Photo: Daniele Venturelli/Getty Image
James Franco is stepping back into acting, ending a four-year hiatus that began when multiple women accused him of using his now-defunct acting school as a vehicle for predation. Franco will play a fisherman in a World War II drama titled Me, You, from director Bille August. It will be his first film appearance since The Duce in 2018 unless you count his voiceover work in Arctic Dogs the following year.
But 2018 is when concrete claims against the actor really kicked off. First onlinethen in the Los Angeles Timesand eventually in a lawsuit, women accused Franco of behaving in ways that ranged from generally creepy to apparently exploitative to sexually abusive — one said Franco forced her to perform oral sex on him. Franco’s attorney denied the allegations at the time, and eventually he settled the suit. In a podcast interview late last year, Franco reiterated his belief that any sexual contact between him and his students had been conssensual. “Over the course of my teaching, I did sleep with students, and that was wrong,” he said, explaining that after “doing a lot of work” on himself, he identified an imbalanced power dynamic as the problem.
And now, all that work apparently done, Franco is ready to return to acting. Below, a rough timeline of how we got here.
In early April 2014, Gawker published messages between the 35-year-old Franco and a 17-year-old Scottish girl he was seemingly trying to lure to a hotel room. She was visiting New York City and recorded a video with the actor after seeing him in Of Mice and Men on Broadway. “You gotta tag me,” he told her, according to Gawker, and when she did, he slid into her DMs with questions: “Who are you with?” “Do you have a bf?” “When is your bday?” “Where are you staying?” “Should I rent a room?” The girl asked twice for photo confirmation of Franco’s identity, which he provided, but she ultimately declined to meet him because she was underage.
Franco admitted to hitting on the teen in an instance of “bad judgment.” “I guess I’m, you know, embarrassed, and I guess I’m just a model of how social media is tricky,” he said on a talk show. “In my position, not only do I have to go through the embarrassing rituals of meeting someone, but sometimes it gets published for the world.”
After the whole knowing-hitting-on-a-minor snafu cooled off, things returned to normal for Franco. But on January 7, 2018, Franco accepted a Golden Globe for The Disaster Artist while wearing a pin for Time’s Up, the initiative to combat workplace sexual harassment. That show of Me Too allyship sent some viewers over the edge. “James Franco just won,” The Breakfast Club actor Ally Sheedy tweeted. “Please never ask me why I left the film/tv business.” Sheedy quickly concluded she’d “said too much” and took down the tweet, but other women picked up the thread. “Hey James Franco, nice #timesup pin at the #GoldenGlobes,” Sarah Tither-Kaplan tweeted. “Remember a few weeks ago when you told me the full nudity you had me do in two of your movies for $100/day wasn’t exploitative because I signed a contract to do it? Times up on that!”
“Cute #TIMESUP pin James Franco,” wrote Violet Paley. “Remember the time you pushed my head down in a car towards your exposed penis & that other time you told my friend to come to your hotel when she was 17? After you had already been caught doing that to a different 17 year old?”
Within the week, five women — including Paley and Tither-Kaplan — went on the record with the LA Times. Their complaints focused mainly on Franco’s short-lived acting schools, Studio 4 in New York and LA, and a $750 master class called Sex Scenes. (Two women also said Franco subjected them to uncomfortable and unprofessional conditions while he was a teacher at Playhouse West in LA)
According to his Studio 4 students, Franco seemed to dangle parts in his movies in exchange for nudity. According to a woman named Kate Ryan, who worked with Franco at both schools, the actor “would always make everybody think there were possible roles on the table if we were to perform sexual acts or take off our shirts.” Tither-Kaplan recalled an orgy scene from 2015 that required her to be totally naked: Franco simulated oral sex on each participant but removed the plastic guard covering their vaginas first. After he sent home an actor who complained about having to dance around him topless in an “unscripted” scene, “I got it in my head pretty quickly that, OK, you don’t say ‘no’ to this guy,” Tither- Kaplan said to the Times. And Paley — an aspiring filmmaker who says Franco promised her feedback — recalled an incident that allegedly occurred in 2016 after the two had begun dating. They were sitting in a car talking, she said, when Franco started pushing her to perform oral sex on him, which they hadn’t done yet. “All of a sudden his penis was out,” she said. “I got really nervous, and I said, ‘Can we do this later?’ He was kind of nudging my head down, and I just didn’t want him to hate me, so I did it.”
At the time, Franco’s lawyers categorically denied the claims as “not accurate” and gestured toward a statement his client had made to Stephen Colbert. “The things that I’ve heard that were on Twitter are not accurate, but I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice because they didn’t have a voice for so long,” Franco said after the Globes. “I don’t want to shut them down in any way. I think it’s a good thing, and I support it.”
