The resurrection of a beloved soap opera brings on the next round in the bonkers battle between Riff Raff and James Franco. How did it come to this?
Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
Stamford, Connecticut is an hour’s train ride from New York’s Grand Central Terminal on the Metro North. If your schedule allows, you can travel round-trip during off-peak hours for $20.50 on a weekday. Catch an express train, and there’s only one stop out of GCT before you disembark at Stamford, home of the Connecticut Film Center Studios, the closest sound stage in the state to the Big Apple. But Riff Raff, the rapper and self-described Grammy Award-winning gynecologist, arrived by private jet.
In the lobby of CFC Stamford, there’s a sign tacked to the wall, printed on regular white 8.5 x 11 printer paper. It reads: “Welcome home to One Life to Live.” Modest signage for a soap opera with 44 seasons and over 11,000 episodes to its name. “The soap’s always attracted an urban audience,” says Angelica Cob-Baehler, a former music exec who now works for Prospect Park, the company producing the recently relaunched series. Ted Chung, manager for Riff Raff and Snoop Lion, among other artists, says the soap’s hipper than other daytime programs. “Snoop’s always excited to appear on the program because his mom loves it,” Chung explains. He made guest appearances in 2008 and 2010. Mary J. Blige has appeared on the soap multiple times, too. Now it’s Riff Raff’s turn.
Riff will play a character named Jamie Franko, a shady Miami art dealer. Or loan shark. Or something.
Without the Internet, none of this would be possible. Without the Internet, Riff Raff wouldn’t be a recognizable name, and without the Internet, One Life to Live wouldn’t have a home. ABC cancelled the soap in April 2011, citing low ratings. It’s much cheaper to produce more reality television than a scripted show. Long-time viewers were sad, but in swooped Prospect Park to save the day. The resuscitation mission has been plagued by setbacks, but now it’s finally happening: One Life to Live, along with another cancelled soap, All My Children, returns to viewers on Hulu and iTunes via The OnLine Network (owned by Prospect Park) on April 29. Riff Raff will make his guest appearance on an episode available May 7.
Of course, there’s one more person to credit for the miraculous collision of the exquisitely braided rapper with the Texas drawl and the long-running soap, and that person is James Franco. Last month, James Franco stole the show in Harmony Korine’s pop art house movie Spring Breakers playing Alien, a drug-dealing rapper with braids, a drawl, and a swagger that’s eerily reminiscent of Riff Raff’s cartoonish steez. Korine and Riff Raff exchanged emails about involving Riff in the movie, but it never came to pass—the email exchange didn’t go smoothly, and Korine moved on—and in recent months, Korine and Franco have been vocal about a Florida rapper named Dangeruss being the primary inspiration for the Alien character. You can find Dangeruss’ dense dreads swinging next to Franco’s braids in Spring Breakers. You’ll find no Riff Raff.
Except now Riff Raff is calling himself the Rap Game James Franco —one of the best things Riff’s done for the Internet is spawn the Rap Game [Insert person, place, or thing here] meme—and if you watch the movie, it’s pretty damn clear that Franco’s Alien owes as much, if not more, to Riff as he does to Dangeruss. (As Amos Barshad points out in this piece for Grantland, the “look at my shit” scene in Spring Breakers bears a striking resemblance to this YouTube video, where Riff Raff offers to pour the viewer a cup of coffee.)
The producers and writers of One Life to Live know what time it is, and will happily egg on this playful Internet pissing contest. “That’s definitely the direction we were embracing,” says Jennifer Pepperman, OLTL’s executive producer. “Riff Raff was into it, and we think it’s fun, too.”
On an upcoming episode, Riff will play a character named Jamie Franko, a shady Miami art dealer. Or loan shark. Or something. It’s hard to keep your bearings walking in a hall of mirrors. Which is exactly what this situation has become.
Based on a handful of recent Vines, Riff Raff’s been on set at Connecticut Film Center Studios in Stamford for hours by the time I arrive. It’s noon. “Mr. Riff Raff’s playing a loan shark,” one of the Prospect Park employees explains.
