Until about a month ago, all that really registered with us about James Franco were his good looks and that some students at UCLA really didn't want him to be their graduation speaker. All that changed when Franco announced he'd be guest starring on daytime soap stalwart General Hospital, the first pictures of which (at right) — mostly involving Secretive Expressions with a hint of Nefarious Eavesdropping — leaked online this week. Practically overnight, thanks to TV's oldest and most maligned form of storytelling, James Franco went from being just another moderately tall, dark, and handsome actor to being the star of this fall's most unexpected showbiz story. And arguably the most interesting actor in town.
To be fair, after reacquainting ourselves with his diverse résumé, it seems Franco always may have been intriguing. He's an original Apatow acolyte, via Freaks and Geeks; he won a Golden Globe for James Dean and an Independent Spirit Award for Milk; he nailed comedy as a stoner in Pineapple Express; he's about to do a 30 Rock cameo. And on a recent cross-country flight, while watching the execrably cheesy romantic saga Nights in Rodanthe (don't judge; we had to do SOMETHING while eating our Beef Sandwiches of Questionable Origin), we did a double-take when a James Franco look-alike strolled into the movie at the end. "That can't be the actual James Franco," we reasoned. "He wouldn't do this film. Would he?" Turns out he would, and he did. James Franco, it seems, will do anything. He's a decorated dramatic actor with both an action franchise (Spider-Man) and a gift for comedy, who likely could do whatever he wants and what he apparently wants is to go toe-to-toe with a longtime GH hero who suffered a head injury that turned him into a semi-robotic mobster who was once kidnapped by a Swedish megalomaniac who gave him a face transplant and brainwashed him into being half of a pop act that also sells babies. (Okay, that last bit is a lie, but we're talking soaps here: It easily could have been true.)
This latest move not only takes the cake, but frosts it with awesome. Franco essentially is doing something no one has done before: voluntarily, and apparently by his own design, embracing daytime drama. Soaps tend to be treated (unfairly) like a training ground for actors who want to achieve "real" stardom elsewhere, so an artist of James's talent, youth, and fame level choosing to act there, even for two weeks, is like eating lunch alone in the cafeteria for two years only to have the hottest dude in school ask if he can sit with you and share a plate of fries: Nobody wants to look the gift horse in the mouth, but it's awfully hard not to keep one eye on its ass just to make sure it's not secretly peeing on your leg. It feels natural to search for an ulterior motive to this career move: Is it research for a movie role? Did he lose — or win — a bet? Maybe he’s making a play for Total Entertainment Domination, and will by 2010 have also hosted a game show, run a news hour on CNN, and released a hit rap album. Or perhaps Franco is just a cool dude making what's perceived to be an uncool choice simply because — gasp — he thought it sounded like fun. Indeed, based on the photo, Franco is throwing himself into GH with gusto. His eyes are so shifty, his hands so deeply jammed into the pockets of his slick black suit, that he might as well wear a sign saying, "As soon I leave this room, I'm going to pull a gun out of my pocket, chuckle sinisterly, and then deliver an evil monologue to the wall at full volume in the middle of a crowded yet strangely blind-and-deaf public space."
Franco himself is being tight-lipped about his motives and moving along to 30 Rock without any to-do — and that's smart, because the speculation is creating way more buzz than it would if we simply discovered he has a beloved old aunt who still drinks from a Luke-and-Laura coffee mug. And in the end, we don't really care about the hows and whys; we're just fascinated that he's here, there, and everywhere. Joining General Hospital, and acting like it's just another gig, displays a ballsy disregard for conventional Hollywood wisdom, and adds a line to his résumé that has already generated more discussion than all the Spider-Man movies combined. For any ridicule Franco may get, he’s created twice as much intrigue — making him not only a clever actor, but a versatile and surprising one. So next year, when commencement rolls around again, we hope someone offers Franco the chance to give that speech. It'll probably be a doozy. Especially now that he’ll be able to deliver it while staring longingly into middle distance as one perfect tear rolls down his cheek.
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