James Franco: Renaissance Man or Pseudo-Intellectual Pain in the Ass?

It’s hard to get a sense for the real James Franco. His public persona is built around a mockery of public personas in general. He is the quintessential polymath, with an overwhelming range of interests that span from strange puppets to classic literature. He’s equal parts heartthrob and academic. However, a quote from a June 2013 interview with GQ hints that Franco’s public persona may not represent the actor's true self: “I see my public persona — and public personas in general — as constructions that are made by many different entities and outlets. It’s not just the person that generates their public persona. So I have no compunction about mocking that.”

Our understanding of Franco is muddied by the need to disassociate the Franco we see from the Franco that exists behind closed doors. The information we get is filtered through his public facade. How do we reconcile his attending multiple PhD programs, acting for Disney, and also directing a movie about gay sex? And why does he take so many damn Instagram selfies? What does it all mean?

Further complicating matters, Franco expertly trolls his critics by purposefully (and publicly) embodying the extreme subject of their criticisms. Take his performance in This Is The End. From his first scene, Franco gives a caricature of himself as an art snob and spoiled Hollywood materialist who has a blatant homoerotic fixation on Seth Rogen. Franco’s critics cited his self-obsession. Lo and behold, hundreds of Instagram photos and WhoSay videos popped up, with Franco holding a camera to his own face. It’s a classic reversal: now the criticism of Franco's personality seems as fraudulent as the exaggerated public persona it addressed. Touché.

Even so, it may be possible to get a glimpse of the "real" Franco through his interviews and appearances. Here's what I've managed to glean about him.

First, he's often modest about his work, as in the aforementioned GQ interview, in which he describes his Saturday Night Live documentary as, "not any great revelation about how they put their sketches together, but you get to see the process in action." He doesn’t insist that all of his work is earth-shattering, nor does he demand to be worshiped for having an IQ over 40. He does what his curiosity compels him to do, puts it in the proper context, and allows us to make what we will of it.

Second, as his adviser at Yale put it, Franco has a desire to “test the boundaries of what is humanly possible within normal space and time.” (The professor also describes Franco as an adept scholar and a diligent worker.) Even Franco's cheeky public persona can’t hide the fact that he is serious about his interests and the responsibilities that come with them.

Lastly, he can make fun of himself, making him OK in my book. I mean, did you see Comedy Central’s Roast of James Franco? It takes a lot of confidence to turn the joke on yourself, just as much as it takes guts to let your public persona be a source of confusion and something that people can interpret at will.

I think we fixate on Franco because he really does "test the limits of what is humanly possible." It’s only logical to assume something is awry when someone succeeds in so many different disciplines, and is blessed with great looks and a sense of humor. After all, if Franco can be a millionaire Hollywood actor, a screenwriter, a producer, a published author, a director, a model, a poet, a professor, a painter, and a PhD candidate, then it’s possible to do it all. And if it’s possible to do it all, why the hell aren’t we all doing the same?

In the words of Franco’s Yale adviser, “Franco is becoming a better scholar and I suggest we take him seriously. Pay attention to that man behind the curtain. He’s doing a lot of reading.” Let's give the man the credit he's due, but also spend time paying attention to our own lives. If there's anything we can learn from Franco's mockery of celebrity fixation, and his ridiculous public persona, it's that instead of assessing Franco’s accomplishments, we should be accomplishing something ourselves.