Actor, director, author, scholar and teacher James Franco can add one more accomplishment to his resume: magician.
The 34-year-old California native learned some mend-bending tricks from master magician Lance Burton for his title role in “Oz The Great and Powerful,” a fantasy prequel to the “Wizard of Oz.” In it, he plays Oscar, a womanizing carnival magician, who narrowly escapes an angry husband in a hot air balloon only to find himself caught in a passing tornado, and winds up… well, you guessed it. Once there, the locals, including three beautiful but feuding sisters with magic powers of their own, think he may be the long-awaited wizard to rule the land. Putting his tricks to use, along with some ingenuity and even some wizardry, Oscar transforms himself into not only a great and powerful wizard but a better person as well.
The leading role marks Franco’s fourth collaboration with popular filmmaker Sam Raimi (who helmed the blockbuster “Spider-Man” trilogy that starred Tobey Maguire as the superhero and Franco as his friend-turned-nemesis Harry Osborne/New Goblin.)
Taking on the iconic literary and Hollywood icon in Disney’s “Oz The Great and Powerful” was a big deal for Franco, who is a fan of the L. Frank Baum books. He wanted to do justice to the character. The Oscar nominee (for “127 Hours”) spoke about his experience in making the fantasy adventure film during a recent press conference, bringing along some students from his USC film class to watch.
Q: Did you go to Las Vegas to train with Lance?
Franco: No. I didn’t go to Vegas to work with Lance. He came out to Detroit where we shot the movie. They hired Lance to come out and train me. Sam (Raimi) was very insistent that I have two weeks of magic training with Lance, so I went to Detroit two weeks early to do that and he taught me a lot of stuff. I got to the point where I could materialize doves, and start with a flame in my hand and then make it turn into a dove, or take my gloves off and turn that into a dove. We had some weird rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick and stuff like that, and as it usually goes, I did all that work and then the scenes that were going to feature those magic tricks turned out to be too long and were quickly cut.
Q: So if this acting thing doesn’t work out, you could do children’s birthday parties, right?
Franco: (He laughs.) I could! A lot of it involves intricate preparations and so I would need an assistant like Lance Burton to help me set up the tricks, but I could pull it off. So if you have any kids parties and you want to pay me a lot, I’ll come and do it.
Q: Were you ever interested in magic in your life?
Franco: I wouldn’t say I was the biggest magic enthusiast, but I do enjoy that world.
Q: What was your original reaction to watching “The Wizard of Oz?”
Franco: I loved the 1939 film, the Judy Garland film. I watched it as a kid. I watched it before they had DVD players or even VCRs. I just watched it on TV when it came on, I think during the holidays.
Q: What was your relationship with the L. Frank Baum Oz books?
Franco: I have a long relationship with the Oz books. When I was younger, I was somehow turned on to the Baum books and I read all of them when I was very young. I think he wrote 14. This was before “Harry Potter.” So (the Oz books) were basically my “Harry Potter” series. I read all of them on my own. They were some of the first books I read on my own and I loved them. I loved the world of Oz. I guess as a young man, I was just drawn to fantasy worlds. I liked being transported to alternative realms where a lot of my early imagination was sparked.
Q: Did you ever wonder yourself how the Wizard became the Wizard before you became involved with this movie?
Franco: Well, it’s sort of explained in the fourth book, “Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz,” and the original writer on this used that as inspiration. It’s not exactly like our story, but there were bits taken from that. I guess I knew how he got to Oz, but then they had this take on it, which I thought was equally as good and maybe more cinematic than what was in the fourth book.
Q: Your co-star with Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis (as the three witches). How was it working with all those lovely ladies or were they more like witches on the set?
Franco: It was fine. It was nice because they all played very different kinds of witches so the scenes that I played with all of them were also very different. I guess with Mila’s character, Theodora, I play more of the seducer and charmer. With Rachel, she is sort of duping me, and so I play a little bit more of the fool or the buffoon with her. And then with Michelle’s character Glinda, it’s kind of a romance, a straightforward romance, so it was nice to have that kind of variety. They didn’t act like witches offscreen. They were professional.
Q: Sam said he needed someone for the Wizard who was in touch with his emotions, so who raised you to be in touch with your emotions?
Franco: I don’t know. I guess my parents. I went to acting school, and that was all about getting in touch with your emotions, so I suppose that’s where it came from.
Q: When you were a kid, did you have a relationship with the world of Disney? What sparked your interest in fantasy?
Franco: The first movie I can remember seeing in the theaters was (Disney’s) “The Dark Crystal.” I liked it so much my parents kept taking me back, so I saw it many times in the theater. That maybe started the ball rolling and then soon after that my father read (J.R.R. Tolkien’s) “The Hobbit” to me. That, I think, was one of the main things that started my love of reading. That got me to reading the Oz books. So those were, I think, the two that really sparked my imaginary fantasy world.
Q: Speaking of fantasy, although the sets on this are impressive, you still had to imagine a lot of it since it was created through CGI, right?
Q: So how was the experience? Do you prefer working this way, where you have to put your imagination to work, or the ultra-realistic kind of job that you did in “127 Hours?”
Franco: That’s a good question and I think there are a lot of aspects of that. I don’t prefer one or the other. When I go into a film, I don’t just say, “Oh, I love independent films,” like that’s where I really get to do what I love, or “I only want to do big budget films,” or whatever. I think it’s just about what one wants to achieve with the films. With this film, half of the movie is this fantastical world that needs to be created in a particular way that costs a lot of money. This movie needed to have been made by a big studio, and I understand that in order to create those fantastic worlds, there are specific processes that need to be implemented.
Q: What was your biggest discovery in making this film?
Franco: A lot of the things that I did on the movie were familiar to me. This was my fourth movie with Sam Raimi so I know Sam very well. I’ve known him for over 10 years. I’d done movies where I play opposite CG characters.
Q: When you’re playing characters in fantastical worlds, does that change your performance?
Franco: There are a lot of things that we did that we would have done if Joey (King, who provides the voice of the animated China Girl) was playing a human character. She and Zach (Braff, who plays Finley, the winged monkey) would be (on set) there for every scene. We’d block things out, talk about the dialogue and make sure that their characters were behaving and being choreographed in ways that they, as actors, thought they should be. In Joey’s case, there was a great puppeteer who would manipulate (a China Doll puppet). He was not only good at manipulating the doll, he would also have an earpiece so he could hear Joey’s performance and he would make the doll behave in a way that matched Joey’s performance. He was so effective that Sam started giving his directions to the doll. He would just talk directly to the doll, like she was her own being.
Q: What do you think will be the hallmarks of this movie that we remember for years to come?
Franco: I think Joey’s character, the China Girl, the girl that’s made out of porcelain, will be one of the big standouts.
Q: What do you think of Dane DeHaan as the new Harry Osborn in (the “Spider-Man” reboot) “The Amazing Spider-Man 2?”
Franco: He’s great. I like him as an actor very much so I’m happy for him.
Q: Is it odd to reach a point in your career where you’re seeing another actor do the same character you played?
Franco: I don’t want to say too much because when I talk about it, it sounds like I’m putting down that movie. I like all those people involved in that film. The one weird thing about it is it just happened so fast and so whatever, but everybody involved in the movie’s great. I’m sure they’ll do something good.