In Focus

'Flyboy' Rises Above Villainous Past

James Franco, once and future bad guy in the
James Franco, once and future bad guy in the "Spider-Man" series, liked the idea of taking on a hero's role in his new movie, "Flyboys." (By Chris Carlson -- Associated Press)
By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006

What's the difference between Method acting, daring and just plain crazy? Talking by phone from New York, actor James Franco, who plays a World War I aviator in his new movie, "Flyboys," sounds perfectly sane. (See review on Page 37.) Then again, anyone who can elicit sympathy for a dude as bad as Harry Osborn -- Franco's character in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies -- just might have his head in the clouds.

After Franco signed on to play Blaine Rawlings, an American volunteer in the Lafayette Escadrille circa 1917, he read a lot of history and studied up on airplanes; now he's as conversant with the Zimmermann Telegram as Hollywood scripts. With a month between committing to "Flyboys" and the start of shooting, Franco could have packed his history books and jetted off to the tropics for a little pre-shoot R&R. Instead, he says, "I had a bunch of time, so I went and got my pilot's license."

Lately, the actor has been playing guys like Rawlings -- strong warriors with nimble minds and hearts of gold (see also: "The Great Raid," "Tristan & Isolde") in addition to the iconic Spidey foe Osborn, a.k.a. the Green Goblin.

Franco says: "There are a lot of scripts I read about some guy murdering people. There weren't any old-fashioned kind of hero-protagonists. Everybody was kind of a jerk, or it seemed like that for a while."

Early on, the 28-year-old played a lot of troubled young men, including James Dean in the 2001 TNT biopic, which earned him an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe award. And who could forget high school heartthrob/bad boy Daniel Desario? Franco laughs at the mention of his "Freaks & Geeks" character from Judd Apatow's short-lived cult TV series, which lasted 18 episodes from 1999 to 2000. Daniel was pretty obnoxious, right? "I don't see Daniel Desario like that," he says. "He's a good kid who kinda lost his way."

Then there's the "Spider-Man" villain, which he'll play again in "Spider-Man 3," scheduled to open in spring 2007. "Harry Osborn? He's a troubled, troubled young man," Franco says. "The great thing about the way they sketched that character is he's confused, but he's also kind of justified in the way he feels. . . . It's not like he's a wicked villain who's cackling up in his laboratory about all the evil things he's going to do. He's a son who didn't get enough love, and just as he was gonna receive that love from his father, his father was taken from him, so he's just a confused, disturbed kid."

Franco is clearly pleased to play a hero like Rawlings (who, like the other "Flyboys" characters, is a composite of several real-life pilots). He explains that for three months, professional stunt pilots performed loops and dives and other tricks for the camera in replicas of World War I Nieuport planes. Then it was Franco's turn. "All the actors went up in the planes, in a two-seater plane, with a stunt pilot," he says. "The stunt pilot would sit in the front, and the actor would sit in the back seat. And there was a camera mounted in front of them so it looked like it was a one-seater plane."

"Flyboys" will invariably be compared to the Howard Hughes 1930 classic "Hell's Angels," the shooting of which was memorialized in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator." "That was back in the day ," says Franco, referring to the Hughes film. "He had three pilots die while filming that."

Ah, technology. "So we had no deaths because we could use CGI to make the planes fly really close."

But why would he bother to get a pilot's lesson if, in fact, he wouldn't fly in the movie?

Franco mentions the late actor Steve McQueen, whose iconic motorbike ride in "The Great Escape" is echoed in a "Flyboys" scene. Franco says he looked to McQueen's oeuvre : "An early film for him was called 'The War Lover.' He played a pilot in it, and when you watch him in the plane in that movie, it was so detailed and so natural. I just find it so fascinating. I wish I could do something like that in a movie, have a skill like that. That was kind of the idea of that, getting my pilot's license, even if I didn't have to fly -- or couldn't fly -- in the movie. I hope that some of the details and comfort I have around planes would rub off in the performance."


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