James Franco's Many Faces

With a plethora of projects, James Franco is a modern day Renaissance man.

Jan. 18, 2011 — -- Oscar host; potential Oscar-nominated actor. Soap opera star; Ph.D. candidate. Director; producer. Author; painter.

To paraphrase Kanye West, no one man should have all that power. Yet James Franco does.

He flies in the face of Hollywood pigeonholing, jumping from big budget blockbusters ("Spider-Man," "Pineapple Express") to indie darlings ("Howl," "127 Hours"), pursuing projects all the while in myraid fields.

For many stars, preparing to co-host the Oscars for the first time -- as he will do with Anne Hathaway on Feb. 27 -- would make for a full plate. Not Franco. On Monday, The New York Post reported that the 32-year-old actor will star as satanic serial killer Richard Ramierz in "The Night Stalker" and direct the film to boot. This is in addition to two other movies in which he's slated to star, an adaptation of William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" that he's signed on to direct, a film he wants to make with his family, and a musical he's executive producing at Yale University.

Also, he's a sex symbol, albeit a scruffy one. (Who has time to shave when they're working 20 hours a day?)

"It doesn't feel like this is a studied, calculated career," said E! Online columnist Ted Casablanca. "It's like he's a wild acting horse. He plays with the public just as much as he plays with the Hollywood machinery. To the assumptions that an A-list actor can't be in a soap opera and all the rest -- he says, 'Screw that, I'm going to do what I want, what I have fun doing.'"

By many accounts, Franco tops the list of standout stars of his generation. Below, familiarize yourself with seven facts about Hollywood's much-ballyhooed Renaissance man:

He's a born "Freak." In 1999, Franco got his big break on the short-lived but critically acclaimed NBC series, "Freaks and Geeks." The show was produced by another guy who'd become a major player in Hollywood: Judd Apatow.

He might be gay. Well, that was the tongue-in-cheek explanation he gave earlier this month when pressed about why he's played so many homosexual characters -- Allen Ginsberg in"Howl," activist Scott Smith in "Milk" and poet Hart Crane in the upcoming "The Broken Tower."

"There are lots of other reasons to be interested in gay characters than wanting myself to go out and have sex with guys," he told Entertainment Weekly. "And there are also lots of other aspects about these characters that I'm interested in, in addition to their sexuality. ... I mean, I've played a gay man who's living in the '60s and '70s, a gay man who we depicted in the '50s, and one being in the '20s. And those were all periods when to be gay, at least being gay in public, was much more difficult.

"Part of what I'm interested in is how these people who were living anti-normative lifestyles contended with opposition. Or, you know what, maybe I'm just gay."

He's a man of the world. Franco's mother, who's a poet, is a Jewish descendant of Russian immigrants. His father, the head of a non-profit agency and a shipping company called Secure Box, has Portuguese and Swedish roots.

He's not afraid to make fun of himself. On NBC's "30 Rock" last year, Franco played himself with one key distinction: While his character had a fetish for Japanese body pillows, the actor prefers lovers of the flesh-and-blood kind. (He's been dating the actress Ahna O'Reilly since 2006.)

He collects degrees. Franco's academic passions run deep. He received a bachelor of arts from UCLA in 2008, where he studied English and creative writing. After that, he moved to New York and enrolled in masters programs at both Columbia University (writing) and NYU (filmmaking). In addition, he started fiction writing classes at Brooklyn College and a poetry program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. He's not done yet: This fall, Franco began pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Yale University and dropped by the Rhode Island School of Design to study art.

He takes soaps seriously. In 2009, Franco took a turn on "General Hospital" as a thinly veiled version of his real personality: A mysterious multimedia artist named "Franco." He wasn't trying to slum it, he wasn't in need of work, he didn't do it on a dare. In December of that year, Franco wrote a Wall Street Journal article about how he saw his "General Hospital" stint as performance art: "My hope was for people to ask themselves if soap operas are really that far from entertainment that is considered critically legitimate."

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