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What drew you to poet Harold Hart Crane, the focus of your biopic The Broken Tower?
I believed his life, his lifestyle and his personality [would be] as interesting and attractive to people as Allen Ginsberg’s or Robert Lowell’s. I felt with this subject, I had a great artist whose work I wanted to explore, but who also happened to have a life that would provide good cinematic material.
Crane was a tortured poet, and you depict many of his artistic struggles in the film. His day job seemed to kill his spirit.
Yes, Crane spent much of his life just trying to get enough money and time so he could work on his poetry. He worked at ad agencies that he said would suck out his soul—he couldn’t write after a day at the ad agency. He was self-destructive. He was suicidal. He had a drinking problem. He was the quintessential tortured artist.
You had a solo art show at the Clocktower Gallery about the sexual confusion of adolescents. Crane, too, had moments of uncertainty—he was a gay man, but he had an affair with the painter Peggy Cowley. Is that theme of particular interest to you?
Definitely. Adolescence is a period that I’m very, very interested in because it’s when so many people start to become the people they’re going to be for the rest of their lives. It’s when people are having their first experiences; it’s when life is still chaotic and new and in flux. Part of that is learning about one’s sexuality, but to me sexuality is [just] one aspect of becoming who one is.
Crane is well intentioned about finishing his poems by the deadlines he sets for himself. But he’s seduced away from his work by drinking, partying and sex. Have you had similar experiences?
When Crane was actually allotted the time and space to work on his poetry he would then kind of squander that time. I don’t really waste my time when I have it. Although [like Crane], I too would hate working at an ad agency; and way back when my parents said they weren’t going to support me anymore, I did work in jobs that I hated. But [my parents] thought, Okay, if James wants to be an actor and pursue the arts, then he should take responsibility for himself. And they made me get a job. It actually helped me grow and it was a way to tell myself that I was serious about what I was doing. And now I do a lot of things, and my time is very valuable.
You act, write, direct, make art and host the Oscars in your spare time. How do you manage to fit it all in?
That’s one of the most difficult things in my life: allotting the time to do all the different things that I love and I’m interested in, and giving enough time to the different people who I love.
The Broken Tower opens Fri 27 at the IFC Center.