James Franco gets himself slashed, sells switchblades, all to honor the late Brad Renfro
Back in 1994, the director Joel Schumacher was talking to The New York Times about a risky casting decision he made for his adaptation of the John Grisham thriller The Client.
"I wanted a kid who understood in the marrow of his psyche what it was like to grow up too soon," Schumacher told the Times' Bernard Weinraub.
And so his casting director, Mali Finn, toured eight Southern cities, asking not agents but "sources like Jesuit priests, alternative schools and police departments," she said, if they knew any "tough kids."
Brad Renfro, who was being raised by his grandmother, a church secretary, in a small town in Tennessee, had played a drug dealer in a school play sponsored by the anti-drug advocacy group D.A.R.E., and was brought to Finn's attention by local police.
In his first three years in film he shared scenes with Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, Anthony LaPaglia, Mary-Louise Parker, Robert De Niro, Kevin Bacon, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt and Ian McKellen. In the following 14 years he had roles in 21 more films, several short films, and had made a couple of television appearances before he died of a heroin overdose in Los Angeles.
The actor James Franco got in some trouble as a kid, too; he stole designer perfume from stores and resold it to classmates, and spent a brief time in juvy. But his parents and grandparents were artsy types, given to encouraging him to be successful; he had an internship at Lockheed Martin at one point, even.
When he dropped out of his first year at UCLA to take acting classes full time, it was three years before he got his big break. And that wasn't in a giant Joel Shumacher film, but in Judd Apatow's cult television series, "Freaks and Geeks."
But by 2002, Renfro and Franco were competing for roles, including 2002's Deuces Wild, a film about 1950s street gangs in Brooklyn that was a famous flop, with The Los Angeles Times Manohla Dargis declaring: "Astonishing isn't the word—neither is incompetent, incoherent or just plain crap. Indeed, none of these words really gets at the very special type of badness that is Deuces Wild."
It was working on that film that the two actors, who were both cast (Renfro in a more prominent role) met, and Franco was talking about it at the New Museum on Saturday before a surprisingly non-capacity crowd, given Franco's present saturation among a certain kind of fan-girl.
"Everybody thought it was going to be this great thing and it turned out to be this horrible movie,” Franco said of working on Deuces Wild. "Brad, on that movie, he kind of fell apart a little. He’d go in with such high hopes and enthusiasm and he’d just turn and crumble and he’d get nasty and indifferent. And after that, I don’t think I ever saw him again.”
Franco was at the New Museum for a complicated event. He's in the midst of an art project, called "Rebel," which is meant as a meditation on the life and death of James Dean. That project is sponsored by Gucci and the jeans brand 7 For All Mankind.
As part of the project, Franco made a short film called Brad Renfro Forever, and in conjunction with that, he's teamed up with Italian cutlery firm LATAMA to design a limited-edition switchblade knife, which retails for $850 and which reads "Brad Renfro" on the handle and "Forever" on the blade.
So the New Museum event was a "launch" of several things—films, products, art projects—at once.
One reporter assigned to cover the event was thrilled to be there.
“Are you kidding? I’ve had the biggest crush on Brad Renfro [since] I was a teenager!” she said, channeling her fluttering fifteen-year-old heart.
An assistant at the public relations company organizing the event said she felt she had to be there.
“An email was sent out for volunteers and I was like James Franco? I’m there!” She later had someone take a picture of the two of them together.
Franco's many simultaneous projects, partnerships and formats are maddening to some. He is, these days, sitting in class at three universities while filming a buzz-worthy movie, writing a collection of short stories and hosting the Oscars.
In 2010, he introduced himself as a visual artist with a solo show at the Clocktower Gallery in Tribeca. His artwork tends to be weird and obscure, as one exhibit showing nothing but "invisible art for sale" would attest.
After all the prim attendees filed in and sat in the New Museum theater (which was not at full capacity, as the couple next to me noted, quite surprised), James Franco walked on stage to introduce the video.
Franco was particularly upset that Renfro’s name hadn't been mentioned, along with the year's other recently deceased actors, at the Oscars in 2008, the year he died.
”I felt like it had such a slap that he didn’t get mentioned," Franco said. "That’s what he gave his life to."
“I was doing [the movie] Milk in San Francisco and a week after that Brad had died,” he later said, ”We were at rehearsal and we all talked about it, and when Heath died it was a tragedy. They are both tragedies. It’s this weird thing where people only talk about Heath.”
In Franco’s film, Brad Renfro Forever, the first shot is a close-up of the carving of “BRAD,“ into Franco's shoulder, made with the commemorative switchblade. The 25-minute, often over- or underexposed, out-of-focus, or otherwise roughly-shot film chronicles Franco working with a tattoo artist; negotiating then renegotiating how to carve Renfro’s name into his shoulder. These scenes alternate with interviews with Renfro’s friends (and with Franco), detailing how Renfro battled addiction for years before his death.
At one point, a man explains that he believes that Renfro killed himself, but notes that he had also watched him set out his clothes for an audition the next day.
“So the timing was weird,” he said.
These moments of poignant grief and remembrance are countered by cutaways where Franco laughs, winces, and tries to breathe through the pain of being intentionally scarred.
Franco was focused on explication in the brief Q&A session that followed the film, during which he spoke with artist Laurel Nakadate. Franco oftentimes bludgeoned the audience with the meaning behind the video, the switchblade, and the lipstick-daubed mirror he'd made in Renfro’s honor, though the central impulse behind the film was explained just fine in its closing scenes.
“I just wanted to do something where I could just say, ‘We remember you Brad,’" Franco says at the end of the movie, in a sort of eulogy. "So it’s for Brad but it’s also for all the actors that don’t even have a chance to be in those great movies … It’s a gesture of remembrance from one actor to another.”
Given the time constraints, a seance with a psychic that had been planned as part of the event was canceled. The switchblade, available at ArtSpace and through The Thing Quarterly, is now on sale for $850.