James Edward Franco is an American actor, film director, producer, screenwriter, author, painter, performance artist and instructor at New York University.
Ancestors of James Franco's paternal line came from Portugal and Sweden, and maternal - Jewish immigrants from Russia.
Franco was born in Palo Alto, California. His mother, Betsy Lou (née Verne), is a writer and occasional actress, and his father, Douglas Eugene "Doug" Franco, ran a Silicon Valley business.The two met as students at Stanford University.Franco's father was of Portuguese and Swedish descent. Franco's mother is Jewish; her family were Russian Jewish immigrants, and her father, Daniel, had changed the family surname from "Verovitz" to "Verne" some time after 1940. Franco's paternal grandmother, Marjorie (Peterson) Franco, is a published author of young adult books. Franco's maternal grandmother, Mitzie (Levine) Verne, owns the Verne Art Gallery, a prominent art gallery in Cleveland, and was an active member in the National Council of Jewish Women.
Franco's family upbringing was "academic, liberal, and largely secular". He grew up in California with his two brothers, Tom and Dave ("Davy", also an actor). A "math whiz", Franco interned at Lockheed Martin. He was often encouraged by his father to get good grades and did well on his SATs. He graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1996, where he acted in plays. This led to him attending CSSSA in 1998 for theatre. In his high school years, Franco was arrested for underage drinking, graffiti, and for being a part of a group that stole designer fragrances from department stores and sold them to classmates. These arrests led to his briefly becoming a ward of the state. Facing the possibility of juvenile hall, Franco was given a second chance by the judge."It was teen angst. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I was shy. I changed my ways just in time to get good grades", he recalled of his troubles with the law.
Although the idea of becoming a marine zoologist interested him, Franco had always secretly wanted to become an actor but feared being rejected. He enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as an English major, but dropped out after his first year against his parents' wishes to pursue a career as an actor, since he would have had to wait two years to audition for their acting program. Franco instead chose to take acting lessons with Robert Carnegie at the Playhouse West. Around this time, Franco took up a late-night job at McDonald's to support himself since his parents refused to do so. He was a vegetarian until working there. While working at the establishment, he would practice accents on customers, an experience he remembered nostalgically in a 2015 Washington Post editorial ("McDonald’s was there for me when no one else was").
After 15 months of training, he began auditioning in Los Angeles, and started professionally acting in 1997 with guest roles on television shows. His first break came in 1999, after he was cast in a leading role on the short-lived but well-reviewed television series Freaks and Geeks. The program, which ran for 18 episodes and was canceled due to low viewership, later became a cult hit among audiences. He has since described the series as "one of the most fun" work experiences that he has had. In another interview, Franco said: "When we were doing Freaks and Geeks, I didn’t quite understand how movies and TV worked, and I would improvise even if the camera wasn’t on me ... So I was improvising a little bit back then, but not in a productive way." Franco made his film debut in a brief role in the 1999 Drew Barrymore-starring Never Been Kissed and his first major movie was the romantic teen comedy Whatever It Takes (2000), in which he played popular jock Chris. The latter is a modern day remake of the 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac.
He was subsequently cast as the title role in director Mark Rydell's 2001 TV biographical film James Dean. To immerse himself in the role, Franco went from being a non-smoker to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, dyed his dark brown hair blond, and learned to ride a motorcycle as well as play guitar and the bongos. To have a greater understanding of Dean, Franco spent hours with two of Dean's associates. Other research included reading books on Dean and studying his movies. While filming James Dean, the actor, to get into character, cut off communication with his family and friends, as well as his then-girlfriend. "It was a very lonely existence," he notes. "If I wasn't on a set, I was watching James Dean. That was my whole thinking. James Dean. James Dean." Despite already being a fan of Dean, Franco feared he might be typecast if he'd captured the actor too convincingly. Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly wrote: "Franco could have walked through the role and done a passable Dean, but instead gets under the skin of this insecure, rootless young man." He received a Golden Globe Award and nominations for an Emmy Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award (SAG).