier incarnation of this movie was through different people, different producers, and I think it was based on the book The Mayor of Castro Street. There was a different script, a different writer, and it almost got made with Gus. And from what he said, he didn't want to do it because he didn't think the script was right. One of the problems was that it was too politically heavy: It was all politics, and you didn't get a good feeling for the people or the place, what the Castro was in the '70s. It was probably the center of the gay rights movement in the entire world, and in our time, at least, there had never been a community like that where you could come out and have the kind of support you'd have in the Castro—except maybe there was a little movement in Weimar, Germany, right before Hitler came and squashed it, but other than that, this was new. And Gus really wanted to capture that, and I think he did successfully, and that's one of the great things about the movie.
It's kind of a biopic, it's about Harvey Milk, but it doesn't feel like a biopic. It's got important political issues, but it also feels very intimate and personal. There's a love story, there's a relationship. You get a real sense of the people in that time and place. So it's kind of a bit of everything, and Gus is a real master of that, not only an ensemble, but a collage-y effect, you get a lot of feelings thrown together but they all kind of work together.