In the precarious world of Hollywood, where a star can rise to and fall from relevancy at any given moment, it’s not unusual to see actors branch out and try something new. But while most seem content temporarily trying out life in the director’s chair, there are a few that like to tread into more unfamiliar waters — even if that involves leaving the movie business altogether.
The best example? James Franco: an actor with a career that’s so vast and polymathic that he could retire from the silver screen tomorrow and still find work that helps him flex his creative muscle.
There’s an expectation for actors to stay sanitized — finding a lane and sticking to it in order to gain better, more Oscar-worthy work. But James Franco’s career path reads like the hobbies and habits of an easily distracted school kid. It’s made his career an easy target for tabloid rags and gossip sites alike, but unlike many of his contemporaries, his moves seem fueled by a personal desire to try new things, rather than a cry for media attention.
Want to know how James Franco went from a McDonald's nightshift worker to the cherished cultural icon he is today? Read our seven-step run through of the star’s two-decade path to cult Hollywood stardom.
First Came Freaks and Geeks, and Franco's "Popcorn Era"
Enrolling at UCLA and choosing to study English (acting was an extracurricular thing back then), Franco dropped out after a year and decided to work on becoming an actor full time. In that fateful first year, he worked the nightshift at McDonald's, auditioning during the day in the hope of landing a breakout role. After years of guest spots, that moment came in 1999 with Freaks and Geeks, a TV show that launched a handful of Hollywood heavyweights’ careers — not only Franco, but Seth Rogen, Busy Phillips and Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, too. However, the show only survived one season before being axed.
It took him three years to truly break into Hollywood with a behemoth box office smash. That came in the form of the original Spider-Man trilogy, in which he played Harry Osborn and his villainous alter ego The Green Goblin. The series grossed over $1.1 billion worldwide, but he’s since revealed that no pleasure came from making them. “I worked really hard on them, but they weren’t movies that I cared about,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. James did learn from the experience, though: that actors should “only do projects that [they] care about”.
Then He Was Crowned "Stoner of the Year"
From 2007 onwards — the point where Franco finally departed the Spider-Man franchise with its lukewarm third act — you can almost see this light-switch moment occur. After years of supporting roles in dumb Hollywood films, Franco’s decision-making process as a creative changed. His roles, for the most part, grew smaller and more impactful, and he started to return to his roots, dabbling in writing more and returning to college.
His first big role post-Spider-Man felt like an active rejection of the ones Hollywood seemed to be imposing on him. In 2008, Pineapple Express saw Franco slip into the skin of a laid-back weed dealer alongside Seth Rogen – a facetious role for most, but one that he embodied brilliantly. He went on to nab a rare Golden Globe nomination for his comedic performance, but the accolades didn’t end there! Marijuana mag High Times went on to give Franco the title of 2008’s "Stoner of the Year".
He Then Wrote a Novel — and Cut off His Arm for an Oscar Nod
By this point, Franco’s chameleonic ability to shift from one profession to the other was starting to become public knowledge. In Autumn 2010, Franco unveiled Palo Alto, a collection of short stories about the directionless existence of the kids who grow up in his home town in California. Addled with booze and weed, as well as deep themes of anorexia and racism, the book received mixed reviews from critics, but went on to be adapted into a movie made by Gia Coppola, the granddaughter of The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola.
While the reaction to his writing was somewhat stunted, Franco was gearing up to release what would come to be the most critically acclaimed film of his career. In literally nerve shredding detail, the Danny Boyle-directed 127 Hours chronicled the grueling experience of a hiker trapped in a canyon with no way of escaping. Franco played the lead, and as we all know by now, churned the stomachs of everybody in the audience with the film’s visceral final scene, in which his character snaps his arm and severs it from the rest of his body with a dull knife to break free. The public vomited; the Academy loved it: the film gained Franco his first and (so far, at least) only Oscar nomination.
Before Making His Mark on the Art World...
Once you have an Oscar nod under your belt, the world is pretty much your oyster. But instead of gunning for the big bucks and getting stuck in the loop of awards-buzz movies, Franco started to work on some more experimental projects.
Franco created "Rebel" – a mixed-media, collaborative art project that paid homage to one of his heroes, James Dean. It took over a year to come to fruition, but the showcase finally launched in Los Angeles in May 2012, with contributions from Terry Richardson and Harmony Korine. Instead of focussing on Dean’s celebrity though, Franco said he wanted to “[deal] with the myth, the legend and all the implications… [that James Dean] stood for.”
And Teaching College Kids How to Write at UCLA
Dropping out of UCLA had always stuck with Franco, and so over the course of the past 20 years he’s dropped back in on the education system more than once, first finishing his UCLA course before earning a degree in Directing at NYU too.
In 2012 – two years after the Oscar nod and a few months before his next killer role – Franco headed back to his first college to become a professor. Having dropped in on classes as a lecturer before, he committed to a three-hours-a-week, ten-weeks-a-semester program with a group of UCLA students eager to learn more about writing incredible movies.
While he was there, his teaching techniques were labelled “experimental” by some, as he filmed the students and asked them to cut together an "episode" for each lecture. He also asked his well-educated class to study the trashy goings on of MTV’s Jersey Shore: not as much of a surprise when you think about his next film.
Then he went bat-shit crazy with Spring Breakers…
The most memorable James Franco role of the last decade was not one he gained accolades for, or the one that made the most cash at the box office. Instead, it was a low budget, sex-fueled film about drug dealers and Miami beaches, directed by America’s enfant terrible of cinema, Harmony Korine.
Bowing at Venice Film Festival, Spring Breakers was a candy-colored trip scored by Skrillex and co-starring Selena Gomez that divided critics, but everybody seemed to agree that Franco’s turn as the perverted, grill-wearing dealer Alien was nothing short of spectacular. The film’s distributor launched a semi-ironic ’Consider This Shit campaign for Franco as a Best Supporting Actor hopeful. While the big leagues ignored it, some of the smaller Critics’ Circles in New York and LA gave Franco’s turn some well deserved shine.
And reached his career peak with The Disaster Artist
Fast forward four years, and it’s all come full circle for James Franco. An actor famed for his odd-ball decisions and ability to straddle a dozen occupations at once, he’s produced, directed and starred in a hotly-tipped biopic that’s based around the making of what critics have dubbed “the worst movie ever made”.
It tells the true story of actor Tommy Wiseau (played by James), a weird, wealthy nomad living in downtown Los Angeles trying to make it in Hollywood. Feeling rejected by the industry bigwigs who don’t seem to “get him”, he sets out to make a movie of his own. It’s called The Room, and Tommy will write, direct and star in it too.
Franco’s homage to the king of awful cinema has been a big hit with critics, with many calling it “hilarious” and his career peak. The week the movie bows in cinemas, he won the Best Actor Prize at New York’s Gotham Awards, which is a solid predictor for who might be grabbing Oscar nominations, too.
But when James Franco gets Oscar buzz, it doesn’t seem to change his perspective on how the years that follow it might pan out. His career is still defined by his own decisions – the impromptu art shows, stints as a college professor, choosing to be thuggish, semi-satirical drug dealers rather than typical, career-friendly characters. It’s been a long time coming, but James Franco’s ability to set himself apart from his peers is what makes him such an exemplary figure of Hollywood culture. In an industry that sets out to shape the people that run in it, James Franco has dashed out the fire exit door, and if The Disaster Artist is anything to go by, you’ll struggle to drag him back into the popcorn movie machine anytime soon.
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