James Franco is sitting in a Pasadena hotel ballroom on Presidents Day weekend, giving a small tutorial on the cinematic history of L. Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz." It's a cavernous space, but at the moment it contains only five people, including two videographers he has hired to chronicle his utterances.

Franco is here to pump his lead part in Disney's "Oz the Great and Powerful," by far his most professionally risk-laden role. At the moment, he is getting slightly defensive, in the way that James Franco gets defensive — with a mix of logic and historical precedent.

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"In England, there's a tradition of reinterpretation. No one says, 'You're doing Hamlet again? But Olivier nailed it!'" he said when I ask him about those who question the need for a new "Oz" movie. He then turns slightly wistful. "It makes me a little sad we don't have that tradition."

Franco is speaking as he often does when questioned — he declaims, and more slowly and at a louder decibel than most humans. There is often a sophisticated thought within his statements, more sophisticated than for many actors. But because it is said with a certain aura of pontification it can sound much like the pronouncements of his peers, less interesting to the listener than to its speaker.

Franco is just a few weeks removed from his Sundance sex spiel, and later that week he will take to YouTube to defend his co-director on another Sundance sex title, "Interior. Leather. Bar," from a restrictive ruling by the Australian ratings board. I note lightheartedly that few would find much common ground between "Kink" and "Wizard of Oz," though perhaps there's subtext of the former in the latter.

Franco appears to find this funny, briefly and cautiously. Though he sometimes takes on roles that mock his public image, joking is not Franco's default mode. Laughter feels less like spontaneous reaction than wary acknowledgment, a kind of notation of a moment he might find funny if he didn't have three new books to read, nine projects to get off the ground and a shift in the popular conception of the modern celebrity to effect. The business of being James Franco leaves little room for anything other than being James Franco.

There is also a hint of nervousness as he takes in a "Kink" joke during a Disney promotional tour. With his short stories and college-teaching gigs and paintings, Franco is a man who likes control, and there is probably no creative effort on the planet that offers less control than acting in a $250-million Disney movie created largely on an editing-room green screen.

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It is worth pausing here to note some of the things he has been controlling over the previous 18 to 24 months.

In addition to acting in "Oz" and "This Is the End," he has been directing and starring in an adaptation of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying"; playing Hugh Hefner in a biopic about Linda Lovelace; incarnating a gold-toothed rapper/drug dealer in Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers"; taking a stab at another baddie in the hit-man action movie "The Iceman"; directing or producing the two sex documentaries; conceiving and producing one film about Gucci and another about the designer Frida Giannini; playing a murderer opposite Jonah Hill's journalist in a movie called "True Story"; preparing for a London shoot of a thriller called "Good People"; directing a biopic of Charles Bukowski; starring in a drug-lord thriller called "Homefront"; directing and starring in a rural loner story titled "Black Dog, Red Dog"; publishing a book of short stories about his childhood hometown in Palo Alto; starting a crowd-funding campaign to make three movies based on those stories; painting a mural on a Williamsburg wall; staging a multimedia exhibition featuring snippets from "A Streetcar Named Desire"; mounting art shows based on "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Psycho"; teaching courses in filmmaking at USC, UCLA and NYU; taking classes in at least two other graduate programs; and publicizing both many of the above endeavors as well as his work for Gucci, for which his spokesmodel duties take him around the globe.

In the time it took to read that paragraph, he has likely resolved to take on another project and possibly completed it.

Franco tries an explanation for how he is able to achieve so much in so little time. "I have a really good scheduling team," he said to me once, not quite convincingly.

All of this has led to the criticism that Franco is a dilettante — Gawker, which has great sport with the Franco personage, once called him "the least self-aware human" — and has prompted tabloid reports about how he does not actually do all the things he says he does.

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Colleagues, though, say otherwise. Christina Voros, a friend from his days at NYU film school and the director of "Kink," told me that as producer on the film Franco was a persistent presence. "I know what people think: 'James, is he really producing all these movies or just lending his name?' But we couldn't have done our movie without him," she said.

It also helps that Franco has a team around him — primarily production company Rabbit Bandini, run by longtime manager Miles Levy and longtime friend Vince Jolivette. The two prefer to stay behind the scenes — though I'd had a meeting tentatively set with them at Cannes it was scrapped by their publicist, and subsequent attempts to reschedule have been unsuccessful. But according to those who know the pair, they are the same whirling dervishes as Franco, reading, note-giving and greenlighting with the fervor of a pastor at a Bible sale.

In that sense, Franco is like the wizard himself, with a team pulling levers even as the public just sees the visage. It's a twist James Franco himself might appreciate. The person, not the character. Or maybe the character.

The academic actor

Among the many questions James Franco prompts, one that keeps rearing its head is this: Could someone who leads such a charmed but busy life — hopping around the world to sets and promotional appearances — maintain all of that while enrolling in numerous graduate programs and teaching courses like a workaday academic?