NEW YORK — James Franco is flying high.
In June, he graduated from UCLA with an English degree. On Wednesday, he's starring in comedy king Judd Apatow's latest romp, the stoner "bromance" action comedy Pineapple Express, with Franco's dense pot dealer Saul going on the lam with his equally obtuse customer Dale (Seth Rogen). And in November, he romances Sean Penn in Gus Van Sant's Milk, a biopic of San Francisco's first openly gay elected official.
"Who would have thought I'd play a Spicoli-like character and then make out with Spicoli in the same year?" wonders Franco, 30, referring to Penn's infamous pothead surfer from 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Milk producer Bruce Cohen, for starters: "It couldn't be a better showcase for his talent to look at these two roles. They're both different sides of him.
"He's had a lot of life experience," Cohen says. "He can bring the attributes of the young stoner guy he needs for Pineapple, but underneath that is the scholar and the deep thinker and the guy who wants to learn about art and is interested in politics. His performances are complex and layered."
And this year, they are getting major notice. Franco has been kicking around Hollywood since the late '90s, when Apatow's short-lived but critically adored TV dramedy Freaks and Geeks put him on the map and set many teen hearts aflutter. Since then, he won a Golden Globe for his 2001 portrayal of James Dean in TNT's TV biopic and alternately befriended and battled Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker in the behemoth Spider-Man trilogy.
His career has been a mixed bag of the artsy, the big-budget and the plain forgettable. So it's somehow fitting that Franco is back in the spotlight in tandem with Pineapple producer Apatow, who first spotted Franco's lighter side on Freaks, and Freaks co-star Rogen, who realized that the two had sizzling chemistry.
Apatow calls Franco "a very smart, sweet person. He seems to have really evolved over the last 10 years into this really easygoing, approachable, warm man. When we did Freaks and Geeks, he was so hungry and obsessed with the work. It made him a little more of an intense guy. Now, he's very happy in his life."
Apatow and Franco stayed in touch after Freaks was canceled. By happenstance they ran into each other at the Austin airport in 2005, when Franco was promoting The Ape, a comedy he directed, at the city's film festival. Apatow suggested they work together again. Flush from the success of his 2005 comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow sent Franco a script that he and Rogen had been kicking around for years but hadn't been able to get produced. Suddenly, they could.
"We sent him Pineapple for the role of Dale. The idea came up to switch roles," says Rogen, who co-wrote the screenplay about two potheads on the run from a crooked cop and murderous dealers.
The casting flip-flop paid off. Franco, says Rogen, is "so lovable in the movie, and we didn't predict that the lovability of Franco would come through so much. (Saul) was written as the dumbest guy on earth. No one's sitting there thinking James Franco should play (him). Sometimes it takes working with your friends to bring that up and believe it would work."
Franco takes his work seriously, even more so when it comes to the funny stuff.
Even Franco's seemingly thrown-together ensemble — starting with the greasy, matted wig he's sporting — is no accident.