Although this particular interview is the technically the first time I've ever sat down with actor Dave Franco with a recorder running, I was fortunate enough a couple of years ago to spend a great deal of time with him on the set of 21 JUMP STREET, both in between takes of the scene where Jonah Hill pushes down an old lady in a shoe store (the horrible things Franco called that old woman during ad-libbed take after take are not fit to print) and during meal breaks. I last saw Franco a little over a year ago at SXSW when the cast was doing press at one of Austin's fine hotels. I ran into Franco in the hotel lobby, and we caught up, talking about the finished film, much the the unhappiness of the publicists trying to race him off to his next interview.
Although I'd seen Franco's work in smaller roles in SUPERBAD and AFTER SEX I first got to know Franco's sense of comedy and acting style after an extended run on "Scrubs" as the consummate hipster douchebag Cole. Around the same time, Franco was making comedy shorts, most notably the "Acting with James Franco" videos with his brother. Great supporting work in JUMP STREET, FRIGHT NIGHT, and earlier this year in WARM BODIES have raised Franco's profile and made him something more than just James Franco's brother.
This past Friday saw him in NOW YOU SEE ME, marking the most substantial role of his career and the first time Dave Franco has appeared on a poster for one of his films. He popped into Chicago last week on the last stop of his promotional tour for the film, just after he finished shooting his next film TOWNIES, directed by Nicholas Stoller (FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL; GET HIM TO THE GREEK; THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT) an co-starring Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne and Zac Efron, among many others. And keeping his comedy shorts chops from getting rusty, Franco made a new one recently called DREAM GIRL, co-starring Alison Brie, in which he gets to incorporate a little of the magic he learned for NOW YOU SEE ME.
Franco is one of the nicest, funniest people I've ever interviewed, and it was great to finally get one of our talks on tape. We cover the new movie a bit, but I was more interested in capturing a young actor on the brink of breaking out. Please enjoy my chat with Dave Franco…
Dave Franco: Yo! How are you doing?
Capone: Good. It’s been a while.
DF: It’s good to see you again. How have you been?
Capone: Good. When was the last time I saw you? Austin, last year I guess, right?
DF: Must have been, yeah.
Capone: In the hallway at the hotel where you were doing 21 JUMP STREET press.
DF: There you go, that’s right. What’s been going on?
Capone: You're looking at it. Now you’re here finally.
DF: I love it. I wish I had the chance to explore Chicago this time, but I landed as like 12:30 in the morning, and I’m out right after this.
Capone: This is the last city on the tour, right?
DF: This is it.
Capone: Are you finished shooting TOWNIES?
DF: We just finished a few days ago. And I shouldn't complain too much about having to leave. After this, I hop on the plane headed to New York just to hang out and unwind and that’s it.
Capone: By the way, I just saw it again a couple of days ago, the short that you did with Allison Brie is so funny.
DF: Oh good man, I’m so glad you think so.
Capone: It’s so stupid.
DF: [Laughs] The reason I made that one is because I learned that trick with the Rubik's Cube on this movie. So I was like “Okay, I want to do a video revolving around that trick,” and we came up with the concept. This one, I’m the least confident about this one than any of the other videos we have done, just because it’s a two-and-half-minute video, and a minute and a half of it plays out in one shot, which is not what you are supposed to do for a quick internet sketch. They're supposed to be quick and joke after joke, and this was a slow burn, but I’m glad you liked it.
Capone: I watched and I thought, “How did he do that?” I didn’t think it was a magic trick, I just thought it was a quick special effect.
DF: Oh not at all. There’s no CGI and no camera tricks there. That’s real magic, yeah.
Capone: Even more impressive. You came up doing comedy shorts, and some people got to know you through the ones you do with your brother. What is the upside and the downside of getting known as a guy who makes shorts like that?
DF: That’s a good question. I would say there are a lot more upsides. The upsides are that as a young actor, when I was first starting out, I would take jobs not necessarily because I loved the material, it was because I wanted the experience and I wanted to make connections with people. But I would walk away from these jobs and I knew that they weren’t good. I wasn’t proud of them and so I kind of took things in my own hands, and I did these internet videos with some of my best friends where we had full creative control. As twisted and dark and strange as they may be, they're at least an accurate representation of who I am and of my sense of humor.
So with FunnyOrDie specifically, the website has become so popular that if you have a video on there that happens to be a success, more people could potentially see it than if you did an independent film, which is insane.
Capone: That’s true. I can’t tell you, every single interview or meeting that I have, people bring up these videos. So I'm happy to talk about them, because like I was saying, me and my best friends built these from the ground up and let me think about the negatives… ]long pause]
Capone: Well if they are no good, you’re going to hear about it immediately.
