Dave Franco looks and sounds a bit like a certain older brother we all know and love.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, the charming younger Franco—currently carving out an impressive movie career in big screen comedies like 21 Jump Street, Warm Bodies and the horror reboot Fright Night—has an infectious, manic persona, confident and cool, both onscreen and in person today at Chicago’s tony Peninsula Hotel, where we’re meeting to discuss his new hit movie.
In Now You See Me, Franco plays a card master and expert lock picker recruited to an elite team of magicians that robs banks and bilks millionaires as part of an elaborate disappearing act. He also goes mano-a-mano with Mark Ruffalo, the beleaguered FBI agent on his tail, where he finds new uses for a deck of playing cards, his (sleight of) hands becoming lethal weapons.
A sports-minded kid from Palo Alto, California who fell into pictures by accident and has honed his craft on commercial movies, usually playing the cocky bad guy or comic foil, in person Franco is self-effacing with a hearty laugh, fully engaged in our chat. In a business where actors on press junkets are paid to smile and answer canned questions ad nauseum, Franco seems genuinely happy to be here—and that’s refreshing.
What’s going on at the moment, Dave?
Well I’m working on something new called Townies, a comedy directed by Nick Stoller who did Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, and Seth Rogen and Zac Efron and Rose Byrne are involved.
So there won’t be any laughs then?
Exactly. There won’t be any penis jokes. There is ample male nudity and some female nudity! This one is going to be fun! But these guys are geniuses. Working with them makes me so much funnier than I naturally am.
You’re not naturally funny?
I don’t think so…
You had the funniest line in a movie last year—about a grape. Do you remember that?
It was something like, ‘Do you know what happens to handsome guys like me in jail?’
My colleagues and I still quote that line.
Really?! But yeah, these guys- it was all improvised, so… It’s really like liberating but at the same time it’s intimidating and sometimes you are exhausted or sick on set and you don’t have it in you to be funny, but they are with you every step of the way where they are throwing out thirty alternate jokes and usable material in every scene. It’s like, ‘You guys are geniuses!’
Let’s talk about Jack Wilder. He’s sort of the novice in the group and hangs back during the first half until that explosion in the second half between yourself and Mark Ruffalo.
Right! Sure, yeah! He’s the new guy and technically the rookie magician and is surrounded by these magicians he has looked up to. Throughout the film he is trying to prove himself as an equal and find his place in the group and ends up being part of the most life-threatening scene of all. I don’t want to give away too much, but we can talk about that action sequence!
Sure. It’s really a riot. There’s something about the choreography that’s really special. There’s some kind of manic elegance about it.
Yes, sure! Obviously there have been a million fight sequences throughout film history, but this one does feel a bit unique because we do incorporate the magic elements and my sleight of hand moves. And it was fun for me too because I played sports my whole life and to be able to use some of those skills in my acting was like a dream come true. And being a slight kid from the streets of Palo Alto, California—believe it or not, I have never been in a fight before…
I never have been either. I made it all the way through school…
No. You have to make friends with the bullies.
Yes, sure! Technically this is like the most real fight I have ever been in.
But you got hit, right?
Well, I mean it’s all fake, but we definitely got bruised up! It took a few weeks to film this sequence and there are moments when Mark and I were grinding our knees and elbows against this hard floor and our director, Louis (Leterrier) would come by and be like, ‘Can we do one more take?’ And we’d be like, ‘Louis, come on!’ And he would be like, ‘Come to the monitor and check out that last take.’ And then we would be like, ‘Fuck, that looks pretty cool! Okay!’ But it was cool. I give Louis a lot of credit because there is one part of the sequence where I run out of the building and am confronted by two agents by the car, and Louis let that sequence play out in one shot. Most directors would cut it up to where you can’t see what is going on, but from day one we were doing stunt training and we put a lot of work into it and I thank Louis for allowing it to play out.
What about the magic? You learned a lot of card tricks so it could appear real.
Yeah, most of it! Obviously I can’t throw a card and cut a pencil in half, but I can throw a card and cut a banana in half.
