Hometown: Palo Alto, Calif.
Current gigs: Starring in the dramas Tristan & Isolde and Annapolis (opening Friday)
He can fight with fists or swords
The L.A.-based actor channels his inner warrior in Annapolis (he plays a naval cadet with a talent for boxing) and Tristan & Isolde (he wields a sword as an English knight in the 600 A.D.-set love story). “They were equally strenuous,” Franco says of the roles. “The difference is when you make a mistake in boxing, you get tapped a little and you shake it off. But with the swords, they use real steel and every actor gets cuts on their hands and head.”
He hasn’t always played the pugilist. Franco’s breakout role was in the 1999 series Freaks and Geeks, in which he was a soft-spoken rebel, and he won a Golden Globe for his performance as James Dean in a 2001 TNT biopic. In 2002 he entered blockbuster territory as Harry Osborn, the vengeful son of the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), in the Spider-Man movies (he recently began shooting Spider-Man 3).
There’s a Method to his madness
Franco learned a lot about acting from one of his idols, Robert De Niro, who played his father in 2002’s City by the Sea. “What I picked up from observing him was that he gives everything while the camera is rolling and then when they say ‘Cut,’ he goes off to be by himself and focus,” says Franco. “I kind of keep to myself, too.”
But his introverted demeanor on the Annapolis set didn’t sit well with everyone. “James and I did not get along,” says costar Tyrese Gibson, who plays his boxing rival and military superior. “Everyone kept saying, ‘Oh, he’s a Method actor.’ Because our characters didn’t get along, I guess he thought we shouldn’t get along. It’s kooky.”
He’s a man of many talents
Though he always wanted to act, Franco also loved writing and majored in literature at UCLA for a year. “Then the acting took off and took me away from that,” he says. But not entirely: He wrote and directed his first feature film, The Ape, about an aspiring novelist who lives with a talking gorilla. It premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival last summer.
He’s also an abstract artist, and has shown his work at various L.A. galleries. His paintings are “cartoonish pieces in acrylic,” he says. “I’ve been painting for longer than I’ve been acting.”
He’s gone too far for love
Franco – who dated actress Marla Sokoloff (The Practice) for several years and is now involved with someone he prefers not to name – admits his sense of drama once extended to his love life. “I’ve done stupid things like climbing through people’s windows when they weren’t expecting me,” he says. “It was borderline stalker behavior. Fortunately, I was young enough that I didn’t get in too much trouble – but I definitely didn’t win the girl.”