There’s a scene midway through King Cobra that will have people talking about James Franco. It’s not when James Franco, who plays gay porn producer Joseph Kerekes, gets a spontaneous blowjob from his boyfriend—and escort whom Kerekes pimps out—Harlow. It’s not even when Kerekes teams up with Harlow to murder a rival porn producer.
No, undoubtedly the scene that will people won’t stop talking about—and after King Cobra’s premiere last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, already haven’t—is when Franco is bent over a couch, getting railed by his boyfriend from behind, turning his head back as he shouts, “Fuck that ass!”
On face value, the raised eyebrows are easy to understand. It’s rare for gay sex to be depicted as realistically (if ever really at all) on the big screen, let alone in a scene featuring a former Oscar nominee. But it’s because it’s James Franco that makes it all the more noteworthy.
James Franco. James “why are you so obsessed with gayness?” Franco. James “I’m a little bit gay” Franco. James “some of us are tired of your gay trolling” Franco.
King Cobra reunites Franco with director Justin Kelly, who also helmed last year’s indie headline maker I Am Michael, in which Franco played a gay activist who eventually renounced his homosexuality. In fact, at the Tribeca premiere of King Cobra, Kelly referred to Franco as his “daddy.”
“I couldn’t tell if he liked that or not,” Kelly laughed the next day during an interview with The Daily Beast. “It’s a queer film and and he’s had this whole queer thing going on, so ‘daddy’ seemed like the right term.”
That “queer thing going on” extends beyond his work with Kelly on King Cobra and I Am Michael.
It’s been dubbed an obsession by the press, with Franco also making a “docufiction” film named Interior. Leather Bar—in which he tries to recreate the lost sexually explicit footage from the 1980 gay thriller Cruising—filming a sex scene with Michael Shannon in The Broken Tower, conducting an interview between his straight and gay selves, and, most recently describing himself as “a little gay” in an interview with New York magazine.
“Gay in my art and straight in my life,” is how he explained it. “But if your definition of gay and straight is who I sleep with, then I guess you could say I’m a gay cock tease.”
It’s an attitude—an ethos? a perspective? an existence?—that has gotten Franco criticized by members of the gay community. Though the New York interview published after Kelly spoke to The Daily Beast, the director defended Franco from previous criticisms, saying “it seems to me to come from a very genuine place.”
“It was his idea to make a film this year,” Kelly said. “I had a bunch of ideas and we picked this one because it was the most interesting idea. Not because it was gay or had gay sex in it. It was just a really fucking cool story.”
At the very least, there’s no arguing that. King Cobra dramatizes the real-life murder of porn producer Bryan Kocis in 2007.
In the film, Christian Slater plays Kocis, the man who discovered gay porn superstar Brent Corrigan (real name Sean Lockhart, and played by Disney Channel star Garrett Clayton in the movie). When Corrigan attempts to get out of his contract with Kocis in order to work with Kerekes (Franco’s character), Kerekes and his boyfriend try to accelerate matters by murdering Kocis.
It’s a story wild enough to get a Disney Channel star, Franco, and Christian Slater all on board for explicit gay sex scenes—Slater and Clayton share a steamy anal sex scene, too (that Slater improv’d on set)—and an entertaining murder thriller to boot. Yet, when anyone discusses the film with Kelly, the conversation always reverts back to the sex. Is that frustrating?
“I’m not about it because I knew what I was doing when I made this,” he said. At the same time, “it’s funny because I don’t have this desire or agenda to talk about sex or porn. So it’s kind of weird for me.”
In a ranging conversation with The Daily Beast, we talk a lot about sex and porn. But we also talk about identity, our obsession with Franco’s gayness and whether it’s fair, and what it’s like to be the guy at Tribeca with the gay porn movie.
You’re the gay porn movie guy at Tribeca. What’s that like?
It’s definitely weird because I wanted to make the film because I loved the story. It’s wild and scandalous. And the characters are so fascinating. It just happened to be about gay porn and sex. It’s funny, people think I have this sneaky desire to show gay sex on screen or start a conversation about porn. Really I just thought this story would make a great movie. But I’m going with it!
How did you determine how far to go and how explicit to make the sex when there are certainly expectations of what people would be wanting to see when they go to the quote “gay porn movie”?
Me and the actors definitely made it a point to go there. Making a movie about gay porn there’s no need to be graphic for the sake of being graphic. We felt as long as it was in line with the story and pushes things forward. Even the wild Keegan [Allen, who plays Harlow] fucking James scene was meaningful because James was always the bossy daddy and it was a role reversal. So it’s meaningful. It doesn’t feel like it’s just there for show. We wanted to make sure that it had realistic gay sex, for sure. I guess for me that would be going all the way. Butt sex, for lack of a better word? Why does that sound weird to say?
