In "PINEAPPLE EXPRESS," he plays a visibly unwashed hippie pot dealer on the run from mobsters: a THC-addled naif with a crinkly smile, a curtain of lank, dark hair and a heart of gold. But don't get the wrong impression about James Franco just because of his spot-on performance in the most anticipated stoner action-comedy of the year. He's no dope, even though he smokes plenty on-screen.
To wit: Dude can almost carbon-date his experiences making certain movies by recalling what literature he was reading at the time.
In 2006, while filming the massive international blockbuster "Spider-Man 3," in which the actor plays Spidey's BFF turned arch nemesis the Green Goblin, Franco was deep into the classical canon of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton -- required reading for the UCLA creative writing degree he was pursuing at the time. "It took so long to set up the effects shots and get everything coordinated, it was perfect for doing homework," Franco said, chomping into a club sandwich at a Beverly Hills hotel.
Portraying Sean Penn's love interest in "Milk," director Gus Van Sant's biopic about slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk earlier this year, Franco stole many an off-camera moment to plow through the works of Thomas Pynchon. "That was the craziest seminar I could ever imagine," said Franco. "It was 'Gravity's Rainbow,' 'Mason & Dixon,' 'V.' So I'd be reading that on the set and Sean would be like, 'What do you make of all that?' "
And while filming the Judd Apatow-produced "Pineapple Express" -- in which Franco's soulful, bromantic, type-shattering performance anchors both the pot humor and surreal violence -- it was all 16th century Jacobean drama all the time. "I can remember reading 'The Revenger's Tragedy' and 'Maid's Tragedy.' Stuff by Ben Jonson," Franco said. His costar in the film Danny McBride recalled being impressed with the actor's ability to juggle Hollywood and academia. "James just nailed it. He is hilarious," McBride said. "He was going to college full time while he was shooting the movie; he was in the makeup chair reading his homework. He would shoot nights and then go back to school the next morning."
Don't take it seriously
Who knew? Here's a seemingly Serious Actor Type who devours serious books even while brooding and emoting in blockbusters and smaller indie fare alike. At least that's how it adds up, taken with Franco's recent work, as well as his self-contained performances in 2002's "City by the Sea" opposite Robert De Niro and in the TV movie "James Dean," a biopic for which Franco won a best performance Golden Globe for inhabiting the title role.
But not so fast.
To hear the Palo Alto-born 30-year-old tell it, he's not really the Serious Actor guy he's reputed to be. Exhibit A: his career-altering choice to go to the comedy route. The move was precipitated by a chance meeting two years ago with Apatow -- his boss on the critically hailed but short-lived '90s sitcom "Freaks & Geeks" -- who told the actor he "missed the funny Franco." Moreover, the comic mogul had a movie for him: a stoner action-adventure written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg of "Superbad" fame.
"I was fairly disappointed with some of the roles I had done," Franco said. "I guess I'm proud of 'James Dean.' But 'Tristan & Isolde' or 'Annapolis' are just -- I worked really hard on those movies, but I just don't like them. I don't want to make those movies anymore."
Initially, however, "Pineapple Express" distributor Sony was skeptical about the "Spider-Man" franchise member playing it for laughs. Ultimately, Apatow, who produced such raunchy bros-and-bongs comedy hits as "40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Superbad," convinced the studio he'd be right for the film after Franco dialed in a funny screen test/cameo for the Apatow-produced maternity comedy "Knocked Up" and starred in a hilarious, self-skewering Web movie series, "Acting With James Franco," for www.funnyordie.com.
In "Pineapple Express," slouchy process server Dale (Rogen) witnesses a murder while toking on some industrial-strength herb called Pineapple Express provided by his terminally spaced-out weed dealer Saul (Franco), the only person in town selling the strain. In a haze of ganja, the two go on the run with the expectation that murderous mobsters will connect them to the scene, at first unsure if their paranoia is simply weed-induced or in fact justified by the pursuit of ruthless gunmen.
Yes to movie, no to role
Franco threw the filmmakers a curveball when it came to casting. Apatow and Rogen had him in mind to play Dale, with Rogen as the pot dealer. But during script reading, Franco balked. "I said, 'Seth gets to play the role I want.' . . . . They said, 'No, we want you to play Saul!' They later told me they had decided to give it to me right in that moment."
In preproduction, director David Gordon Green had certain misgivings about whether Franco would be able to strike the right comic tone -- Green was looking for a "heartfelt, not cartoon stoner" performance in the vein of Brad Pitt's zooted rastaman in "True Romance" or Sean Penn's archetypal surf rat Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Then there was Green's initial confusion over the actor's habit of having his nose buried in a book every minute.
"You see the guy pull out a Thomas Pynchon book and you say, 'Is he pulling this out so we have this perception of him?' Then you realize he's actually reading it," Green said. "He uses his time productively. Instead of sleeping in his trailer, he's making a full day of it, packing a lot into life.
"He's a very serious actor," Green continued. "He goes for it 100%. And there were no false starts. Coming from a serious, trained background gave him tools to launch his talent. I think he's kind of a comedic genius."
In the fall Franco will matriculate at two graduate schools in New York, one for creative writing, one for filmmaking. He knows word will get out there soon enough about precisely which bastions of higher learning he's enrolled in but for now wants to keep them under wraps. And he dismisses the notion academia will dent his acting career.
"Generally, people in the movie field are supportive," Franco said. "But they are like, 'Why would you want to do this? You've got a career.' Especially Judd; he likes to make fun of me. I think he finished USC. But he wrote recommendations for me for the grad schools!"