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Two former students sue James Franco for allegedly exploiting a ‘steady stream’ of young women

Two women filed a civil lawsuit against actor James Franco on Oct. 3, accusing him of running a bogus film school where women were duped into auditioning nude. (Video: Reuters)

When an inexperienced actress volunteered to perform in a nude scene in a short film called “Hungry Girl” for a course she took at James Franco’s acting school, she expected the classwork to lead to roles in feature-length films or television. Instead, she found graphic images from the short film uploaded on the Internet.

“If you Google me, you can see me naked,” Sarah Tither-Kaplan later told the Los Angeles Times. “Before I’ve ever been on TV or before I’ve ever had any real credits or before any of this — of course I regret that. I don’t want that.”

On Thursday, Tither-Kaplan and another actress, Toni Gaal, sued Franco, his two business partners and his production company for allegedly sexually exploiting women who paid to take classes at their school, Studio 4. The complaint, as reported by the New York Times, alleges the men “engaged in widespread inappropriate and sexually charged behavior towards female students by sexualizing their power as a teacher and an employer by dangling the opportunity for roles in their projects.”

This is the story of how Hollywood's unique power structure enabled sexual harassment to remain the entertainment industry's open secret. (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

“In essence, Franco took the ‘casting couch’ to another level by creating a ‘casting class,’” Tither-Kaplan’s attorneys said in a statement to The Washington Post.

Franco’s attorney called the claims “debunked” in a statement provided to the Hollywood Reporter.

“This is not the first time that these claims have been made and they have already been debunked,” attorney Michael Plonsker said. “James will not only fully defend himself, but will also seek damages from the plaintiffs and their attorneys for filing this scurrilous publicity seeking lawsuit.”

Tither-Kaplan and Gaal say they plan to eventually include more than 100 former Studio 4 students in their suit and allege that the school was set up to “create a steady stream of young women to objectify and exploit.”

Franco, 41, who was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for his role in “127 Hours” and won a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy for “The Disaster Artist,” has taught acting and screen writing to students at high schools and colleges including New York University. He opened Studio 4 in 2014 with Vince Jolivette, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Studio 4 held classes in New York and Los Angeles before it abruptly closed in October 2017.

Allegations about his school first surfaced in early 2018 after Franco appeared onstage to accept his Golden Globe Award wearing a Time’s Up pin, supporting the organization that grew out of the Me Too movement after allegations of Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexual abuse became public in 2017.

Several women, including Tither-Kaplan, took to Twitter to challenge Franco. Four days later, the Los Angeles Times published five women’s accounts of sexual misconduct by the star, including several stemming from requests Franco allegedly made of young actresses enrolled in classes at his for-profit school.

Tither-Kaplan was one of the first students to take classes at Studio 4, including a $750 Sex Scenes master class that became one of the main focuses of their lawsuit. Gaal, who also took classes at Studio 4, also balked at the amount of sexually explicit work women were asked to do at the school.

“Most of the work that was offered for us had nudity requirements — for women specifically,” Gaal told NPR on Thursday evening. But that work rarely turned into coveted acting credits the school used to lure its ambitious and hopeful students, the suit claims.

Tither-Kaplan said she believed her willingness to act in sex scenes without complaint during the Studio 4 class helped her get opportunities other women did not have, like being cast in one of Franco’s indie movies. Still, the young actress said that she was uncomfortable during the class and that she did not learn about the typical safeguards put in place to protect women playing roles that involve nudity.

“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 told NPR on Thursday.

The complaint also argues Franco and his business partners used the school, which charged between $300 and $750 for classes, to skirt California regulations that bar actors from paying for auditions.

Tither-Kaplan told the Los Angeles Times in 2018 that Franco had removed protective plastic barriers from two other women’s vaginas during the filming of an orgy scene for his indie film “The Long Home.” Another unnamed woman corroborated the allegation to the newspaper. A second woman, who later had a consensual sexual relationship with Franco, reported the actor pressured her to perform oral sex in a car. Two other actresses who volunteered to film a scene dressed in lingerie and masks told the Los Angeles Times that Franco had stormed off set when they refused to perform the scene topless.

Franco’s lawyer denied all of those allegations in 2018.

Gaal told NPR on Thursday that the school often asked students to upload auditions, including footage that had nudity.

“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,” she said.

Allegations of sexual misconduct against Franco date from 2014, when Gawker reported on Instagram messages between the actor and a 17-year-old girl he met at his Broadway show, “Of Mice and Men.” The two exchanged direct messages and texts, and Franco, who was 35 at the time, asked to meet the girl in her hotel even after he learned that she was not an adult. He admitted to the exchange on “Live! With Kelly and Michael” and said he had exercised “bad judgment” by sending the messages to someone he did not know.

“I guess I’m just a model of how social media is tricky,” he said on the show. “What I’ve learned, I guess just because I’m new to it, you don’t know who is on the other end. You meet somebody in person and you get a feel for them, but you don’t know who you’re talking to. I used bad judgment and I learned my lesson.”

The actor reportedly added an instruction asking fans not message him if they are younger than 18 to his Instagram bio after the incident. The actor no longer has an Instagram account.

Jay Davis, who is the general manager of Franco’s Rabbit Bandini production company, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.