When James Franco started acting professionally around the turn of the century, he was on a conflicted path to the cover of Teen Beat magazine. Like Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp before him, the California native possessed the good looks and cool temperament that Hollywood loves to exploit, but, like them, he refused to become a casualty of stardom. At the 2010 Hamptons International Film Festival, industry folk and fervent fans of his films came out in droves to honor his body of work, his current release, 127 Hours (which played at the festival), and his rebellious attitude towards show business and celebrity.
After becoming a household name overnight with the monumental success of Spider-Man, Franco took on a wide array of roles to expand his resume. According to the 32-year-old multi-hyphenate, though, those roles weren’t all necessarily his choices, per se. “I tried the path, either consciously or unconsciously, or maybe I was unaware of my motives, but I did try the path of ‘do this movie even if it doesn’t speak to your artistic soul. Just do this movie because it’s the movie that you should do,’ and that was a huge dead end for me,” said Franco, and he wasn't kidding. He made a lot of questionable selections in between entries of Spider-Man that seemed ill-conceived, films that felt like they were developed by a focus group or a marketing team rather than an artist. “Anybody see Flyboys?” he quipped, after responding to questions about his brush with empty mainstream fare. From Tristan & Isolde to Annapolis, Franco was releasing dud after dud, and I admit that I found myself wondering (at the time) what he was thinking. It’s comforting to know that those decisions were not entirely his own and that he can look back and laugh at those minor hiccups, because those days are long gone.
Since his tenure as Harry Osborne in the Spider-Man trilogy ended, Franco has continually evolved as an artist, not just in front of the camera but behind it as well (he directed numerous dramatic shorts as a student at NYU’s Film Program, all of which have been critically praised). His goal is simple: to grow organically as an entertainer. “That’s what you’re supposed to do as a creative person, I think. You’re supposed to try new things,” he said, and he’s been living and thriving by that credo for a few years now. From Milk to Howl to Eat Pray Love, Franco has done everything possible to reinvent himself with each successive project, specifically avoiding “movies that I don’t find challenging in any way or that don’t provide me with a new challenge as a performer,” as he puts it. As we all know, though, it can be tough to do something new in Tinsel Town.
“I consider Pineapple Express to be trying a new thing. An action-stoner-comedy? That is taking a genre and trying something new with it. And they had a hard time setting that up because it doesn’t fall into a regular formula.” Indeed, Pineapple was a rare blend of wit and imagination that couldn’t have been an easy sell, given its healthy doses of drug use, violence and language. But after it made $100 million at the global box office and earned Franco a Golden Globe nomination, I’d bet that Sony was glad it took the gamble.
Of course, Franco doesn’t limit his creative development to defying genres or taking on new roles as a filmmaker. Sometimes, he says, it’s about getting the opportunity to work with his heroes, as was the case this past summer when he filmed 20th Century Fox’s Rise of the Apes. “With that movie, I got to work with all the guys from WETA and Andrew Lesnie - the guy who shot The Lord of the Rings – and Andy Serkis, who played Gollum," he said of working on the pricey prequel. "First of all, I am unashamed to say that I was obsessed with those movies, so for me, that was a very different kind of acting experience.” Apparently even an A-lister can geek out.
And his evolution doesn’t stop with the big-screen, either. Some of his more peculiar professional moves include dabbling in drag for a cover spread in Candy magazine and – of all things – performing on daytime television. Franco believes that his time on General Hospital was well spent, as the tried and true program was able to capture the essence of the “art world” more authentically than other mediums. “It’s very hard to capture the art world and artists in film. Some have done it, but usually with a biographical approach. Pollock is a great film but it’s a lot about his life. Because it’s in a soap opera context, I think that some issues about art can be brought up and examined in some ways that a movie, which takes itself extremely seriously, maybe couldn’t do.“
Interestingly enough, I think that, like soap operas, James Franco has achieved success in part because he doesn’t take himself seriously. Anyone that goes from playing a beatnik poet to a dirty con man to a daredevil with a death wish in the same year isn’t concerned about bankability, status or celebrity. He’s one of the few people working in the industry today who is both a movie-star heartthrob, an artistic innovator and an all around likable guy.