DF: Sure, sure. I mean at this point, I’ve been really lucky that people have actually watched these videos, but that being said, people have expectations now. When I’m putting out a new FunnyOrDie video, people know to brace themselves and they know it’s going to be weird and different, and that makes me want to top myself each time out. Even though they come in with high expectations, I want to exceed those expectations.
At this point it’s like I don’t know how I can explore the homoerotic humor any further, so I think it’s jut going down different routes at this point [laughs]. For example, I did this video recently with this NBA star, DeAndre Jordan and because of who he is, being an NBA start and having a young fan base with these kids who look up to him, we obviously had to tone down all the raunchiness and any swear words. So it forced us to try to bring the humor in a different way. I think it turned out really well because of that, because it was something different and unexpected. I don’t know where I’m going to go next with this, but I’ve got to bring something new to the table.
Capone: I don’t know how you could get any raunchier. So let's talk about magic. It’s funny, just a couple of weeks ago, I watched this documentary that’s floating around right now on Ricky Jay [DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY].
DF: Oh, cool.
Capone: So when I saw you flipping those cards as weapons in the movie, I was like, “No way" because that's one of Jay's signature routines. Who did you learn to do that from? Tell me about learning to do that, because he's the master.
DF: Completely. He's the master. I showed up a week before we started filming and I honestly just started watching YouTube videos of people throwing cards and figuring out the technique, and then we had this magic consultant on set too, David Kwong, who taught me the basics as well. It was one of these things where it’s embarrassing to admit like how long I actually spent in my apartment in New Orleans throwing cards against the wall, but it was for hours and hours nightly over a span of weeks and weeks. It’s one of these things where I use it as a weapon in the film, so if I’m not proficient at it, it’s going to look so silly. For example, Mark Ruffalo was attacking me, and if I’m not good at throwing cards, I’m going to throw that thing at him and it’s going to flutter in front of his face.
Capone: Or stick to his forehead.
DF: Yes! So I wanted it to feel natural and for the audience to believe that I could actually do harm with a playing card, which you really can. There’s a shot, a close up on his face during the fight sequence, where there’s cards whizzing by, and that was literally me off camera throwing cards at his face, and I cut his face. I was cutting up his face. After about five to ten takes of this, he was like “You guys, this is enough. We got it.”
Capone: I’ve seen the Ricky Jay’s like big centerpiece was piercing a watermelon, which is harder than hell I hear.
DF: I can’t even imagine.
Capone: What are you up to? What fruit?
DF: I can slice a banana in half.
Capone: A moldy, soft banana?
DF: Yes, exactly. [laughs] Yeah, a watermelon…
Capone: The way he’d do it, he’d have like 10 cards in his hand, and he’d make sure the first nine didn’t penetrate, so he’d have one card left to do it.
DF: Just building up the drama.
Capone: Yeah. And the last one would go in just far enough to stick, and that’s it.
DF: So impressive though.
Capone: That guy’s a genius.
DF: You don’t know what the documentary is called? I really want to check that out.
Capone: I have the name in my bag. I can look it up when we’re done, but it comes out here next week. He’s one of my heroes, that guy, just a storyteller.
DF: Exactly, and then he just pops up in these Paul Thomas Anderson movies.
Capone: Or David Mamet.
Capone: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times, but walking into a room with any combination of the actors that you were working with in this movie, was it intimidating? Exciting?
DF: A little bit of everything, yeah. But definitely the first week, it was slightly intimidating just because you don’t know what to expect, and at the same time I show up on set and I admire all of these people and none of them have any idea who I am.
Capone: Is that true?
DF: Probably not.
Capone: Jesse Eisenberg didn’t know who you were?
DF: [laughs] No, probably not. So I always felt this need to go above and beyond for this role and give it everything I had, just because I wanted to prove to myself and prove to them that I belong and that I was going to do a good job. That being said, they were all so nice to be from day one, and it was just a self-conscious thing where I kept telling myself like “Do better. Do more.” But they're all amazing.
Capone: Was there someone in particular that you either wanted to get next to or just talk to them, get some stories out of? Michael Caine of Morgan Freeman probably have some great stories in them.
DF: Morgan Freeman was the one who I was on set with the least, but I got to spend a little time with Michael Caine, which is incredible. He is one of these natural storytellers and he’s a god in this world, and definitely you don’t want to overstep your boundaries. But then literally the second you start talking to him, he’s so open and so friendly and really funny, too. I was just eating out of the palm of his hand. I could listen to that guy just read the phonebook.