James Franco? Who’s that? I don’t know who that is. - Riff Raff
In the depths of the massive studio stands the entire world of the show, like a dollhouse. You could punch holes through most of the walls. One of the soap’s publicists leads me past Shelter, the nightclub where, being a loan shark, Franko will demand money from Cutter Wentworth, one of OLTL’s regulars. There are a few tables, a bar, and so many lights it’s like standing on Bowery. To get to Riff’s trailer, we walk past what appears to be a vase store, a clothing boutique, and then a coffee shop.
In the parking lot in back of the studio, at the entrance to his trailer, Riff stands in the sunshine. He tells Ron, one of his managers, that he needs his hair done. He needs beads. He needs Murray’s Beeswax. He needs little rubber bands. He repeats the instructions. For now, his hair is shoulder-length and luminous. He’s got a coppery mane like Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. It shines.
Inside the trailer, we sit on the couch. I’ve already seen this space because of the Vine posts I watched on the train. It’s like I’ve stepped through Twitter and into the other side. The 15 minutes I’ve been allotted leave little time to ease into the Franco/Franko situation.
How did you wind up on One Life to Live?
I have a good manager.
You’ve always wanted to be on a soap?
I want to be on all kinds of TV, movies—that’s all I want to do.
You know James Franco was on a soap.
General Hospital. He played a character named Franco. For 54 episodes.
Franco? My name is Jamie Franko.
That’s an interesting coincidence.
What do you mean? What kind of coincidence? What are you talking about?
It’s a coincidence.
A coincidence to what?
You’ve described yourself as the Rap Game James Franco.
James Franco? Who’s that? I don’t know who that is.
He was in a movie recently.
What’s that about?
I’ve heard that it’s about you.
I might have to check that out. I don’t know who, or what that is about. I don’t know anything.
He’s performing. He grins, sarcastic and coy. He shrugs and says that “music is boring compared to acting.” He’d rather act than rap. Which is the joke Riff is playing on all of us, because he’s always acting. This is a rapper who got his start on an MTV reality show called From G’s to Gents.
He leans harder into the jokes, talking about how he wants to compete in the Olympics. Which event? For time spent in a Jacuzzi. Or beer eating. Not drinking? No, eating.
He only becomes lively and as close to natural as a man wearing a T-shirt with an illustration of his own face can be when he tries to play me a song. First he needs his new gear. From his Louis bag, he removes a gadget shaped like an external hard drive that can charge a laptop, a cell phone, portable speakers, and probably many other things, simultaneously. For 27 hours, he says, it can charge any manner of electronic device. (If you add 100 to that number, you get the title of a James Franco movie, but if I really believed that to be a significant detail, I would be a crazy person. So forget I even mentioned it.)
Out from his Louis bag comes a Beats Pill that Dr. Dre gave him (the detail sneaks out of the side of his mouth like loose change he’s leaving for the needy). He plugs it into the charger in order to play his current favorite song. He plays it. It’s a song you’ve heard before, in a TV commercial: “The Way I Am,” by Ingrid Michaelson. ‘Cause I love you more than I could ever promise / And you take me the way I am / You take me the way I am / You take me the way I am.
Riff says he keeps it on repeat. The bass sounds wrong, like he’s blown the speakers. He has, in fact, blown the speakers—apparently by listening to Ingrid Michaelson.
Ron, one of his people, says that my 15 minutes are up, and as I leave, Riff asks if I’m going to stick around for the shoot. Of course.
One Life to Live looks like live TV because it’s shot like live TV. The editing happens on the fly. In the command center, a dark rectangular room full of televisions, two rows of writers, directors, and producers call out directions and camera changes like NASA Mission Control. Two female characters are in conversation on a bench in one of the set’s outdoor locations. The more grief-stricken of the two hands her confidante a letter. The director calls for a switch to Camera 2 as the character passes the letter to the other woman. The main TV now displays a medium close-up of that person as she reads the letter. Cut.
