Among James Franco’s projects, the 60-minute “Interior. Leather Bar.” must surely rank as among the oddest. With director Travis Matthews, Franco set out to recreate the legendarily excised 40 minutes of footage (generally believed to be scenes of gay men performing sexual acts) from William Friedkin’s 1980 “Cruising,” starring Al Pacino as a New York City cop who goes undercover in the gay leather bar scene. What sounded titillating is actually a pointedly topical re-examination of how uncomfortable homosexual sex can be even for enlightened liberals like Franco, all told through the viewpoint of “Val Lauren,” a straight actor played by straight actor Val Lauren. Lauren took the time to answer some questions bout “Interior. Leather Bar.”—which premieres tonight at the Sundance Film Festival—while shooting a new movie in Prague.
Backstage: How did you get involved in the film? Was there ever any debate about doing it?
Val Lauren: Just over a year ago, James spoke with me about an idea he had to re-approach “Cruising,” and he sent me the script for “Interior. Leather Bar.” There was a debate taking place in my head as I was reading the scene about me having a personal debate with myself...It was a surreal experience!
What’s really impressive about “Interior. Leather Bar.” is the way in which it becomes a remake of “Cruising” in miniature, with your character initially put off by and then fascinated by the lifestyle. Was that always on the table, or did it happen organically during filming?
There was a script that had James and myself playing versions of ourselves, as well as me playing Steve Burns, the character from “Cruising.” The nature of how the film was constructed insisted upon organic experiences as well from everyone on the production....if or when those boundaries collide and separate is up to the viewer.
Possibly even more uncomfortable than the graphic, voyeuristic sex scenes were the scenes with you on the phone to your agent, hearing him advise you to avoid the project because it could damage your career. Was that a consideration before you signed on?
His argument managed to really make me search in real time during that short scene. My aim has always been to serve this medium and the people who watch it in a positive way. As long as what I take part in stays in line with what I believe that to be, I think all will be well.
How much of the film was improvised?
We worked from a script that provided a sturdy track and dialogue as well. Within those boundaries there was also space to be filled by the experience at hand and improvisation was encouraged. The film really lives in that gray area where the two mix.
Were you as wary about what was happening as “Val” was in the film?
“Val” in the film technically had a different experience than I did. Our understanding of what was unfolding happened during different times under two different circumstances, so our feelings about things were not always on the same level, or even the same.
Do you think Franco was successful in creating the movie he told you he wanted to create during your conversation between scenes?
James and Travis Matthews were the only two people who knew what they wanted to finally create. I personally found the film to be a huge success, and I am proud to be a part of it.
You mention the Sal Mineo biography you starred in a few times. Is there a release date attached to that yet? Anything you can tease us with regarding it?
James directed “Sal,” about Sal Mineo and the very last day of his life, an unconventional film about an unconventional man who lived an unconventional life. I played Sal and it was one of the greatest experiences I have had as an actor. It was recently bought by Tribeca for distribution. I was lucky to be a part of it!