Who Is James Franco?
James Franco landed his breakthrough role in the NBC series Freaks and Geeks in 1999. He made his film debut in 1999’s Never Been Kissed, followed by the 2000 romantic comedy Whatever It Takes. His performance in 2001's TNT cable biopic James Dean earned Franco a 2002 Golden Globe Award for best actor. Later credits include the Spider-Man franchise, Flyboys, Tristan + Isolde, Milk, Eat Pray Love and 127 Hours, for which he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In 2018, Franco grabbed another Golden Globe win for The Disaster Artist.
Early Life and Education
James Edward Franco was born on April 19, 1978, in Palo Alto, California, the eldest of three brothers born to Doug Franco and writer/editor Betsy Levine. Franco attended Palo Alto High School, where he became known for his rebellious ways. "In my first two years of high school, I got into a lot of trouble with the police for minor things: graffiti, stealing, crashing cars," he later said in an interview with The Guardian, explaining, "It was teen angst. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I was shy. I changed my ways just in time to get good grades."
After graduating from high school in 1996, Franco briefly attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studied English and drama. He dropped out during his freshman year, however, to pursue a career as an actor. (He would later return to UCLA and earn his undergraduate degree.) Working the late shift at McDonald's to make ends meet, Franco appeared in his first major role at the age of 19, as Brian on the crime drama series Pacific Blue (1997).
Movies and TV Shows
'Freaks and Geeks'
After 15 months of intensive study with noted drama coach Robert Carnegie at the North Hollywood acting school/theater Playhouse West, in 1999, Franco landed his breakthrough role: as heartthrob/bad boy Daniel Desario on the critically acclaimed but short-lived television series Freaks and Geeks (1999–2000), which also starred Seth Rogen, Busy Philipps, Jason Segel and Linda Cardellini. The teen comedy soon gained a cult-like following.
That same year, Franco made his film debut in the Drew Barrymore vehicle Never Been Kissed. In 2000, he starred in the romantic comedy Whatever It Takes.
But it was Franco's standout title performance in 2001's TNT cable biopic James Dean that made critics stand up and take notice of the young actor. His portrayal of Dean earned him the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in 2002. Franco later said that he prepared for the role by picking up smoking — two packs of cigarettes a day.
Also in 2002, James Franco appeared alongside Robert De Niro and Frances McDormand in the crime drama City by the Sea, and starred as a male prostitute turned soldier in the Nicolas Cage film Sonny. Turning to more commercial fare that same year, he took on the role of Harry Osborne, son of the villainous Green Goblin, in Spider-Man. The actor would return to play the character in the following two installments of the film franchise — Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007).
Around this same time, Franco co-wrote a film about a writer who lives with a talking gorilla entitled The Ape (2005). He worked with Merriwether Williams, a former Nickelodeon writer and executive, on the project.
'Flyboys,' 'Tristan + Isolde'
Franco went on to garner acclaim in 2006 for his performance as aviator Blaine Rawlings in the World War I film Flyboys. In order to play the part, Franco had to obtain a pilot's license. That same year, Franco starred alongside Sophia Myles in the titillating romance/drama Tristan + Isolde—cementing his sex symbol status in Hollywood (and breaking the hearts of young women everywhere).
Oscar Nomination for '127 Hours'
Franco returned to the romantic drama genre two years later with a role in Nights in Rodanthe (2008), starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, before playing Scott Smith in the award-winning Milk (2008), alongside acclaimed actor Sean Penn (as Harvey Milk). In 2010, Franco starred as legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the critically acclaimed biopic Howl. That same year, the actor scored his greatest critical honor to date: an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, for his performance in the adventure drama 127 Hours (2010). The film tells the true story of a mountain climber's near-death experience in Utah after a fallen boulder crushes his arm and traps him in a canyon.
'Date Night,' 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' 'Spring Breakers'
Later film roles include the comedy Date Night (2010), alongside Tina Fey, the drama Eat Pray Love (2011), alongside Julia Roberts, the comedy Your Highness (2011), with Natalie Portman and funny man Danny McBride, the sci-fi drama Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and the Harmony Korine-directed crime drama Spring Breakers (2012), also starring Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez. In 2014 the actor began doing voiceover work for The Little Prince, an animated film adaption of the 1943 book of the same name by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and also featuring narrations by Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard.
Franco continued to gain fame for his roles on the small screen as well, with appearances on the popular soap opera General Hospital (2009-2012) and comedian Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project (2013).
More recently, Franco attracted significant buzz for The Interview. In the movie, Franco plays a TV talk show host who lands an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He and his producer, played by Rogen, are asked by the CIA to kill Kim Jong-un during their visit to North Korea.
