(Michael Allen Jones/Sacramento Bee/MCT)
SAN FRANCISCO – James Franco tries to live by advice he received from the sage one, Seth Rogen.
“He has a very simple philosophy,” Franco said of his “Pineapple Express” co-star. “He will never act in a movie that he wouldn’t go see.”
It’s a philosophy that “seems like common sense,” Franco said. But he didn’t always follow it during a busy career that has included a mediocre-light (“Annapolis”) for every highlight (“Spider-Man”).
“I probably never would go see ‘Tristan + Isolde’ if I didn’t have to go to the premiere,” Franco said of the 2006 romance in which he starred.
Hardly anybody else saw that film, either. But these days, Franco makes movies that lots of people want to see, like “Pineapple Express,” in which he delivered a knockout comedic performance as a beatific pot dealer; and “Milk,” a likely Oscar best picture contender in which he plays the romantic partner of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the influential San Francisco supervisor who was killed in 1978.
Franco grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., yet he knew of Milk only vaguely since, as he points out, “They don’t teach (students) about Harvey Milk in school.” But when he heard that Gus Van Sant, a director he admired, was making the film, he e-mailed Van Sant to ask if he could be involved.
He took the role of Scott Smith, Milk’s lover and fellow gay-rights activist. In researching the part, Franco had to dig for footage of Smith, who died from AIDS complications in 1995 and was a far less public figure than Milk. He contacted Rob Epstein, director of the 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” to see if he had footage of Milk apart from what was in the film.
Epstein found some and showed it to Franco.
One would expect such dedicated research from an actor who is currently enrolled in two master’s programs (in fiction writing and film directing, respectively, at Columbia and NYU) and is thus a true anomaly in a field where people do just fine on good looks and a GED.
Dressed in a dark peacoat and skinny jeans, Franco looks more grad student than a Hollywood actor experiencing a high point in his career. Sitting on a sofa in a swank San Francisco hotel suite, he initially seems uncomfortable with the interview process, offering his profile instead of his face. But he will prove exceptionally good-humored, and when he does turn to reveal his crinkly smile, the effect is dazzling.
Indeed, in scenes opposite Penn in “Milk,” the actors seem to be engaged in a contest to see who can produce the sweeter-looking smile. Franco says a relaxed atmosphere on set helped cultivate a comfort level between them. Mutual respect helped as well, says his co-star.
“I think there’s a kind of affection (good) actors have for each other – and then there’s the world of bad actors, for whom we have no affection,” Penn said during a press conference for the film.
“When you work with actors (like those in the ‘Milk’ cast), we have run across each other before, many of us ... and whatever the (film) is, it is giving you a structure for a predisposed closeness that you feel for your colleagues who you respect and like.”
A few years ago, an actor like Franco, who has a significant straight-male following through his roles in the “Spider-Man” films and “Pineapple,” might have shied away from an on-screen relationship that extends well past a “bromance.” But not in this post-“Brokeback Mountain” era.
“It was not a consideration at all. ... I remember, when I was offered the role of (reported bisexual) James Dean, I remember agents saying, ‘Oh, this is really risky, you don’t want to do that,’” said Franco of his Golden Globe-winning role as Dean in a 2001 TV movie. “But there was none of that for (‘Milk’).”
The actor will play another gay man, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, in a biopic called “Howl” for Epstein and co-director Jeffrey Friedman.
Shooting “Milk” in San Francisco afforded Franco ample opportunity to see his parents, Doug and Betsy, who made the trek from Palo Alto to the set on several occasions.
It took some time for the elder Francos to embrace their son’s chosen profession, having been disappointed by his decision to drop out of UCLA to pursue acting full time.
“They were worried I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself, and that I was throwing away an education,” Franco said. But he eventually returned to UCLA, earning a degree in English this past spring. His family came down for the ceremony.
“I’m sure they were proud of me, but it wasn’t the same kind of pride and happiness as if I was 22,” Franco said. They’re swelling with pride over his acting achievements, however. His mother, an author of books for young adults, caught the acting bug herself and is now a member of a comedy troupe, Suburban Squirrel.
On James’ graduation day, the Francos went out to dinner to celebrate. At one point, Betsy Franco leaned over for a heartfelt exchange with her son.
“She said, ‘You know what one of my dreams is? (That) I could just play a little part in one of your movies,’” Franco recalled with a laugh. “It’s just so ironic that here I am finally graduating, and she’s telling me she wants to act!”