Deep Soap: James Franco On The ‘Art’ Of ‘General Hospital’

James Franco (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

James Franco (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

[Editor’s Note: Below is part one of Sara Bibel’s piece with James Franco. Part two will be available on Tuesday, July 13.]

Last November, movie star James Franco surprised the entertainment industry and his fans when he decided to appear on multiple episodes of the soap opera ‘General Hospital.’  He played the character of Franco, a renowned artist who was also a serial killer.  He wrote an article characterizing his work on the soap as performance art.  Now James Franco has returned to ‘General Hospital’ to conclude Franco’s storyline.  On July 22nd, the show will air a special episode filmed at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary art centered around an exhibition of Franco the Character’s artwork.  The exhibition was conceived by James Franco, the actor.

James Franco stares into my eyes with the ridiculous intensity of Edward Cullen watching Bella while she sleeps. He shakes my hand.  He wears a tuxedo. His hair is slicked back.  He shifts in his chair so that his leg is touching mine. Under ordinary circumstances a complete stranger who invades my personal space would get a swift kick in the shin.  But this is James Franco: movie star, grad student, writer, artist, short-term soap actor.  The standards of normal behavior do not apply, especially not tonight.

We are at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Pacific Design Center Branch for a ‘General Hospital‘ location shoot.  Several GH sets are situated throughout the courtyard, recontextualized as sculptures created by Franco The Soap Character for an exhibition at MOCA, documenting his adventures in Port Charles.  The scenario is that Franco has lured Jason (Steve Burton) and Dante (Dominic Zamprogna) to Los Angeles, as part of the cat-and-mouse-game the psychotic artist has been playing for months.

Related: Do People Care About James Franco’s ‘General Hospital’ Return?

The installation is visible from the street.  There is seating for an audience of invited GH fans. A photo of Franco the Character’s head is projected on a wall, overlooking the scene unfolding below like the statue of a dictator overlooking the town square in a totalitarian nation. There is even a special edition of Soaps In Depth that serves as a program for the evening’s festivities featuring a combination of standard soap magazine interviews and articles about the James Franco experience written by art world luminaries. The overall effect is impressive. The whole thing looks like a shoot for a big budget feature film, not a daytime soap.  In fact, Franco the Actor has financed most of it himself, with the help of Gucci Fragrances, a brand that he endorses.  He is, in turn, going to use footage from this shoot as part of a future art project that will be based on his experience on GH.

Related: ‘General Hospital’s Curious Franco Factor

Depending on how you look at it, the installation is either a thought provoking artistic commentary or merely a bunch of sets that have been moved outside.  The same could be said of Franco The Actor’s entire stint on Port Charles.  It may be, as he claims, an elaborate piece of performance art that blurs the lines between so called high brow and low brow pop culture.  Or it could simply be a typical GH storyline played as camp by an actor who does not realize how little he knows about the genre he thinks he is subverting.

The Franco Experiment involves many competing agendas.   Franco the Actor is clearly having a great time being the big dog on a show that has given him carte blanche to do whatever he pleases. ‘General Hospital’ gets more mainstream, positive publicity than it has in years. There are reporters from The New Yorker and NPR covering the MOCA shoot.  More than that, its staffers get a shot at something that many people who work in daytime crave but usually find elusive: respect from the rest of the entertainment industry. For the next ten minutes, there is another relevant agenda: mine.

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I had prepared a long list of questions ranging from the typical soap interview questions about storylines to a philosophical inquiry about whether Franco The Actor would also consider David Hasselhoff filming his recent appearance on ‘The Young & The Restless‘ for an upcoming reality show and working with his real life daughter to be performance art.  But it was hard to get into Mike Wallace mode.  There was the matter of his leg brushing against mine. Since I have found him hot since his days as Daniel Desario on ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ it was rather distracting.  There was the stunt double wandering around, his presence foretelling that Franco The Character would come to a violent end during the scenes that would be shot tonight.  Then there were the two members of his posse that were filming our interview.  It was unnerving thinking that I might end up as a part of his art project, especially since his recent exhibition featured Kirk/Spock slashfiction dramatized with mannequins.  Franco The Actor clearly liked to throw people off balance.

I took a deep breath and began, asking questions that I hoped would politely get him to address the mixed reactions to his appearance.

“What do you want ‘General Hospital’ viewers to take away from the experience of watching this episode?”

He pauses, thinking it through as if it is something he has not given a lot of consideration.   “I guess I hope they see this as kind of a celebration of ‘General Hospital,’ a celebration of the form of entertainment that they love and a way of framing it in a different context, explicitly in an art context.  Because of that, I hope they, I don’t know, I hope that somehow ‘General Hospital’ accrues even more significance for them.”

I wonder about the flip side of the coin, whether he hopes to somehow get the people who usually turn up their noses at soaps to reconsider them.  “What do you want your art world friends to take away about ‘General Hospital’?”

“I guess what I hope is that it gives them also a new view of the art world, of art, of what it means. In the very least it just gives them an opportunity to then question where they draw the line between art and entertainment and what it means to them and at least poses the question.”

Tomorrow: Part two – Franco’s sexual ambiguity and making ‘General Hospital’ a family affair.

Check out photos from the shoot below.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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