Interview by James Franco
Images by Jan-Willem Dikkers
Styling by Lisa Mosko
Makeup by Samuel Paul Morales
Hair by Randy Stodghill
“Every character I play is a piece of me in some way,
and I’m made up of people that I know—my friends,
my family, my dog. I take from all of them, and that makes
Kiersey. And I do that for all the roles I play.”
— Kiersey Clemons
Actor and singer Kiersey Clemons plays Diggy in the the critically-acclaimed film Dope (2015) and Bianca in the Emmy-award winning series Transparent. Born in Florida, at age 12 Clemons moved to Los Angeles where she got her start as an actress for Disney. As a singer, she was featured on Transparent and collaborated with Pharrell Williams on the soundtrack for Dope. Clemons will star in the upcoming Neighbors 2 and Little Bitches.
Born in Palo Alto, CA, James Franco is an award-winning actor, writer and filmmaker known for his roles in Judd Apatow’s cult classic Freaks and Geeks (1999), Pineapple Express (2008), the Oscar-winning Milk (2008) and Spring Breakers (2012). Franco was nominated an Academy Award for Best Actor for 127 Hours (2010). He currently stars in the Hulu mini-series 11.22.63 and is working on his next directorial project.
Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Talk To Me), Dope premiered at Sundance 2015, garnering the Dramatic Editing Award and a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. The film stars Shameik Moore as a high-school senior who becomes entangled with a dangerous drug dealer and also features A$AP Rocky, Zoe Kravitz, Tony Revolori (Grand Budapest Hotel) and Kiersey Clemons.
A comedy series created by Jill Soloway for Amazon, Transparent (2014-15) centers on a contemporary Los Angeles family with three adult children whose father comes out as transgender in his 60s. Starring Jeffrey Tambor, Judith Light, Amy Landecker, Gaby Hoffmann and Jay Duplass, Transparent has won two Golden Globes, including Best Television Series, as well as five Emmys.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016) is the sequel to actor and filmmaker Seth Rogen’s 2014 comedy Neighbors. Directed by Nicholas Stoller, the film stars Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Chloë Grace Moretz, Selena Gomez and Dave Franco.
JULES AND JIM
A critically-acclaimed 1962 French film by Françcois Truffaut, Jules and Jim stars Jeanne Moreau as the center of a tragic, decades-long love triangle involving two best friends: bohemian Jim (Henri Serre) and shy Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner). Based on the book by Henri-Pierre Roché, Jules and Jim is set around World War I.
A comedy directed by Nick Kreiss, Little Bitches (2016) follows a group of high school friends who vow to open their college acceptance letters at a year-end party. The film stars Kiersey Clemons, Virginia Gardner and Jennette McCurdy.
Last year, I was stuck at Sundance for a week and saw about 35 films. One late night, I was in the back of the hotel theater for Dope. Of the high school trio at the center of the film, I was particularly taken by the portrayal of the butch girl who hung with the guys and spit out the same level of game as they did. It was my first time seeing Kiersey Clemons. She was cute, tough, quirky and funny. Later, I saw her in both seasons of Transparent as a member of the band managed by the brother character (Jay Duplass). She was completely different—still cute, but now elusive and charming. Finally, she was cast in Neighbors 2, and the Seth Rogen gang showed me her work in an outright comedy. She could do it all.
I couldn’t think of anyone I wanted to work with more than Kiersey for my upcoming film about young 1980s filmmakers caught in a Jules and Jim-type love triangle. She is an up-and-coming actress with wit, style and beauty who needs to be watched.
James Franco: Have you shot Little Bitches yet?
Kiersey Clemons: Yes, I finished it right before Christmas. I’m very, very excited. It follows me and my friends throughout our last year at school. We have this plan to open our college acceptance letters together. But the whole premise is more subtle—if you don’t know the world of teenage girls well, you come to learn that everything is life or death. Everything is very, very serious no matter how miniscule or big, whether it’s getting accepted into college or not having a tampon. I’m really excited about it because I’m still that way. I’m not even in high school anymore! When does that feeling go away? I’m not sure. [laughs]
JF: That’s one of the reasons I wrote a book about high school students. I love that everything feels really big or really boring. Your life sucks or everything is lightning.
KC: It’s really weird. Teachers and parents make tests, SATs and school such a big deal and then try to downplay things that really matter like your emotions, mood swings or stress levels—your day-to-day mental stability. In Little Bitches, you get perspectives of everyone in the household, but for the most part it’s not focused on the exams or stress of school because that’s really only five percent of it. When you go home in high school, you’re not thinking about that. You’re thinking about boys or girls—stuff that makes you cry. So it’s very realistic.