What’s the trick to throwing a card?
It’s not that difficult once you learn the technique and how to hold it. If you practice for much longer than I would like to admit to, then you, too, can cut a banana in half. But it was interesting during the rehearsal period for this movie, rather than sitting down with the director and talking about character motivations, on the first day they locked me in a room and gave me a stack of cards and propped a banana across the room and said, ‘Try to cut this in half by throwing cards at it.’ So I was in there until my arm literally went dead, like throwing a baseball. But it was fun! One of the cool things about acting is being able to dive into these different fields of work that otherwise I would never explore.
Is that the best part?
One of the coolest parts! I took it as a nerd to really dive into this stuff and I would come home at night and sit in front of the TV and try to cut a banana in half—it’s cool that it’s part of you job to do that, right?
The Four Horsemen are sort of like superheroes, with their own little special powers sort of, right?
I guess so, yes! They are all proficient in their own fields of magic. The entire cast—not including myself—all of these guys have proven themselves as the best actors out there. Just to be on set with them and pick their brains and see how they work was fascinating. One of the most interesting parts of being around all of them was to see how humble they are and that they still doubt themselves in a very human way. If they wanted to, they could just phone it in for the rest of their careers and still be regarded as great actors. But they still really care and want to give the best performances possible. That is inspiring.
What about the idea of magic? I think when we are kids we all enjoy magic tricks. But do you think today, as a society, we are too sophisticated or cynical to believe in such a thing, even if we want to?
Right. It’s a good question. I don’t like those people out there, the haters- for example, I knew some growing up who, when I would say, ‘Pick a card,’ they would say, ‘Oh, I know this one…’ And I’d say, ‘No, you don’t know where I am going with this!’ I hate those people! But yeah, I don’t know. I think people still like the idea of seeing and believing in things they can’t explain, and I like that idea too. Then I did this movie and saw behind the curtain and realized there is really an explanation for everything. So for me, the charm and mystery is gone a bit, sadly, but that being said I didn’t study escape artists, so I have no idea how that works.
Right. I love the scene where Isla escapes the tank of piranha.
And I’ve heard that a lot of the magic in the movie was not CGI, is that right?
Exactly. That was the goal. The four of us did practice and there was a magic consultant on set all the way. We wanted there to be as much real magic as possible so they would not have to CGI it. But to make the movie exciting and have the audience believe that these were the greatest magicians in the world, we had a week of rehearsal and obviously we were working, but…
So you guys didn’t jump off buildings?
Exactly! I mean, we weren’t going to be able to do some of these incredible things for real. So I am sure there will be that critique of the film, but we really did our homework and tried to incorporate as much real magic as possible.
How is Isla Fisher to work with? She is also currently very good in The Great Gatsby.
She is one of the more naturally funny people I have ever met. She has no filter and is absolutely hilarious. She kept things fun. More than anyone, she had all of us laughing. She is quirky and cool and a pro. Did you see Bachelorette?
She killed it in that movie! They shot that in a couple weeks and had one or two takes and she destroyed it!
You mentioned something earlier about ‘not including yourself’ when you were mentioning the experience of the cast. Where do you see yourself in this business right now?
Yes. What can I say without sounding like a… So honestly, I feel so fortunate not only to be working at this point, but that being said, I am very critical of myself and I always want- what can I say? I hope this doesn’t sound or come off cocky, but I just know there are things I can do that I have not been able to show yet. Again, I am so happy and blown away to be mentioned in the same sentence as all of these people. I’ve done primarily comedies up to this point, but I feel just as comfortable with doing dramatic stuff but I have not yet been able to spread my wings, if you will, in the drama world. I just know that I have so much more to give, I guess. I think that comes from being a perfectionist and very critical of myself and always wanting more. That being said, I can’t believe that any of this shit is happening for me right now.
When did you know you wanted to do this?
