Dave Franco: ‘I’ve had to distance myself from my brother’

The ‘Now You See Me’ star speaks about breaking out in the family business

Late into the 2015-16 Premier League season, as Leicester headed to a historic title, their goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, son of Manchester United treble-winning Peter Schmeichel, said: “I am 29, I am married, I have two kids, but people still see me as someone’s son.”

The US actor Dave Franco was not as engrossed in the Foxes’ triumph as many were on this side of the Atlantic, but he smiles and nods in recognition.

Dave – younger brother of James Franco, star of 127 Hours, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Oz: The Great and Powerful – has spent much of the past decade trying to escape from a mighty big fraternal shadow. (Tellingly, when their father Doug, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, died in 2011, the headline read: "James Franco's Father Dies at 63.")

“As much as I love and respect my brother, I’ve had to distance myself from him work-wise,” Franco says. “It’s weird because people think we’re very similar because the way we look and the way we talk is similar. But anyone who knows us really well knows that we’re very different personalities.


“He could tackle certain roles that I couldn’t touch and vice versa. I think that’s a great thing, because as much as I like being associated with him, I want to have credibility and my own career.”

Freaks and geeks

Where James's early career was frequently characterised by the freaks and geeks of City by the Sea and, well, Freaks and Geeks, Dave was the trust-fund brat in Scrubs and the casual bully in Fright Night. When James deals drugs on screen, he does so as a loser in Pineapple Express or as the sociopathic Alien in Spring Breakers; when Dave peddles, he's the cool high-school connection in 21 Jump Street.

Franco jnr has, he says, spent an awfully long time playing high-schoolers. Today, at his “most jet-lagged” in London, he is coming from a TV interview, where he asked the make-up people to “do just enough so I don’t look like shit”. Even at his most exhausted, Franco is a lively fellow that could still pass for early 20s.

“I don’t think I should play anyone under 22 at this point,” he says laughing. “But I still got carded at a house party the other day. It’s a blessing and a curse. Most people say: ‘Oh, you’re so lucky because you’ll look younger for so much longer. But I’d like to not get asked for ID some time. I’m 31, people.”

He's currently on tour for Now You See Me 2, the sequel to the improbably successful $350 million-grossing 2013 hit, wherein four magicians – Dave, Isla Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson – stage a series of elaborate heists and ruses.

“Even when we were filming it, we weren’t sure how it would come across tonally,” says Franco. “It’s kind of a miracle that the first one not only felt like a story that made sense, but was something that resonated with audiences. When I first signed on to the original film, the main attraction was that it did feel like an original. And that’s my main criteria for picking anything. Fail or succeed, I want to be a part of something that’s at least attempting to bring something new to the table.”

The second film reassembles the gang – including returning players Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine – and invites some guests (a bumbling Daniel Radcliffe), for even sillier escapades. That can only be a good thing, says Franco.

“I love that the films don’t take themselves too seriously,” he says. “If they were in any way earnest, it would all fall apart. All the cast love each other and I think that shows on screen. I suspect that’s a big part of the appeal for the audience. They can see how much fun we have with each other and with the material.”

The NYSM series is part of a grander scheme: "I think – I hope – when I look back on movies I've done in the past couple of years, that each one of them has a strange twist. I loved that 21 Jump Street – a straight-faced TV show about cops – was turned into this very self-referential, over-the-top comedy. I loved that Warm Bodies was a zombie romance. That felt fresh at the time."

We shouldn’t be surprised that Franco, who also writes, directs and edits short films, is on a quest for novelty. Growing up in Palo Alto, California, where his parents had met as Stanford students, he was surrounded by creativity. One grandmother wrote young adult novels; the other ran a prominent Cleveland art gallery. His mother, Betsy Lou, is a poet and author. Tom, the middle Franco brother, is a sculptor and founder of California’s Firehouse Art Collective.

“It definitely was not like a frat house,” he says. “It was always an artsy household. My friends that I grew up with like to joke that come Thanksgiving, we all sit around making sculptures out of the mashed potatoes. That’s not far off the way it actually is.

"At Christmas time, we read a short stories out loud and do voices together. It's a fun, creative, silly place. And we all kind of inspire each other. My mom just started drama classes so she can relate a bit better to us. Which is really cool." Creative writing Franco had planned to teach creative writing, but while he was still at the University of Southern California, James's manager encouraged him to try drama classes. Within months he had landed his first role, on the TV show Seventh Heaven.

“When I first started out, I was just taking jobs because I wanted to work,” he says. “Then after a while, I wasn’t feeling too proud about many of the projects I was working on. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. And even though I was suddenly working on a much smaller scale, it felt true to who I am. I would tell my family and friends go watch these Funny or Die videos, not that bigger movie I just did.”

You mean like Go F*ck Yourself (in which he picks himself up at a bar and then has sex with himself)? "Yeah. Like that one," he laughs. "I feel that's an accurate representation of my sense of humour."

A long-time film geek – "When you have two older brothers, you get to watch all sorts of movies you're not supposed to" – Dave used to work in a video store in exchange for free rentals. He still likes to send fan messages to young, up-and-coming directors, including Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) and David Robert Mitchell (It Follows), as "we sometimes don't praise each other enough". And he'll soon be seen – between higher-profile gigs on Bad Neighbours 2 and The Lego Ninjago Movie – in two movies by another up-and-coming director, James Franco.

So we’ve come full circle.

“Yeah. It got to a point where I wanted to work with him. And if people want to say I’m riding his coat-tails, then whatever. It’s okay.”

The first of these projects, Zeroville, sees Dave play the actor Montgomery Clift.

“I’m on screen for, like, a minute-and-a-half, I think. But with an iconic actor like Montgomery Clift, you want to do the role justice. He doesn’t have those immediately recognisable cadences that, say, James Dean, had. So I did my homework. I watched all his films. I read his biography. If it doesn’t work, then maybe I was overthinking it,” he says.

Then there's The Masterpiece, Franco's adaptation of Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell's The Disaster Artist, a book recounting the making of the 2003 film The Room, a film regarded by many as the worst ever made.

“I’ve since read the book which is really funny and tragic and entertaining,” says Dave. “But when I signed on I didn’t know too much about the film and I made the mistake of watching it alone. It was hard to process. It leaves you with this weird dark feeling. Our film won’t do that, I promise.”