JF: So tell me a little bit about your high school experience. I assume it was a little unconventional because you were already working, right?
KC: I started working when I was 16 or 17. I went to high school for my freshman and sophomore years and half of my junior year, then I left and started homeschooling when everyone was looking at colleges. I don’t feel like I missed out on much. My sister is 17, and she just got her GED. I said, “You know what? Go for it.” Because you don’t miss out on anything! All my friends who were homeschooled had better experiences. They were traveling and learning from real life. A lot of people talked shit when I left, but I wasn’t there, so it didn’t really affect me.
“I had pretty normal teenage years.
For a long time, I worked at Abercrombie Kids
at the mall in Redondo Beach.
I worked there even after I was acting.”
— Kiersey Clemons
JF: So you went to public high school?
KC: Yes, I had pretty normal teenage years. For a long time, I worked at Abercrombie Kids at the mall in Redondo Beach. I worked there even after I was acting, and it was stupid because I was working at a kids’ store the same time that I was on Disney Channel. Children would ask me for pictures while I was folding clothes.
JF: Why did you still work there when you were on the Disney Channel?
KC: Because I still have the anxiety that you never know until you get in the rhythm and have a career. I was being told by everybody, especially my mom, “You just don’t know when your next job is going to be. You don’t know!” So I was playing it safe. It was my little thing that made me feel like I was doing something everyday when I didn’t have auditions and wasn’t on set. I wasn’t in school, so I would just go to the mall and work and hang out with my friends.
JF: So from that point, what happened first?
KC: Transparent happened first. I booked Season 1 of Transparent, saved all my mall money and moved out for the first time. Then I rolled into filming Dope.
JF: Tell me a bit about Transparent. I love the show. How did that come about?
KC: I watched the pilot and I loved it. I didn’t even care if I got it or not at that point, I just wanted to watch the show. And that’s the stuff that you want to do. So I went and met with the casting director first. I had to sing and the person who went in before me was so hot and her voice was so good. I was like, “Oh, no. I look a mess. This isn’t going to work out.” I sang and had a call back with [director] Jill Soloway. She was like, “You get it. You get where this person is… How do you get it?” And I was like, “Because she’s my sister!” [laughs]
JF: So from the first moment, Jill was stoked on what you were doing?
KC: There’s a certain rhythm in the show and perhaps not every teenage girl can understand where Bianca is coming from. If my sister wasn’t so much like her, I probably wouldn’t understand. She’s very special, flirtatious and offbeat. I just read it in the way that I make fun of my sister.
JF: Sometimes I’ll do a role and think, “This is more like my brother than me.”
KC: You take a little tid-bit. They’re part of your life, so why not?
JF: What is it like to film that? It seems like a very loose, naturalistic shooting style.
KC: There’s never really any pressure to hit your mark, even if you’re going to drop a beat or not pick up on something. Jill’s very spiritual, and there was a lot of bonding before we actually started filming. And it wasn’t just among the cast, it was with our producers, all the directors of every episode and our AD. We all came together and did Joan Scheckel’s acting lab, which is amazing. It’s an energy exchange workshop. She normally works with the casts of films, but she worked with Jill and our cast and crew to really physically, mentally and emotionally get really comfortable with each other. A lot of times on set, when you have to go there, a lot of the pressure is on you. And if you’re on the other side, you don’t really know how to help the person. You don’t want to overstep your boundaries. So we all got to know each other in that special way where you get to be comfortable with everyone in front of and behind the camera.
We also had our own little exercises to get everybody going, and on the last take of every scene, Jeffrey [Tambor] would say, “Let’s fuck this one up.” We would be free to get out all the improv that you normally second guess or things you don’t want to say because you don’t want to ruin a scene. It’s much easier, at least it was for me, when you know that everyone’s going to go for it. We make it ugly and get all of that out of our system. Those takes would normally end up being the most natural and what Jill got the most use out of.
“I don’t care what number I am on
the call sheet. I don’t care if I’m the lead.
I don’t care who’s opposite.
I want it to be beneficial and fulfilling.”
— Kiersey Clemons
JF: That’s cool. So there is a fair amount of improv?
