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SGN interviews Milk's Josh Brolin and James Franco
SGN interviews Milk's Josh Brolin and James Franco
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

After a great deal of preamble here in the SGN, Gus Van Sant's Milk hit theaters last week, and audiences finally had the opportunity to see for themselves just exactly what the fuss (and Oscar buzz) has been all about. Personally, I think this documentary-like biography of San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, the first openly Gay man ever elected to public office in 1977, is a bit of a mixed bag; it's too clinical to hit home on an emotional level, but the performances are so strong - I still say star Sean Penn is going to win the Academy Award - and the subject matter so compelling that even with more than its share of flaws the film manages to pack quite a wallop.

During my time in Los Angeles, I (along with a few other journalists) was able to get some time with many of the principal players in this real-life melodrama, speaking with them both about the film and about the individuals they were cast to portray. Along with a brief bio about their characters, here are some of the highlights from the conversations I had with Josh Brolin and James Franco.

Josh Brolin as Dan White
Dan White was elected as City Supervisor for District 8 in 1977. For reasons still not entirely known, he killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and fellow Supervisor Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978. Using what would become known as "The Twinkie Defense," he was controversially convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison, the verdict sparking what would become known as White Night Riots which devastated parts of the city. Paroled in 1984, White committed suicide on October 21, 1985 by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Do you think this story of Harvey Milk is better served by being made by a director who is openly Gay, and at the same time do you think any of the characters are being disserved by being portrayed by actors who are straight?

Josh Brolin: I think it lends to it. I'm sure the fact that Lance, who did an amazing job writing the script, that he's Gay [helped]. I think the fact that producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen are Gay [helps]. I think it gave them a passion, and this movie has been trying to get made for so long, it gave them an extra connection, an intimate passion, to get this movie made. I think that is where it does lend into it. I think Gus, whether he is Gay or not, it helped. [Gus] has such an incredible sensitivity, and I've met Gay people who are not sensitive and I've met straight people who are, so that whole Gay thing being more sensitive and all I don't buy, but Gus himself is extremely sensitive to behavior and to emotions, and because of that I think he's the perfect person to have done this movie. With the cast, I don't think it matters. You try to find the best actor. I think the only thing that's a bummer - and I do understand it a little bit - is the fact you have Gay actors who are still in the closet and can't come out because they don't want to be perceived as being "Gay" actors. That's still a messy thing that we're in, and I don't know if we're ever going to get out of it. I don't know if we'll get beyond that. Who knows? I hope we do, but I just don't know if it's going to happen.

Fetters: You just worked with Oliver Stone on W. What's the difference between working with him and with working with Van Sant?

Brolin: Not a lot. Oliver let me do my thing. What I did with Bush, I brought. What he did with the movie, he brought. What I did with Dan White, I brought. What Gus brought to the movie, he brought. They both tweaked my performances. I like variation. I like to mix it up. I like to not [do] the same thing twice so they have more possibilities in the editing room where they can figure out what they want to do with it. They both allowed me to do that, and I think they're both very similar in that way. Gus is a lot quieter than Oliver. He comes up and says only what needs to be said. Oliver is the same way, but he's just not as quiet. He's impassioned constantly. Gus is more self-contained. But they're both brilliant filmmakers, and the Coen brothers are the same way, Ridley Scott is the same way, Robert Rodriguez is the same way. They all have that through line where they focus on story. They are all obsessed with story, obsessed with characters, obsessed with behavior, obsessed with emotions, and I think it shows in the finished product.

Fetters: How important was it for Dan White to come across as a fully-formed, three-dimensional human being and not as some sort of caricature or monster?

Brolin: I think it is important for any character to come across as human, unless you are doing a caricature. I find it important to care about what the person is going through. I think the more interesting question is, "Why?" instead of saying, "Oh look at that." I could have played Dan White as he was the moment he decided to get the gun to go and kill those people, but that would be very one-dimensional. But, to get into his frustrations, to get into the amount of pressure he had from the fire department and the police department to bring San Francisco back to what it was before, which was an impossibility, the fact that once he was elected he became a guppy in a sea of truly skilled politicians, that's more interesting to me.

Fetters: What are some of the responsibilities of playing a real life character, whether it be George W. Bush or Dan White, versus playing a fictional character?

Brolin: It's harder, no doubt about it. There is some form of wanting to do it justice, especially in regards to Bush. There is so much hatred for him, globally, and that was a little disconcerting to me. But it was also part of the great challenge. How can I do this? How can I pull it off? It just became the greater challenge. So, yeah, you feel a greater responsibility [in Milk or W.] than you do with something like No Country for Old Men, sure, but you also try to find people a little bit like them so you can do whatever character you're playing justice. It was a little bit different for Dan White. There wasn't much in the way of research available to me. You just use the information that you have and try to do justice to the material and to the character. But there is more pressure, definitely. Much more pressure.

