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The Transgressor: Val Lauren sizzles as doomed actor Sal Mineo in James Franco's Sal

By Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Photography by Juco

"God, I wish I was an actor in the 1950s,” Val Lauren laments,  shaking his fist in mock anguish. “But I wish I was in the movies of the 1970s. There’s nothing like that today.” Clad in black, toting a copy of David Mamet’s November, a pack of American Spirit cigarettes, and a pair of chunky Wayfayers, Lauren, 38, draws inspiration from a vulnerable tribe of ’50s men—James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift—all pupils of Lee Strasberg’s school of streetwise realism.

“I think all actors bring a certain flavor; their personalities seep through into their characters, their life experience colors their performance,” Lauren explains, seated under the undulating canvas umbrellas of the Chateau Marmont’s patio in Hollywood. “So many actors today, they just don’t have the right flavor.”

Lauren plays Sal Mineo, the dusky, baby-faced teen idol–turned–B-movie washout on the cusp of a comeback in James Franco’s Sal. The 90-minute flick, another funky art-house project in Franco’s expanding canon, follows Mineo’s last day before he was murdered in a botched robbery outside his apartment in 1976 (for years, rumors circulated that Mineo, one of Hollywood’s first openly gay men, had been killed while cruising in West Hollywood). Lauren’s performance in Sal is magnetic; he imbues the mundane acts of phone calls, play rehearsals, and even a bathhouse shvitz with a compressed anxiety, a palpable longing to be taken seriously. “I remember exactly what James [Franco] said to convince me to do the movie,” Lauren recalls. “ ‘We’re going to make an unconventional movie about an unconventional man.’ And I was in.”

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The two have been frequent collaborators of late (fitting, in some ways, seeing as Franco’s first major role was a James Dean TV biopic). Recently, they were on a boat back from the Venice Film Festival when Franco announced to Lauren that he wanted to film a version of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire with Lauren playing Stanley Kowalski, the practically untouchable role made iconic by Brando. “It ruined the trip for me,” says Lauren, adding gravely, “Some works of art should never be touched.” Lauren eventually agreed, because, as he says, “Fuck it, why not?” and Franco bought a house in New England to film the play. Lauren spent the next several weeks preparing by cleansing himself of Brando, before being locked in the house with his castmates as they tried to do justice to an American masterpiece in three days, while Franco filmed Oz the Great and Powerful. “Who knows how it turned out?” Lauren says. “It doesn’t matter; it was one of the most important experiences of my life.”

Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, in a bedroom community known for its shopping plazas and good public schools, Lauren is the son of Mediterranean immigrants who guffawed the first time they saw him on stage during a seventh-grade production of The Diary of Anne Frank, in which Lauren played Frank’s father, baby powder–caked hair and all. He’s a theater kid to the core, having opted out of art school or university to study at the cramped, low-rent–but-prestigious Playhouse West, where acting demigod Sanford Meisner made his home in the 1980s. There he met Franco and Scott Caan, and the trio have collaborated on plays and scripts since the late 1990s.

In an ambitious and fascinating experiment in metatextuality, Franco enlisted Lauren to star in Interior. Leather Bar., an imagined recreation of destroyed footage from William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising, the story of a homicide cop, played by Al Pacino, who goes deep undercover in the gay leather bar scene of New York City. The footage—vetoed by censors—depicted doms and daddies doing it all—unsimulated. Franco’s movie explores the process of trying to film those raunchy scenes, what boundaries straight and gay actors set for themselves, where the line is drawn between pornography and art, and the taboo of watching gay sex.

Lauren plays himself and Pacino’s character. His most memorable moment? “I watched a guy get his ass paddled until it turned black, and he begged for more,” he says. “The two guys were in a relationship; I had never seen an act of violence be so loving and intimate.” Lauren hedges about how much of the docu-fiction is real and how much is simulated, but, he assures, he crossed some of his own thresholds. “Once you cross that boundary, when you’ve transgressed against yourself, you question what caused you to put it there and if it should even be there in the first place,” he muses, taking a puff off his cigarette. “I think that’s an important experience for any actor or any human being.”
Sal will be available on VOD & iTunes on Oct. 22, and it will open in select theaters beginning Nov. 1 ; Watch the trailer for Sal below:

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