Tag error: <txp:thumbnail id="1406" poplink="1" /> ->  Textpattern Notice: Unknown image. while_parsing_page_form: artikelen, default
Rob Perrée: James Franco as Janet Leigh as Psycho

James Franco as Janet Leigh as Psycho

James Franco: why I recreated Psycho

What made the actor dress up as Janet Leigh and recreate her murder in Psycho? Here, he explains the thinking behind his latest artwork

The Guardian, Sunday 9 June 2013 19.30 BST

James Franco as Janet Leigh in Psycho.
‘We are all playing roles’ … James Franco as Janet Leigh in Psycho

What interests me about Psycho is how the film addresses one man’s imaginary life – how Norman Bates keeps his mother alive in the world of his imagination. It’s all about role-playing: he plays her and the character then takes him over. And he excuses his extreme actions, including murder, because they occur when he has slipped into a different psychological state. I do love Hitchcock’s 1960 film, but Psycho Nacirema, the art installation I have made with the Scottish video artist Douglas Gordon, isn’t supposed to be a homage.

The show is about using films and performances as the inspiration for new works. Last year, I did a collaborative show with a group of artists that included Douglas, the film-maker Harmony Korine and the LA-based artist Paul McCarthy. We took the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause as a starting point. Everyone was given a different thing to work from: the film itself; the legend of James Dean; things from the original script that were never shot. I really liked that approach. It brings different sides of my life together.

For Psycho Nacirema, we recreated lots of rooms from the original Bates Motel set: the bathroom, the mother’s bedroom, the foyer, the exterior with its No Vacancy sign. I got permission to film at the Bates Motel lot at Universal Studios, where Psycho was made. We created our own version of iconic scenes from the movie, including the shower scene, with me as Marion Crane, the character played by Janet Leigh. Shooting there felt like communing with the Hollywood dead. In the original, the psycho is a cross-dresser and the victim female. It’s obviously an old-fashioned idea that a transvestite would be a psycho. By casting myself as Marion Crane, I hope to undermine those dated notions. I’m very into role-playing: when I crossdress, it is an overt way of showing people I’m playing a “character”. It raises awareness of the choices we make every minute of every day to be who we are. We are all playing roles.

The show is all about reality versus fantasy. Psycho is a movie. Within that, Anthony Perkins, as an actor, is creating his own imaginary world, while his character Norman Bates is also performing. All these layers of make-believe are what I’m interested in inserting myself into, performing as characters from the film and real people.

I’ve studied art, film and writing a lot. One thing all students are pushed to do is find their voice, to ask themselves: “What can you bring to this that no one else can?” When I started doing art projects, I thought I needed to move away from the world of acting. Then I realised all my favourite artists look to film for inspiration: Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Dan Colen and Douglas Gordon (who in 1993 made 24 Hour Psycho, a slowed-down version of the film). I saw that I have a unique position: I’m on the inside of the film world and so was well placed to bring these fields together. As soon as I did, I felt a new energy.

It’s not just Norman Bates I reference in the show. I’ve also been influenced by the notorious Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein. He was a very sick individual, infamous in the 1950s for making furniture out of dead bodies. He didn’t kill all of them: he dug some people up from the graveyard, then made lampshades and furniture out of their skin. Robert Bloch, who wrote the pulp novel Hitchcock based Psycho on, was inspired by Gein. And Gein also inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Cormac McCarthy’s book Child of God, which I recently adapted into a film. I’ve given my whole show the creepy, grisly atmosphere Gein brings to mind. By going to extremes, writers and artists can engage with common psychological traits – things we all have – and examine them in a darker way.

Another thing I’ve been intrigued by is the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. He was an actor, just like me: a comedian in silent films from the 1920s. He also had a public persona, being a celebrity in his day. But today, if anyone knows anything about Fatty, it’s that he was accused of raping and murdering a woman at a party at the St Francis hotel in San Francisco. I recently worked with the experimental film-maker and actor Kenneth Anger, directing him in a music video for my band Daddy. He’d written about the Arbuckle scandal in his book Hollywood Babylon, which takes old Tinseltown gossip and scandals and rewrites them until they becomes more like myth or legend.

Fatty was acquitted, but it ruined his career: rumours have as much power as truth. That murder looms over how he is remembered. His profession was about make-believe, but because of something that happened in real life, that imaginary world was affected.

I filmed at the hotel where the party was. We shot different versions of what went down, with me playing Fatty: one where he’s innocent, another where he’s guilty. He was known for doing slapstick, so I recreated some Chaplin shorts – but slowed them down so much that the comedy gets sucked out and they become people beating on each other.

What’s my motivation? I’m just trying to get to the core of these weird recreations we call the movies.

• Interview by Skye Sherwin.