James Franco could probably use some time off. Just don’t tell him that.
After landing a supporting role in his first feature film, the 1999 Drew Barrymore comedy Never Been Kissed, Franco
made his breakthrough as rebellious burnout Daniel Desario on the short-lived NBC comedy Freaks and Geeks. Despite
critical acclaim and a fanatical following, Freaks was cancelled after one season, but it paved the way for another
star-making turn: the title role in the TNT biopic James Dean.
Since then, Franco has filled out his résumé in alarmingly prolific fashion, starring in more than 15 films, including two
(The Ape, Fool’s Gold) that he wrote and directed. He has also earned star billing in two of the top-grossing
films in U.S. history: Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. Even so, the precocious 28-year-old is constantly reminded
of his small-screen successes.
“Along with Spider-Man, people tend to associate me with Freaks and Geeks or James Dean,”
he says. “Freaks and Geeks was a blast. When it was on the air, it didn’t really get a chance, but I think
the producer, Judd Apatow, had the foresight to know that it would come out on DVD, so he put everything into each episode.
Now it’s a cult classic.”
Now, after a stint at the Naval Academy in this year’s Annapolis, Franco takes to the sky as a World War I fighter
pilot in Flyboys. Aware that filmmakers have rarely embraced the so-called War to End All Wars as a cinematic enterprise
since the days of Howard Hughes, he was eager to reenact the legendary adventures of the Lafayette Escadrille, which featured
America’s first team of airborne warriors.
“It’s a period and a group of people that haven’t been portrayed in a long time,” Franco says. “The
last World War I aviator film was The Blue Max, from the ’60s, which wasn’t very good. Before that, there
were Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, in 1930, and Wings, which won the first Oscar for Best Picture
in 1929. In those old films, they had real pilots, but the action was very limited. The technology has reached a point where
we can portray those battles more realistically, giving you a taste of aerial combat without endangering the lives of the
actors. Three pilots died during the filming of Hell’s Angels.”
Of course, Franco wasn’t content to let CGI animators have all the fun. He signed on for Flyboys in December
of 2004, but when filming didn’t begin until the summer, he became restless.
“Tony Bill, the director, is trained as an aerobatic pilot, so he took me up in his plane and did all kinds of tricks.
Then he threw me right into the mix. I’d never been in a small plane like that before, but he took me to the runway
and told me to take it up. I loved it, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Now that Flyboys is cleared for takeoff, Franco is ready for new adventures. And, as always, his dance card is overflowing.
In May, Spider-Man 3 hits theaters, all but ensuring him another blockbuster success. But Franco hasn’t forgotten
his TV buddies.
“I’m going to do a movie with Judd Apatow and [actor] Seth Rogen,” Franco says. Rogen, a onetime Freak
who had a memorable turn in Apatow’s 40-Year-Old Virgin, has since written a script for a comedy called Pineapple
Express, in which Franco will star. “I’ll be reunited with my Freaks and Geeks friends, and that’s
fine with me.”