Capone: Your character is a bit on the outside compared to the rest of them. They either had careers at one point or have them currently, but your character is just this street urchin that is a fan of these other magicians, which probably isn't too far off from what you were feeling like on set. I guess that wasn’t much of a stretch.
DF: Exactly. That’s just art imitating life.
Capone: What did your character bring to this mix?
DF: I think what he adds to the dynamic is when the four magicians first meet each other in the hallway of that building, the other three magicians are the first to arrive, and you see them bicker with each other, and they're competitive and they undermine each other. Then my character comes in, and he’s this guy who has looked up to all of them and he's almost a guy who reminds them, “You’re all greats. What are we doing competing with each other? You guys are all amazing.”
Just in terms of morale maybe he helps out, and then on top of that he’s this street kid who literally has nothing to lose, so throughout the film he’s trying to earn their respect and find his place within the group, and he ends up having to do the most life-threatening stunt of them all and he’s got that mentality. He’s this street kid who has nothing to lose, so he’s going to go for it.
Capone: Doing magic in a film is a tricky thing and it always has been. With [director] Louis Leterrier, as much as you had some access into his thought process, how did you want to make magic interesting cinematically in an age where special effects rule everything?
DF: It’s tough. It’s very tough and first off, the four of us, the magicians in the movie, we really did our homework and we tried to learn as many of the tricks as we could, so there would be as much “real magic” as possible, so they didn’t have to use CGI for every single trick. But it’s tough, because in the film we are supposed to be portraying the greatest illusionists in the world, and we have a one-week rehearsal period and we’re actors, you know. Even if you give us 10 years, we’re not going to become the greatest illusionists in the world, so you have to use CGI and use movie magic to play up the drama and the excitement.
Capone: Does it feel like you’re cheating?
DF: Of course, but what are you going to do? You’re not going to leave it up to the actors to try to do these incredible tricks that we learned a week ago. It’s tough though. It’s a tough thing, I’m sure.
Capone: I’m sure there would be some good outtakes if you did try.
DF: Oh shit! That’s true. [Laughs] Oh god, it’s just so frustrating.
Capone: Is this your first time on the poster?
DF: This is my first time on the poster. It’s a good one to be on, eh?
Capone: It’s a good group shot.
DF: Exactly. Yeah, it’s kind of surreal honestly to look at it.
Capone: It isn’t the first time with you aren't playing a high school student, but it’s right up there. In WARM BODIES, you weren’t.
DF: Exactly. It’s one of these things where I have completely exhausted the high school role. Those emotions that I felt being a high school kid, there’s nothing else I can bring to the table, and we never specify how old my character is in this film, but you have to assume he’s at least out of high school.
Capone: You came up to a certain degree in comedy, and you’re really great at it, but with this film and WARM BODIES, you’re doing a little more action now, you’re more physical. Is that a weird transition? Did you see that coming?
DF: I didn’t, but it’s a lot of fun for me. Personally, I’m not drawn towards action movies. I don’t see a lot of action movies, but I never realized how much fun it would be to be a part of one. I played sports my whole life and to be able to use some of those skills towards acting is like a dream for me. In the middle of filming this action sequence, I remember thinking like, “Why would I want to do these depressing dramas where I’m crying all day when I could be flipping over tables and jumping down trash chutes." Of course, I want to do those smaller, more serious movies as well, but in the moment it’s a blast.
Capone: Did you have to audition for this?
DF: This was the easiest audition process I’ve been on, which is shocking considering who else is in the cast, and they could have gotten anyone in this role really. I literally met with Louis and I think we just talked about the FunnyOrDie videos for an hour, and we just shot the shit. He’s just such a charming, likable guy, and I actually didn’t hear anything from them for about six months and I had forgotten about the project. Then I got a phone call telling me that I was being offered the role, and at that point they had attached literally every single other actor in the movie. And I thought it was almost a joke that they were offering me the part after attaching all of these other people. It was a no-brainer at that point.
Capone: The sum total of the audition though was just this one conversation?
DF: That was it, yeah.
Capone: Some people call that a meeting.
DF: [laughs] Right, exactly.
Capone: You didn’t have to read lines. So you’re at that point now where people are going to start hiring you based on merit, rather than a reading…
DF: Sort of. Hopefully. Your words, not mine. I’m going to run with that, but….
Capone: That’s a good place to be, unless you like auditions.
