For a long time, Dave Franco didn’t want to have anything to do with his brother.
James Franco, who is so artistically prolific it's literally a joke, would always ask his younger sibling to work on films with him. But Dave always shut the idea down.
"As much as I do love him and respect him, I've spent 10 years of my life trying to distance myself from him, work-wise, because I wanted to pave my own path," said Dave. "I didn't want anyone to say, 'You're just riding his coattails.' "
The tension began to take its toll on the brothers' relationship.
"I think he partially understood why I would say no, but still," the younger Franco said, "it's me rejecting him for years and years, and you can only imagine psychologically what that might have done for him."
But last year, Dave finally agreed to co-star with James in his latest directorial effort, "The Masterpiece." It was a decision he made, oddly enough, just as he was starting to become something other than "James Franco's brother" in the public's mind. By year's end, Dave will have appeared in three films: "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising," in which he plays one half of a happily engaged gay couple; "Now You See Me 2," where he reprises his role as a wily magician; and "Nerve," the thriller out this weekend about a couple who get swept up in a dangerous social media game. ("The Masterpiece," meanwhile, doesn't have a release date yet.)
"I guess I've kind of recognized what my worth is and what my specific brand of humor is," said Franco, now 31. "And that's not necessarily being the guy who's super witty and saying a joke every second. I'm the guy who you throw in a bizarre scenario and I'll play it as real as possible."
But "Nerve," which Franco co-stars in alongside Emma Roberts, isn't a comedy. In it, the two are players of a game called — wait for it — Nerve, a sort of real-world Truth or Dare, minus the truth. Paid subscribers offer up dares to players. Players document their dare attempts with their smartphones. And if the players complete their dares, they make money.
The dares start off innocently enough -- kissing a stranger, singing in public. But soon, Franco and Roberts’ characters -- who have become a couple during the course of the game -- start taking bigger, occasionally deadly, risks.
The role was a stretch for Franco, who had to learn to ride a motorcycle for the film and does not consider himself a daredevil of any sort. He also shares nothing on social media, save for a Facebook page that he puts mostly promotional content on.
"I'm pretty boring these days," he said. "I'd much rather stay in and hang with Alison [Brie, his fiancée] and my cats and watch 'The American President' for the 50th time. I can't remember the last time I was out at a bar or club. I'll still drink, but I just can't remember the last time I blacked out. Which I think means I'm growing up."
He was sitting at a picnic table in Griffith Park, a few blocks from the home he recently bought with Brie. He settled on the neighborhood because all the trees remind him of Big Sur, near where he grew up in Palo Alto. It was there that Franco began to nurture his love for the arts. His parents were both painters, and his upbringing was so artsy-fartsy that his friends "always made fun of us, speculating that at Thanksgiving dinner we're all sitting around the table making sculptures out of our mashed potatoes."
Though he loved watching movies with his family, he never considered acting. That was James' thing. So when he moved down to L.A. to attend USC, he began studying creative writing, assuming he'd become a high school teacher. Still, his brother's manager urged him to try an acting class. Begrudgingly, he audited one at Playhouse West -- and hated it.
"I was just so nervous every time I was onstage," he said, talking over a mommy playtime group that had gathered nearby in the park. "It took me many, many years to get to the point where I realized, 'All right, if I'm going to keep doing this, I've gotta remember that it's supposed to be fun. I've gotta stop putting so much pressure on myself, because otherwise it's not worth it.' And I still am too critical of myself. That was my New Year's resolution this year: not be so harsh on myself."
On the set of "Nerve," Franco often second-guessed his acting, said directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost.
"If he felt like he missed something the day before, he'd call and offer to redo it at any expense -- even if that meant him coming into an ADR session," Schulman said. "He knew when something wasn't quite right and kind of predicted it, and then he'd show up and fix it without anyone having to schedule it or go through his agent or anything."
The film marks Franco's first leading role -- something the directors were eager to give him.
"He's been so wonderful as supporting characters, and I don't think he gets enough attention," said Joost. "We said, 'Dave, we want to do something new with you. We want to show another side of you. Kind of like Heath Ledger in "10 Things I Hate About You." ' And he said, 'That's exactly what I'm looking for.' "
Franco had been offered leads before, he said, but they were always for "characters that [he] had played before or scripts that [he] found cheesy." So he waited it out. He gave his agents a wish list of directors he wanted to work with: Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson -- "the same wish list as any other actor," he said.
"I'd tell [my agents], 'I know these guys are way out of my league, but please keep reaching out to them and let them know that I would love to meet with any of them.' "
After he saw "Whiplash," he added Damien Chazelle to that list, and the actor and filmmaker were able to meet up.
"The meeting was basically me telling him how much I love him and how much I loved his movie and just that I would love to be an extra in anything he works on from here on out," Franco said, laughing at himself. "That's what I love to do these days -- especially for these young directors -- I want to let these guys know, because I feel like in our industry there's so much competition that people don't tell each other how much they appreciate each other's work."
It's clear Franco has thought a lot about the kind of career he'd like to have. In addition to crafting a director wish list, he has thought about the actors whose choices he'd like to emulate -- guys like Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Ryan Gosling. He and his fiancée watch a movie every night before they go to bed. He said he tries to keep the business out of their relationship, though he admitted the two will occasionally run lines together before auditions. ("Because you have to.")
"For a long time, I thought to myself, 'I don't want to date any more actresses because it was almost too much,' " he said of life before Brie. "But it's really helpful, because it is a crazy lifestyle. When I'm away for four months at a time, she understands. And when one of us has a weird sex scene, it's like, that's never easy to swallow. But we understand, we get it, it's part of the job. And if you're dating someone who's not in the business -- that's a very difficult thing to understand."
He and James don't talk about acting all that much, either, he said. But he's finally stopped worrying about the shadow his brother may or may not cast over his career.
"The reason I decided to work with him on 'The Masterpiece' was because it got to a point where I was like, 'You know what? I love my brother. We have similar sensibilities. I want to work with him. I don't care what people say anymore. I know I've been true to myself,' " he said. "At this point, we have a great relationship. We always have, but I feel like it's better than ever right now. And part of that might be because I've allowed myself to fully give into it."