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.
"We're on the run, we don't have the chance to change, I have one outfit, so we'd better get it right," says Franco. "They wanted me to wear these Guatemalan pants. I was like, 'Who wears these awful things?' And Judd and Shauna Robertson, the other producer, are good friends with Woody Harrelson and said, 'Woody wears these all the time.' I even met some other friends of Woody's and they're like, 'Yeah, Woody wears them.' That's how the outfit came about."
He watched all the major stoner movies, including his favorites that "had something more going on" than just endless weed jokes, such as The Big Lebowski, Fast Times and Brad Pitt's stoned turn in True Romance. But he says he didn't actually smoke any illegal substances to get into character.
During interviews for Pineapple, he gets asked one question repeatedly: How did he and Rogen research their roles? So he has come up with an answer to throw interviewers for a loop. He tells them he experimented with black-tar heroin, but knew when to pull back.
That's his goofy, sharp sense of humor, also on display in his acting tutorials on FunnyOrDie.com.
"Basically, Pineapple is a documentary," he deadpans. "I was always going to play Saul. They found me in my apartment, there was no script, they just came into my place. My dealer came after me. It was perfect."
In reality, Franco says, "I used to smoke weed, but I haven't done it in a long time. Everybody, even now, thinks, 'That guy is stoned.' It's just the way I talk, because I don't smoke weed. Somehow, there's something about me, the way I talk, that implies that I'm on drugs."
Franco calls Pineapple the most fun movie he ever has worked on. He even had a Saul-like moment when he and a friend took his two plus-sized cats for a walk in Los Angeles.
"We got them leashes so we could take them outside, because they're completely indoor cats. They got so scared," says Franco. "We're walking down Sunset and one of them got out of the leash and jumped over the fence to the Chateau Marmont. We were hunting him down in the bushes of the Chateau Marmont."
The real Franco is nothing like Saul, who hides in trash bins, adores his Bubby (grandma) and slushies, and tries to smash a windshield with his foot.
"He's a very education-minded person," says Apatow. "We used to laugh because in between takes he'd be reading The Iliad on set. We still haven't read The Iliad. It was a very difficult book. With him, it was always James Joyce or something."
On the set of Freaks, recalls Franco, "this sounds so pretentious, but I was reading Proust. And Judd is like, 'Why do you read things like that?' I don't know. It's good? But Judd reads. He gave me a great book called A Fan's Notes by a guy named Frederick Exley."
Franco is showcasing his cerebral side in November's Milk, Van Sant's pedigreed political biopic starring Penn as gay activist Harvey Milk, the "mayor of Castro Street," who was assassinated in 1978. Milk producer Dan Jinks says Franco was cast because "there's a sensitivity that exudes from him. He can, without trying, make you see into his soul. He makes it seem effortless."
Franco has known Penn for years and has gone to him for career advice. Back in April, after the film was shot, the two were hanging out at the Coachella music festival with Franco's actress girlfriend, Ahna O'Reilly (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Penn would ask O'Reilly, " 'What do you think about me being the other girl?' " says Franco. "And he would always ask me if my girlfriend was the better kisser."
For Penn and Franco's first kiss, Van Sant was inspired by a video piece from artist Douglas Gordon featuring two people engaged in a three-minute lip-lock, resulting from a 12-hour make-out session.
Penn and Franco's first smooch lasted "a minute. It doesn't sound like a long time, but in front of 200 people, it's a long time," says Franco. "We're sitting on the curb, kissing. You can't deny what's going on. I'm kissing Spicoli and it's still going and it's not stopping and it was when he had a beard and the beard is scraping me. Afterwards, we were like, 'All right, how are those Raiders?' "
Next up for Franco? Tackling higher education once again, as he moves to Manhattan to pursue a master's degree in writing at NYU and Columbia; his two felines will stay back in Los Angeles with his brother.
Before classes start, he would like to go on a road trip to check out what he calls "Earth art pieces" scattered around the western USA.
"I've always wanted to see Smithson's Spiral Jetty in Utah, The Lightning Field of New Mexico. And there's Donald Judd's center in Marfa, Texas," he says.
He hopes to write and direct full time.
As for his decision to go to school just when his career is on fire, courtesy of Pineapple and Milk? Franco responds with a Zen-like attitude Saul would value.
"Some people would say (that was) really stupid. It's not like I'm gonna stop acting. It's just that before I did these two movies, I was really tired of acting," he says.
"I was putting a ton of work in and not getting as much satisfaction out of it. So I just needed something else to focus my attention on, to take the pressure off. Turns out that I love school."