DF: Oh no, no one does. But I still have a long way to go and I understand that, but I have taken some steps to the point where I can sometimes jump straight to an audition with the director rather than going through the three or four steps before that. But even the year before this with JUMP STREET, that was the most arduous audition process I ever had where I went in probably six times, and two of those times were table reads in front of the studio, where I still hadn’t secured the role.
It’s one of these things though where about two years ago, I made a conscious decision to only go on projects that I was really passionate about and I knew that might have been the dumbest decision I’d ever make, because I might never work again. But when these projects do come along that I really want to do, I’m happy to put in the work and I’m happy to jump through hoops and go in six times for JUMP STREET, and if it doesn’t happen, you have that day where you are frustrated and you’re pissed off, but you get over it. You realize there will be other opportunities.
Capone: Are you still living by that code of only doing stuff that you’re passionate about?
DF: Yeah, definitely. It’s not easy. Honestly between this movie and the movie I just finished, TOWNIES, I had maybe a nine-month break and I feel very fortunate that I’m being offered things for the first times and decent stuff that, at another time when I was first starting out, I would have been excited to do. But I’m trying to be as selective as possible, and I know I can’t be the choosiest person in the world, but I do have a few more choices right now. In the meantime I’m happy to work on my own projects, these FunnyOrDie videos.
Capone: I remember a couple of years ago, I saw a video of your interviewing your brother. He was doing like a photoshoot, and you asked him at some point the question I dread the most during Q&As I do: “What advice do you have for me as an actor?” [Both laugh] He said basically that, “Just do things that you’re passionate about.”
DF: Exactly, and I can say that’s easily the best advice that he’s given me and I’ve stuck to it. I’ve tried to at least in recent years, because obviously when you are first starting out, you’ve got to take anything that comes your way. You have to get the experience and you have to just meet people.
Capone: One of the first things you did and it was the first thing I remember seeing you in specifically was being on "Scrubs." Seeing you on that was the first time I remembering registering you as somebody who was really funny.
DF: I’ve been really lucky. I have been. At that time, when I got "Scrubs," it wasn’t like I could have been selective and I was just “waiting for this project to come along.” I just got lucky. I was working with good material and I was working with people who were confident enough to let the actors also play around with the words. It was so much fun. You're coming onto set everyday and you're surrounded by funny people, and because of the freedom we had with the words, we were just trying to make each other laugh.
Capone: I remember on the JUMP STREET set that Jonah was, for no particular reason, talking about Nick Stoller, and he was saying, “This guy is a fucking genius. He’s going to be one of the big names in comedy,” and now you’ve made a movie with him.
DF: It’s true.
Capone: Tell me something about TOWNIES.
DF: So the movie is about this young married couple, played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, and they have this baby girl and they live in a college town, and a fraternity moves in next door. So it’s the two houses feuding throughout the movie, and I play the vice president to Zac Efron’s president of the fraternity.
Capone: You and Zac Efron reunited! Oh, CHARLIE ST. CLOUD.
DF: Oh God! So anyways back to Nick Stoller…[Laughs] Nick Stoller is honestly a genius. First off, he is never in a bad mood. He’s never stressed out. He is genuinely so funny. He’s a writer too, and so the whole movie is improvised, every single scene. Obviously, everyone is coming in with their own ideas and trying anything that comes to your mind, but on top of that there’s so much support from Seth and Nick and Seth’s writing partner, Evan [Goldberg] and then these two other writers [Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien], and you have five really smart people behind the monitors watching every take and throwing out alternate jokes for you to say. They make us so much funnier than we naturally are, and I would be an extra in Nick Stoller’s next movie. He is the most likable, smartest… I could go on and on. He’s the greatest.
Capone: So is this back to your old tradition of playing jerks all of the time?
DF: No, not at all. On the surface, you would think that, but I do play the responsible guy in the fraternity. Even though I’m not very smart, I’m the smartest of the dumb kids, and I’m the nicest of the mean kids, and I’m like the guy who actually does have a future beyond college and this fraternity, whereas Zac’s character, this fraternity is his whole world.
Capone: Do you have anything lined up beyond that?
DF: No. I literally just finished that a few days ago, and at this point there have been whispers of YOU’RE SO HOT: PART III, the last installment on the trilogy on FunnyOrDie.
Capone: There have also been some rumblings about the JUMP STREET sequel, too.
DF: Yeah, I’ve heard rumors that I might make a cameo. I don’t know how that would work out.
Capone: It wouldn’t be the same storyline obviously.
DF: Exactly. Logistically, it’s going to be tough to take me out of jail and make me an integral part of the story, but I’ve heard rumors of a solid cameo. yeah.
Capone: Alright, well hank you. It was so good to see you again.