As a professor, PhD student, author, artist, director and more, James Franco has earned his reputation as one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood.
This year alone he has 17 projects in the works, including a film adaptation of his own novel, Actors Anonymous and an HBO series, The Deuce, in which he plays two characters — a pair of twins — in addition to directing two of the eight episodes.
But last November, his work addiction caught up with him. “I really had a moment of crisis,” he recently told GQ Australia. “I hit a wall.”
While Franco attributed some of the stress to the presidential election, he said the breakdown did not occur all at once. “It was a gradual thing,” he explained. “I hadn’t been in a relationship in a long time and was, like, realizing how much I was running from feelings and people. And how much of my identity was wrapped up in work.”
Eventually, he began to feel like he didn’t know himself outside of a movie set. “But as soon as I took a step back and stopped working, it was like, holy s—,” he said. “All the feelings flooded in and it was like this is what I was running from. This is what I was using work to hide from. This is why I had to occupy myself every minute of the day, 24 hours a day. Because I was running, running from emotions and being vulnerable and being around people. Being myself.”
Franco said the problem was made worse because he felt as though society was validating his addiction. “The thing about work addiction is our culture supports it,” he explained. “We reward hard work and success. But it can really mask addictive, escapist behavior.”
For example, he said, “Every interview I gave, people would tell me, ‘You’re known for doing all these things, are you a workaholic?’ And what I would hear was, ‘That means you work really hard. You work harder than anybody.’ ”
Ironically, the more work he added to his plate, the less he was able to enjoy the fruits of his labor. “The curse of that is that I actually couldn’t enjoy my success,” he explained. “I was nominated for an Oscar, I was working with all my heroes. All the dreams I’d had as a young man had come true. And I still couldn’t enjoy it. It was never going to be enough.”
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Now, Franco said he realizes that “being a workaholic means you’re addicted to something. And what’s underneath addiction? It’s about hiding from fear, from pain, it’s doing something to make yourself feel better,” he said. “That’s exactly what I was doing and I had to really adjust my relationship to work. It’s really hard. I’m sure, like anything you’re addicted to, letting that go is difficult because it’s a coping mechanism to make you feel good.”
As Franco turns 40 this year, he said he’s trying to focus more on the good things in life. “What I’m really conscious of is that I realize what a great life I have, so I’m truly trying to be grateful,” he said. “Forty is a big milestone, but I feel like I went through my own version of a midlife crisis – so I don’t think I’ll hit another one at 40.”
With his “whole new approach” to life and work, Franco said he might even be ready to start dating again. “I’ll say this, I was a person that was incapable of settling down with anyone because I was so self-consumed before,” he admitted. “I was incapable of sharing my heart with anyone. I was so scared to be vulnerable that I made myself busy every minute of the day, so I had an excuse. But I didn’t realize until it started to hurt enough.”
So for the rest of the year, Franco said he’s dedicating himself to “self-care.” He added, “I was playing tennis today and if you looked at my life six months ago, you would never have seen me doing anything like that. What I love about things like playing tennis or learning to surf is I don’t need to be a professional at them. I can just do it because I enjoy it. Wow. What a concept!
“I’m sure everybody has s— like this to learn,” he added. “And it seems to me like I’m learning lessons a lot of people learned when they were 18. But whatever. Better late than never.”
Fortunately, it’s already starting to have an effect. “I’m feeling a lot better, dude,” he said. “I can honestly say I’m really happy.”