Published January 14, 2006
He may have begun his career playing a burnout, but unlike his character in the short-lived NBC TV series "Freaks and Geeks," James Franco does his homework.
If anything, the guy's a relentless overachiever; when Franco signs up for a part, he delves.
For his role in the medieval romance "Tristan and Isolde," that meant horses, knightly garb and swordplay: "my own Medieval Times," the actor says with a laugh.
"I trained in sword fighting and rode horses every day for eight months," says Franco, on the phone from L.A. "There's a little training video that'll go on the DVD, where you can see all my horse tricks."
The California-bred actor also spent those eight months honing his English accent and immersing himself in "all the old versions" of the story (which include French and German epic poetry, and a Wagner opera).
The film, out this weekend, tells the legend of a pair of ill-fated lovers from the Dark Ages, at a time when England and Ireland are at war.
Isolde (Sophia Myles) is an Irish princess who rescues Tristan, a shipwrecked English knight -- but things don't exactly go smoothly, and she ends up in an arranged marriage to his boss, the future King of England (Rufus Sewell).
Henceforth, the tormented Tristan is torn between his love for Isolde and his duty to his country -- though he certainly gets in his share of smoldering, stolen moments with the lusty future Queen.
Franco didn't have to work too hard to find his character's emotional inspiration: "I was obsessed with lots of girls in high school," admits the 27-year-old actor, who grew up in Palo Alto, Calif. (Though it's kind of tough to imagine a teenage Franco having a tough time finding a girlfriend.)
"Unfortunately, we didn't have tournaments to win their hand. I doubt I would have won, anyway," says the actor, who was a self-described "sensitive artsy type" kid.
"Football and basketball are kind of the tournaments of high school, and I wasn't very good at any of those,"he says.
Maybe not back then, but the buffed-up Franco could surely go toe-to-toe with the jockiest of high school jocks now.
After wrapping "Tristan," the actor headed straight into shooting "Annapolis," out Jan. 27, which tells the story of a recruit's harrowing training at the most prestigious military academy in the country.
Before shooting began, Franco entered boot camp for a second time (the first was for summer's "The Great Raid"), which emphasized the experience of attending a rigorous academy program.
Given that he followed up "Annapolis" by enlisting for the World War I aviator drama "Flyboys," it's tempting to suggest Franco should just go ahead and enlist, already.
"I think for a while I was seeking out that heroic kind of role, and it's hard to find that outside the military realm," he explains -- then confesses the underlying reason, which is that he really just craves hard work.
"It's such a difficult job, such a difficult position to be in," he says. "It just provides for great character.
"A lot of the time action actors don't get as much respect, but I think they're harder than a lot of dramatic roles."
But the character Franco's probably best known for these days is a civilian: Harry Osborn, best friend and, increasingly, nemesis to Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man.
For two films now, he's been building up to a boil -- first persecuted by his overbearing father (Willem Dafoe), then swearing revenge on whoever killed pop, who happened to moonlight as the villainous Green Goblin. (Umm, wouldn't that be Spider-Man?)
"Harry's troubled," says Franco.
"He's a good guy, but trying to gain his father's respect has basically ruined his life."
It stands to reason that Franco himself might be harboring some resentment on the "Spider-Man" set, given that he originally auditioned for Tobey Maguire's role himself.
But the actor, sounding remarkably sanguine, claims that's not the case.
"The character Tobey created for this part in this movie is just so perfect and charming, and tonally he's got it so right, I don't think I could do it better," says Franco.
He approached the smaller role of Harry with his characteristic gung-ho approach.
"I read all the old comics -- the first 100 or so, I guess," he says.
He also took field trips to three New England boarding schools to get a feel for Harry's posh upbringing.
For "Spider-Man 3," shooting now and due out in 2007, Franco's staying mum on the subject of whether Harry will follow in his dad's footsteps and become the new Green Goblin.
"People are expecting one thing and I think they're gonna get something else," he says. "And I don't want to ruin that. But you can tell all the fans that this will exceed their expectations."
Franco's been garnering his own fan club for years now, but the most devoted ones tend to be in the "Freaks and Geeks" crowd.
That short-lived 1999 TV show featured Franco as Daniel Desario, the leader of the teen slackers known as the freaks. Much like Jared Leto's character in the earlier high-school drama "My So-Called Life," Franco was the bad-boy babe of the show.
Even back then, Franco was outdoing his co-stars with prep work.
Unbeknownst to anyone else, he tracked down the Minnesota high school of Paul Feig, the show's creator, and flew out there to do a little spy work.
"I don't know why," he says, laughing, "but I got it in my head that it would be good to go. So I went to the high school, and I tracked down Paul's A.V. club teacher. I saw his father's sporting goods store.
"I got to see the places where it all happened."
All of which, of couse, was a far cry from anything his character would have done -- but then, as we've established, Franco's far more geeky than freaky.