Not so long ago, James Franco’s life and career were fairly normal. He grew up in Palo Alto, California, where his parents had met as Stanford students. Young James was, at his father’s urging, a math whiz—he even got an internship at Lockheed Martin. As a teenager, he rebelled, got in trouble with the law (drinking, shoplifting, graffiti), and eventually migrated toward the arts. His hero was Faulkner. He fell in love with acting when he played the lead in a couple of dark and heavy high-school plays. After freshman year, he dropped out of UCLA, very much against his parents’ wishes, to try to make a career of it. He was good, lucky, and driven, and within a couple of years, he got his first big break: Judd Apatow cast him in what would become the cult TV series Freaks and Geeks. When the series was canceled after just a season, Franco landed the lead in the TNT biopic James Dean. He played the part with a slumping intensity that seemed like a reasonable replication of the real thing—or at least much closer than anyone had a right to expect from a TNT biopic—and the performance won a Golden Globe. Soon after, he was cast as Robert De Niro’s drug-addicted son in the film City by the Sea. That same year, he entered mainstream consciousness as Peter Parker’s best friend in Spider-Man. Franco had become, in other words, a working Hollywood actor. An unusual actor—he overprepared for minor roles, read Dostoyevsky and Proust between takes, and occasionally drove colleagues crazy with his intensity—but still identifiably an actor, with an actor’s career. As he climbed toward leading-man status, however, Franco had a crisis of faith. He found himself cast in a string of mediocre films—Annapolis, Flyboys, Tristan + Isolde—most of which bombed. He felt like he was funneling all his effort into glossy, big-budget entertainment over which he had no control, and of which he wasn’t proud.
more from Sam Anderson at New York Magazine here.