James Franco accused of sexual harassment in suit by former acting students

They claim the actor and his production company promised women better job opportunities for appearing in explicit nude sex scenes.
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James Franco at the premiere of 'In Dubious Battle' at the Venice Film Festival in Italy in 2016.Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images file

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By Alex Johnson, Andrew Blankstein and Diana Dasrath

LOS ANGELES — Two women who attended the Oscar nominee James Franco's acting school sued him and his production company Thursday, alleging the actor and his partners sexually harassed and discriminated against them and other female students.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal, seeks class-action status for themselves and an unspecified number of other "similarly situated women" who attended classes at Studio 4, the acting school that Franco ran from 2014 to 2017.

Franco, 41, who was nominated for an Academy Award as best actor for the 2010 film "127 Hours," closed the school in October 2017 after multiple women accused him of having sexually exploited them when they attended the school, which had branches in New York and Los Angeles.

Tither-Kaplan, who has appeared in several short films and in Franco's 2014-17 TV series, "Making a Scene with James Franco," was one of those women. Gaal, who has appeared in several movies and TV series, hadn't previously been mentioned in connection with the allegations.

The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages at trial, as well as royalties and other compensation for work the women did for Franco's production company, Rabbit Bandini. Franco's business partners, Vince Jolivette and Jay Davis, are named as co-respondents along with Franco and Rabbit Bandini.

"This is not the first time that these claims have been made, and they have already been debunked," Franco's attorney, Michael Plonsker, said Thursday night.

Plonsker said that Franco hadn't yet been served with the suit but that he would "fully defend himself" and would seek damages from the plaintiffs and their attorneys "for filing this scurrilous publicity-seeking lawsuit."

Attorneys for Tither-Kaplan and Gaal said in the lawsuit that Franco and his co-respondents had committed "egregious wrongs to hundreds of student actors and have done nothing to fix these wrongs."

It accused the respondents of seeking to "sexualize their power and fame by dangling the opportunity to aspiring actors of employment in film and television in exchange for explicit nudity, sex and as Franco put it, the "pushing of boundaries'" at Studio 4, which it characterized as a "fraudulent acting school."

Women were promised better job opportunities if they agreed to "overt sexual acts, nudity and performing in sex scenes — often in an orgy type setting," according to the lawsuit. Students were required to sign over their rights to films of the sex scenes, which the respondents used "at their will," it said.

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Franco said on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" in January 2018 that the allegations were "not accurate" but that "I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice."

"If there is restitution to be made, I will make it," Franco told Colbert. "If I have done something wrong, I will fix it. I have to."

But Dan Stormer, an attorney for the plaintiffs, accused Franco and his partners of having failed to follow through on those promises.

"I first started filing these cases in the 1980s," Stormer told NBC News. "It's amazing to me that this is still allowed to happen. It's a disgusting display of power. It's a horrible commentary that this behavior continues."