James Edward Franco (born April 19, 1978) is an American actor, director, screenwriter, producer, teacher, and author. His first prominent role was a lead part on the short-lived cult hit television program Freaks and Geeks; he later achieved recognition for playing the title character in the TV biographical film James Dean (2001), for which he was awarded a Golden Globe Award. He portrayed Harry Osborn in Sam Raimi's Spider Man trilogy. His notable films are Pineapple Express, Milk, 127 Hours, Tristan & Isolde, Annapolis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Oz the Great and Powerful, Spring Breakers, This Is the End, and Lovelace. He also had a recurring role as Franco on the ABC soap opera General Hospital. For his role in 127 Hours, Franco received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Franco volunteers for the Art of Elysium charity and has taught a class at New York University in feature filmmaking and production. In 2013, he began teaching a course in short film production at the University of Southern California and a course in screenwriting at his alma mater, University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently a PhD candidate at Yale University.
Franco was born on June 19, 1978 in Palo Alto, California. His mother, Betsy Lou (née Verne), is a writer and actress, and his father, Douglas Eugene "Doug" Franco (d. 2011), ran a Silicon Valley business. The two met as students at Stanford University. Franco's father was of Portuguese (Madeiran) and Swedish descent. Franco's mother is Jewish (her family were Russian Jewish immigrants, and her father, Daniel, changed the surname from "Verovitz" to "Verne" some time after 1940). Franco's paternal grandmother, Marjorie (Peterson) Franco, is a published author of young adult books. Franco's maternal grandmother, Mitzie (Levine) Verne, owns the Verne Art Gallery, a prominent art gallery in Cleveland, and was an active member in the National Council of Jewish Women.
Franco's family upbringing was "academic, liberal and largely secular." He grew up in California with his two younger brothers, Tom and Dave ("Davy"), who is also an actor. Talented at mathematics, Franco interned at Lockheed Martin. Franco was often encouraged by his father to get good grades and did well on his SATs. He graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1996, where he acted in plays. In his high school years, Franco was arrested for underage drinking, graffiti, and for being a part of a group that stole designer fragrances from department stores and sold them to classmates. These arrests led to him briefly becoming a ward of the state. Facing the possibility of juvenile hall, Franco was given a second chance by the judge. "It was teen angst. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I was shy. I changed my ways just in time to get good grades," he recalled of his troubles with the law.
Although the idea of becoming a marine zoologist interested him, Franco had always secretly wanted to become an actor but feared rejection. He enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as an English major, but dropped out after his freshman year against his parents' wishes to pursue a career as an actor, since he would have had to wait two years to audition for their acting program. Franco instead chose to take acting lessons with Robert Carnegie at the Playhouse West. Around this time, Franco took up a late-night job at McDonald's to support himself since his parents refused to do so. He was a vegetarian until working there. While working at the establishment, he would practice accents on customers. Knowing that the aspiring actor was doing his best to follow his passion, Carnegie told Franco to pay him what he could and later on pay him back.
After 15 months of training he began auditioning in Los Angeles for acting, his first paid role was a television commercial for Pizza Hut, featuring a dancing Elvis Presley. He found guest roles on television shows but his first break came in 1999, after he was cast in a leading role on the short-lived but well-reviewed NBC television series Freaks and Geeks, which ran for 18 episodes and was canceled due to low viewership. Later, the show became a cult hit among audiences. He has since described the series as "one of the most fun" work experiences that he has had. In another interview, Franco said: "When we were doing Freaks and Geeks, I didn't quite understand how movies and TV worked, and I would improvise even if the camera wasn't on me ... So I was improvising a little bit back then, but not in a productive way." After his film debut Never Been Kissed, he played a popular jock Chris in Whatever It Takes (2000), a modern day remake of the 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac.
He was subsequently cast as the title role in director Mark Rydell's 2001 TV biographical film James Dean. To prepare himself for the role, Franco went from being a non-smoker to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, dyed his dark brown hair blond, and learned to ride a motorcycle as well as play guitar and the bongos. To have a greater understanding of Dean, Franco spent hours with two of Dean's associates. Other research included reading books on Dean and studying his movies. While filming James Dean, the actor, to get into character, cut off communication with his family and friends, as well as his then-girlfriend. "It was a very lonely existence," he notes. "If I wasn't on a set, I was watching James Dean. That was my whole thinking. James Dean. James Dean." Despite already being a fan of Dean, Franco feared he might be typecast if he'd captured the actor too convincingly. Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly wrote: "Franco could have walked through the role and done a passable Dean, but instead gets under the skin of this insecure, rootless young man." He received a Golden Globe Award and nominations for an Emmy Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award (SAG).