“Butt sex” is not a term often mentioned in interviews.
It’s true that gay sex scenes are usually very mild. It was making the point to go there when it felt right. There’s no need to go too crazy or have full frontal. Maybe some people will be disappointed about that.
To be honest, I’ve been asked by three people already if there was full frontal in the movie.
I never asked anyone to do it. I just didn’t really know where that was coming into play. But again, if it was porn and full frontal, it would have to be an erect penis to be realistic and that would be Rated X. As wild as I wanted to be, I still wanted my film to be in theaters! I have a career to look after. [Laughs.]
What was it like approaching investors and actors like Christian Slater and Molly Ringwald about being a part of this movie that has explicit gay sex and is about gay porn? It’s something that the industry probably doesn’t get approached about very often.
It was definitely very wild. Once the script was ready to go out and I was trying to read it as an outsider a little bit, I was just like, "This is so insane. What the fuck am I doing?" I mean, James Franco saying, ‘Fuck that ass.’ It’s crazy and I didn’t know what to expect. I expected people to say I was insane. It was actually, cheesy as this might sound, meant to be. Everything came together so fast. The first conversation James and I had about was last May. It’s unheard of for a movie to come together in under a year.
That’s crazy fast.
Even casting alone, the film I’m doing next we’re on year five, which is a common thing. I think people just thought it was fun and entertaining and wanted to be involved. Actor-wise, Christian Slater was the first choice. I thought for sure he’d say “no” and he committed within two weeks. James, of course, said “yes” on day one. [Laughs.] Molly and Alicia said yes immediately. And then for the roles of Brent and Harlow, again I expected it to be a difficult thing to cast but I had a ton of people who wanted to do these roles. It was a weird aligning of the stars moment. It got financed in a week. Completely insane.
There’s interesting, in a life imitating art way, about Garrett Clayton coming from the world of Disney and doing this role. It mimics Sean’s innocence before leaning into the porn world.
It’s part of why I wanted to work with him. I knew from the meeting that he was willing to really go there to make this character work. So I was afraid of getting an actor who wasn’t really looking for something different. I could’ve easily found someone who wouldn’t have gone there the way he did. He and Christian Slater fucking against the wall was not written. It was gonna be the couch and you hear the zipper sound and it’s implied that oral sex is happening. On set I was like, “This is not realistic. They would have sex.” And they were both like “Let’s fucking do it.”
It’s such the opposite of the normal situation. Typically actors have to be convinced and talked into graphic scenes. They don’t typically volunteer to fuck against a wall.
The cool thing is that it came from a place—Christian Slater, I grew up with him. He’s a fucking legend. Directing him is totally weird for me and it’s scary, but it makes me really excited that he was so down. He was like, ‘What if I threw him against the wall?’ And I was like, OK. It’s pretty wild. [Laughs.]
What is it like to be on set coaching Christian Slater through a scene like that?
It’s definitely weird. But it wouldn’t always hit me until after we cut. That one in particular I remember being in the other room on the monitor and yelling out, “Harder!” or, “Push his face against the wall!” All these things that I didn’t even know until I was watching dailies and I could hear myself. And James and Keegan I was like, “Say fuck that ass! In gay porn people say fuck that ass!”
Last night you called James Franco your daddy. Could you explain?
I couldn’t tell if he liked that or not. I thought it was funny. Like how insanely fortunate to get to work with him, with all that he has going on. But he likes getting projects off the ground that otherwise wouldn’t happen. He knows what his name means and he’s smart about it. I Am Michael, he made that happen for me. He’s very supportive. He’s just really responded to my work. And made it a point to really get to where I want to be. Honestly it’s insane. The second we’ve finished each film, even this one, it’s been “What do you want to do next?” It’s queer film, and he’s had this whole queer thing going on, so “daddy” seemed like the right term.
That gay thing he has going on—the mythology of James Franco and his queerness tends to always follow something like this. People actually get angry about it. What is that like to have not just James Franco, but that mythology that goes along with it following this movie?
It’s definitely bizarre. Before I Am Michael he had already done a slew of gay-themed films. So before I ever met him or worked with him, I heard the conversation from within the gay community, which was typically very negative and skeptical. That he’s taking roles from gay actors, or what have you. But at this point I find myself being very defensive. Because honestly what he’s doing is more progressive and far more helpful to the gay community than—I’m going to put my foot in my mouth so I’m going to stop there.
