Declan Cashin meets the stars of medieval comedy Your Highness, who talk about kissing in front of 200 people, making dirty movies and how they cope with the cold Irish weather
James Franco has invited me to run my hands through his hair, and I, in my capacity as Day & Night correspondent, am nothing if not obliging. "See, they're hair extensions," he says, flashing a grin, as I gently tousle his long, dark hair.
Let me explain. It's a cold, wet Friday morning and Day & Night is on the set of Franco's new movie, Your Highness, which is being filmed in a giant warehouse in the Belfast docklands.
The film is a medieval stoner comedy (co-star Charles Dance refers to it as "Ali G meets Blackadder"), and so on the day we meet Franco is decked out in fetching britches, tunic and boots, with a head of shaggy long hair that he explains is mostly fake (and, after conducting that gruelling piece of barnet-groping research on your behalf, loyal reader, I can confirm that said tresses are, indeed, extensions).
Directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), Your Highness sees the ubiquitous, hatefully multi-talented Franco -- at age 32 already an Oscar host and nominee, as well as an artist, author, Gucci model, graduate student in no less than three writing and English courses, and currently studying for a PhD at Yale -- play Fabious, a preening warrior prince whose virginal bride-to-be Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) is kidnapped by an evil, priapic wizard (Justin Theroux).
It falls on Fabious, along with his waster of a ye-olde-weed-smoking brother Thadeous (Danny McBride, who also wrote the screenplay), to go on a quest to rescue the fair maiden, encountering a decidedly un-Yoda-like seer, a well-endowed minotaur, and a kick-ass warrior woman -- played by newly minted Oscar winner Natalie Portman -- along the way.
Over 12 weeks, this Belfast warehouse has been transformed into a medieval castle, where the bulk of the movie's interior action takes place, and today the cast and crew are filming a series of montage scenes for the ending -- namely the heroes' return home, and a wedding banquet sequence.
The bulk of the morning's shoot is taken up with filming a scene in which Franco and Deschanel have to kiss -- many times over. The two stars are joking around in between takes; he flicks his tongue out at her and she makes a mock lunge at his crotch. They both look freezing cold, bless 'em -- Franco continually warms his co-star's hands as they wait -- but when Franco strolls over to a quiet corner of the 'castle' to chat to Day & Night, he reveals his top tip for keeping warm in the cold Irish climes.
"I keep farting under my costume -- that does the trick," he says in that slow, US west coast slacker voice of his. It's break-time for Franco, and when he's done talking to us, he'll immediately crack into German philosopher Martin Heidegger's laugh-a-minute treatise Being and Time, a well-thumbed edition of which he is currently carrying under his arm.
"I've never kissed an actress before," he says, referring to that morning's shoot. "It's just this side of being a porn actor. It's not that enjoyable. Everyone is like, 'You get to kiss today', but there are like 200 people around. Besides, it's too cold here to enjoy it."
The actor had previously worked with both director David Gordon Green and McBride on Pineapple Express -- arguably Franco's star-making role -- which makes the puerile, raunchy, often improvised humour this time round a little easier to perform.
"I feel like I'm used to the atmosphere, I get along with them so well," he explains. "It's kind of easy. All of us in the movie know that David has good taste so if he says something was shit, you know it's not going to go in the final cut. The thing about David is that he really mixes a lot of different elements, and as a result this movie has a unique tone. Here we have a fantasy world, and it has Danny, a very funny actor, but then around him there's a cast of people who are obviously not comedic actors. It has an absurd streak running through it rooted in a very particular genre."
When he wasn't trudging through brow-furrowing philosophical books, Franco managed to get out and experience a little of his Irish surroundings before shooting began outright.
"We went to see U2 in Dublin, and Danny and I got to meet Bono," he reveals. "I did another movie here, Tristan and Isolde, a few years ago. We filmed half of it in Connemara." He seems to drift away for a moment but then continues: "It [the movie] wasn't as good. It's okay. I've been to Dublin for promotional things a few times. I liked the James Joyce museum."
Franco is then whisked off, and Deschanel pops over in his stead for a quick natter. The now 31-year-old is draped in a fleece blanket and is clutching a pink hot water bottle to her chest. The actress and singer (as part of She & Him) had delayed her wedding to Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard by a couple of weeks in order to fit Your Highness into her schedule, as a favour to the director and to McBride.
Talking to Deschanel, it seems she's a believer in the old Hollywood adage that "dying is easy, comedy is hard". "If you're doing comedy, and you at any point indicate that you're trying to make people laugh, then that's the quickest way not to achieve it," she says.
"You have to be probably more committed to your character in a comedy than you do a drama. I really admire actresses like Katherine Hepburn, Carol Lombard and Diane Keaton, who have such great comic timing. But I think this movie is really funny. It's really dirty. You won't want to take your grandparents with you to see it."
According to writer and star Danny McBride -- resplendent today in plush maroon fur tunic with matching elf shoes and a Mel Gibson-in-Lethal Weapon-ear mullet -- his influences for the writing of Your Highness are 80s movies such as The Beastmaster and Krull, but, crucially, this movie is not meant as a spoof.
"We're actually trying to make one of those fantasy movies," McBride says in his distinctive deep voice. "There are all these special effects, but also throwbacks to old school special effects like animatronic birds. We're just trying to find the comedy in all of these people playing it totally straight.
"It comes from an idea that David and I had back when we were in film school together. I had my first introduction to film when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, so I'd find myself thinking, 'Well, nobody is making movies like these anymore and I love them. So I guess I've gone about approaching these genres that you really haven't seen anyone tackle recently."
The 34-year-old is an unlikely leading man, but he's been working his way to this big moment through a series of scene-stealing supporting roles in the aforementioned Pineapple, as well as The Heartbreak Kid and Tropic Thunder, not to mention his starring role in the acclaimed HBO comedy series Eastbound & Down.
"I went to film school to write and direct, I didn't have any ambitions of getting into acting at all," he says. "I acted in All the Real Girls as a favour to David when someone else pulled out at last minute. Basically my career has come about because we just didn't know any other actors!"
He clearly has ambitions beyond the comedy genre -- he quips that he'd like to work with "the big guys like Paul Thomas Anderson, Tarantino or Fincher. But part of me is like, 'I don't want to be in one of their movies and then ruin it'" -- but McBride says he's always trying to explore the underlying serious notes in even the broadest funny role.
"The comedy I like is the kind that's weirdly depressing and funny at the same time," he says. "I'm always trying to find a little humanity in characters that are sorry sacks of shit. I like that balance."
Your Highness opens in Irish cinemas next Wednesday
Day & Night