Franco achieved worldwide fame and attention in the 2002 superhero film Spider-Man, when he played Harry Osborn, the son of the villainous Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and best friend of the title character (Tobey Maguire). Originally, Franco was considered for the lead role of Spider-Man/Peter Parker in the film, though the lead went to Maguire. Todd McCarthy of Variety noted that there are "good moments" between Maguire and Franco in the film. Spider-Man was a commercial and critical success. The movie grossed $114 million during its opening weekend in North America and went on to earn $822 million worldwide. He next starred in Sonny, a 2002 release in which he was directed by fellow actor Nicolas Cage, whose involvement had attracted Franco to the film. Set in 1980s New Orleans, Sonny follows the titular character (Franco) returning home after just being discharged from the Army. To prepare for his role, he met with sex workers or people who had previously been prostitutes. The movie was panned by critics, with the New York Post's Lou Lumenick calling it an "instant candidate for worst movie of the year." Franco was cast as a homeless drug addict in the drama City by the Sea (2002) after co-star Robert De Niro saw a snippet of his work in James Dean. He lived on the streets for several days to better understand the subject matter as well as talk to former or still using drug addicts.
He also co-starred with Neve Campbell in Robert Altman's ballet movie The Company (2003). The success of the first Spider-Man film led Franco to reprise the role in the 2004 sequel, Spider-Man 2. The movie was well received by critics, and it proved to be a big financial success, setting a new opening weekend box office record for North America. With revenue of $783 million worldwide, it became the second highest grossing film in 2004. The following year he made and starred in the black comedy The Ape and the 2005 war film The Great Raid, in which he portrayed Robert Prince, a captain in the United States Army's elite Sixth Ranger Battalion during the rescue plan at the Raid at Cabanatuan in the Philippines. In 2006, Franco co-starred with Tyrese Gibson in Annapolis and played legendary hero Tristan in Tristan & Isolde, a period piece dramatization of the Tristan and Iseult story also starring British actress Sophia Myles. For the former, he did eight months of boxing training and for the latter, he practiced horseback riding and sword fighting. He then completed training for his Private Pilot Licence in preparation for his role in Flyboys, which was released in September 2006; the same month, Franco appeared briefly in The Wicker Man, the remake of the seminal horror film. Also in 2006, he made a cameo appearance in the romantic comedy The Holiday.
He reprised his role as Harry Osborn in the third and final installment of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, Spider-Man 3 (2007). In contrast to the previous two films' positive reviews, Spider-Man 3 was met with a mixed reception by critics. Nonetheless, with a total worldwide gross of $891 million, it stands as the most successful film in the series, and Franco's highest grossing film to date. In this same year, Franco made a cameo appearance as himself in the Judd Apatow-directed comedy Knocked Up, which starred Freaks and Geeks alumni Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Martin Starr. Franco co-starred with Sienna Miller in the low-budget independent films Camille, a dark fantasy dramedy about a young newly wed couple and Interview, where he appears in a voice only role, both 2007 movies that were ignored by audiences and critics alike. Among his other 2007 projects were Good Time Max, which Franco wrote, directed and starred in. The movie premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival and centers around two talented brothers who take very diverse paths in life, one going on to become a doctor whilst the other sibling (Franco) experiences unemployment and uses drugs. The actor chose to cast himself in that role because, "It was really just a process of elimination. I was better suited for this role than the responsible surgeon."
He next starred in Pineapple Express (2008), a stoner comedy co-starring and co-written by Seth Rogen and produced by Judd Apatow. Of Franco's character, Apatow said, "You tell him, 'Okay, you're going to play a pot dealer,' and he comes back with a three-dimensional character you totally believe exists. He takes it very seriously, even when it's comedy." In her New York Times review, critic Manohla Dargis wrote: "He’s delightful as Saul, loosey-goosey and goofy yet irrepressibly sexy, despite that greasy curtain of hair and a crash pad with a zero WAF (Woman Acceptance Factor). It’s an unshowy, generous performance and it greatly humanizes a movie that, as it shifts genre gears and cranks up the noise, becomes disappointingly sober and self-serious." His performance earned him a second Golden Globe nomination, for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. He has stated in some interviews that he no longer uses cannabis (although he has occasionally alluded to smoking marijuana, most notably during an extended segment on The Colbert Report). He was awarded High Times magazine's Stoner of the Year Award for his work in Pineapple Express. In 2008 he also appeared in two films by American artist Carter, exhibited at the Yvon Lambert gallery in Paris. On September 20, 2008, he guest hosted the NBC late-night sketch comedy and variety show Saturday Night Live (SNL), and for a second time on December 19, 2009.
Franco starred opposite Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, and Emile Hirsch in Gus Van Sant's Milk (2008). In the film, he played Scott Smith, the boyfriend of Harvey Milk (Penn). Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, in review of the film, wrote: "Franco is a nice match for him [Penn] as the lover who finally has enough of political life." For his performance in the film, Franco won the Independent Spirit Award in the category for Best Supporting Actor. In late 2009, he joined the cast of the daytime soap opera General Hospital on a recurring basis. He plays Franco, a multimedia artist much like himself, who comes to Port Charles with unfinished business with mob enforcer Jason Morgan (Steve Burton). Franco has called his General Hospital role performance art.
