NEW YORK — James Franco insists he’s not been nervous at all about making his Broadway debut, not even before his first night in front of more than a thousand people.
“Sounds like I’m bragging. I just wasn’t,” says the actor, writer and student. “I’ve learned that if you work with people that you trust, that you depend on, then you just flow with it.”
One of those people is his director Anna D. Shapiro, a Tony Award-winner who looks over at him during a joint interview in the empty mezzanine of the Longacre Theatre with a mixture of puzzlement and respect.
“He’s not nervous. He’s not lying,” she says. “Whatever he needs to do to convince himself to do what he does, I don’t care. I like the guy who shows up every day, so I don’t care what does it.”
Whether it’s ego or confidence, Franco is just a guy who doesn’t doubt himself. From acting in TV and films like “Pineapple Express” and “Spider-Man” to screenwriting, directing and producing, or writing a novel, being an artist and studying for postgraduate degrees, Franco jumps in.
So this matinee idol multi-tasker naturally has been eyeing the one place in show business he hasn’t really dominated — the stage. Franco has chosen to make his Times Square bow in “Of Mice and Men,” John Steinbeck’s play adapted from his own classic novel.
Franco co-stars with Chris O’Dowd as two tragic migrant workers trying to make their way through the aftermath of drought and the Depression in 1930s America. Because O’Dowd’s Lennie is mentally handicapped, Franco’s George acts as Lennie’s guardian. The play also features Jim Norton and Leighton Meester.
“I’ve got the best: I’ve got an awesome, classic American play. I’ve got an awesome director. I’ve got awesome co-stars. It’s not going to get better,” says Franco. “If it fails, I’m not going to feel bad because I did everything possible. Absolutely everything possible. So it’s not on me.”
Franco in person is amiable but slightly smug, a scruffy guy who loves to talk about his creative thinking and yet looks overworked, stretched thin and sleep-deprived. He mentions that Lady Gaga recently stopped by backstage, as if such a thing weren’t even a little bit odd.
The off-putting squinty sneer he was so vilified for wearing as an Oscar host reappears at times and his outsized confidence combined with a puppy-like naivete seem a dangerous gambit in these cynical days, as his recent Instagram flirtation with a 17-year-old proved.
When asked the exact moment when he knew he could accomplish the rare task of impressing critics and the public on his debut, he looks slightly confused. The interesting answer comes from his director: “He’s never not thought that.”
Franco says he’d been thinking about Broadway five years ago when the idea of teaming up with Shapiro on “Of Mice and Men” was first discussed. Plans fell through but the pair found a way to make it work this season.
“I’ve always been a huge theater fan,” he says. “I’d see as much theater as I can. So it’s always been a huge part of my life. It just felt like something I was always on the outside of.”
Though he’d put on plays in Los Angeles in his early 20s in 50-seat theaters, Franco had to adjust to the challenge of Broadway. He was used to letting a scene on film end with a long pause so an editor could cut around it, but here he’s learned he can’t dawdle.
Shapiro also had to retrain Franco, who she calls “an eternal student.” He’s working toward a Ph.D. in English at Yale, following degrees from UCLA and New York University. Franco initially had a student’s detachment to the work.
“That’s not the job. The job is that you step in it,” she says. “He’s really smart and so I think whether it was conscious or not, that shifted very slowly and we moved into a different kind of partnership.”
Shapiro, who directed Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” has been a Franco fan ever since she followed “Freaks and Geeks,” the TV series in which he played the off-kilter but charming Daniel Desario.
“Basically, I played her high school crush,” jokes Franco.
“You’re so sweet to say that,” she replies, laughing.
In fact, Shapiro needed someone smart, with natural charisma and a certain maleness to play George in the Steinbeck play. He also needed to be very still.
“I thought he had those things. And I was right. One hundred percent right,” she says. “And I could hear his voice doing it. So that’s who I want.”
The feeling was mutual: “I want to work with people that want to work with me,” says Franco. “Not because I want the validation. You just want your team.”
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