Oscar® "Mominee" Betsy Franco
On Oscar night, Betsy will join nine other "Mominees" (eight mothers of nominees, as well as James's grandma) in live Tweeting of the awards show ceremony. Oprah.com caught up with Mrs. Franco—otherwise known as @FrancosMom on Twitter—a successful author and actress in her own right, to get her take on raising three artistic sons and find out how she's prepping for Hollywood's biggest night.
Betsy Franco: I'm trying to stay calm. Camilla Olson is making me a custom-made dress. She's a designer in Northern California. It's gorgeous, so that's helping to calm me down. I have to go to her house every day for fittings because she's outfitting me for every event I’m going to this weekend. It's so wonderful, and it’s nice to share it with someone. I went down to L.A. for a trial run, and I had an interview and that helped also. I saw what folks were up to. I'm in a really good mood about it.
KF: How is James faring?
BF: He's in New Haven going to school.
BF: Yes, he's getting a PhD from Yale.
KF: He's not taking a week off before the Oscars?
BF: No [laughter].
KF: Has he practiced any of his jokes on you? Told you about his opening bit with co-host Anne Hathaway?
BF: Actually, he told us he couldn’t tell us a darn thing. It's top secret. We’re used to that though because he's not allowed to tell us things about movies he's in.
BF: Yeah, it is. I went to the Golden Globes® with [James] when he won for [the TV movie] James Dean. I'll never forget that experience. Obviously, I was thrilled that he won, but also just personally, it made me feel like you should never limit what you think you can do. Just go for it. He was pretty much the underdog. I remember sort of expanding to the size of the room, and I don't think I contracted even the least bit for at least six months. Not because of ego or something, but more just it showed me that you really never know.
KF: That was a big turning point in James's career. What do you usually do on Oscar® night? Do you watch as a family?
BF: I have been watching the Oscars since I was a girl. I am totally into movies and always have been. The only time I didn't watch was when my middle son Tom was born on Oscar night.
KF: The only non-actor of the boys.
BF: Yes, that's true. It would have been more appropriate if it was James's birthday.
KF: Do you have an Oscar-watching tradition?
BF: I usually watch with my husband. We don't have a huge party or anything. On and off the kids would watch with us. I remember them coming in and out of the room and asking, "Who won?" but my boys would not sit still. Period. The whole time they were living here. It was a miracle that I was able to be a writer at the same time. I was very, very disciplined.
BF: James was definitely the leader of the mischief. Definitely. They are still telling me things that they did.
KF: For example?
BF: We have a creek near our house, and I'd always say, "Don't go in that creek" because I heard there were chemicals in there. I didn"t know if it was safe. So of course the first time I turn my back, they're walking down that creek. They found a tunnel that went through the creek to another part of town. I'll tell you, I just found that out this year. I had to keep my eyes wide open.
KF: What happened next? Any punishment?
BF: I tied them up and threw them in their rooms! No, just kidding. That's what I felt like doing. This is really weird to say, but sometimes I'd be glad they got in trouble so I could put them in time-out and take a nap. I've told this to other mothers, and they say they have the same experience. The only trouble was they weren’t good at staying in their own rooms. They'd end up in each other's rooms. It didn't work well.
My kids, even the day they were born, had a look. James was the first, and I remember he had a very knowing look in his eye. I thought he seemed to know something I didn’t know. He seemed very patient with me, like he was helping me be a parent even though he was so active. The boys were extremely curious and got into everything. They were risk takers.
BF: This is really interesting. Time has passed, and people are putting their kids in more and more activities, at least in Palo Alto, [California]. I didn't do that. Maybe that's why there was such mischief going on. They had time on their hands to play games. James made up all sort of games when Tom was a little baby. He would make up games where they were riding in the car to a cookie store. He would pile all the toys into Tom's little seat that went back and forth then lay down underneath and let Tom see his face every time he went by. As they grew up, they played sports because I felt like they better be running around, but they didn't do that many activities, so they were at home playing games a lot.
James didn't get into theater until he was a senior in high school. When they got to high school, all the boys seemed to self-select the activities they wanted to do. James seemed like he wanted to be an artist. Tom knew since he was a little boy that he wanted to be an artist or a sculptor. Dave took until he was in college. He was writing a lot of poetry in high school and even getting it published. They self-selected in high school so I didn't have to push anything on them. I just kept a lot of materials around the house. One little girl used to come over to the house. I still see her, and she said, "Wow, you had so many art materials around and so many building materials." She still remembers that.
BF: Yes, a lot of books. They always made me read books to them over and over again. One of James’s favorites was The Rainbow Goblins. I got lots of ideas for my books from what they would say and do.
I also let them have a junk box. If they picked up something off the sidewalk, they could put them there. Honestly I still pick things up from the sidewalk. There are interesting things! They each had a junk box, and they could put anything in there that seems like it could be tossable, but meant something to them. That was very, very cool. They felt good about that. Tom now makes sculptures out of found objects.
