In Wizard of Oz prequel Oz the Great and Powerful, James Franco plays a circus magician, Oscar Diggs, who is transported from Depression-era Kansas to a mythical land where he’s worshipped as a saviour. And why not? The 34-year-old actor’s pursuits have been so eclectic of late that it’s hardly a surprise to see him starring in Disney movie.
He has recently made his name as a fashion photographer, shooting campaigns for Elle and denim brand 7 for All Mankind. Last October saw the release of his first book of poetry, Strongest of the Litter. As a director, he premiered two short films at Sundance 2013: Herbert White, starring Michael Shannon as a lumberjack and a serial killer, and Interior, Leather Bar, inspired by William Friedkin's 1980 thriller Cruising (about a killer stalking New York's underground gay subculture) and featuring real gay sex. No, Toto – we’re not in Kansas anymore. “The movies I want to direct are usually a little more – challenging,” Franco says.
Then again, there was always more to the star of Rise of the Planet of the Apes than meets the eye. There's the mathematical prowess that resulted in a pre-fame internship at Californian aerospace heavyweight Lockheed Martin; three literary and film studies degrees; and a story arc on General Hospital undertaken as a performance art project Have we left anything out?
“I do a lot of different things,” Franco agrees. “I’ve worked hard and I’m proud of a lot of the projects I’ve done. Basically I judge them first by whether I like them. Are they projects I'm interested in? Are they films or whatever they might be that I'm happy to be involved with? That’s really the most I can control.”
But we’re not here to talk about beatnik poets, gay sex or models lounging around on Laguna Beach while he snaps away. It’s all about wizards, witches and family themes. Looking back at the seminal 1939 fantasy spectacle, you realise the wizard (Frank Morgan) was the one character we know almost nothing about. “He plays a very small part [in the original],” Franco says. “That took a lot of pressure off me, I could create the version I wanted without having to recreate and was done before.”
The sumptuously designed sets on the MGM backlot are a far cry from the mostly-CGI shoot by director Sam Raimi. "It's a very different approach than the 1939 film,” the star agrees. “My character's a little rakish, he's a little foolish. So instead of a straight and earnest dramatic journey through Oz he kind of bumbles his way there.”
In the film Oscar aspires to a greatness, but he’s essentially just a showman. He’s not all that removed from another upcoming Franco performance as Hugh Hefner in Lovelace, the tragic story of Deep Throat actress Linda Lovelace. Is it a theme for him? Franco thinks for a minute and seems to like the idea. “A showman? I suppose. I mean, I am an actor. I am a director. I do put on shows. I play different characters for a living. So there's a very strong parallel between my life and Oz.”
Oz the Great and Powerful screens from Thu Mar 7.
Hello yellow brick road! A brief history of Oz
1900: Frank L Baum’s children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published. Three million copies are in print by 1956
1939: Victor Fleming directs classic MGM musical film version starring Judy Garland
1976: Australian “rock’n’roll road movie” Oz released, starring Joy Dunstan as a groupie called Dorothy
1978: Diana Ross and Michael Jackson star in hilariously awful all-black film musical The Wiz
1985: Walter Murch’s disturbing, unofficial sequel film Return to Oz creeps out a generation of kids
1995: Gregory Maguire’s prequel novel Wicked published; Stephen Schwartz’s musical version opens on Broadway in 2003