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James Franco and Chris O'Dowd played George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men on.

There's acting for the stage and there's acting for film, but how is a performer to prepare when cast in a play that's being filmed for release in movie theatres?

With the rise of theatre-cinema screenings, I've often wondered.

So when one of those 15-minutes-on-the-horn opportunities came up with James Franco, whose Broadway production of Of Mice and Men is being shown in a movie theatre near you this month, he seemed like a good guy to ask.

The first thing Franco – actor, Instagram artist and occasional contributor of essays about Roland Barthes to Vice – notes when his familiar drawl comes over the line from California is that there's no single mode of acting for any medium.

The 36-year-old's own technique has varied from film to film, from joshing around in a stoner-action comedy like Pineapple Express to giving his Oscar-nominated performance in the survival drama 127 Hours.

"If I'm acting with Seth Rogen, it's very big and my face just basically turns to rubber with all the expressions; and then there's something coming out – Every Thing Will Be Fine – where we wanted a more minimal, downplayed performance," he says. (The Interview, Franco's next action-comedy with Rogen, comes out this winter; Wim Wenders's Every Thing Will Be Fine – which also features Canadians Rachel McAdams and Marie-Josée Croze – is in post-production.)

Making his Broadway debut in Of Mice and Men as the migrant field-worker George, Franco had to learn some new techniques, however: Physically, he had to project lines to reach the back of the Longacre Theatre on 48th Street; mentally, he had to speed up his reactions to other characters' lines.

Theatre's often thought of as a slower art form than film – but stage actors actually have to be quicker with their thinking, if not delivery. "It's not as if you're talking faster but you try and take out those gaps of processing because you don't have a film editor to take it out in an edit," notes Franco. "You learn to put everything into the line – all the emotion, all the reaction – so the piece retains its pace."

Theatre actors are live film editors, then. Well, Of Mice and Men has always troubled distinctions between art forms: John Steinbeck's 1937 story about George and Lennie, two ranch workers trying to get by during the Great Depression, is a slippery work – premiering on Broadway the same year it was published as a novella. The American author called it a "play-novel" – and, of course, his classic has gone on to be adapted for film and television many times by others.

Director Anna D. Shapiro's revival of Of Mice and Men co-starred two other actors best known from screen performances – Bridesmaids's Chris O'Dowd (as the slow-witted Lennie) and Gossip Girl's Leighton Meester, who like Franco were acting on Broadway for the first time.

It was Franco who wanted to have the production filmed on stage, however, right from the start – he thought Steinbeck's story benefits from having the characters embodied by actors, but also from the concentration and the claustrophobia of a few, simple settings that the stage requires. "To open it up [in a film adaptation], I think takes away from some of the energy of being confined in these spaces and feeling like these men and this one women are being pressed in upon by their situations and the world that they're in," he says.

Filming the show proved more complicated than Franco envisaged, however – "I didn't realize it's not just as easy as getting my old friends from film school coming to film it on one night."

Instead, NT Live – which pioneered broadcasting productions live from the National Theatre in London – came on board to capture and distribute the show in the cinemas, the first Broadway production it has worked on in this capacity. (The film is not live, in this case – Of Mice and Men closed in July in New York after 118 performances.)

Okay, 15 minutes allows for another question. In an article earlier this year, I suggested Of Mice and Men was a safe and bland choice for Franco. "[He] makes such daring artistic decisions – whether acting in out-there films such as Spring Breakers or his forays into performance art – that it's a real head-scratcher why he's making his first Broadway debut in this old warhorse," I wrote.

I put this to Franco, albeit a little more diplomatically. "I'm looking for a follow-up Broadway production with producer David Binder and the things we're talking about are on the more experimental side," he says, "but I have a deep love for theatre of all kinds."

What attracted Franco to Of Mice and Men was twofold: Working with Shapiro, now the incoming artistic director of Steppenwolf in Chicago, whose other Broadway credits include August: Osage County, This Is Our Youth (starring Michael Cera) and Larry David's upcoming play, Fish in the Dark; and working on a script by Steinbeck, who grew up near where Franco did in California.

"Steinbeck has been a huge part of my upbringing, so when I got a chance to engage with him in such a strong sample of his work with someone who I think is the best theatre director around, I was very interested," he says.