By the end of the month, Paley and Tither-Kaplan had appeared on Good Morning America. “James is absolutely not a Harvey Weinstein,” Tither-Kaplan said. “He is not an unfeeling monster who has no sense of reality. He created an exploitative environment for noncelebrity women on his sets.” Paley added that she felt he took advantage of his position as an A-list celebrity, offering help to unknowns looking to break into a hypercompetitive industry. “I was young. He was a celebrity that I looked up to,” she said, asking Franco to “please just apologize.”
A few days later, Vanity Fair confirmed it had edited Franco out of its “Hollywood Portfolio” cover. Still, he held on to his spot in The Ducewith actor and producer Maggie Gyllenhaal eventually explaining that, while she took the claims “very seriously” and spoke to every woman involved with the production about Franco, she ultimately felt “it would’ve been the wrong consequences to those accusations to shut our show down.”
On October 3, 2019, Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal, another Studio 4 student who hadn’t spoken speak to the LA Times, sued Franco in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleging that he and his business partners engaged in “widespread inappropriately and sexually charged behavior towards female students by sexualizing their power as a teacher and an employer by dangling the opportunity for roles in their projects.” With his acting school, they said Franco “sought to create a pipeline of young women who were subjected to his personal and professional sexual exploitation in the name of education.”
In a court filing, Franco’s attorneys described the claims as “false and inflammatory, legally baseless and brought as a class action with the obvious goal of grabbing as much publicity as possible for attention-hungry Plaintiffs.” They also praised the “tremendous and important contributions” of both the Me Too movement and the Time’s Up legal fund.
Silence followed the lawsuit’s filing, and Franco flew largely under the radar. But after almost two quiet years, an Associated Press report indicated the case was closed: A joint status report from February 11, 2021, said that Tither-Kaplan and Gaal had agreed to drop their claims and that the larger class-action lawsuit would be “dismissed without prejudice,” meaning plaintiffs could refile at a later date. Franco himself did not comment on the settlement, which The Hollywood Reporter later totaled at $2.2 million.
About two months after the lawsuit was settled, comedian Charlyne Yi said on Instagram that they had tried to quit The Disaster Artist after learning about the claims against Franco. In response, they said producer Seth Rogen “minimized” their concerns and “tried to bribe” them “with a bigger acting role” to keep them onboard. “Enablers are just as toxic and are abusers too,” Yi said. “Disgusted by white men choosing power over protecting children and women from predators. Educate, organize, and dismantle corruption in your circles and in the law.”
Rogen and Franco were longtime friends and frequent collaborators at that point, but in an interview with the Sunday Times the following month, Rogen said he had no plans to work with Franco again. “What I can say is that I despise abuse and harassment,” he said, “and I would never cover or conceal the actions of someone doing it, or knowingly put someone in a situation where they were around someone like that.” Rogen intimated that their “professional relationship” had ended because of the misconduct allegations and that he regretted his 2018 pledge to keep working with Franco.
Franco kept quiet throughout all of this, but at the end of 2021, he popped up on The Jess Cagle Podcast to rehabilitate his image. Franco claimed his purported sex addiction left him “completely blind to power dynamics” and other people’s feelings. But despite touting all the work he’d done during his period of silence, Franco wasn’t ready to take full accountability. Despite the course’s racy name, Sex Scenes actually dealt with modern love and dating, he said. And though he admitted he had — consensually! — slept with his students, he maintained, “It’s not why I started the school, and I wasn’t the person that selected the people to be in the class. So it wasn’t a ‘master plan’ on my part.” Pressed on the question of a power imbalance (he, a firmly established Hollywood actor and filmmaker, charged newcomers hundreds of dollars in exchange for the chance to learn from him, work with him, and sometimes have sex with him), Franco did not display a deep understanding of his errors. “At the time, I was not clearheaded,” he said. “So I guess it just comes down to my criteria was like, If this is consensual, like, I think it’s cool. We’re all adults, so.”
These answers did not satisfy the women who’d accused him of misconduct. “Franco is completely insensitive to, and still apparently does not care about, the immense pain and suffering he put his victims through with this sham of an acting school,” Tither-Kaplan and Gaal’s attorneys said in a statement. “It is unbelievable that even after agreeing to a settlement he continues to downplay the survivors’ experiences and ignore their pain, despite acknowledging he had no business starting such a school in the first place.”
Which brings us to present: Franco’s next project was announced in mid-July, and, well, I think that’s pretty much showbiz, baby.