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James Franco sued by 2 women over 'inappropriate and sexually charged behavior'

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James Franco was named in a lawsuit Thursday by two former students, Toni Gaal and Sarah Tither-Kaplan, who claim they were sexually exploited at his acting school, Studio 4. Tither-Kaplan is one of the women who publicly accused the actor of inappropriate behavior in 2018. A lawyer for Franco is calling it a "publicity seeking lawsuit."

According to documents obtained by the New York Times, Gaal and Tither-Kaplan allege Franco and his partners "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."

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 05: James Franco attends a special screening of the final season of "The Deuce" at Metrograph on September 05, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage)
James Franco is being sued by two women. (Photo: Taylor Hill/WireImage)

These actions, the suit says, "led to an environment of harassment and sexual exploitation both in and out of the class."

Franco opened Studio 4 in 2014 with business partner Vince Jolivette, who is also named in the suit, as is their Rabbit Bandini production company and its general manager, Jay Davis. The school was closed in 2017. Franco’s lawyer released the following statement to Yahoo Entertainment Thursday night:

"This is not the first time that these claims have been made and they have already been debunked. We have not had an opportunity to review the ill-informed complaint in depth since it was leaked to the press before it was filed and our client has yet to even be served. 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, who paid a monthly tuition of $300, were enrolled in the Los Angeles branch of the school. Studio 4 offered additional master classes, which could cost as much as $2,000 each, including a $750 master class for sex scenes. The lawsuit claims women had to audition on videotape so Franco could review the material and that they had to sign away rights to the recordings. Gaal claims she was denied entry into the class after she voiced concerns about how it was being run.

The women claim they were encouraged to push beyond their comfort zones and were denied certain industry protections, like nudity riders. The lawsuit states the class preyed upon "often young and inexperienced females" who "were routinely pressured to engage in simulated sex acts that went far beyond the standards in the industry."

Tither-Kaplan, who took the class, states in the lawsuit she was usually asked to appear in nude scenes or sex scenes. During the filming of an orgy scene, she claims Franco removed plastic guards that covered other actresses's vaginas while he simulated oral sex on them. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages and the return or destruction of any video recordings of former students, as well as class-action status so other women can join if they had similar experiences.

Franco's #MeToo moment began after his win at the 2018 Golden Globes, when The Breakfast Club star Ally Sheedy called him out on Twitter. In the following days, a total of five women — four of whom were his former acting students — accused The Deuce star of sexually inappropriate behavior in a Los Angeles Times article.

In an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Franco called the allegations "not accurate," but said the women deserved to be heard.

"I think what I really learned, like I said, there are stories that need to get out, people that need to be heard," Franco explained. "I have my own side of this story, but I believe in these people that have been underrepresented getting their stories out enough that I will hold back things that I could say just because I believe in it that much. If I have to take a knock because I am not going to try and actively refute things then I will, because I believe in it that much."

He added, "If there’s restitution to be made, I will make it. I’m here to listen and learn and change my perspective where it’s off."

Tither-Kaplan, who has not been in contact with Franco for nearly two years, told the New York Times that his lack of action after such promises led her to file the lawsuit.

"I can’t sleep at night knowing that my coming forward, originally, did not do the work that I wanted it to do yet," she said. "There still has been no action, publicly, that shows me that these people know what they did is wrong and harmful and can’t been repeated."

Gaal, who did not know Tither-Kaplan at Studio 4, told the New York Times the experience left her wary of the entertainment industry.

"You have faith in these people, in their credibility and you trust that won’t be taken advantage of," she said in an interview. "It’s alarming that you definitely can get manipulated because you’re vulnerable."

[Editor’s note: This post has been updated to include a statement from Franco’s attorney.]

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