KC: There’s definitely a lot of improv, and there are a lot of conversations with Jill like, “If you don’t feel like that’s natural, don’t say that.” She’s never going to force you to say something you don’t want to. And a lot of the time, Jeffrey guides us where we need to go. He’s very uninhibited and great at making you forget you’re on camera. Sometimes you’re like, “Are you talking to me right now? Are we breaking? Are we at this part of the scene?” He really guides you in a very special way.
JF: Like you said, they cast you partly for your singing, and you’re in the band on the show. Is that something that you’ve been doing for a long time?
KC: I’ve always been singing and writing. I used to lock myself away in my room and record melodies and stuff. It’s therapeutic. So the fact that it came about in my acting world helps a lot and makes it more comfortable. I feel like it’s one of my strong suits.
JF: Tell me a little bit about Dope. You’re amazing in it. My guess is that was a different kind of shooting style than Transparent. It seems to me like a very scripted kind of project.
KC: We stuck pretty close to the script because there were certain political points being made. As an actor, you can feel a little restrained, but once we saw it I understood. There were some things that may have not come across the right way if I or another actor would have worded it differently than [writer-director] Rick Famuyiwa wrote it. Nothing that we’re saying in that movie makes you feel like your opinion is invalid. Rick has a really great way, on a personal level, of not making you feel like he’s forcing anything he feels upon you. I don’t know if I have that strength! Sometimes I say things, and I’m like, that was way too aggressive. I should share that opinion without making people feel like I’m attacking them.
JF: How did you create that character specifically?
KC: With Diggy, I just took some parts from people that I know. Every character I play is a piece of me in some way, and I’m made up of people that I know—my friends, my family, my dog. I take from all of them and that makes Kiersey. And I do that for all the roles that I play. I did that with Diggy, for sure. She was a mixture of my best friend and my roommate at the time. When I went in to read for her, I had my roommate read me my lines and just watched him. It wasn’t so much that I was copying him, but I wanted to see his body language, how he used his hands and how he spoke because Diggy doesn’t want to be a boy, she’s just influenced by the males she’s around all the time. So I took the guy who was closest to me, the guy I was living with, picked up on his little traits and integrated that into Diggy. Then my best friend, Emerald, she lives in that area [Inglewood] and grew up there. We have definitely had to hide in the house because drive-bys are happening. So I put a little of her in there because I didn’t want Diggy to come off like she’s trying to be a boy. She very much owns the fact that she’s a woman. So I sort of integrated the two and birthed out a little Diggy baby.
JF: Let’s talk about Neighbors 2. What was that experience like? I know there was a lot of improv in that movie, in a different way than Transparent.
KC: It was a lot of [director Nicholas] Stoller running over and yelling out lines. We were like, “You really want us to say that?” I was able to say really nasty things that girls say behind closed doors. It was a lot of girls just being vulgar, which is always fun. You don’t really see that very often. It’s apparently too aggressive. Why can’t we talk about masturbation? If guys can make jokes about it, we should be able to too.
“Girls my age don’t just fall in love.
That is actually the
last thing we’re trying to do.”
— Kiersey Clemons
JF: That seems like one of the cool things about the movie—it’s giving the girls a chance.
KC: Someone on Instagram tried to say, “How does it feel to be the ‘token’ black girl in Neighbors 2?” Whether that was true or not, if you look at the bigger picture, when is the last time you saw the opportunity for a bunch of college-aged girls to make a comedy and be funny and not have to degrade ourselves in the process? After Dope, with all the scripts I was reading, that was the main thing. I don’t care what number I am on the call sheet. I don’t care if I’m the lead. I don’t care who’s opposite. I want it to be beneficial and fulfilling. So it was really nice to get something that wasn’t a stereotype. I don’t know the last time I saw a black girl being funny and not making fun of herself. So it was cool to just play a normal college girl.
JF: I bet if we looked at most college movies, the roles that most young women get to play are not the fun ones.
KC: They’re such shit. Here’s the other thing—I don’t want to automatically jump into making a fucking romance movie of, “Oh, we’re going to separate colleges…” I don’t want to play “in love,” either. Girls my age don’t just fall in love. That is actually the last thing we’re trying to do. I know everyone thinks that’s the first thing on our fucking checklist, but it’s not. The last thing we want to do is get involved with someone and deal with their bullshit. We want to party and have fun and talk shit with our friends. At the end of the day, it is what it is.
JF: Alright, hopefully you and I will be working together this year.
KC: Yes, let’s hope for it. Let’s make this shit pop.
Paul Lespagnard Trousers courtesy of Please Do Not Enter, LA.