A star-making performance in a summer hit (Pineapple Express). A supporting role in a much-buzzed-about Oscar contender (Milk). A degree from a prestigious university (UCLA). Which of his 2008 milestones is James Franco proudest of? Oh, come on, you know he’s not going to be able to choose. ”They’re all really different,” says the actor, 30. ”I shot these movies, like, a year and a half ago, and that was when I was in the middle of my last year at UCLA. Graduating and having the movies come out… It feels like the culmination of a lot of work.”
In Express, Franco gave a seemingly effortless turn as Saul, a lovably earnest and, well, dopey pot dealer. His work was all the more impressive given that his previous film roles — in movies like In the Valley of Elah and City by the Sea — tended to be of the deadly serious variety. Even his role in the Spider-Man movies called for angst. ”I’m really grateful they let me play that role in Pineapple Express,” says Franco, who was hired by old Freaks and Geeks teammates Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow. ”I just don’t think there’s a ton of people that would have.” Well, anybody who’d seen his skits on FunnyOrDie.com would have let him. Franco showcased his unexpected flair for the funny all year — he even knocked out a dead-on Hills spoof where he played Justin Bobby to Mila Kunis’ Audrina.
And then he got Milk. Franco says he was drawn to the drama — a biopic about slain San Francisco politician Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) — not so much because he wanted to stretch himself, but because he admired director Gus Van Sant and the passion it had taken to get this unlikely movie made. The actor lobbied Van Sant for a part — any part — and ultimately took home the role of Milk’s most significant other, Scott Smith. Penn and Franco project real tenderness in their scenes together, and their relationship gives the film its emotional center. ”I’m just proud of being a part of this thing,” he says. ”It seems like people are so grateful that this movie has been made. I have people coming up already just thanking me for having done this movie. It’s nice just being a part of something like that.”
Unfortunately for Franco, this banner year made him even more conspicuous when he started graduate school in the fall at Columbia in New York City. ”I went to the library to write at 11 p.m.,” remembers Franco, who’s getting his master’s in creative writing. ”After, like, an hour, I couldn’t stand it. People just kept coming up to me. I was shocked, because it really never happened on the UCLA campus. I don’t know. Maybe they were just freshmen. They needed a semester to become jaded.” Jaded about James Franco? It’s going to take longer than that.