In his next project, 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle, Franco portrayed real-life mountain climber Aron Ralston. It was given a limited release starting on November 5, 2010. 127 Hours centered on Ralston trying to free his hand after it became trapped under a boulder in a ravine while canyoneering alone in Utah and resorting to desperate measures in order to survive, eventually amputating his arm. During the five-week, 12-hours-per-day shoot, Franco would only leave the gully set to use the lavatory and would read books such as academic textbooks to keep busy. Franco later called making 127 Hours a once in a lifetime experience. To date, 127 Hours is one of his most well-reviewed movies and was also a commercial success, earning $57.5 million against an $18 million budget. His performance earned him universal acclaim from critics. Subsequently, he was nominated for a Golden Globe and SAG award, as well as winning an Independent Spirit Award, and even received his very first Academy Award for Best Actor nomination.
On February 27, 2011, he and Anne Hathaway hosted the 83rd Academy Awards. The two were selected to help the awards show achieve its goal of attracting a younger audience. Franco had previously said that he accepted the job for the experience and because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Numerous media viewers criticized Franco for his discontent and lack of energy on stage and the show was widely panned, with some reviewers dubbing it the worst telecast in its history. The actor later spoke about his hosting in an interview on the Late Show with David Letterman. He explained that when accepting the job he never had high hopes, adding "It was never on my list of things to do. It doesn't mean I didn't care and it doesn't mean I didn't try, right?" Regarding allegations that he was under the influence of marijuana while hosting, Franco commented "I think the Tasmanian Devil would look stoned standing next to Anne Hathaway. She has a lot of energy!" He concluded that he tried his best and could have had "low energy" during the telecast.
On February 23, 2011, Franco made a cameo appearance on NBC's Minute to Win It where the real-life Ralston was participating as a contestant playing for charity. After having an uncredited cameo in the opening scene of The Green Hornet (2011), he starred opposite Natalie Portman and Danny McBride in the Medieval fantasy comedy Your Highness. In the film he plays Fabious, a prince who teams up with his brother (McBride) to rescue the soon to be bride of Fabious (played by Zooey Deschanel). In May 2010, he was cast to star in Rupert Wyatt's $90 million budgeted Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a reboot of the Planet of the Apes series which was released on August 5. Franco starred alongside Winona Ryder in The Letter, originally entitled The Stare, directed by Jay Anania. He was cast as a drug-addicted lawyer in About Cherry, also starring Heather Graham, which started shooting the following month in California. He dropped out of the indie film While We're Young to star in Oz the Great and Powerful, a Disney prequel to L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). He played the titular role of Oscar "Oz" Diggs. Filming began in July 2011, and the film was released on March 8, 2013. He has signed to do a sequel to it.
For his contributions in motion pictures, Franco was awarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 7, 2013, a day before Oz the Great and Powerful was released. The star is located at 6838 Hollywood Blvd., in front of the El Capitan Theatre.
At the end of September 2010, Franco acquired the rights to Stephen Elliott's The Adderall Diaries, with the intention to adapt, direct and star in the film. It was announced in January 2011 that the actor has planned to, not only star in, but direct himself in The Night Stalker, a film version of author Philip Carlo's book about the 1980s serial killer, Richard Ramirez. Co-screenwriter of the screenplay, Nicholas Constantine, was initially unconvinced that Franco would be right for the movie, until he learned of Franco's desire to be a director and later watched three of his short films, one of which featured a serial killer, ultimately confirming to the writer that the actor had a darker side. The actor also has plans to direct a film version of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. The film was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
In February 2012, Franco began shooting a film version of Cormac McCarthy's 1973 novella Child of God, which chronicles the depraved and violent impulses of a young Tennessee backwoodsman after he is dispossessed of his ancestral land. He is set to star alongside fellow Oscar nominee Jonah Hill and producer Brad Pitt in the upcoming film titled True Story. The film, which is based on a true story, will see Franco play Christian Longo, a man who was on the FBI's most wanted list for murdering his wife and three children in Oregon, and who had also been hiding under the identity of Michael Finkel, a journalist, played by Hill. In 2013, Franco starred as the gangster "Alien" in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, with Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Gucci Mane, and Rachel Korine.
In 2008, Franco was named as the face of Gucci's men's fragrance line. Regarding his secular upbringing, he told The Guardian that he feels as if he has "missed out on the Jewish experience," but has been told not to worry about that by his Jewish friends and said in the same interview that he likes "the idea of religion as a source of community." When asked if he was a "believer", he responded "In God? I don't know. Yes. To a certain extent. It's a complicated question." After meeting on the set of Whatever It Takes, Franco dated co-star Marla Sokoloff for five years. He was later in a relationship with actress Ahna O'Reilly, until 2011. He confirmed their separation in an interview for Playboy magazine's August 2011 issue, saying that his interest in education got between them.
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