Away from the pack

BY ANNIE LEVENE
Daily Arts Writer
Published November 23, 2008

James Franco is having a really great year. Between outshining the current king of stoner comedy, Seth Rogen, in this summer’s “Pineapple Express” and generating buzz for his role in director Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” Franco has proven himself to be the rare kind of actor who seems to appeal to all demographics. Women want to date him, guys want to smoke with him and everybody wants to watch him.

Courtesy of Focus

While Franco has long been associated with hipster favorite “Freaks and Geeks,” his true entry into the public eye was quite typical. Like most other young and attractive actors, Franco rose to fame through roles in lighter fare like 1999’s “Never Been Kissed" and action flicks like the “Spider-Man” series. Since then, Franco has managed to distinguish himself from the rest of the teenybopper icons.

Unlike a lot of bold-faced names, Franco has always recognized the importance of balancing his education and career. He graduated from UCLA and entered Columbia University's graduate school this past fall.

“I’m not there for any other reason than that there is stuff I want to learn and people I want to work with,” said Franco in a phone interview last week.

His admission into Columbia’s MFA Writing Program has made him a Hollywood abnormality: a “thinking man’s actor” who can also ensure box office success.

With “Milk” being teased (somewhat unfairly) as this year's “Brokeback Mountain” — Franco plays Scott Smith, boyfriend to Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk — Franco is again distinguishing himself from the Josh Hartnetts and Chad Michael Murrays of the industry. But with risqué parts comes the public’s fixation on a straight actor playing a gay role. One of the most anticipated scenes of “Milk” is the oft-discussed love scene between Franco and Penn. But Franco was just doing his job.

“We just did it, and that’s it,” Franco said.

The actor was more interested in the opportunity to work with Van Sant. For Franco, it was not only his admiration for the director but also the passion Van Sant had for the project.

“I did a little research on Harvey Milk, found out who he was and found out that Gus had been trying to do this movie for 10 to 15 years,” said Franco. “It’s such an important story for him to tell since he’s been trying to do it for so long. There’s no other movie I would want to be a part of as much as this one. It’s everything.”

To Franco, “Milk” is special because it isn’t just a political movie; it dives deep into Harvey’s personal life. Franco’s role as what he calls the "political wife” is meant to give the audience a taste of the politician’s human side, the one that wasn’t in front of the cameras.

“The main function of my role and of our relationship in the movie is to ground it emotionally and really round out the character of Milk and to show just what the lifestyle was like at the time and place,” Franco said.

He’s no stranger to critical praise — Franco’s comedic turn as Saul in “Pineapple Express” was almost universally adored, and he was recently crowned one of Entertainment Weekly’s Entertainers of the Year. Still more exciting, his role in “Milk” is generating the kind of buzz every actor wishes to hear: Oscar material.

“It’s just such an honor,” Franco said. “Anything I say is going to sound so stupid and cliché but it is really an honor.”

Despite his success, Franco is refreshingly grounded. His videos on the website FunnyorDie.com — Franco plays a self-deprecating version of himself in “Acting with James Franco” — show that he realizes there's more to acting than just fame and paychecks.

“Having to think about competing with other actors was just making me really unhappy. I just really didn’t like it. So I went back to school and it helped me. It gave me something else in my life.”

And with his recent track record, it’ll probably be a hit.