Please, put that foot in your mouth…
But for an actor of his caliber to say that he picks roles based on character and story, and sexuality is secondary, to keep playing gay characters, is a good thing. It’s wildly progressive. I don’t really understand [the conversation] because the whole point of what I feel like the gay community’s goal, to be quote-unquote “normal” is having actors do what he does. Even people will question his sexuality because he plays gay, it’s backwards to me. Why are you assuming that he’s gay because he keeps playing gay characters? And does that mean that gay actors can’t play straight characters? It goes both ways. I’m rambling…
Not just with James, but there’s this trend of the gay community thinking that certain actors are trolling them because of their courting of the gay community. Nick Jonas, James, there’s questions in the media about their sexuality and then they take these roles in gay-targeted culture.
I don’t know about Nick’s case. But James, having worked with him on two films now, it seems to me to come from a very genuine place. It was his idea to make a film this year. I had a bunch of ideas and we picked this one because it was the most interesting idea. Not because it was gay or had gay sex in it. It was just a really fucking cool story. I really feel like he’s like—he does a lot of gay content. But I don’t see him out there trying so hard to find gay content to make.
That conversation just follows him around so closely.
I’m not naïve. I understand why for sure. But when people get negative about it, I think it’s weird.
Plus he’s your daddy. You have to defend him.
Plus he’s my daddy!
There are big scenes in the movie where these porn actors and producers are in a scandal and have to come out to their families as being in the porn industry. What was your parents’ reactions when they find out this was the movie you were making?
No one’s asked me that! I didn’t really tell them. I didn’t say what it is about. [Laughs.] My mom’s amazing and very supportive. She came to Sundance for I Am Michael and had a blast. This? I didn’t tell her what it was about. She at one point in a very cute, motherly way, she wanted printed copies of I Am Michael and this script, just to have. And I haven’t told my dad yet [Laughs.] My dad asked me what it was about and I told him it was about two sets of rival filmmakers who are fighting about a star. I didn’t lie! It’s true. He might know now. I don’t know.
Last night I watched a Brent Corrigan video, and it’s different watching it now after having watched your movie. What is it like for you?
Maybe it’s still too soon. I think I need more distance from it. Obviously I watched all Brent’s videos. Maybe I feel too close to it to feel like it changes anything. I haven’t watched yet actually. I don’t think I will. It feels a little bit creepy, now that I did the film. I don’t know. I don’t think I want to watch them.
Does it surprise or frustrate you that people seem to be so fixated on the sex part? This is a crazy, interesting story, but the conversation redirects to the sex.
I’m not mad about it because I knew what I was doing when I made this. But at the same time, I just did a phone interview that came out before the premiere where we talked about great stuff about identity and other things I’m interested. And then after the interview, the headline was all about the same sex. I mean the movie is a lot about porn. But after the interview I was like, I do want to talk about more and there are some interesting things going on in the film with the characters. So I had a moment where I was like, No, dummy everyone just wants to talk about sex. It’s funny because I don’t have this desire or agenda to talk about sex or porn. So it’s kind of weird for me.
What’s it like then to now be a go-to expert on gay porn?
I see things written about this agenda to show realistic on-screen gay sex. I’m down to have that. It’s fine. That’s great. But that wasn’t the case. There wasn’t that agenda. It’s a really cool story. And the characters have sex. It would have felt weird to have handjobs and blowjobs. There needed to be fucking.
In recent years there has been real importance placed on the depiction of gay sex on TV and the spectrum of realism. What’s it like to now be a part of that conversation?
I shouldn’t act like I’m so far removed from that. I am proud of it in terms of—did you see this documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated? I remember watching that and being infuriated. The side-by-side split screen of But I’m a Cheerleader where the girl is fully clothed and the hand over her crotch gets a NC-17 and this woman getting raped and choked gets an R? It’s insane. It’s so homophobic and disgusting. Everyone knows that about the MPAA. I do feel good about that, then. I’m definitely proud to put this out there because it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Even if the film wasn’t about porn and there was just a gay sex scene, these characters would definitely be fucking and why not show it? It shouldn’t be weird and it shouldn’t be a big deal. But I know that people are going to talk about. And god knows what the rating will be, but if it is NC-17 that’s fucking insane. But it’s good to show it in a way that relates to the story.
Wow, could this really be NC-17?
I hope not. To me it’s not that crazy. I’m not showing erect penises. People are fucking the way that they would do in real life. And straight sex scenes in a very mild PG-13 are far more graphic than this. That’s one thing that I do feel good about. So I shouldn’t act like I’m not trying to be part of the conversation at all. It’s just a bit more than I expected. I went through that with I Am Michael, too, where afterwards people were like ‘that wild sex scene.’ The only sex scene in I Am Michael is a threeway. It’s shot from really far away. They kiss. They’re making out. And they fall into bed in their underwear. That’s it. It was the most mild sex scene you could imagine. For people to think that it was crazy…it’s really vile.