Fetters: What do you think of the fact that the movie is coming out now in the shadow of Proposition 8's passage in California? How do you feel about that?

Brolin: There is a grand parallel. When you feel like you've evolved, and I don't even know if I know what that word means, and you feel like the Gay community and Gay society has become more mainstream then something like this happens, which was a huge surprise for me. Regardless of how you feel about it, I was still really surprised. California? Of all places, California? Discrimination, I don't wish on anybody. Repression, I don't wish on anybody. It's sad to me. It creates violence. It creates sideways manifestations, which is always sad to me. To me, the most important thing, and what Harvey's thing was also, is that people allow themselves to speak and allow their opinions to be heard. Howard Zinn says, "Democracy comes from the bottom and not from the top." Allow yourself to be heard. Suffer the consequences of that, but allow yourself to be heard. James Franco as Scott Smith
Scott Smith met Harvey Milk in 1972. The two quickly became lovers, moving to San Francisco and opening Castro Camera in the Castro District in 1973. They remained together for four years, but even after their separation the two still remained friends, Milk often turning to Smith for advice. He died from complications due to AIDS in 1994.

Fetters: How did you get involved with Milk?

James Franco: I've known Gus for like five years. He and I had a mutual friend, a painter whose studio I would go and work in, and I was doing a play that I had co-written and was acting in and our friend invited [him] to see it. It was in this dinky little theater in West Hollywood, and when Gus Van Sant came to see it, it was like the highlight of the whole run. We had met that way and then [subsequently] saw one another every so often over the years, talking about other projects that ultimately didn't work out. Then, two summers ago I was in England studying literature and my agent told me Gus was [working on] this movie on Milk and [asked] if I might want to get involved. I did a little research and learned that Gus had been trying to make the movie for like 12 years, so I wrote him an e-mail - and just being the biggest Gus Van Sant fan and knowing just how important this story was to him - I said basically I'd do anything in the movie just to be a part of it.

Fetters: How did you approach the character? How did you create his identity and not have him just sit there idling in Milk's shadow?

Franco: People have said that I kind of play the housewife role. From what I've heard and read female actors say, "I just don't want to play another housewife role, I really hate playing the housewife role," but I had never been offered the housewife role before, and I thought it could be a good opportunity to play something different. I also figured, this movie is called Milk, it's not called "Smith," so I think one of the big roles in Scott Smith's life was that he was that supportive background person for Harvey Milk, and in this movie I think it was important to play the person who was going to be the emotional grounding for many of Harvey's huge ambitions. If I did anything else than that it would just get messy, I needed to play that supportive character as best as I could. That would show a loving relationship, and that loving relationship would be in contrast to all the political stuff in the movie. It would take what could be a plain political movie and bring it down to a personal level thanks to this relationship that hopefully feels [honest] and true.

Fetters: Should a Gay actor have played this role?

Franco: I don't know if a Gay actor could have played this role better than I could. I just know that I feel strongly about all the issues that Harvey was fighting for and the ones he was fighting against. Hopefully, my passion for those issues was enough for me to devote myself to this character. Inversely, though, you wouldn't want to preclude actors who are Gay from playing straight roles, so to say only Gay actors can only play Gay roles would be detrimental in the [contrary] way as well. I don't know if we'd want to start walking down that path.

Fetters: What was the research like in regards to portraying Scott Smith? What are the challenges playing a real person entails?

Franco: There are a lot of challenges. When you're playing a real person who wasn't necessarily famous, being too loyal to their persona or their mannerisms can sometimes be a hindrance, but I kind of find that inspiring. I like to do a lot of research. I like to find out who the real person is and I find that usually helps the characterization, even if most people aren't ever going to know how accurate I am or not. It was hard to find a lot of stuff on Scott, but he was with Harvey for four years and was a big part of his life. I talked with Danny Nicoletta who worked at the camera shop with the both of them. I talked to Cleve Jones. I talked to Frank Robinson. I talked to everybody who knew him. And, as an actor, you just take all of those different perspectives and you boil it down into [a performance] that can hopefully be a dynamic part of the movie. Rob Epstein, the director of The Times of Harvey Milk, he had an old film reel of Scott in a vault and he transferred that to DVD for me and I was finally able to see an extended interview with [him] actually from the period. That was great. Very helpful, and it helped me to discover the real Scott, so I tried to be as accurate to him as possible.

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