James Franco Is Oz: The Great and Powerful
By: Lynn Barker
James Franco, in addition to being a really hot guy, is a multi-talented film professional. He acts (the Spider-Man films, 127 Hours, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) directs, writes, paints and teaches film and acting. Since James has the ability to seem powerful as well as vulnerable, director Sam Raimi was happy to have him play Oscar Diggs, a lady-killer, shyster carnival magician/illusionist who travels to the land of Oz only to discover his good heart and become truly magical and very powerful.
Kidzworld got to meet with James recently and asked about his role as an iconic character, working with his buddy Mila Kunis, and learning some “real” magic for the film.
Kidzworld: Do you remember you first exposure to the movie The Wizard of Oz?
- James: I loved the 1939 film, the Judy Garland film. I watched it as a little kid before they had DVD players or even VCRs. I just watched it on TV when it came on, I think during the holidays. Somehow that led me to reading all the books. This is in the day before “Harry Potter” so these were basically my “Harry Potter” series of novels and I read all of them on my own. They were some of the first books I read on my own and 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.
Kidzworld: Cool! So, we hear that you had to learn some magic to play this role. Talk about that and did you then do some at parties to impress your friends?
- James: Yeah. I got to learn with Lance Burton, who is a great magician from Las Vegas. And I got private lessons. It was pretty fun when I could accomplish the tricks. There were even more tricks than made it into the film. We just had to cut some of them for time. I got to learn quite a few pretty cool tricks that if I took them to parties, I probably would get a lot of attention. But, I need a lot of help from Lance to pull them off and he doesn’t travel around with me. So it’s just sort of one of the skills that I’ve learned like along the way, like sword-fighting or flying a plane that I just don’t use very much after I’m done with the movie.
Kidzworld: Your character Oscar Diggs (who becomes Oz) isn’t the most upstanding guy at first. He’s a heart-breaker, does fake magic and he’s power-hungry but you make him sympathetic. How did you do that?
- James: You don’t want just a movie that’s a journey through a fantastical world. You want the characters to have their own inner journeys. Oz would start off once place and then have room to grow once he got to Oz. As selfish and kind of a cad as he is the beginning, it would never go to the point where he’s unlikeable because all of his manipulations and conning of people are sort of played for laughs. I can’t quite blame him for being the way he is because of his history, you know? He grew up in circumstances where you just wanted to get out. He wanted something different. And, performing in the circus, he saw a way out. And so he’s gone a little too far in his ambitions and it’s blinded him to the love of the people around him.
Kidzworld: What did you like most about your character and were you a little jealous of the witches’ powers?
- James: (laughs) Well, I have done a lot of wire work. You have to do in order to look like you’re flying so I was not that jealous of what they had to go through. But I, you know, I just loved that my character was comedic, that he could go into this world and bounce off it, rather than be pulled into it smoothly, and, as a performer, that was the most enjoyable part of it.
Kidzworld: You work with Mila Kunis a lot and again here (she plays witch Theodora). What’s the story with you two?
- James: Mila and I have worked on many projects, at this point. Some very big, like “Oz” and some smaller projects that I’ve yanked her into. While we were in Detroit, she did a movie with some of my students from NYU and we’ve done Internet things so I love working with Mila. Her being involved in this film is one of the big reasons that I wanted to do it. Not only is she a great actor, I think one of the great things about Mila is she’s just a great collaborator. She’s very easy-going. She’s done a lot of comedy so I think she’s very good at acting on her feet, doing improvisation, figuring things out in a very organic way. That’s how I like to work as well.
Kidzworld: Did you like how the film looked; all the beautiful images and backgrounds? Did that appeal to you as an artist yourself?
- James: When we went to the premiere a few nights ago it was the first time that we’d seen it with all the effects. Knowing all the work and time that went into that and that hundreds, maybe thousands of people made that dream realized, I think it was a piece of art. It’s a beautifully-made movie and the images are artworks. I don’t have that kind of team underneath me for my own artwork, but it might inspire me in some ways. Who knows?
Kidzworld: You are in many scenes with China Doll and Finley, two characters that are computer-generated. How hard was it to act when some of the actors we see you with on screen, aren’t there with you on set?
- James: There are a lot of things that we did that we would have done if Joey (King) was playing a human character. So she and Zach (Braff) would be 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 on set). He was so good. 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 her.
- He was so effective that Sam started giving his directions to the puppet! He would just talk directly to the doll, like she was her own being. All steps were taken to make me feel like I had a real actor that I'm acting opposite. That’s one of the most valuable things about acting is the interaction between characters and that connection. So they did everything they could to preserve that.
Kidzworld: What was your biggest discovery in making this film?
- James: My biggest discovery, hmmm, a lot of the things that I did on the movie were familiar to me. I'd done movies where I play opposite CG characters. I did Planet of the Apes where the great actor Andy Serkis played a chimpanzee so that was sort of similar. I had another CG monkey here but with wings in this one. I got to learn the magic tricks like the illusion of levitation or making things disappear so that was new.
Kidzworld: What do you think your character would do if he lived in today's world?
- James: I think Oz, my character, is very much a stand-in for the things that I do or the things that filmmakers do. He's fascinated with Thomas Edison and early forms of filmmaking and projection, so he probably would be a director, maybe even direct a film like this (big grin).