WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2013.
It almost shouldn’t work. James Franco as a Florida-based rapper in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers?” Just the thought of it sounds utterly laughable as we are so used to him playing such clean-cut characters in the “Spider-Man” trilogy, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Oz the Great and Powerful.” But then again, he did play the ultimate stoner in “Pineapple Express,” so there is that. In the end, while Franco does have some laughable moments as the crazy rapper Alien, the role allows him to give his best performance in a movie ever since his Oscar nominated turn in “127 Hours.” There’s no doubt as to how much research Franco did, and this is one of the first great actor transformations of 2013.
After watching “Spring Breakers,” you desperately want to find out what made Franco take on this role as it is so very different from any he has played previously. Clearly, he was drawn to working with Korine who is best known for writing the screenplay to the highly controversial “Kids,” and maybe he has a thing for rap music which we did or did not know about. But in a conversation with Roger Moore of RedeyeChicago.com, Franco discussed one of the main reasons why he chose this particular project.
“None of us had ever experienced spring break, really,” Franco said of himself, Korine and the rest of the cast. “Actors who start their careers early miss some key experiences in life. I didn’t go to prom. Well, I was dating a theater nerd so we went to a theater festival back in Aspen, Oregon instead. I experienced prom, for the first time, on film. Same with spring break. This is my spring break. And I was over 30 when I got around to it.”
Many have said Franco based Alien on the rapper Riff Raff (and this includes Riff Raff himself), but the actor said his main inspiration for the character was another rapper named Dangeruss. Dangeruss is a local Florida rapper who is still relatively unknown, but he lived in the same area of Florida which Alien lives in and has the same kind of lifestyle. Franco ended up writing a long essay which was featured on the MTV website, and in it he explains how big of an influence Dangeruss was on him.
“I met Dangeruss through Harmony,” Franco wrote. “Before I went down to St. Pete to play Alien in ‘Spring Breakers,’ Harmony sent me innumerable videos and photos as references for my character. He drowned me in them. Harmony is a master of online research. Once he chooses a location to shoot, it turns out he is also a master at finding the most interesting and odd local places and characters. One of the last videos Harmony sent me was of a white guy in dreads, sitting in his car, rapping about Dope Boyz. This turned out to be Dangeruss, a local rapper who Harm had met at an audition and knew immediately that he was the real deal.”
“The same day I arrived, Harmony had me visit Danger at his apartment,” Franco continued. “I was surprised when we pulled into a rather nice sprawling housing development, country-club style, with fountains and manicured grass. I think there was even a driving range. When I met Danger, he was tall, thin as a stick, covered in tats and humble as hell. He was willing to help in any way. He told me about growing up in the bad part of town and having poetry as his only recourse when things got ugly. His involvement with the street and his involvement with hip-hop developed simultaneously. ‘While Peter Piper was picking peppers, I was selling yola at the corner store.’ His lyrics are the highly autobiographical chronicle of surviving on the streets of St. Pete.”
Then there’s the question of where Franco got those cornrows done. Looking at someone with cornrows, it makes me think of how painful the process of getting them must be as it involves a lot of hair being twisted around in unusual directions. However, in an interview with GQ, Franco described to Matthew Serba what it was like having them done.
“We had a local artist down in St. Petersburg, Florida do it,” Franco told Serba. “I think it took about five hours total, only because we had to try different cornrow configurations. It doesn’t hurt that much, but it does get very itchy because you can’t get them wet.”
Korine himself has stated in an interview with Joel D. Amos of Movie Fanatic of how impressed he was with Franco’s transformation into Alien. It turns out that the two of them spent a lot of time working on the character even before the cameras began rolling, but once Franco arrived on set, Korine was stunned at what he was witnessing.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Korine told Amos. “I spent a year just sending him images and talking to him, designing the character. I never saw him do it. He didn’t want to rehearse. When he put in the cornrows and the gold teeth and I heard the accent… I was like ‘whoa.’ He was a maniac.”
James Franco’s performance as Alien in “Spring Breakers” is really just another reminder of what an amazing actor he can be when you give him the right material to work with. While he may be getting more attention for the box office blockbuster “Oz the Great and Powerful,” it’s this movie which is bringing him the critical raves he deserves. Watching here makes you excited for what he has in store for us next.
Roger Moore, “James Franco finally gets his spring break,” RedeyeChicago.com, March 21, 2013.
James Franco, “James Franco: The Inside Story of My ‘Spring Breakers’ Gangster,” MTV.com, February 20, 2013.
Matthew Serba, “Last Night…Talking Cornrows with James Franco,” GQ, May 1, 2012.
Joel D. Amos, “Harmony Korine on James Franco in Spring Breakers: What a Maniac!,” Movie Fanatic, March 21, 2013.