It would be easy to dismiss James Franco as lucky. After all, he was blessed with the chiseled good looks of a matinee idol and cheekbones that could cut diamonds. One could easily make the mistake of lumping him in with other young actors who seem to fall into acting as an afterthought, delivering memorable performances almost by accident. This perception is not only inaccurate but also unfair, as anyone who has ever worked with him will tell you.
Franco has dedicated an immense amount of time and effort to studying his craft. He draws inspiration from actors most 24-year-olds have never even heard of, from Rod Steiger to Marlon Brando. And present-day heavyweights are eager to work with him: This year alone he played the offspring of Robert De Niro (City by the Sea) and Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man). And when Nicolas Cage was looking to cast his directorial debut, Sonny, he handpicked Franco to star as the male prostitute desperate to break out of his way of life. It's a challenging role in a dark movie that many actors would hesitate to jump into. But Franco's short life has been all about taking risks.
Five years ago Franco was attending UCLA when he enrolled in acting classes at Playhouse West in North Hollywood. His longtime teacher, Robert Carnegie, recalled that Franco's parents did not want their son to pursue a career in performing. "They told him to go full time to UCLA and drop the acting or they would cut him off financially," said Carnegie. "He had a discussion with me and told me he had to quit. I told him, 'You are at a crossroads in your life, and this decision is yours, not theirs. You've got to figure out whether you're going to bet on yourself.'"
Franco opted to take the bet, dropping out of UCLA and supporting himself with a job at McDonald's. "I told him it would be great for him because he'd suffer, which you need to do to be a good actor, and he would hate it so much he'd work even harder to get out of it," said Carnegie, who was so impressed by Franco's determination that he allowed the young actor to continue classes for free, something he had done only once before—for actor Ashley Judd. "He was betting on himself so I bet on him, too," said Carnegie. "He had the guts to do it, and he wound up sleeping in the living rooms and couches of other students, and he lost some weight because he wasn't eating that much."
Franco brought the same commitment to the set as he began landing roles in such films as Never Been Kissed and the television series Freaks and Geeks. Even when he starred in the lighthearted teen movie Whatever It Takes (2000), Franco took his work seriously. In the DVD audio commentary, director David Raynr and co-star Marla Sokoloff recalled how Franco had to perform a scene wearing nothing but a leopard-print thong. Between takes, Franco refused to wear a robe, wanting to feel as relaxed as his character would in such an outfit.
"I guess everybody has a different way of feeling comfortable, and I guess at the time it made sense to me," Franco said, laughing as he recalled the incident. "I once heard Rod Steiger say, 'I know how to play myself because I've had years of practice, but I don't know this character so I need as much practice as I can get.' So there are certain things that I use to try to stay in the character as much as I could."
Those "certain things" included spending time with real prostitutes for his Sonny research, as well as living as a homeless person and dropping almost 20 pounds to play a junkie in City by the Sea. "Nobody asked me to do it," said Franco. "But I wanted to be as accurate as I could, so I went to a nutritionist and they gave me a diet. I lost a fair enough amount of weight that they began to be worried about me."
Still, Franco isn't sure he considers himself a Method actor. "Method implies The Actors Studio and Strasberg," mused Franco. "I'm not really trained in sense memory. I just try to get into the skin of a character." Perhaps it was his stunning turn in the 2001 television movie James Dean, in which Franco portrayed the ultimate Method actor, that has led people to associate him with the term. Franco's work as the tortured artist not only earned him accolades and a Golden Globe Award, it also helped spring him from teen movies and TV series.
Much has been made of Franco's uncanny physical resemblance to Dean, and the similarities don't stop there. Sonny co-star Harry Dean Stanton said, "He's very intense, but incredibly sensitive." Director Cage said, "He has a great deal of emotion at his fingertips. He can be unpredictable and yet fully authentic in his emotions." And Carnegie said, "All he wants to do is just get better as an actor and bring real integrity to his craft. He's not caught up in the Hollywood syndrome and not carried away by all the success he's had."
Cage first came across John Carlen's screenplay for Sonny 15 years ago, when he originally intended to star as the young gigolo. "I really wanted to do it but couldn't find a director to commit to it," recalled Cage. When he decided to make his directorial debut, he remembered the script and felt it had exactly the elements he was looking for. "It's about people, it's easily containable, and I can focus on performance," Cage listed.
For Franco the opportunity to work with Cage drew him to the project. "I'm a huge fan," Franco said, citing Cage's work in Wild at Heart and Raising Arizona as his favorites. "I particularly love the roles he played that are kind of similar in their emotional confusion and failure to really integrate into the world. I felt like Sonny fell into that category, and I knew he would have tremendous insight into playing a character like this. It was really an opportunity I couldn't pass up."
