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Milk star: Penn is my favourite actor

Pineapple Express star James Franco has taken on a very different role in his new film Milk. Franco plays alongside Sean Penn in the story of California's first openly gay elected official Harvey Milk who was assassinated. Newsbeat caught up with Franco to get the lowdown on the movie and working with Penn.

James Franco
Franco says the critical acclaim for Milk is the 'frosting on the cake'

Does it make it more exciting when your film's coming out and it's getting nods of recognition?

I was just happy to do the movie. It was directed by Gus Van Sant - one of my favourite directors ever, starring Sean Penn - one of my favourite actors, one of the best actors ever.

It's such a strong and important story. I went into it with the attitude that I don't care if it turns out to be the worst movie in the world, I know the experience is gonna be incredible and everyone's making this movie for all the right reasons. Everything else is just frosting on the cake. I would have been happy even if the movie never came out.

Sean Penn's role is getting a lot of praise... what was is like working alongside him?

He worked really hard and in other ways makes it look really easy. He is not an actor that is so focussed on himself and his own performance that he forgets there are other actors there. He's all about the interaction with other actors.

In my scenes with him it was all about the relationship and capturing that. Like: 'How can we make these scenes the best?' Not: 'How am I gonna come off the best?'

I think it only benefits him because it makes his performance more natural, it connects him to the other actors, it brings everyone else up too. He was just incredibly giving and it was a great experience all around.

When you watch the movie you think: 'I can't believe I didn't know this stuff'...

That's the crazy thing. In England you have more of an excuse not to know about it. But I grew up an hour away from San Francisco.
James Franco, Sean Penn and Michael London
James Franco with Milk co-star Sean Penn and the director

Harvey Milk was assassinated the year I was born. I was that close. I should have known something. They don't teach this in schools and that's one of the very important things about this movie. It's getting the story out. And it's such a great example for a lot of people.

There's a lot of attention to detail with the sets and the costumes - did you enjoy the tight jeans and growing the moustache?

I thought I was gonna hate the moustache but I grew to kind of like it. The clothes aren't too far from what people wear today. In San Francisco in the Castro [the city's main gay neighbourhood], there was a style of dress called the 'Castro clone' which involved Levi's jeans, construction boots, flannel shirts.

It's kind of what people are wearing today. I guess the major difference is the pants are fairly high-waisted - I don't know maybe that's coming back soon!

How did you approach the more intimate scenes with Sean - did you just treat them like any other scene from any other movie?

Yeah. We both knew that they were in the movie. It wasn't like a big surprise that they were going to happen. Intimate scenes like that, whether it's with an actress or an actor, there's not a lot of discussion that goes on, you just kind of do it. So we just kind of did it.

Is your next role going to be something completely different?

The next movie I'm going to do is a movie called Howl which is all about an American poet Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. He's part of the beat generation. His poem was put on trial for possibly being obscene and so I'm going to play a young Allen Ginsberg.

A lot of people had difficulty separating you and your character in Pineapple Express...

People still don't understand acting is acting. So whenever you play a role, people want to read it as like being close to you. And sure, in some ways in every role there's real emotion involved, but it's not like you necessarily ever share the world view, or personality, or the the habits of the character you play. It just doesn't work like that.

James Franco was talking to Newsbeat entertainment reporter Sarah Jane Griffiths.

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