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James Franco Sued By Former Students For Alleged Sexual Exploitation And Fraud

James Franco, shown here at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2018, has been served with a class-action lawsuit alleging sexual exploitation and fraud.

James Franco, shown here at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2018, has been served with a class-action lawsuit alleging sexual exploitation and fraud.

Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images for Turner

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 today 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 Studio 4.

Franco has not yet responded to NPR’s request for comment.

When he opened Studio 4 in 2014, Sarah Tither-Kaplan was one of its first students. She says Franco taught a class called Sex Scenes. She says you had to audition for the class — and pay an extra $750 for it — but 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, James Franco made a docu-series based on his Sex Scenes class that he posted on his Facebook page. The videos have since been taken down, but there is one 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 masterclass, 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 class-action complaint alleges that Studio 4 set out to “create a steady stream of young women to objectify and exploit.” The complaint also contends the school was “designed to circumvent California’s ‘Pay for Play’ regulations,” which prohibits making actors pay for auditions.

Gaal says that 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 James 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.

In my life, I pride myself on taking responsibility for things that I’ve done. I have to do that to maintain my well-being. I do it whenever I know that there’s something wrong or needs to be changed. I make it a point to do it. The things that I heard that were on twitter are not accurate. But I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice because they didn’t have a voice for so long, so I don’t want to shut them down in any way. I think it’s a good thing and I support it.

The following day, the Los Angeles Times published a story where five women, former students of Franco’s, made allegations against him — allegations that are similar to those in the class-action complaint. But the Times also said more than a dozen of Franco’s former students at Studio 4 said they had “a positive experience” there.

In addition to James Franco, the other defendants in the class-action complaint are Vince Jolivette, Jay Davis and Rabbit Bandini Productions.

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 functioned. Plaintiff Sarah 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 writes us off as nobodies.”

She and Gaal seek class-action status for the lawsuit on behalf of students who had similar experiences.

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