At a quick glance, it’s easy to confuse Dave Franco for older brother James Franco. They’re both young and handsome, slim, dark-haired, bearing faces that are all toothy grin and a James Dean squint. They’re also both wickedly talented.
And although having an Oscar-nominated brother certainly helped Dave get a foot in the door, he’s doing everything he can these days to distance himself from his famous brother and strike his own path in Hollywood.
His latest role, as an ill-fated love interest, in “Warm Bodies” sees him turned into zombie food rather quickly, but it’s an important part for the young actor and an emotionally demanding one that demonstrates his range and potential as a leading man.
A friendly, easygoing guy, Franco, 27, called during the press junket for “Warm Bodies” to discuss his work on the zombie-romance film, living under the shadow of his big brother and the worst audition he ever blew.
Question: You’re still pretty new at this. How is it all matching up to what your expectations were when you got into the business?
Answer: You hope that you have some success, but you can’t really expect it, just because it is one of the most difficult and competitive businesses in the world. At this point I’m still happy to work at all, let alone on projects I’m actually proud of. It’s such a scary business, because you could be working non-stop one day, and then you come out in two movies that happen to flop and you’re a nobody again. It’s a never-ending cycle.
Q: It seems like, even with connections, it’s still a really brutal business.
A: Connections will only take you so far. For example, for me, my brother helped me get a manager, which I don’t take for granted. It’s tough getting a manager, let alone one that actually cares about you and is smart. But from there, no one’s going to cast me just because I’m James Franco’s little brother.
Q: Do you find that it’s difficult to carve out your own professional identity when you’ve got a famous family member like that?
A: Sure, especially at first. But in recent years, as much as I love and respect my brother, I’ve been trying to distance myself workwise as much as I can. He’s directing and working on so many projects of his own that he’s asked me to be a part of, but I have to graciously turn him down because I am trying to not be mentioned in the same breath as him despite wanting to work with him. I just know that it’s smart for my career to carve my own path and do my own thing.
Q: With a handful of film and television credits (“Fright Night,” “Scrubs”) under your belt, are you getting to the point yet where you’re able to be a little bit picky about the roles you take on?
A: Yeah, to an extent. Obviously I can’t be the pickiest person in the world, but definitely more so than at the beginning. And I love it. I kind of made a decision about two years ago where I was only going to auditions for projects I really was passionate about. And I knew that might be the stupidest thing I ever did because I might never work again. In the meantime … I’ve been doing these shorts for Funny or Die (funnyordie.com) for a few years now, and I can’t tell you how helpful they’ve been, not only in terms of exposure but in keeping me occupied and allowing me to be patient and actually wait for these movie roles that I really am excited about.
Q: You found a great project with “Warm Bodies.” And even though your character isn’t on screen a lot, it still feels like you landed the sweetest role in the film because you didn’t have to sit in a makeup chair and you got to make out with Teresa Palmer a lot.
A: I’ll agree with all of the above. A lot of people throughout this junket have asked me if I have zombie envy, if I was envious that I didn’t get to sit in that makeup chair for three hours. … I went through that process a little on “Fright Night,” I went through the vampire makeup, and it was brutal. They throw these lenses in your eye that are the size of a quarter, and then they threw me in this dirt pit where there are rocks and dust flying everywhere, so that gets in the lenses, and you start getting this crunchy blink going on…
Q: And then you have to act through it.
A: Exactly! So I think I dodged a bullet on this one.
Q: Was it a hard part to play emotionally? You don’t get that much time to build your character, and we really get to see him only during emotionally intense moments of his life.
A: It was a very difficult part. … I have to show just a lot of emotion in a very short amount of time, and sometimes that’s very difficult for an actor to do because it feels forced. You don’t have any time to build up to these big emotional scenes. In this case, I had to just give myself over to the director and trust him and know that he was reining me in when I was going too big or building me up when I was being a little too subtle with it.
Q: I was really glad to see you play a character who isn’t a raging jerk for a change. What’s up with that? You seem like a nice guy.
A: Right? Thank you! … It was fun to finally play a guy who was a little more vulnerable and kind of show a more romantic side and be somewhat affable, because I think people must just be starting to accept that this guy is just a straight a–hole, and I swear to God, I’m a nice guy.
Q: Are you concerned about getting pigeonholed into a certain type of role? Are you actively trying to expand on the types of roles you do?
A: Of course. At this point, I don’t think there’s anything else coming out where I’m showing any obvious signs of being a jerk. When I’m looking for new movies right now, I’m definitely trying to stay away from the a–hole, douche-bag role, because I’ve completely exhausted that. There’s nothing else I can do with it.
Q: Have you ever completely blown an audition?
A: Of course! There was one audition. … There’s this term called “slate.” They ask you to “slate” after you do an audition, and that means you pretty much just look into the camera and say your name. I didn’t know the terminology at the time, so I misheard the casting director and I thought she asked me to “sleep.” I got comfortable, put my head back in the chair and I fell asleep for about a second before she stopped me and starting having a giggle fit. So that was no doubt the most embarrassing audition moment of my life.
Q: Did you always want to be an actor?
A: No, absolutely not. To be honest, I was kind of a shy kid growing up. … I originally came out to LA to go to school, I was going to USC. My brother’s manager pretty much forced me to audit an acting class just to see what I thought. I’d never done anything like that before.
I remember sitting there in class, and the first people, they started screaming and crying and hitting each other, and I remember thinking, “(Expletive) this!” I don’t know why I stuck it out, but I did. I think in a cheesy way it kind of helped open me up a little bit. … For a long time, I can’t say I necessarily loved it, I was so nervous every day going to class. But you just keep working at it, and when you get to the point where you are getting a little more comfortable with it, you can finally start having fun with it. …
At this point, I feel like I can allow myself to be goofy and take more risks, and even if I do fall on my face, I know it’s not the end of the world and at least I tried to do something different.
He knows you’re going to go there. Dave Franco says it’s inevitable.
“When someone meets me they always bring up my brother,” says the sibling of actor James Franco. “One of the great things for me is, some of my best friends in the world have known me since I was 5. They don’t care about who I’m working with and they know my brother, so they don’t have to ask him about him.”
James’ lookalike, GQ-handsome brother stars in “Warm Bodies,” where a zombie decides to fight him for the love of his living girlfriend.
“I do get eaten by zombies and my girl gets over me rather quickly,” he gripes. “I guess they had a strained relationship if she can fall for a zombie who eats me.”
Did being the little brother of you-know-who help his Hollywood path? Other gigs include the upcoming film “Now You See Me” and the Cartoon Network “Young Justice” series, where he played the Riddler.
“James did help me get a manager,” he says. “But I know no one will cast me because I’m the little brother. If I suck, I suck. I started out like any other actor who fell on his face at first. So yeah, they pay more attention to me in a room because of my brother, but then they would also remember if this kid sucked.”
He adds, “This is one of the hardest businesses in the world to succeed in. I thought about giving up. I think everyone has that moment of ‘will I keep going?’ I have started to create stuff for myself. I’m a writer, too, and have made some short films for ‘Funny or Die’ and they’ve gained some traction.”
And as for that famous brother, he smiles. “Yes, I’m tired of people asking about my brother, but I also love my brother to death and respect him so much. I just don’t want to be referred forever as James Franco’s little brother. That’s a hard title to carry for the rest of your life. Yes, I’d love to work with my brother, but I’d also like to carve my own path. It would be cool to do an interview where I’m not mentioned in the same first sentence with him.”