James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers review other writer’s books—the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me.
This week’s installment focuses on “Author: The JT Leroy Story,” which is now in theaters. Last time, the guys got in a fight, and had to review the piece separately — but they’re back together for this edition, which focuses on fictional personas. Let’s hope they get along.
James: Good to have you back.
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Semaj: Yeah, yeah, let’s just talk about this documentary.
James: Okay, whatever you want. I was just trying to be nice.
Semaj: So, this is a recounting of the events and machinations behind the fictional author, JT LeRoy, the alleged young male author whose mother was a 14-year-old, truck-stop prostitute when she had him.
James: He started writing about his young drug use and hustling, and his voice sounded so authentic that he quickly got the attention of agents and publishers. Authors who dealt with similar subjects — such as Dennis Cooper who wrote “Try,” and Bruce Benderson who wrote “User” — became integral to JT’s writing life. And then celebrities caught on and everyone was interested in the new young writer who seemed to be writing about his own life.
Semaj: Winona Ryder was a champion, Courtney Love, Billy Corrigan from The Smashing Pumpkins. Gus Van Sant was going to adapt JT’s first book, “Sarah,” about a young truck stop prostitute. Actor Michael Pitt even had a brief flirtation with JT. And Bono talked up JT in a Rolling Stone interview. Everyone who was in the know was interested in the new writer.
James: Except he was a fake. Like you.
Semaj: What the fuck did you say?
James: I’m just saying he was made up — there was no young male writer by the name of JT Leroy. JT Leroy started as the pen name for Laura Albert, a woman in her thirties who seemed to be having a suicidal breakdown when she came up with this alternate persona.
Semaj: No, I want to go back to the part where you said he was fake like me.
James: Oh, well you are fake. At least in the sense that you’re made up. There is no “Semaj” out in the world walking around, living his own life apart from James. You only live in these reviews. And that’s how JT existed, he lived in the writing. Laura created a character and then wrote stories as that character.
Semaj: Look, I don’t want to make this piece all about me, but . . .
James: But that’s exactly what you’re doing?
Semaj: I’m just saying a created persona isn’t necessarily “fake,” it’s its own thing, a manifestation of its creator. And even though JT wasn’t actually the son of a prostitute, and didn’t grow up hustling, his writing was always categorized as fiction.
James: Well, the first story JT published was in a collection of memoirs.
Semaj: Yes, and that’s where JT started getting a lot of attention, but he very deliberately did not go down that path. That’s why James Frey got in trouble with Oprah, (around the same time that the JT story broke) because he started writing his book A Million Little Pieces as fiction and then was told that he could only sell it as a memoir. And once it was a “memoir” there were different expectations.
James: Well, I think there are arguments to be made about the nature of facts in nonfiction, and the authorial hand in such things, and how there is a pact made with reader of a memoir that you are trying to tell the truth to the best of your ability. But I think what got JT in the most trouble was that the persona didn’t just stay on the page, Laura Albert gave JT life through endless phone conversations with her new celebrity friends, and then through the avatar of her sister-in-law, a young, androgynous woman who dressed up as JT for public events.
Semaj: But it wasn’t a big master plan. Laura started the whole thing because she had a troubled upbringing; she was made a ward of the state and put into rehabilitation homes. She started writing stores to deal with the abuse she suffered as a child, but found that she could only write as a young man. That if she wrote in the voice of a woman it was too close to the bone and too traumatic.
James: I’m not saying it was a master plan, but once things started falling into place, Laura certainly didn’t stop it, she ran with it.
Semaj: What would you do if your career were suddenly taking off because people were responding in such a big way to what you were doing?
James: I don’t know what I would do if success happened overnight instead of gradually like it has for me. But I don’t think I would call celebrities to have two hour long conversations with them on the phone. And do it to such an extent that it seemed like the only reason I wrote the books was to have celebrity friends.
Semaj: You wouldn’t do that because you are a celebrity. You forgot what it’s like to be on the outside of fame, and how seductive fame can be. Not to mention how gratifying it must have been for Laura to suddenly have all these amazing people respond to her work after thirty years of struggle, and depression.
James: But it’s almost as if Laura had been training to put on different personas her whole life. She had been a phone sex worker and started doing different voices for her clients.
Semaj: She wasn’t training, it was just a way to make the job easier. And then there was the life changing moment when she was suicidal, in her bathroom, and she called a suicide hotline, and instead of talking in her own voice, JT’s voice came out. She expressed her own pain to the hotline therapist through the character of JT. It was the only way she could express herself and ask for help. She didn’t create a character thinking, I am going to sell tons of books with this character and dupe everyone.
James: It’s a bit like Ryan Lochte, in private he told some false stories about having guns pulled on him, not thinking that what he said would be heard around the world, and he would be called on his shit.
Semaj: Yeah, maybe. Laura started by just wanting to express her pain, first on the phone, and then in writing. And then people started to respond, so she started to make the work public.
James: Although she did pursue people, like writers and celebrities. You can’t say that she just sat back and the world found JT. Laura hustled.
Semaj: Who the fuck got anywhere that doesn’t hustle?
James: Fine, I get what you’re saying, JT, or Laura, or whomever, isn’t much different than all of us. I would say the main difference is that she created an avatar for herself though her brother’s sister, Savannah.
Semaj: Who doesn’t have an avatar nowadays? Everyone on social media has an f’ing avatar! We all curate our own online personas, and present the sides that we think are our most appealing, the sides that people respond to.
James: Fine, but those avatars stay online, they don’t walk among us.
Semaj: Just wait, mofo, just wait.
(James gets a little weirded out and starts to walk away. Semaj calls out after him):
Semaj: One day you’re going to be walking down the street and you’re going to meet me, your own f’ing creation.