When Cage read Franco for the part, he hadn't yet seen Franco's star-making turn in James Dean. "I saw a headshot and I liked his face and I had heard about him," recalled Cage. "I met him in my office, and I was immediately struck with his enthusiasm and how passionate he was about the movie and the part." Cage also needed someone who could jump into the emotionally demanding role for a six-week shoot with only four days of rehearsal. Franco's dedication to his training convinced Cage he had the right man. "This is not only a dynamic and highly charged actor, he's also a skilled and technically proficient one. I needed somebody of that caliber to get through this schedule," said Cage. "Right off the bat I told him, you're the guy I want."
For his part, Franco found Cage one of the best directors he's worked with. "I've worked with Mark Rydell [on James Dean], who is considered a great actor's director and has a great understanding of acting. But there's something even more about somebody who's acted in over 40 films. It's even more of an empathy I felt from Nic, and it was his first time, so it kind of felt like he was just finding his way of speaking to actors." Franco also appreciated that Cage always treated him as an equal. "I think there was an actor's understanding between us, and it was very reassuring because I know he is kind of protective of himself and precise and careful about what he does to get into a part. He goes to extreme measures sometimes, all for good reasons, so I felt whatever he pushed me to would be for the best."
What Cage pushed Franco to is perhaps his best performance to date. Franco appears in almost every scene, as the fragile male prostitute smothered by his overbearing mother (Brenda Blethyn) and disgusted by his profession. His Sonny must be a believable charmer to make countless women fall for him, but he must also be a wounded child desperate to escape his life. It's a tricky balancing act, and, like most of Franco's work, he makes it look easy.
For Art's Sake
Franco clearly takes his art seriously. "There's a great group of people who take it very seriously," Franco said generously. "Giovanni Ribisi supposedly is very dedicated to his research." Franco also addressed the rumor that Benicio del Toro got into character while making Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by repeatedly putting out cigarettes on his arm. "It's a little crazy but it's a gauge of how far a person can go. I don't know how it helped him, but it sort of reveals a dedication to the part that is very admirable. I hear that and it's almost something to emulate."
Does it frustrate Franco to work with actors who might not dedicate as much time to research as he does? "I think the important thing as an actor is to find one's own approach," he said diplomatically. "Some people's approach, which works well for them, is very off-the-cuff. It's using one's natural charisma to understand a part. And it works very well for some people, especially in some roles that may be close to them and they understand. And I agree: If a role is close to a person, too much research can be a hindrance."
So can being too good-looking, it would seem. When Franco auditioned for Spider-Man, many Hollywood insiders buzzed that he was given the role of Harry Osborn because he was too handsome to play science nerd Peter Parker believably. When asked if his appearance has ever kept him from getting a part, Franco said with a shrug, "I don't think I've ever come up against that. Of course one's looks will prevent one from getting certain roles. But I've never been told I'm not getting something because they don't take me seriously because of my looks."
Carnegie agreed that Franco's career isn't a result of his appearance. "It would be completely unfair to say that," he stated. "There are plenty of good-looking kids in this town. This is a kid who started from absolutely nothing and has worked harder than anybody I've seen in 22 years. Day and night he was rehearsing. If there was a noon rehearsal, he'd show up at 7:30 a.m. to rehearse privately before others came over. If somebody was working at night and didn't get off until 1 a.m., he'd be there at 1:30 to rehearse with them."
Franco hasn't stopped his studies, continuing to perform in plays at Playhouse West and taking class whenever he has the chance. Recently, when he was in Los Angeles doing press on a film, he spent his spare time studying with Carnegie. "Any other actor would have gone to the beach," Carnegie noted. "All he did was work on scenes and come into class fully prepared. They say James Brown is the hardest-working man in show business—James Franco is the hardest-working actor. No doubt about it."
Franco is next set to star in Robert Altman's new ensemble film The Company and with Benjamin Bratt and Joseph Fiennes in The Great Raid. Having spent a year working alongside such luminaries as De Niro and Cage, is there anyone he hasn't worked with he's anxious to? "Nicholson's my favorite," Franco enthused. But when asked if he hopes to emulate Nicholson's career, Franco was firm about finding his own way. "Nicholson said that, growing up, Brando was God to him. He loved him, but he knew he was made differently and couldn't do what Brando was doing. So he came up with his own thing. I guess what I try to emulate in other people is the dedication and creativity I see them bringing to a part."
And for anyone interested in emulating Franco's dedication and creativity, he offered the following advice: "Just search diligently for one's own way to approach the work. And never let anyone deter you from that, no matter how crazy it might seem." BSW