Having James Franco’s associated with an acting school was enough to drive many women there with the hope of honing their skills, possibly furthering their careers while also being trained by the film and tv star. Their dreams quickly soured as the women stated that Franco and his business partners allegedly subjected them into sexually exploitative auditions and film shoots. They were also promised roles in movies that never came to fruition or were ever released.
Two of these hopeful actresses sued James Franco and the acting and film school he founded Thursday. They allege the famous actor intimidated his students into gratuitous and exploitative sexual situations far beyond those acceptable on Hollywood film sets. The program is now defunct.
Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal, former students at the actor’s now-closed Studio 4, said in the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court that Franco pushed his students into performing in increasingly explicit sex scenes on camera in an “orgy type setting.”
Franco “sought to create a pipeline of young women who were subjected to his personal and professional sexual exploitation in the name of education,” the suit alleges.
The women say students were led to believe roles in Franco’s films would be available to those who went along.
The situations described in the suit arose during a master class in sex scenes that Franco taught at the school, which he opened in 2014 and closed in 2017.
In 2014, Mr. Franco, a star of the HBO series “The Deuce” and films including “127 Hours” and “The Disaster Artist,” opened a film and acting school called Studio 4. He owned the school, which had branches in Los Angeles and New York, with a business partner, Vince Jolivette. Mr. Franco and Mr. Jolivette are named as defendants in the lawsuit, as is their Rabbit Bandini production company and its general manager, Jay Davis.
The lawsuit, which also names Franco’s production company Rabbit Bandini and his partners as defendants, includes allegations Tither-Kaplan made publicly last year after Franco won a Golden Globe Award for “The Disaster Artist.”
Gaal is speaking out for the first time.
Ms. Tither-Kaplan and Ms. Gaal joined the Los Angeles branch of the Studio 4 school in 2014, where they each paid monthly tuitions of about $300. They said they and other students were promised opportunities to audition for independent films that Franco directed and produced — auditions that were supposed to be exclusive to Studio 4 students, but which they said were open to other actors as well. The women said the school also offered additional masterclasses, which could cost as much as $2,000 each, including a $750 master class for sex scenes. According to the lawsuit, prospective students for the sex scenes class had to audition on videotape — so that Franco could later review the material, they were told — and sign away their rights to these recordings.
In auditions and classes, the women said they were encouraged to push beyond their comfort zones while they were denied the protections of nudity riders and other film-industry guidelines that govern how actors can be portrayed and treated in nude scenes. Their lawsuit says the class preyed upon “often young and inexperienced females” who “were routinely pressured to engage in simulated sex acts that went far beyond the standards in the industry.”
Ms. Gaal said she recorded an audition for the sex scenes master class and participated in a callback, but was ultimately not accepted into the class after she voiced her unease about how it was being run.
Ms. Tither-Kaplan said she went on to take the class, which provided a stepping stone to roles in Mr. Franco’s independent films, some of which remain unreleased. In these roles, Ms. Tither-Kaplan said, she was often asked to appear in nude scenes or sex scenes. During the making of an orgy scene for one of his films, Mr. Franco removed plastic guards that covered other actresses’ vaginas while he simulated oral sex on them, according to the lawsuit.
The Studio 4 school was closed in the fall of 2017. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages and the return or destruction of any video recordings of former Studio 4 class members, as well as class-action status so other women who may have similar experiences can join.Mr. Franco has previously faced questions about his treatment of women in his work and in his personal life. In 2014, messages that he had exchanged over Instagram with a 17-year-old girl were shared online, and Mr. Franco acknowledged that he had tried to pick up the girl.
In 2018, The Los Angeles Times published a report in which several women, including Ms. Tither-Kaplan, detailed what they said was Mr. Franco’s pattern of inappropriate and abusive sexual behavior.
That year, at the awards ceremony for the Golden Globes, Mr. Franco wore a pin expressing his support for Time’s Up, a movement started by prominent figures in the entertainment industry to combat sexual misconduct. At the time, he was roundly criticized on social media by Ms. Tither-Kaplan and other viewers who noticed this.
In other appearances at awards shows and on talk shows, Mr. Franco said that he supported the rights of women to call attention to acts of sexual misconduct while contending that his own accusers had made inaccurate claims about him.
In an interview on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” last year, Franco called the sexual misconduct stories about him inaccurate, but said, “If I’ve done something wrong, I will fix it. I have to.”
A publicist and an attorney for the 41-year-old actor did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment Thursday.
The lawsuit alleges that to take Franco’s master class, students had to audition by simulating sex acts on film, which he watched to choose candidates.
It says the class began with “encouraging female student actors to appear topless, then perform in sex scenes, then orgies and gratuitous full nudity,” without the careful guidelines and closed sets that are the industry standard for shooting sex scenes.
The suit alleges that Gaal was kept out of the master class for questioning its exploitative nature.
Tither-Kaplan took the class and was subsequently cast in Rabbit Bandini films, “which she now recognizes was a direct result of her willingness to accept Franco’s exploitative behavior without complaint.”
The lawsuit seeks damages to be determined at trial, an apology from Franco and his partners, and the handover or destruction of video of the plaintiffs.
Attorneys for the women are looking for more plaintiffs to join, and for it to become a class action.
Tither-Kaplan previously recounted her experiences with Franco and the school as one of five women who talked to the Los Angeles Times about him early in 2018.
She was also among the women who spoke out against Franco on Twitter when he won his Golden Globe in January 2018 at a time when the #MeToo movement was surging.
Tither-Kaplan later told the LA Times that the Time’s Up anti-sexual harassment lapel pin Franco wore to the ceremony felt like “a slap in my face.”
The organization behind the pin, Time’s Up Now, said in a statement Thursday that “If these allegations are true, we hope the survivors, and all impacted by this behavior, receive some measure of justice.”
Ms. Tither-Kaplan said in an interview that she has not been in contact with Franco for nearly two years, and she felt she had seen no effort from the actor to live up to these promises.“I can’t sleep at night knowing that my coming forward, originally, did not do the work that I wanted it to do yet,” she said. “There still has been no action, publicly, that shows me that these people know what they did is wrong and harmful and can’t be repeated.”
Ms. Gaal, who did not know Ms. Tither-Kaplan during her time at Studio 4, said her own experiences had left her with a wariness about the entertainment industry.
“You have faith in these people, in their credibility and you trust that won’t be taken advantage of,” she said in an interview. “It’s alarming that you definitely can get manipulated because you’re vulnerable.”
Since the allegations first emerged, Franco has made very few public appearances, but work has not seemed to slow down for him on the big or small screen.
The HBO series “The Deuce,” which he executive produces and stars in, began its third and final season on Sept. 9.
Franco also appeared last year in the Coen brothers’ acclaimed Western anthology “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which was nominated for three Oscars.
And this weekend he will have two films that he directed and stars in playing in theaters: “Zeroville,” an adaptation of Steve Erickson’s 2007 novel that was filmed in 2014 but faced delays in distribution, as well as “Pretenders,” with Brian Cox and Dennis Quaid.
“Zeroville,” which co-stars Seth Rogen, Megan Fox, and Will Ferrell, is already a box office bomb and critical dud. This past weekend it played on 80 screens and made an average of $111 per screen. And “Pretenders,” which opens in limited release Friday, is not faring much better with critics.