James Franco had to uncool it

When they first met, Danny Boyle thought James Franco was stoned. When they next saw each other and Boyle had Franco memorize and read a scene from the "127 Hours" script, Boyle realized that Franco's half-baked demeanor had been a ruse, a combination of exhaustion and wariness. Franco hadn't actually taken a permanent seat on the " Pineapple Express." He was just sizing up Boyle to see what he was about.

"127 Hours": In the Nov. 18 edition of The Envelope, a caption for a photo accompanying an article about James Franco and his work in "127 Hours" said that the film's director, Danny Boyle, was shown at right. The photo showed Boyle at left and Franco at right. —

But it was Franco's inspired goofiness in that 2008 stoner action- comedy that made Boyle think of him for "127 Hours" in the first place, so maybe Franco was on to something at that initial meeting. "That movie was a key moment in my understanding of how good he was and gave me the faith to cast him," Boyle says.

For his part, Franco, once he gets over Boyle telling the I-thought-he-was-stoned story ("I don't know why he always mentions that damn audition!"), embraces Boyle's career assessment of him, noting it took him nearly a decade of acting to reach the point where he could abandon feeling self-conscious.

"I remember the second episode of 'Freaks and Geeks,'" Franco says, referring to the seminal, short-lived 1999 TV series that put him (and many others) on the map, "and [producer Judd Apatow] taking me aside, saying, 'You're coming off too cool. The character should be a little more unsure of himself.' I thought I had to be cool. And I kept thinking that, and I kept trying to be cool. I don't think I really took that advice until 'Pineapple.'"

These are the small ironies at play in Franco's life. When he stopped taking himself so seriously, he began to win serious attention, first for "Pineapple Express" and Gus Van Sant's "Milk," and now playing Aron Ralston, the mountain climber whose arm was pinned by a boulder and who struggled to extricate himself from what Boyle called a "handshake with a canyon," in "127 Hours." And when Franco decided to devote himself to education, first at UCLA and then simultaneously pursuing four graduate degrees, his acting career exploded.

"In some ways, yeah, it's strange timing, but it's all connected to an attitude change," Franco, 32, says. "I just decided a career wasn't worth having unless I was doing the things that interested me. For a while, I didn't think I should listen to my own taste. I didn't know that was something you could do. I thought you had to build a career … whatever that means."

What it meant for Franco a few years ago was accepting leads in a string of mediocre studio movies — " Annapolis," "Flyboys," "Tristan & Isolde" — during his downtime from costarring in the "Spider-Man" franchise. What it means now is popping up on television, both daytime (a recurring role on "General Hospital") and night (playing himself on "30 Rock"), turning offshoot educational projects into public events (Franco staged a solo art show in New York and made a documentary about "Saturday Night Live"), writing a collection of short stories ("Palo Alto") and appearing in ads for Gucci cologne.

Franco mixes these high and low interests in all sincerity, mustering equal amounts of enthusiasm for his ongoing stint as a deranged performance artist on "General Hospital" as for the demanding movie role that many think will land him an Oscar nomination. Starring in "127 Hours" is most definitely an actor's dream, affording Franco an abundance of solo screen time as Ralston, trapped by a boulder in a Utah canyon, goes on parallel journeys, one of the intellect (how do I get out of here?), the other of the soul (how did I lose my connection with people?).

"Because there are no other characters, Aron almost needs to embody a bunch of different sides of a person," Franco says. "You can't have a funny character come in and be the comic relief or the antagonistic character come in and pose a challenge. It all has to come from this character. That's why the comedy's there and the adventure and the analytical. It all drives the drama, but we're doing it through just one person."

Says Boyle: "In a multi-character narrative film, you can disguise shortcomings. But there's no disguising in this. Every time you cut, you cut to James Franco."

That singular focus left Franco shifting uncomfortably in his seat when he watched the movie with audiences at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. And not because the woman sitting behind him literally passed out during the scene when Ralston takes graphic, drastic measures to free himself.

"It felt so revealing," Franco says. "I didn't know if I'd be able to talk in the Q&A afterward. It sounds cheesy, but I felt, 'Wow. I just shared something really intimate.'"

And if Franco looks exhausted in the movie, it's a testament to his acting, yes, but also a natural consequence of the hours he kept while making it. After working six days, Franco took the red-eye from Salt Lake City to New York on Sunday nights so he could make his Monday morning fiction workshop at Columbia University. Then, because there were no direct flights back to Utah, Franco would return to Los Angeles, arrive after midnight, grab a few hours of sleep in the airport terminal and then catch the 6 o'clock flight back to Salt Lake.

"The studio was worried, but I thought, 'Hey, cool for the role!'" Boyle says, laughing. "On some level, he's contacting the deprivation."

"Yeah, I wasn't worried about looking tired," Franco says. "I'm used to working myself to death. It's just that Danny seemed to embrace that thing and actually make plans to wear me out and torture me." Franco flashes what Apatow calls his "killer smile." "Not in harmful ways, mind you, but in ways that would help the character. And maybe they did."


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