Disney’s 3D-fantastical adventure “Oz The Great and Powerful,” helmed by Sam Raimi, explores the origins of the wizard first imagined in L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” The cinematic prequel reveals the backstory of Oscar Diggs (James Franco), the predestined Wizard, and boasts a stellar cast that also includes Mila Kunis as the tormented young witch Theodora, Rachel Weisz as Theodora’s older sister, Evanora, the witch who rules over the Emerald City, and Michelle Williams as Glinda, the Good Witch.
At the film’s press day, Franco and Kunis talked about their reaction to first seeing the original “Wizard of Oz,” what they think will be the hallmarks of this movie, how playing characters in fantastical worlds influenced their performances, what it was like acting and doing stunts in such a CG heavy film, what they liked best about their characters, and what they think kids will enjoy most about this film. Franco also discussed how he learned to perform magic and sleight of hand for the film, and Kunis revealed how she transformed into Theodora.
Question: What was your original reaction to watching “The Wizard of Oz”?
James Franco: I loved the 1939 film, the Judy Garland film. I watched it as a kid. I watched it before they had DVD players or even VCRs. I just watched it on TV when it came on, I think during the holidays. Somehow, I can’t quite remember, but somehow that led me to reading all the books. This is in the day before Harry Potter so these were basically my Harry Potter series and I read all of them on my own. They were some of the first books I read on my own and I loved it. I loved the world of Oz. I guess as a young man, I was just drawn to fantasy worlds. I liked being transported to alternative realms where a lot of my early imagination was sparked.
Mila Kunis: The first full length book that I read when I was nine years old in English was “Return to Oz.” And then, similar to James actually, before DVDs, CBS used to re-master “The Wizard of Oz,” and so when you’re poor, that’s what you get. So, once a year, we’d sit down with popcorn and watch the re-mastered version of “The Wizard of Oz.” Coincidentally, it was on the same night as the re-mastered “Poltergeist.” It was a really weird double feature. But I had the fondest memories of “The Wizard of Oz.” I really do, and I talked about this three or four years ago in a portrait thing for W magazine, prior to ever having any involvement in this film, that one of my favorite, favorite movies was and always will be “The Wizard of Oz.”
Q: In the original “Wizard of Oz,” we all remember the ruby slippers and the yellow brick road. What do you think will be the hallmarks of this movie that we will remember for years to come?
JF: I think Joey’s character, the China Girl, the girl that’s made out of porcelain, will be one of the big standouts.
Q: What was your experience acting in such a CG heavy film?
MK: You know what? I actually got very lucky. James had the harder job in his part. I was surrounded with tangible sets and actual living beings for most of the film. My interactions were mostly with Rachel and with James and with Michelle. In Emerald City, we were in Glinda’s Castle, and in the woods and the waterfall. So I was surrounded by actual tangible items. That being said, James had the harder aspect of it. I was just coming off of another film where I was talking to a CGI character so for me this was a weird transition.
Q: James, what was your biggest discovery in making this film?
JF: My biggest discovery, hmm. I don’t know. A lot of the things that I did on the movie were familiar to me. This was my fourth movie with Sam Raimi so I know Sam very well. I’ve known him for over 10 years. I’d done movies where I play opposite CG characters. I did “Planet of the Apes” where the great actor Andy Serkis played a chimpanzee, so that was sort of similar. I had another CG monkey, albeit with wings in this one. I guess I did have to learn some magic. I didn’t know how to do magic so I was very fortunate. They hired one of the best magicians from Las Vegas, a man named Lance Burton who does shows for thousands of people, and I got to have him as a private teacher, and he taught me everything I needed to know to look like I was a magician in a traveling circus, like how to present the illusion of levitation or make something seem like it’s disappearing and that kind of thing. So I guess that was a new discovery.
Q: Magicians can’t reveal secrets except to other magicians, so are you an honorary magician now? Do you still perform sleight of hand at parties?
JF: I think I can still do the tricks, and Lance did let me in on some of the secrets of the trade that I will not reveal. It’s hard for me to do the tricks without the best magician’s assistant in the world, Lance Burton, so I can’t really do a lot of the things at parties. I need certain things and some help. So no, I haven’t been keeping up with my magic. But, if the people at the Magic Castle want to invite me as a member, I’d be happy to join.
Q: Mila, can you talk about your transformation into the witch?
