DETROIT — Some performers stick to a plain diet of predictable choices. James Franco approaches life as a feast of opportunities.
The 33-year-old actor has appeared in superhero movies, broad comedies, socially relevant dramas, small art films and a TV soap opera. He’s studied at a bunch of colleges. He writes. He paints. He directs. He’s involved in avant-garde art projects and electronic music.
“I only work on things that I’m passionate about,” says Franco by phone from Pontiac, Mich., of his artistic multitasking.
And did you see him co host the Oscars in February and follow the media-driven obsession over how he did? The guy is fearless.
Franco is currently in metro Detroit to make “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” which will call the new Raleigh Michigan Studios in Pontiac home for the rest of the year. But right now, he’s talking apes.
Specifically, a new ape movie with state-of-the-art technology and a dramatic story arc.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which opens Friday, takes him in a decidedly science-fiction direction. It’s a prequel of sorts to 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” starring Charlton Heston as an astronaut stranded in a world ruled by talking chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.
The reboot has a grabby trailer — complete with glimpses of rebellious apes on the Golden Gate Bridge — that shows just how impressive current special effects are. The film already is getting attention for the dazzling work of Weta Digital, the visual effects company behind “Avatar” and “The Lord of the Rings,” and performance-capture actor Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar, a super-intelligent chimp.
But just as intriguing is the presence of Franco, who often leads his audience to interesting places.
Here, he plays Will Rodman, a scientist trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s, the disease ravaging his father (John Lithgow). When his research is shut down, Will winds up taking care of baby Caesar, whose mother was a lab subject, and forms a paternal bond with the cute primate.
Will meets a primatologist (Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire”) who becomes a key part of the story. With good intentions, he continues his drug experiments with Caesar, who grows into a remarkably gifted chimp. But things go awry when Caesar is moved to a supposed ape sanctuary that’s really a virtual prison. Cue the revolutionary battle teased in the previews.
This isn’t Franco’s first brush with ape movies. He co wrote, directed and starred in 2005’s “The Ape,” about a writer who moves into an apartment that comes with a talking, shirt-wearing gorilla.
“Both movies push boundaries of what a realistic ape could do, giving them more human qualities than a normal ape would have,” says Franco. “That pushing of the boundaries of reality is possible because they are so close to us. In movies and books or whatever, they’re great metaphors or analogies to how we are and who we are and how we treat each other.”
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is set in modern-day San Francisco and, like many sci-fi romps, is grounded in issues of the day, in this case, the moral complexities of scientific research. “I am optimistic about science,” says Franco. “The experiments that we’re pretending to do in this film are to cure Alzheimer’s. I think that’s fine. What’s questionable about the way the scientists in the film are working is how they treat the animals, how they test the animals, how disposable they are.”
In real life, Franco doesn’t take care of any chimps, but he does brag about his two cats. “They’re very loving and have great personalities. Said like a true cat owner,” he notes with a laugh.
Since his breakthrough role on “Freaks and Geeks,” the 1999-2000 NBC series about a fictional Detroit-area high school, Franco has tackled a wide variety of parts. He got an Emmy nomination for playing James Dean in a 2001 TV movie. He nabbed an Oscar nomination for playing a trapped climber in 2010’s “127 Hours.” He played a pot dealer in 2008’s “Pineapple Express,” poet Allen Ginsberg in 2010’s “Howl” and the sexy boyfriend Julia Roberts leaves behind for a globe-spanning tour in 2010’s “Eat Pray Love.”
And it’s not just acting that keeps him busy. Franco’s penchant for delving into all sorts of creative endeavors is so well-known that he’s talked at length about his Renaissance man image with Stephen Colbert — and appeared as Frank Jameso, his “twin brother” — on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”
When asked about his many interests, he politely makes it clear that he’s not collecting hobbies like coffee mugs. He explains that the pursuits he’s been working on lately are things he’s been interested in since he was a teenager. Recently, he says, “I started taking them much more seriously and went to a bunch of graduate programs. Before people started talking about it, I was still working on these things for years and years and years. It might seem like, oh, every week, there’s something new that I’m doing. (ASTERISK) I see all of these things as related in one way or another. What I’m doing, each thing I have been working on for a long time, so it’s not as if, oh, I’ll just try that.”