“It’s all surface,” one of the members of Mission Control says, dismayed. “We need to find the moments,” she says. The actress takes back the letter from the actress. She looks around, saying that she’s “a bad actress today.” They try again.
Years ago, when there was the big shift to cable, where all of a sudden some viewers couldn’t get soaps with their antennas, they went out and got cable. So why wouldn’t they get on the computer? - Jennifer Pepperman, OLTL Executive Producer
Because soaps have so many more episodes per season than a prime-time drama, the production schedule is insane. The day of Riff’s episode, they’re running through 57.75 pages of script, and that’s just the a.m. shoot.
On the Facebook page for One Life to Live, which boasts over half-a-million likes, you’ll find some viewers griping that the show needs to be on TV, not online. On a March 28 announcement update about the three ways to watch the show—on your computer with Hulu, on your mobile device with Hulu Plus, or by purchasing episodes from iTunes—OLTL fan Joyce Bargas commented: “It needs to be bk on tv [unhappy face emoji].” Her comment received 218 likes.
The OnLine Network’s Head of Marketing Angelica Cob-Baehler, who watched the record industry negotiate the rise of the Internet, isn’t surprised by these sentiments. But she’s quick to point out all the people on set, all the men and women working behind the scenes. “This isn’t a web series from some kids in Brooklyn,” she says. She’s right. This is an honest-to-God TV show, just one you’ll watch on your computer. Or on your Internet-connected television set.
Executive Producer Jennifer Pepperman gives the fans much credit for bringing the show back. “The fans didn’t give up, and now that we’re back, I don’t think the fact that they have to go on a computer and click some stuff to watch is going to be a deterrent. Years ago, when there was the big shift to cable, where all of a sudden some viewers couldn’t get soaps with their antennas, they went out and got cable. So why wouldn’t they get on the computer?”
But who are the fans? A streaming Netflix-exclusive show like House of Cards is aimed at the TV elite, folks who are tech-savvy and obsessed with the medium; they’re already online, because they’re tweeting and blogging about their new favorite show. They’re the people who make Girls feel like it must be one of America’s most-watched shows—even though it isn’t.
On April 23, One Life to Live had its gala premiere, to an audience that included many lucky fans. I sat in a row behind one of them. After OLTL and All My Children were introduced and the lights went down, this fan loosed a single hiccuped sob. She was older, in her late 50s, but every single time she applauded and whooped at each introduction of a classic character, I became more and more convinced that she would crawl over barbed wire to get to her soaps come April 29, when they premiere online. And if the older soap demographic comes to the Internet to watch, that’s excellent proof that, in no time at all, we’ll all be watching TV without the help of cable companies.
All the Internet commotion caused by the announcement of Riff’s role indicates that new viewers will seek out One Life to Live, too. Viewers who, unlike Snoop Lion, didn’t have a loved one who watched the program religiously now have a reason to watch—for one episode, anyway. That reason’s name is Riff Raff.
Or is it Blueberry Jones? In a cordoned-off area of the studio, Riff tells his manager that his character shouldn’t have been called Jamie Franko. Wearing butter-soft leather loafers and a trim electric blue suit, Riff christens himself Blueberry Jones. I bear witness. (Later, he’ll change his Twitter handle to read the same. We are all witnesses.)
He takes alternating sips from a can of sugar-free Red Bull and a Corona long-neck as the crew readies the cameras, lights, and extras in Shelter, the nightclub where he’ll try to get Franko’s money back. And then it’s time.
Of course Riff Raff is good at acting. He takes directions like a pro. Oh, he’s jangling his lower body too much after the cameras cut in for a close up while he demands his money, and it’s messing up the framing? Then he’ll just chill from the shoulders down. He improvises intimidation tactics like removing his sunglasses to better stare hard at his victim, and his goofy faces look fucking great. He’s funny. All of the extras gawk at him as he stunts. He ad libs lines, refers to money as “fettucinis.”
After a few takes, they’ve got the first short scene. It’s a wrap. Riff Raff, it must be said, is a natural.
Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)