BF: He went through a period when he was a teenager that I didn't sleep very much. There was a real tough patch there. He's talked about it in the media or else I wouldn’t even say it. He always had a lot of energy, but he just didn't always put it in the right direction. Then after things got bad enough, he turned 180 degrees and became an over-achiever even mid-way in high school. He changed and started taking more classes than he needed to and got above an A average. He turned it all around.
KF: What was the catalyst for change do you think?
BF: I think he suddenly woke up and saw where he was heading. If things get bad enough, you realize you have a choice.
KF: He didn't start acting until he was senior in high school. Do you remember the first time you saw him on stage?
BF: Yes, he came and said, "I'm in a play". We said, "Oh! What part do you have?" and he said "the lead." I went "Geez, you've never even been in a play before!" ... He was in The Idiot next, and I thought "Wow, this is really interesting." We thought he was going to be an artist because he was spending a lot of time in drawing classes in the local community center.
KF: When you saw him on stage for the first time, did you ever imagine that you would someday sit in the Kodak Theatre and see him on the Oscar® stage?
BF: No I didn't, but he was good. He was really good. Even then he hadn’t had acting lessons or anything, but he was very dynamic.
BF: He doesn't think of it as separate. He just does it all. I don't see any separations. I see them as informing each other. I don't think James sees "this role, that role, this role, that role."
KF: Is it true that he's directing a documentary about the production of the play Metamorphosis, Junior Year, which is based on your young adult novel?
BF: This is one of the most wonderful things that has happened in a long time. It started with my novel Metamorphosis, Junior Year, which my son Tom illustrated. ... Then, James and Dave read the audio book. Then, the local theater that's been around for decades, the wonderful Palo Alto Children's Theatre, saw me at a book signing event and asked me if I would be willing to have this novel staged. At first I didn't think I would be writing the play, but then I thought who else? I knew the book better than anyone. So I started writing the play. The head of the theatre and I decided we would do it a much different way. Normally, you cast, rehearse, and perform. We wanted to include the teenagers in the process. They have a Teen Arts Council that's very powerful and active. The Teens Art Council agreed to produce our play, and they helped us with workshops.
I told James that we were going to involve the teens for three months. He sat forward on the couch and really questioned me about it. A day later he asked me, "How would you feel about me doing a documentary about the making of the play?" We involved teen filmmakers to help with the documentary. This is really what I'm about—encouraging creativity in teenagers and young people. This allowed actors, teens interested in tech, filmmakers and so on to try out and practice these skills with the help of filmmakers. It's insane. This thing has become so much bigger than me, and I love that.
BF: James reads to us. The last book he read was Karen Russell's "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves." We were laughing so hard. He read us Harry Potter. On the holidays, that's the tradition. He reads us something out loud.
Another of the traditions is teasing me to death. It doesn't take anything before they're teasing me. I liked to be teased, and thank goodness because I am imitated constantly. James leaves messages on my phone where he's pretending to be me and he has it down spot-on. So, that's really fun. My mom comes for the holidays, and she writes poetry for each present. I usually make a turkey, and there is chaos in the kitchen and I'm screaming for help.
Other family traditions—messy rooms. Tom and Dave have their same rooms. My husband made James's room into an office, but we still have his things up on a wall. We just cleared it out a little bit more.
BF: My sons have gone so far beyond what I ever imagined you could do creatively. I started out as a children's book writer. When they were little and growing up, I didn't have as much time. Dave went to college and things loosened up a little. I realized I used half of my being to raise them. I actually had that space available now. So my picture books started taking off. I saw myself very narrowly as a picture book writer. An editor then challenged me to write a novel and I did. I like to be challenged. A friend in my drama class at Stanford challenged me to write sketch comedies that we would act in and write for a troop called "Suburban Squirrel." Then James's manager suggested I try screenwriting when he saw the sketch comedies, so I wrote a screenplay of my next novel "Naked." Then I was on General Hospital as James's mother. He let me be his mother again in his indie "The Broken Tower," and Dave [plays] the young one and James is the old one.
I'm having a good time. I'm not narrow anymore. I don't even know where I'll be in six months. I'm just open. Of course, there are times that are scary and overwhelming, but I can see that stretching yourself and continuing to learn is the way to be. My kids have shown me that.
KF: Finally, have you met any other #Oscar #Mominees? Are you bonding over this shared experience?
BF: While I was being interviewed, there were other #Mominees there. I just loved it! There was Mark Ruffalo's mom, and she was delightful. She was extremely outgoing and friendly. I mostly had time to talk to Jeremy Renner's mom. She was getting her hair and makeup done when I was standing by for my interview. We found out we lived close by. We were comparing their teenagehoods. Apparently Jeremy was great, so I was jealous! They were talking about their grandchildren. I told them I'll probably be 80 before I have grandchildren! Since I feel pretty young, that will be all right.
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