With the release of Oscar-nominated film Milk, the gorgeous James Edward Franco has become more than just “that hot boy from Spiderman” these days. In fact, he’s become an actor to watch out for, establishing himself as a major forerunner of his generation’s batch of talent.

First gaining critical acclaim for his role as James Dean in a televised biopic of the legendary actor, the little-known Franco won a Golden Globe for his role. “Franco could have walked through the role and done a passable Dean, but instead gets under the skin of this insecure, rootless young man,” praised Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly.

Hollywood then came knocking, as Franco moved on to more mainstream cinema and took on the role of Harry Osborn in the Spiderman trilogy. Roles in smaller movies followed, including City by the Sea, The Company, Flyboys and Tristan and Isolde.

However it wasn’t until Judd Apatow’s Pineapple Express that the world really took notice of the actor. Having worked with Apatow and fellow actor Seth Rogen in the cult comedy Freaks and Geeks, Franco was able to get back to his comedic roots in his second Golden Globe-nominated performance as drug dealer Saul.

“He’s delightful as Saul, loosey-goosey and goofy yet irrepressibly sexy, despite that greasy curtain of hair and a crash pad with a zero WAF (Woman Acceptance Factor). It’s an unshowy, generous performance and it greatly humanises a movie that, as it shifts genre gears and cranks up the noise, becomes disappointingly sober and self-serious,” New York Times film critic Manhola Dargis wrote.

More recently, Franco has been taking on edgier roles, allowing him to flex his acting muscles freely. In the autobiographical film Milk, Franco plays the role of Scott Smith, Harvey Milk’s gay lover; a role for which he received critical acclaim and the 2008 Independent Spirit Award in the category of Best Supporting Actor. He admitted that had a lot to learn about the famed gay rights crusader before he started filming.

“Sadly, I didn’t know a lot about it,” Franco said. “There was something familiar about him. I think maybe I saw a poster of him in San Francisco or something when I was little. So it made me sad that I grew up in the Bay Area and no one taught me more about who Harvey Milk was.”

Working with Sean Penn was one of the highlights of his career, Franco said, but creating the sexual chemistry with the Oscar-winning actor meant delving into new territory. “It was unfamiliar,” said Franco who makes love to Penn in the film. “I’d never done a scene like that with a guy.”

“…they were thinking that it would be better if I wore a prosthetic penis…”

However, he told Attitude magazine, “What is different in Milk is that the drama isn’t the two men are struggling to be together, at least not in their own heads. They’re not struggling with their own sexualities; they’re completely comfortable with it, so the relationship between Scott and Harvey is how any healthy relationship is depicted in the mainstream movies. The film is about the political struggle and not the struggle in themselves to be together. The kissing and the love scenes shouldn’t be overdramatised because it’s just two people happy in love.”

A little humour on set also helped break the ice, as the prop department created a huge prosthetic penis for Franco to wear during his nude scene.

“It was akin to having a sock and for whatever reason they made it into a huge fucking penis! [laughs] I didn’t know they were even going to be used. I had been preparing for the film for months and I saw the scenes and I was, ‘Alright there’s a nude scene. I’ll do it, fine, whatever.’ And then a few days before, they came to me and explained they were thinking that it would be better if I wore a prosthetic penis because it would make everyone on set feel more comfortable. And so I said OK. But it was never going to be me walking round with it on and you’d see it inserted somewhere!”

Franco’s role in Milk has opened doors for the actor, whose next role is as another gay man, the legendary Beat poet Alan Ginsberg.

“Ginsberg has always been a hero for me. So yeah, he was gay and he was very open about it and for good reason. Back then they were very prejudiced about it, back then they put you in an institution for being open about it, he was put in an institution because of it. And he actually struggled with his homosexuality because of what people were telling him. So yeah he’s gay but ‘oh well’, he’s also a lot of other things,” he told Attitude magazine.

Before he got into showbiz, Franco was drawn to other creative pursuits. Growing up in a multi-talented household, he was encouraged to draw and paint. It wasn’t until he enrolled in the English program at the University of California that Franco discovered acting. He soon dropped out of college to pursue a career in acting. Possibly the wisest decision he’s ever made.

The star, who is of Portuguese, Swedish, Russian and Jewish heritage, received his undergraduate degree in English from UCLA in 2008. He then moved to New York to attend graduate school at Columbia University’s MFA Writing Program and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where he studies filmmaking.

Franco is not only a drop-dead gorgeous actor, he also happens to be a screenwriter, director, film producer and artist. Although he shines brightest in his acting job, he did learn a thing or two from working behind the scenes.

“My directorial efforts I wouldn’t say are the biggest successes,” he says. “But one very positive thing that came out of them is I got a perspective from the other side, and I think it has really helped me as an actor to approach movies in a much more co-operative way. It’s not that I was trying to sabotage any of the previous movies, but I was thinking about myself and my role in a much more isolated way.”

If you intend to travel to Hollywood hoping to meet this desirable thespian at some party or in a trendy nightclub, you’ll be disappointed. You’re more likely to spot Franco – who’s shunned the party scene and prefers a quiet, private life – at a bookstore. A very good reason to consider becoming a bookworm.

Milk is on circuit in South Africa now.

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