Months before the film's scheduled 2014 release, North Korea vigorously objected to the film. One of the country's officials even threatened action against the United States over the movie. A group of hackers known as the Guardians of Peace also opposed the film's release. They broke into the systems of Sony Pictures Entertainment, the company behind The Interview. The group leaked confidential company emails as well as other unreleased Sony films. They also threatened movie theater companies that were planning to show The Interview. The FBI later linked the cyber assault on Sony to the North Korean government.
After the cyber attack and other threats, Sony decided to cancel its plans to release The Interview. Days later, the company announced the film would be available for online rental and be released to limited indie theaters on Christmas Day. In a statement, Sony's Chairman Michael Lynton said, “I want to thank our talent on The Interview and our employees, who have worked tirelessly through the many challenges we have all faced over the last month. While we hope this is only the first step of the film’s release, we are proud to make it available to the public and to have stood up to those who attempted to suppress free speech.”
'The Disaster Artist,' Acting with Brother Dave Franco
Franco continued signing on for projects that ranged off the beaten path, including I Am Michael (2015), about a gay activist who becomes a Christian pastor. In 2017, he took on the dual role of twin brothers in HBO's The Deuce, about the legalization and rise of the porn industry in New York City in the 1970s. He also directed and starred alongside his brother Dave in that year's The Disaster Artist, for which he was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy. Subsequent films that featured both the acting and directing talents of Franco included Future World (2018) and Zeroville (2019).
The same night he was awarded his Golden Globe in January 2018, a new controversy began brewing when actress Ally Sheedy fired off a few cryptic tweets, one of which read: "James Franco just won. Please never ask me why I left the film/tv business." Another actress, Violet Paley, also took to Twitter to accuse Franco of forcing her into a sexual act and inviting her 17-year-old friend to his hotel room.
On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Franco insisted he had done nothing improper. "I pride myself on taking responsibility for things that I have done," he told Colbert. "I have to do that to maintain my well being. The things that I heard that were on Twitter are not accurate. But I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice because they didn’t have a voice for so long. So I don’t want to shut them down in any way."
However, a January 11, 2018, report in the Los Angeles Times aired the grievances of five women who accused the actor of inappropriate or sexually exploitative behavior. Four of the women, who were students in acting classes taught by Franco, described situations in which they were asked to take off their clothing or participate in uncomfortable sex scenes. Through his attorney, Michael Plonsker, Franco disputed all of the allegations.
Two weeks later, after Vanity Fair unveiled its annual Hollywood Issue, it was revealed that Franco had been photographed and interviewed for the publication, but did not appear alongside the other movie stars on the cover. A Vanity Fair spokesperson confirmed the last-minute digital removal of the actor from the cover spread, saying, "We made a decision not to include James Franco on the Hollywood cover once we learned of the misconduct allegations against him."
Despite the bad press, in February 2018 it was confirmed that Franco would return for Season 2 of The Deuce. Previously, co-creator David Simon had supported the actor in a statement to Variety. Noting he could only attest to his experience with Franco on The Deuce, Simon wrote, "I've checked with all my fellow producers and other personnel. We have no complainant or complaint or any awareness of any incident of concern involving Mr. Franco. ... In our experience, he was entirely professional as an actor, director and producer."
The issue of Franco's misconduct surfaced again in October 2019, when two former students sued the actor, his two business partners and his production company for allegedly sexually exploiting women who took classes through his acting school, Studio 4. In February 2021, a settlement had reportedly been reached.
Continuing His Education
Franco re-enrolled at UCLA as a creative writing major in 2006, taking an accelerated course load while continuing to act. He completed his degree two years later, graduating with a GPA of 3.5/4.
Moving to New York City in 2008, Franco enrolled at Columbia University. While working toward a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing there, he also attended New York University's Tisch School of the Arts for filmmaking, took courses in fiction writing at Brooklyn College and studied poetry at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.
In 2010, Franco was accepted at Yale University, pursuing a Ph.D. in English. That same year, the actor earned his M.F.A. from Columbia. In 2011, he completed his master's degree in filmmaking at NYU.
In April 2011, while still enrolled at Yale, Franco was accepted into the Rhode Island School of Design's literature and creative writing program. A year later, he was accepted into the University of Houston's creative writing program, though it was announced soon after that he wouldn't be attending the Texas school.
The actor discussed his educational pursuits in an interview with New York Magazine: "The new critique you're gonna start hearing about James Franco," he said, "is, 'He's spreading himself too thin.'"
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