One of his most talked-about choices is appearing as performance artist/psychotic killer Robert (Franco) Frank on ABC’s “General Hospital.” While he says he has “plans to do other stuff” with his friends there, he doesn’t know where last week’s announcement that he’ll return to the soap in late September came from. “I have not shot any material for that and I’m going to be doing ‘Oz,’ so I really don’t know. It could happen, but right now, I don’t have any material to give them, so I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
And, of course, he is no stranger to blockbuster movies. As Peter Parker’s pal Harry Osborn, Franco was in all three “Spider-Man” movies directed by Sam Raimi. He says Raimi, who’s directing “Oz,” is a big part of why he took the lead role in that movie, which co stars Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Zach Braff.
“I think we both felt like we didn’t get a chance to do everything that we were capable of while collaborating, so this is our chance,” he says, describing his first week of filming as great.
As he settles into life in Detroit, Franco is still contemplating what he wants to do while he’s here. He says he’s been in touch with people at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and might work with some students there.
“I went and saw that campus. It was really nice,” he says. “I actually applied there a year ago, for the art school. I think I got in. But most of my life is farther east, so it was easier to go to a different school.”
Franco was in Detroit last year for the filming of an avant-garde project by contemporary artist Matthew Barney, which involved a 185-foot barge, a 1967 Chrysler, live snakes and more enigmatic imagery. And so far, he seems happy to be back.
“What I’ve been hearing a lot, from people both here and in New York and L.A. and even people from London, (they) say that a lot of young artists seem to be moving to Detroit. It’s just kind of in the air that this is a hot area for artists, so it’s kind of cool to be here when it seems like a lot of people are looking to Detroit as a new artistic location.”
What will Franco’s presence here mean for the art community? Fasten your seatbelts. It could be a creative ride.
JAMES FRANCO’S VARIED ROLES
James Franco marches to the beat of a different career drummer. That’s led him to an eclectic assortment of movie and TV roles.
—“Freaks and Geeks” (1999-2000): The cult hit TV series created by Paul Feig, and shepherded by executive producers Feig and Judd Apatow, was an important stepping stone for Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, who all played 1970s high school freaks.
—“James Dean” (2001): Portraying possibly the most influential actor of the 1950s is a sure way to invite unflattering comparisons. But Franco captured the angst and quicksilver charm of Dean and earned himself an Emmy nod.
—“Spider-Man”(2002): As Harry Osborn, Peter Parker’s best friend, he brought emotional depth to a supporting part and looked awfully swell on the big screen, even without the tights.
—“Annapolis” (2006): Franco tried the officer-and-gentleman route in this drama about a student at the Naval Academy who tries to make his mark through boxing.
—“Pineapple Express” (2008): He reteamed with Rogen in this fast-paced comedy about a pot dealer and one of his clients who accidentally wind up being chased by hitmen.
—“Milk” (2008): Franco did some of his most understated work as San Francisco politician Harvey Milk’s lover in this biopic of a leading figure of the gay rights movement.
—“127 Hours” (2010): Forget the arm scene. What Franco really removed in this gripping story of a climber trapped in a crevice was any doubt that he was a compelling leading man.
—“Howl” (2010): Of his performance as poet Allen Ginsberg in this small indie film, MTV.com said, “Franco’s full-bodied portrayal is often mesmerizing to behold, never more so than when he’s reading from the seminal work.”
—“General Hospital” (2009-2011): Why jump into a soap opera when he’s on a roll with movies? As a “GH” executive producer told Entertainment Weekly’s Web site: “He had heard it was hard and thought it would be fun.”
—The 2011 Academy Awards broadcast (2011): Co hosting the Oscars with Anne Hathaway was a gutsy move. The critics weren’t thrilled, but we still love the part where he spoke to his grandmother in the audience.