MK: In all honesty, there’s no way to recreate the original, nor was that my intent or should anyone ever have. I honestly was given the gift of a backstory and I went with it. It’s a young, naive girl who gets her heart broken, who doesn’t know how to deal with the emotional aspect of heartache and takes the easy way out. Her sister presents her with this apple and she goes through an emotional transformation that’s mirrored the physical one. To me, it was just a normal girl that falls in love and gets a broken heart and just so happens to be a witch. As far as the color aspect of things, [I had specialized] makeup. It took four hours to put on every day and an hour to take off. In the beginning of production, it took two and a half hours to put on and an hour to take off along with contact lenses. I’ll tell you, the first time ever in my career putting on the costume and putting on the face mask, so to speak, pun intended and putting on the contact lenses truly did help me lose inhibition and allowed me to just have fun and not concern myself necessarily with what I look like and what people thought because I was green with a big nose and a pointy chin.
Q: Were the stunts intimidating?
MK: Scott and I did two movies back to back at that point. He was the stunt coordinator for Ted so he allowed me to drive like a crazy maniac when he probably shouldn’t have. So, at that point, I was like, “Scott’s (Scott Rogers) crazy. I trust him.” Then, when we went on to do “Oz,” I was like, “This is fine. I’ve jumped out of planes before. This can’t be worse, and it’s not.” I think it’s really bad if you so happen to have fear of heights. I do not, so I’m okay with that part, and you’re, what, 30, 35 feet in the air? You’re strung up on multiple wires. Should anything happen, there’s an emergency brake, and there are many elements that go into play that you really aren’t even given the opportunity to be nervous.
Q: What do you think your characters would do if they were in today’s world?
MK: If we were in today’s world, at this very moment, what I would be doing? Buying a lot of moisturizer. I would be investing in some face cream.
JF: I think Oz, my character, is very much a stand-in for the things that I do or the things that filmmakers do. He’s fascinated with Thomas Edison and early forms of filmmaking and projection, so he probably would be a director, maybe even direct a film like this.
Q: When you’re playing characters in fantastical worlds, how does that change your performance?
JF: There are a lot of things that we did that we would have done if Joey [King] was playing a human character. She and Zach [Braff] would be there for every scene. We’d block things out, talk about the dialogue, and make sure that their characters were behaving and being choreographed in ways that they, as actors, thought they should be. And then, in Joey’s case, there was a great puppeteer who would manipulate [a China Doll puppet]. He was so good. He was not only good at manipulating the doll, but he would also have an earpiece so he could hear Joey’s performance, and he would make the doll behave in a way that matched Joey’s performance. He was so effective that Sam started giving his directions to the doll. He would just talk directly to the doll, like she was her own being. I don’t know how they did “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” a film I loved when I was young, but it’s miles away from that. Every step that can be taken to make me feel like I have a real character that I’m acting opposite, all those steps were taken. For me, one of the most valuable things about acting is the interaction between characters and that connection. They did everything they could to preserve that.
Q: Mila, which part of your character was more fun to play, good girl or bad girl?
MK: I’m going to disappoint you with my answer, so prepare yourself. I honestly didn’t look at it as two different characters or two different emotional aspects of a character. You’re lucky if you’re given a character that has an arc in any film, and this just so happens to be a fantastical, slightly over the top arc. That’s all it was. I think that if I went into it going, “Well, here’s my version of good and here’s my version of evil,” I don’t think anyone would buy it. I think you have to go into it, at least I had to go into it going, “You’re one person who’s very happy, gets her heart broken, and becomes very sad.” But it’s not so drastically opposite. There is an endgame of sorts given in the land of Oz, so bear with me on this, but I think both are fun. Truth be told, I felt like I was wearing a character when I was wearing the red hat and the red lips and the pants and the suit. Then the same goes for when she has her transformation. I think they’re both very striking characters and they’re both fun to play.
Q: What do you think kids will like most about this movie?
MK: Oh gosh, you know what I realized while doing press for this, that this is the first film that I’ve ever done that kids are allowed to see. Yeah, laugh guys, but I was like, “Oh my God, this is the first non R-rated film.” In all honesty, this is my very first kid-friendly film so I am so beyond excited to just have fans under the age of 16. I know it sounds crazy, but I am. I love kids and I think that they’re great. In 20 years, I would love to be proud of something that I can ultimately show my children and my grandkids. And I don’t necessarily know if “Ted” or “Black Swan” fit that category. So this is really, really special to me on so many levels. It’s also the first time I’ve ever sat at a premiere and watched a movie I was ever in. It’s the first time I actually wanted to share a movie with my friends and my family because it’s such a sweet, special world to be a part of. It’s such an honor to be a part of it. It’s great and I can’t wait.