If you were to walk into the Soho hotel suite where James Franco is holding court, you’d think he was in the middle of some optical-illusion performance piece. The 32-year-old actor is splayed, pietà-style, over a large chair. His body stays almost statue-still. But his face, that’s a different story. The longer Franco talks about the tenacity of Aron Ralston—the real-life mountain climber whom he plays in Danny Boyle’s riveting 127 Hours—the more animated his mug becomes. Eyes narrow to slits, then widen substantially. His head excitedly bobs up and down. That slightly nasal, NorCal-accented voice goes from whispery to booming, as if some unseen handler is arbitrarily adjusting his volume knob.
It’s a nifty trick, almost as impressive as the way Franco has juggled a gloriously unpredictable career (from pot comedies like Pineapple Express to poignant biopics like Milk) with unexpected artistic detours (Yale’s English PhD program, photo exhibitions, published short stories, a villainous turn on General Hospital playing…James Franco). Even fans that have learned to expect the unexpected, however, will be surprised by Franco’s intense, raw performance as the outdoorsman who was hiking in Utah’s Blue John Canyon in 2003 when a dislodged rock pinned his arm. Trapped for almost a week (see title), Ralston finally cut off the lower part of his limb in order to escape—a feat that Franco re-creates with such nausea-inducing fidelity that paramedics were called to the movie’s Telluride Film Festival premiere to attend to distressed audience members.
“Aron compared it to cutting through steak or tuna,” Franco says, referring to the climactic act. “According to him, the muscles weren’t hard to get through, even though the blade was dull. It was the nerves that were the problem, like he was thrusting his arm into molten lava. But the most revealing thing Aron mentioned was that as he was doing it, he insisted that he became ecstatic and exhilarated. He’d just spent five or six days not knowing how he was going to get out of this situation, totally frustrated and demoralized—and then he discovered the solution. He said he did it with a smile on his face. That told me everything I needed to know about how to play him.”
And did Franco cut through that eerily realistic prosthetic arm with a smile on his face? “I get queasy when I get blood work done,” he says sheepishly. “There was blood rigged to ooze out, so the minute I looked down…the crew thought I was going to pass out. I told Danny, ‘I think you just filmed what I would actually look like if I had to do that.’ ” Franco mimes rolling his eyes back and letting his jaw go slack; he actually seems to turn several shades of green. Then he breaks the spell and smiles, looking like the usual goofy, grinning James Franco you’ve seen on a million talk shows.
“He always seems like he’s very stoned, doesn’t he?” Boyle says, when asked about his lead actor after the film’s first screening at the Toronto Film Festival in September. “It’s a front, his way of stopping the Hollywood machine from taking him over. This was a role that required him to carry a movie virtually by himself, that was physically demanding yet mostly limited to one location and that had an incredible emotional arc he had to take you through. And James nailed all of it! I’m normally very controlling of actors, and I knew I’d have to place my faith in James to make this work. He rewarded me a hundredfold—especially in the long takes.”
Yes, the long takes. Boyle and Franco agreed early on that, in addition to integrating camcorder confessionals (based on actual video messages Ralston taped up to an hour before he amputated his way to salvation), using marathon-length single shots was the key to capturing a sense of authenticity. One, in particular, tested Franco’s mettle to the max. “Danny told me, ‘Just try to pry yourself loose from the rock as hard you can, we’ll see what we can get,’” the actor recalls. “He filmed me bashing myself against a rock for 22 minutes straight. By the end of it, the entire upper half of my arm was dark purple. When you see the character exhausted and frustrated by the futility of it all during that sequence—you’re actually seeing me at the end of my rope. It was illuminating; I was taxed after 22 minutes. Aron did that for days. I realized the kind of will to survive it took for him to endure what he had to, to do what he had to do.”
Franco’s voice, nearing a full-throated yell, immediately becomes quiet. He looks ragged, tired, drained. Then he laughs and unexpectedly picks up his cup of coffee and takes a sip. It’s the first time he’s moved his arm since he sat down. “Crazy, right?”