James Franco Gets the Best of Both Worlds in “Au Reservoir”

By Ashley Morton


HBO: Why was The Deuce a project you wanted to sign onto?

James Franco: I met with David Simon three and a half years ago to talk about Show Me a Hero, but ultimately I couldn’t do it because of scheduling. But I was huge fan of The Wire so I said, “If you have anything else coming down the pipe, I’d really love to work with you.”

And then I read this book Difficult Men. And before I was even done with that book, I was sold on this long form of storytelling. I realized all of the subject matter I loved in American films of the ‘70s had transferred over to television — most of my favorite movies are American movies from the ‘70s, and then from that category many of them are American movies from New York in the ‘70s — like Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and Dog Day Afternoon. So working on this subject matter, with this incredible writing and these incredible actors, was really a dream come true.

HBO: Why did you also want to be part of the directing team for this show?

James Franco: I had been directing a lot of independent movies where I had a lot of control. I wanted to have the experience of directing in television because I wanted a boss. Basically, I wanted a great mentor and to work within the system of a series with a showrunner, so I would have a certain amount of leeway, but also the responsibility of maintaining the look and feel of a show, while working with actors who had established characters. I wanted to go to the next level, and I knew working on this show would be an absolute gift as a learning experience.

And I got to work with every single actor on this show — which I wouldn’t have had a chance to do just as an actor. My characters, in the first season at least, actually didn’t cross paths with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, Candy, very much at all. But I have memories of working very closely with Maggie because I got to direct her. Which was so nice and gratifying.

HBO: Was there a reason you didn’t make the twins look physically different from each other?

James Franco: Some of it just came about for practical reasons. We realized if we gave one a mustache and not the other, that meant I would have to wear a fake mustache for the mustachioed one; and wearing a fake mustache sucks. It sounds like a small thing, but it really limits your expressions.

I liked the idea that they were similar physically, and that you can tell, oh yeah, they’re brothers, they grew up in the same house, they have the same parents, but that one is more responsible. It’s almost like you get to see two sides of one person, or divergent roads from a similar starting point. But no matter what Frankie does, Vincent’s charmed by him. And I said after going to the premiere, and watching the first episode with an audience, it’s almost embarrassing how much I seem to like acting with myself.

“Vincent, like all of the characters, is willing to compromise in order to get the things he wants.”

HBO: We get to understand a bit more about Frankie’s lifestyle in Episode 7. Could you talk about the scenes with Ashley?

James Franco: It’s was Frankie’s big episode, and it was great fun to direct those scenes. It’s both funny and a little sad how lost Frankie is. Ashley thinks for a second he’s going to save her; that he’s her ticket out of there, and it turns out he’s more lost than she is. It’s a really great development because up until now Frankie has been the supporting character who instigates something or has a funny line or two, but now he gets to develop into a full character. And Jamie Neumann [Ashley] is such an incredible actor, so to work on this little romantic arc with her was especially fun. We even added little things — that little kiss out in the lobby wasn’t in the original script — before we pull the rug out on Ashley, and she realizes Frankie’s kind of a dud, not a knight in shining armor. There’s an initial set-up like this might turn into a romantic fairy-tale and then it doesn’t. Reality comes in, and it’s harsh.

HBO: How serious is Vincent about Abby?

James Franco: Vincent’s a funny character because — at least compared to Frankie — he’s a responsible character, but he does like to have a good time. He just wants his own place where he can kick back with all these interesting people. The real place the Hi-Hat was based on was this demimonde where all walks of life would congregate, from the Warhol artists to the sexworkers to police officers, it was such a mix of clientele, and Vincent loves being at the center of it. So the terms Vincent and Abby set for their relationship are very open on both sides, but I think of the two, Vincent actually secretly — maybe even secretly to himself — wants to settle down. If he could, he would settle down with Abby, despite the other side of him that wants to be at the center of the party.

HBO: How does Vincent feel when Abby brings him to the party with her wealthy family?

James Franco: There’s two very different motivations in the characters when they go to Abby’s parents: She’s rebelling, and doing everything she can to push her parents away. Bringing this Brooklyn bar manager to her home is a way to do that. For Vincent, he’s secretly happy because it’s sort of the next step for their relationship. He feels out of place, and he realizes when he gets there what Abby’s motivation is, but he knows the pact they made on the surface: It’s open, it isn’t monogamous, so he has to sort of roll with the punches. But underneath he’s trying to get closer to her, because he’s falling in love with her.

HBO: Could you talk about Vincent’s conflict with managing the parlors?

James Franco: It’s hard because Vince is getting pulled in on all sides: It’s not just “help manage these parlors and then you’ll get what you want with the bar.” There are other motivations. His family is saying, “Vince, help us out.” And Vincent, like all of the characters, is willing to compromise in order to get the things he wants, and so by degrees gets pulled deeper and deeper into this underworld. In the first episode he tells his wife, I never want to get involved in organized crime like your brothers, and then an episode or two later that’s exactly what happens. And that’s right on theme for the whole show: Even our heroes get sucked into these situations where they’re morally compromised.