And yet, one of Franco's greatest challenges occurred before he even stepped in front of the camera. After being sent an early draft of the script, he was slated to meet with filmmaker Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire"). Unfortunately, the actor didn't have quite enough time to do the preparation he wanted to. "I was in the middle of school," recalls Franco, who is currently enrolled in multiple graduate programs. "It was so much work, I was really stressed out, and even though it was a very short script—like, 80 pages-—I didn't read it as thoroughly as I should have." Needless to say, the meeting didn't go too well.
"I don't think I was talking any differently than I am now, but afterward he told people that he thought I was stoned," says Franco with a chuckle. "I wasn't, I was just tired, and then at the end of the meeting I said, 'Well, I better be honest: I haven't read this as thoroughly as I could have.' And to me, that was basically the end of my chances."
Franco was surprised, then, to get a phone call two days later, asking him to come in and read for the part. He doesn't have to audition much these days, but this time he was up for it. "It was Danny Boyle," he explains, flashing a sheepish grin. Franco flew from New York to Los Angeles, where he was promptly handed a page-long speech. For some, this would've been tough to memorize in a short amount of time, but Franco had a secret weapon in his back pocket.
"I had just performed on 'General Hospital,' where we were doing—this is not an exaggeration—almost 80 pages a day," he says. "So this measly little page was nothing, and I quickly memorized it, and I came in and read it, and we only did it twice and I think it was the next day [Danny] told me that he wanted me to do it." Take heart, actors: Sometimes you do get a second chance to make a first impression.
Straight to Tape
To effectively capture Ralston's ordeal, Franco did extensive preparation—physically and mentally. He started with the climber's published memoir, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," and watched "all the climbing movies I could find," including the 2003 documentary "Touching the Void."
"And then Danny said, 'Well, you should go on a diet,' " says Franco bemusedly. "Not because I'm incredibly overweight or anything, but Aron was in excellent shape. He was an extremely accomplished mountain climber, and on top of that he lost 40 pounds in the canyon because of water deprivation. There's no way that we could track that weight loss during the filming. It would actually be really dangerous. So we figured out: If I lost all the weight beforehand, we could do certain things at the beginning of the movie to make me look a little heavier."
A few months later, Franco faced possibly the most intense part of his prep: watching the videos Ralston made while trapped in the canyon. The climber doesn't show these tapes to many people, and Franco says viewing them was like nothing he had ever experienced before. "If Aron hadn't survived, they would've been almost like a snuff film, where it was a guy who thought he was going to die—it was a guy dying before us, in front of us," says Franco. "He made them all throughout his entrapment, and so he just progressively deteriorates. But he never loses it. He never cracks."
Though the tapes were tough to watch, they were also the key to unlocking Franco's tour-de-force performance. "It was incredibly valuable," he muses. "I got to see the character in the middle of the experience—not looking back on the experience, not giving an interview about what happened. In the middle of it. Not commenting on it, living it. The Aron in the videos doesn't know that he made it out. He doesn't know that there's a happy ending. So it was pure behavior, and as an actor, when you're playing a real person, you never get that."
It has been a busy year for Franco. In addition to his continued schooling—he is, among other things, currently pursuing a doctorate in English and film studies at Yale—he appeared "Eat Pray Love," "Date Night," and "Howl," in which he plays Allen Ginsberg. Franco's short-story collection, "Palo Alto," debuted in October. And, of course, there was his somewhat bizarre recurring role on "General Hospital," playing an artist/serial killer named Franco.
This idea came about, the actor says, because he and an artist friend named Carter were discussing a movie they plan on making called "Maladies," in which Franco plays a former soap opera star. "We started thinking, 'Maladies' aside, wouldn't it be interesting if I was just really on a soap opera?" he explains. "So we called up 'General Hospital' and told them that I wanted to be on it, and they were very excited. They said I could play any kind of character I liked. I wanted it to be a true collaboration. I wanted their influence; I didn't want to control too much. And so all I said was I wanted to be an artist and I wanted him to be crazy."
Franco took the experience as seriously as he takes everything in his life, from school to building a true-life character like Aron Ralston. For him, it's important to revel in different art forms: to bring them together, to examine where they separate, and to ultimately give each one the best possible effort he can. "I am studying a lot of different things, but I really look to find where the different disciplines and mediums cross over and can inform each other," he says. "And also where they're separate—how, you know, there are things you can do in one medium that you can't really do in another medium, what those boundaries are. I'm very interested in all of that."
-Won a Golden Globe for his work in "James Dean" and was nominated for "Pineapple Express"
-Has directed a number of shorts and several features, including 2005's "The Ape" and the documentary "Saturday Night"
-Will co-host the 2011 Oscars with Anne Hathaway
-Will next appear in B-movie spoof "Your Highness" and "Planet of the Apes" prequel "Rise of the Apes"