Until now, Franco was probably best known for his role as Cole Aranson in the ill-fated final season of "Scrubs," which featured an almost all-new cast. (Looking back, Franco describes the experience as "tough" but also "the most fun that I've had.") With "21 Jump Street," out this Friday, he's helping to reinvent another beloved TV series, but in an entirely different way. In this wildly comic adaptation of the dead-serious 80s-era drama, Franco plays Eric, a high school student who is suspected of being the point man in a large drug operation that two undercover police officers (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) are investigating.
Below, Franco discusses his role in "21 Jump Street," reflects on that final season of "Scrubs" and reflects on what it's like to be James Franco's little brother.
The reaction to "21 Jump Street" has been really positive. Oh, I don't know. It's one of these things that I think I'm a little too close to, still. I think I can recognize that it's good, but you know how it is. It's hard to watch myself.
So when a movie is not good, can you recognize that right away? I think so. I'm a tough critic on myself. I mean, this is one where, moreso than most things in the past, I can kind of take a step back and appreciate it for what it is and understand right away that it works. But I don't know about my own performance. I just know, as a whole, that it works.
Your character is interesting. He's doing these sinister things, but I wanted to like him. I think, ultimately, he's this young kid who's in over his head. And I guess he is, technically, the cool kid. But you can kind of see that he's a three-dimensional asshole. Where you can see where he's coming from and why he can be an asshole sometimes.
I have to admit, I've never before heard the phrase "three-dimensional asshole." [Laughs] You're welcome.
I'll give you credit every time I use it. Thank you. I appreciate it.
Did Rob Riggle ever want to wrestle on set? [Laughs] I can't say that he did.
I've heard he likes doing that. Really? He has a reputation for that?
I've been told that he likes to roughhouse. I feel like I'm missing out. Like, I'm not being appreciated by Riggle. I don't know, I'm going to go talk to him to make sure we're on OK terms.
He's a physical guy. Oh, he's a big boy. He's the best. Working with him and Jonah, who are at the top of their game -- in terms of improvising and comedy in general -- working with those guys was a little intimidating and scary at first. But I quickly realized, when I make a mistake, they turn my mistake into gold.
And in the hotel room scene, there's a [spoiler alert if you decide to click on this link] cameo from an actor that also had to be intimidating. What I can say about that whole scene -- that was the first week of filming. And it's the most climactic scene in the movie. So it was tough. We didn't know how big to play it or how subtle to go, because we hadn't shot anything leading up to it. And it was the most emotional scene in the movie -- where I have this big turn and realize that Jonah is not the guy he said he was. And being your first week on a movie, you want to prove yourself and prove your worth. So there are all of these elements going on. It was a mess. I'm just happy that it worked in the slightest.
You mention being intimidated -- but is there anything more intimidating than starting on an established hit television show as part of a pretty much all-new cast, as you did with "Scrubs'? Yeah, that was tough. That whole season was kind of an experiment, you know? The whole series ended. They had a series finale; a really great one that everyone loved. And then they decided, "Well, maybe we can stretch this one more year." Everyone kind of went into it wanting to hate it, so it was an uphill battle and I think people slowly started to recognize that there was still something funny and promising there. But the ratings weren't high enough and it got axed before it really got a chance to get rolling.
Did you feel it was a no-win situation? Oh, no. Not at all. I mean, don't get me wrong, we had so much fun. I look back on that experience -- that might have been the most fun that I've had. First of all, working with good material. Then, on top of that, they allowed us to be pretty free with the words. So we would come in every day surrounded by really funny people. And because we had a lot of freedom, we just tried to make each other laugh. I don't know, I look back very fondly on that and I would have loved to keep going.
Is it a help or a hindrance that your brother is a famous actor? Um, I'd say both. He helped me get a manager, which I don't take for granted. It's tough to get representation, let alone really good representation that cares about you. But from there on out, no one is going to hire me just because I'm James Franco's little brother.
I could see people not hiring you because of that. I think the way it hurt was when I was first starting out, I was like another new actor who didn't really know what he was doing. Who was falling on his face in these auditions. Because of my last name, people were paying more attention to me and were actually remembering that I was so horrible. Rather than these other kids who did poorly in an audition, but the casting director never remembers them. And then they can come back later in their career, when they've actually been to a class or done some work. So that was tough. At the same time, people had certain expectations of me. This is a business that you're more likely not going to succeed in, and I think people almost expected me to succeed -- which was another added pressure. So, I don't know, it's definitely been tough. As much as I love and respect my brother, I'm doing my best to distance myself from him and kind of show people that, even though we do look similar and have similar mannerisms, we are completely different.
Do you think "21 Jump Street" will help with all of that? I hope so. I hope so.
Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter