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James Franco breaks silence, admits to sleeping with students from his acting school

Updated December 23, 2021 at 3:52 PM ET

In a rare and wide-ranging interview, James Franco acknowledged he slept with students of the acting school he co-owned, saying he believed their encounters to be consensual despite the striking imbalance of power.

The Oscar-nominated actor has faced several allegations of sexual misconduct since 2018 — which he denied at the time — and earlier this year settled a class-action lawsuit led by two former students who claimed they were sexually exploited and victims of fraud at the now-closed school.

Franco addressed those allegations and his struggles with sex addiction, among other topics, in an interview with The Jess Cagle Show, which posted several clips of the conversation to YouTube on Wednesday ahead of its full release on Thursday afternoon.

"There were people who were upset with me and I needed to listen," Franco said when asked why he had been silent until now. "I've just been doing a lot of work and I guess I'm pretty confident in saying, four years? There were some issues that I had to deal with that were also related to addiction. And so I've really used my recovery background to kind of start examining this and changing who I was."

The lawsuit focused on his acting school and a class called "Sex Scenes"

The 2019 lawsuit alleged that Franco and two other men sexually exploited female students at Studio 4, a New York- and Los Angeles-based acting school Franco founded in 2014 (he taught acting there and also at the collegiate level).

The plaintiffs, Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal, sought to represent a class of more than 100 former female students. They alleged the school set out to "create a steady stream of young women to objectify and exploit," as well as "circumvent California's 'pay for play' regulations," which prohibit making actors pay for auditions. They told NPR in 2019 that they were promised that as paying students, they would be offered opportunities to audition for roles in Franco's projects.

Part of the complaint involved a class called Sex Scenes, which required students to audition and pay an extra $750. Tither-Kaplan said she assumed the class would teach her how to navigate sex scenes professionally, but that she found its goal to be more for students to "get naked and do sex scenes and not complain and push the envelope."

Franco denied the lawsuit's allegations at the time, with his attorney also saying he would seek damages from the plaintiffs and their lawyers "for filing this scurrilous publicity seeking lawsuit." The women dropped their claims in Feb. 2021 after the parties reached a preliminary settlement, and Franco officially agreed to settle the suit for $2.2 million in late June.

"I didn't sleep with anybody in that particular class, but over the course of my teaching I did sleep with students, and that was wrong," Franco said in one video clip. "But ... it's not why I started the school, and I wasn't the person that selected the people to be in the class. So it wasn't a master plan on my part, but yes, there were certain instances where ... I was in a consensual thing with a student and I shouldn't have been."

Cagle pushed back, asking Franco how he could not have been aware of the power imbalance between students and their teacher, a very famous actor.

"I suppose at the time my thinking was if it's consensual, OK," Franco said. "Of course I knew, you know, talking to other people, other teachers or whatever, like, yeah, it's probably not a cool thing. At the time I was not clear-headed... so I guess it just comes down to, my criteria was, like, if this is consensual I think it's cool, we're all adults."

Franco also characterized the sex scenes class as provocatively titled, saying it was about dating and relationships and should have been called something more along the lines of "contemporary romance."

In a statement, a group of former students involved in the litigation against Franco called his comments "a transparent ducking of the real issues."

"In addition to being blind about power dynamics, Franco is completely insensitive to, and still apparently does not care about, the immense pain and suffering he put his victims through with this sham of an acting school," the former students said. "It is unbelievable that even after agreeing to a settlement he continues to downplay the survivors' experiences and ignore their pain, despite acknowledging he had no business starting such a school in the first place. This wasn't a misunderstanding over a course name, it wasn't the result of him being overworked - it was, and is, despicable conduct."

Franco discussed his sex addiction and its impact on his personal and professional relationships

At another point, Franco acknowledged he had "let a lot of people down," like his students, the Oscars and his coworkers on various movies. Franco talked about being overworked and approaching his breaking point while juggling a Broadway show, movie filming and teaching at four Los Angeles schools.

A year before the misconduct allegations emerged, he said, one of his agents staged an intervention about him being a workaholic.

He talked about struggles with addiction, first to alcohol and then to sex. He said after he got sober at the age of 17, he sought validation from his professional success and then with attention from women. The problem, he said, is that "there's never enough."

Franco acknowledged he wasn't faithful in relationships, saying he cheated on "everyone" before his current girlfriend. He said his sponsor had suggested that infidelity and dishonesty could harm his sobriety but wasn't concerned about "whatever happens between two consenting adults" while single. Franco said he used that as "an excuse to just hook up all over the place."

"It was like, 'Well, we're being honest here, right,' and like you said, completely blind to power dynamics or anything like that, but also completely blind to people's feelings," he said, adding that his behavior reached a point where he was "hurting everybody."

He also spoke about his longtime friend and collaborator, Seth Rogen, who said earlier this year that he did not plan to work with Franco again in the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations.

"I love Seth Rogen," Franco said. "I worked with him for 20 years, we didn't have one fight ... He was my absolute closest work friend, collaborator, we just gelled. And what he said is true, we aren't working together right now and we don't have any plans to work together."

Franco said that while Rogen's comments were hurtful, he understood that Rogen had to answer for him because he himself was silent. He added that that's another reason he wanted to speak up — "so people don't have to answer for me anymore."

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.

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