Nat Wolff and James Franco go back. In 2013 the young actor made waves with his intense, uncontainable turn in “Palo Alto,” based on Franco’s short story collection about bored California high-schoolers. The two swore they’d work together again, and after some failed projects, they finally have. Wolff co-stars in “In Dubious Battle,” based on John Steinbeck’s novel and directed by Franco himself. The two play Depression-era union organizers who try to save a pack of California apple pickers being cheated out of their wages by a crooked and murderous capitalist (Robert Duvall).
For Wolff, 22, it’s a chance to make something more politically engaged than YA movies like “The Fault in Our Stars” or “Paper Towns.” And he got to act with plenty of gods — not just Duvall, but Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bryan Cranston.
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There are a lot of legends in this movie. Were you nervous when they showed up on set?
Not really. It just upped my game and everyone else’s game. I felt like I learned a lot from those guys. Then I got to work with a lot of them again. I wound up doing a Sam Shepard play that Ed Harris starred in [“The Buried Child,” Off-Broadway in 2016].
You guys are now connected at the hip.
I only work with Sam Shepard and Ed Harris now. That’s in my contract for every movie.
You could say “make sure there are flowers in my trailer,” but instead you’re being snooty and demanding Ed Harris and Sam Shepard.
Instead of green M&Ms, it will be Ed and Sam.
Every time you hear a filmmaker talking about working with James Franco, they talk about how he always has his head in books between takes. How does he handle reading while directing and starring in a movie.
He’s crazy. He’ll have some 800-page historical novel open on his lap, and he’ll be directing and acting. Then he’ll have a speech to give, [and they'll have] had to change the day of shooting, so he doesn’t have it memorized. He’ll look at it for two seconds and he’ll have it down. He’s a freak of nature.
Can you do anything remotely like that?
For me, acting takes up all my concentration. So I’m blown away by his ability.
Memorizing dialogue is hard — this coming from someone who acted in high school.
What did you do?
Mostly musicals. I did “Cats” in junior high.
It’s probably the opposite of cool. What plays or shows were you in?
I was in “Annie” when I was in sixth grade. I was kind of show-stopping brilliant — literally show-stoppingly brilliant, because I would improvise and people couldn’t remember their lines after I was done. I basically would go on what my drama teacher would call “an inspired rant.” I think I just needed more attention than I was getting.
Who were you in “Annie”?
I was a bunch of insignificant characters. I didn’t get the parts I wanted. I was Bert Healy, the radio announcer. I was one of the female orphans — the asshole orphan, I think. I played the drunk president or something.
This is crazy, but I was also in “Annie” in school and also played Bert Healy.
No way! That’s so weird! I’d like to see our Bert Healys next to each other.
But wait, why did you wind up playing a female orphan?
My school had a lot of guys, and there are a lot of girls in that play. Some people had to play the other gender. I think they made me be a boy; I was named Pepper or something. That probably wasn’t my finest work.
OK, let’s talk socialism. It’s strange watching “In Dubious Battle” now, with its union uprising and standing up to corrupt powers while people outside theaters are protesting.
One of my friends saw this movie and he said there was a line he heard in a Bernie Sanders speech. We’re still fighting the exact same issues. When I was driving to interviews today, there were a bunch of people protesting about the Dakota Access Pipeline, fighting for what’s right. That’s exactly what this movie’s about. It was relevant a couple years ago when I signed up, but it’s even more relevant now.
All of a sudden we’re all activists now.
For some reason my generation has been largely quiet and asleep in a lot of ways, socially and politically. This disaster has woken everyone up a bit. That’s probably the only good thing to come out of it. It’s starting to affect us. People didn’t feel the effects until they were shoved in our faces.
Were you political before this?
I came of age during the Obama years, which was a relatively good time for young people — people that tend to lean left. But it seems this is the first time my generation that we’re really engaged. My parents have been through f—ed up times — not to this extent, not more than now.
I was in my 20s during the Bush II years, so it’s not completely alien. But it’s many times worse now.
I was 12 when Obama got elected, so I wasn’t political, I didn’t know that much. But it was a good time to become engaged.
The Obama years were a great time to be young! I’m jealous.
I was a lucky teenager.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge