“I’m tired.” James Franco says this as a statement of fact, not as a complaint or an excuse. He has just stepped off a train from New Haven, Conn., where he attends Ph.D. classes at Yale, and is on his way to meetings in Providence. Lately, he has shuttled to and from school, press events for two movies, and a signing for his new book of short stories, Palo Alto. Before that, he premiered shorts he directed at Sundance and Cannes, attended four other graduate programs, guest-starred on 30 Rock (he played himself, though his addiction to a Japanese body pillow was fictional), continued shooting episodes of General Hospital, and debuted a multimedia solo art show. Fortunately, he got a little shut-eye on the train: “At this point, I can sleep just about anywhere.”
The actor is no longer just an actor. He has been collecting hyphens the way other celebrities collect vintage cars or ex-girlfriends. His performance in Danny Boyle’s survival film 127 Hours will likely snag him an Oscar nom (conveniently he’ll already be at the Kodak cohosting the awards show with Anne Hathaway), but it’s just one part of Franco’s big year. The 32-year-old says his transformation into a Renaissance man began around five years ago. “I was 27, 28, and that’s a time in a lot of people’s lives when they start assessing themselves,” he says. Franco had been a recognizable star for years, thanks to his role as Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man franchise. But bad experiences on films made him pause for reevaluation: “Basically I had done a few projects that I just hated. It wasn’t only the final product, it was my approach to the movies, and I knew I had to change something.”
So he went back to school, getting his bachelor’s degree from UCLA. But one framed diploma on the wall wasn’t enough, and he found himself enrolled in graduate programs including Columbia and NYU. “This was my time to learn all the things I wanted to learn,” he says. “So when I got into all these good schools, I figured, ‘Well, I’ll just go to all of them.’” A celebrity stumbling out of a nightclub is so common that it almost doesn’t warrant a comment, but a celebrity choosing to spend time in a classroom? Not surprisingly, the move was met with skepticism.
Franco was unfazed. During production on 127 Hours, he’d act six days a week, and then catch a red-eye to New York for classes. Now he’s planning his next art show, has two films scheduled for release in the first half of 2011, and is prepping material to direct. Once he completes one project, he is halfway through another. While on the train, Franco received an e-mail from NYU informing him that he’d officially completed classes. “I loved it there, but I’m happy to be finished,” he says. But he quickly adds, “I’ve been talking to them about maybe teaching there in a few years.” Add it to the list.
For more about James Franco and EW’s 14 other 2010 Entertainers of the Year, pick up the Dec. 10 issue of the magazine, with Taylor Swift on the cover.