I Am Michael: James Franco on Former Gay Activist Michael Glatze

In “I Am Michael,” the controversial new drama at the Sundance Film Festival, James Franco plays former gay rights activist Michael Glatze, who in 2007 renounced his homosexuality and turned to Christianity.

Glatze was profiled in a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile story by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, which caught Gus Van Sant’s eye. He shared the material with Franco, and it took four years to secure financing to get the story on the big screen.

Franco talked to Variety about the project, directed by first-timer Justin Kelly.

Michael’s life as a good movie story? 

It’s like a lot of projects, where in the beginning, there’s an idea, or a concept or a situation that’s interesting to me, but I don’t quite know how it’ll be fleshed out. I liked the reverse take on this story. I didn’t think I would be the one to develop it or write it. I thought there would be other voices, who knew this world better and should be the ones helming it. So that led Gus Van Sant and I to look for some people and Gus suggested Justin Kelly.  One of the reasons Gus liked Justin, in addition to the short film he had directed, was Justin has been in San Francisco for 10 years. He knew the scene really well.

Playing Michael?

I didn’t I would play Michael until Justin’s script started coming in, and then I saw it and said, “Yeah it’s so good. If Justin wants me, I should definitely do it.”

How did you prepare?

I really depended on Justin for that. As far as Michael’s attitude, Justin was good about putting together various videos from Michael’s life and transformation.  I could see him. In some ways, he’s similar and in other ways, he’s very different.  Early on he was aware of himself as a young gay man. It was almost as if later, he willed himself to forget all that. His personality became a lot more rigid, based on how he behaved in the videos.

Did he become less flamboyant?
Yeah. When Justin went to meet him and asked about his sister, Michael said to Justin, “Why are you interested in her?” It’s almost like this willful blindness. My first guess is that if Justin is doing this movie, he’s probably gay. That Michael would be blind to that, I don’t know — it said a lot to me. He said to me, “I know that Gus is gay, I don’t know about James and I don’t want to make you identify as everything.” I said, “If you don’t want me to identify as anything, I’m not going to identify as anything.” He knew what I meant. I was being a bitch, because he was being a bitch.

James, did you meet Michael before shooting?
I didn’t really have much interaction with him before. I had one Skype conversation. I just felt like with this role, I had the videos of him. It’s not like I had to match his behavior perfectly, as I did with James Dean or Alan Ginsberg, because they were such public figures. What I wanted to get was an authentic connection to his experiences and emotions. I didn’t think I would get anything from talking to him, because if he’s still in his Christian anti-gay mode, I don’t need to hear any more of that.

Met Him in Person?

We saw him yesterday. He was a delight. I wouldn’t give full credit to the movie, but I think the movie has helped him release some of these extreme views that basically gays are sinners. And that it’s helped him heal a little bit and maybe showed him that just because he doesn’t want to identify as gay doesn’t mean he has to completely destroy or condemn everything about gay lifestyles.

Did he like the film?

Yeah, I think he loved it. His words for me were, “I want to thank you. You’re a good actor.”

Threesome in the film between you, Zachary Quinto and Charlie Carver.

I knew Justin wasn’t going to take it too far or go on for too long. You play it too safe, and it’s just lame. So I went as far as I could before Justin said cut.