James Franco, shown here at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2018, has been served with a lawsuit alleging sexual exploitation and fraud.
Updated at 12:19 a.m. ET Friday
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Actor James Franco has been named in a lawsuit that alleges he and two other men ran an acting school that sexually exploited female students. The complaint was filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court. The plaintiffs are two former students of the now-closed school, which was called Studio 4.
Franco was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for his performance in 127 Hours; he won a Golden Globe for The Disaster Artist. He also taught acting at the collegiate level, in addition to teaching at Studio 4.
In response to a request from NPR, James Franco’s attorney, Michael Plonsker, issued this statement denying the allegations:
When he opened Studio 4 in 2014, Sarah Tither-Kaplan was one of its first students. Franco taught a class called Sex Scenes. According to the complaint, students had to audition for the class — and pay an extra $750 for it — but Tither-Kaplan says she was thrilled to be selected.
“I really respected him as an actor, and the fact that I was selected based off of an audition meant to me that I was valued for my talent,” Tither-Kaplan says.
She assumed the Sex Scenes class would teach her how to “maneuver in sex scenes professionally as an actor,” but it “did not do that at all.”
“In fact, I didn’t know anything about nudity riders, the detail required in them, the right to counsel with the director about nude scenes, the custom to choreograph nude scenes ahead of time to negotiate them with the cast and the director — I knew none of that throughout that class,” Tither-Kaplan says.
In 2016, Franco made a docuseries based on his Sex Scenes class that he posted on his Facebook page. The videos have since been taken down, but one is still available on Vimeo. It’s described as the first class in which students talk about the scenarios they came up with when they auditioned.
As the class progressed, Tither-Kaplan says, students were encouraged to take risks with their bodies. She says she wanted to be a team player, so she went along.
“I wanted to do my best, and I wanted to make friends there, and I wanted to have it really mean something for me,” she says. “So I did what seemed to be the thing that they wanted in this class, and that was get naked and do sex scenes and not complain and, you know, push the envelope. And … I felt encouraged when I just went for it.”
And she says she was rewarded for it.
“After I did the Sex Scenes master class, and did the nude scene, and the sex scene in my short film, I started working with them very regularly,” Tither-Kaplan says. “And not a lot of other students got that chance.”
Former student Toni Gaal is the other plaintiff named in the complaint.
“Most of the work that was offered for us had nudity requirements — for women specifically,” Gaal says.
The two named plaintiffs seek to represent a class of more than 100 former female students at Studio 4. Their complaint alleges that Studio 4 set out to “create a steady stream of young women to objectify and exploit.” The complaint also contends that the school was “designed to circumvent California’s ‘pay for play’ regulations,” which prohibit making actors pay for auditions.
Gaal says that this wasn’t the only problem with auditions: “We were consistently auditioning for projects that had nudity, and we had to upload our self-tapes at home, so they were consistently getting footage of this sensitive nature of work.”
The allegations against Franco first surfaced on Twitter, and then in the Los Angeles Times, in January 2018.
At the Golden Globe Awards that month, Franco was seen wearing a Time’s Up pin. At least three women, including Tither-Kaplan, took to Twitter to complain that his support of the cause was disingenuous.
Appearing on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert a day later, Franco denied the accusations.
The following day, the Los Angeles Times published a story in which Tither-Kaplan and four other former students of Franco made allegations against him — allegations that are similar to those in the complaint. But the Times also reported that more than a dozen of Franco’s former students at Studio 4 said they had “a positive experience” there.
In addition to Franco, two other defendants and their production company, Rabbit Bandini, are named in the complaint.
In a statement released at the time of the 2018 accusations, Vince Jolivette — the co-owner of Rabbit Bandini, which ran Studio 4 — said that “the school was always run professionally,” that “instructors were excellent, [and] student feedback was positive.”
The complaint alleges that the acting school purposefully sought out “young, naïve women between the ages of 17-24” because they would not understand how the film industry functions. Plaintiff Tither-Kaplan says she hopes her lawsuit will shine a light on what she describes as an abuse of power.
“They knew who they were asking to do the improvised sex and nude scenes,” Tither-Kaplan says. “They knew what level we were at in our careers. And I think that’s by design, because it sort of protects them from any real repercussions because they can just write us off as nobodies.”
The women are seeking unspecified damages. They also want an apology and the destruction of any videos Franco and his partners still have from their time in the class.
NPR’s Nina Gregory contributed to this report and edited the audio version of this story.