I didn’t know. I was kind of forced into it, to be honest. I came down to LA originally to go school at USC, and my brother’s manager forced me into an acting class and I had never done anything like that. I remember sitting there and the first people on stage started crying and screaming and hitting each other. I remember thinking, ‘Fuck this! I want no part of this.’ I don’t know why but I stuck it out, and in a weird way it helped to bring me out of my shell. I can’t say I even liked it for a long time because I was so nervous every time I was performing.
Are you still nervous? What about up there in front of all of those people in Now You See Me’s Las Vegas sequence?
Maybe the first take! But in recent years I had the realization that this is supposed to be fun and I have to stop putting so much pressure on myself and just allow myself to be loose on set and have a good time, and play off the other actors and get out of my head a bit. And since then, I have had a lot more fun and a better experience and hopefully that shows.
You mentioned drama. What’s a role you’ve seen recently that you would have liked to tackle?
Good question. One role that stands out that would have been a challenge and a lot of fun is Emile Hirsch’s role in Into the Wild. I’m sure a lot of it was on the page, but I’m also sure a lot of it was going out into the wilderness and figuring things out once that they were out there in the surroundings. I did read something about a scene where he is paddling down rapids and that Sean Penn, the director, told Emile, ‘I’m actually going to go down these rapids to prove to you that I am going to survive. But once I do that, you actually have to as well so that we can make it look cool.’ I think Sean Penn got kind of beat up a little bit. I like the idea of really getting into it and doing the stunts and making it feel as real as possible. That was a role you could really sink your teeth into and Emile did a great job. I would love to tackle something like that.
Kristen Stewart was also terrific.
She was good in that.
Speaking of magic, what movies affected you when you were growing up?
Yes, actually, not a lot of people have a single favorite movie but I do, and that’s Stand by Me. Partially because it is amazing, and also for nostalgic reasons because I grew up with two brothers older than me and I was exposed to these movies much earlier than I probably should have been, so I started watching that movie when I was like 3 years old and then throughout my childhood. I respond to movies with kids when there are good kid actors and it works. Those are the movies I am really drawn to. I don’t know what it is.
So movies more about the childhood experience rather than kids’ movies, per se. Mud would be another example.
Exactly! The childhood experience. Totally. I think it’s this innocence and awkwardness that I really respond to. I guess my other ones were The Goonies and The Lost Boys.
Those are my childhood movies and we are not quite in the same generation.
That’s what I am saying! I was exposed to these before I should have been because of my older brothers. But Stand by Me is my number one.
So have you seen Now You See Me with an audience?
I did last week, and it went over really well, especially your big scene with Mark Ruffalo. There was actually applause at the end.
I love to hear that because I am so critical of myself and I am very close to the movies after I make them, so it’s hard for me to have an objective point of view.
Do you watch them after you make them or just put them on the shelf?
I have watched most of them. I know a handful of people, including Jesse (Eisenberg) will tell you that they don’t see what they are in. I get that, but I’m still starting out in the grand scheme of things and want to learn and I do feel like I need to learn from my mistakes.
How was Warm Bodies this year? It was a very enjoyable little movie.
Warm Bodies was a good time. Being on set with Jonathan Levine was the biggest draw for me with that one. I’m obsessed with his movie The Wackness and 50/50 was incredible. It was one of those things on paper that I didn’t know would work—okay, a zombie romance—but then you have Jonathan Levine and you know that he is going to attempt to do something different and fresh. We had a good time. At this point in my career, a lot of the projects I am drawn to are because of the director. I do want to make my own films someday and I want to be around them and pick their brains and take what they do and apply it to my own work. With Jonathan, he is like a little kid on the set. He genuinely just loves filmmaking where if you do a take that he likes, he will jump out of his chair and come running to you, pumping his fist! He just makes you feel so comfortable and safe. Directing actors is at least half the battle. So he is someone to emulate when I direct down the line.
It’s exciting that his All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is finally coming to Blu-ray this year.
Yes! I know it’s a genre movie but I am sure you can totally see his early potential in that.
You can. We screened it for a recent festival here in Chicago. By the way, The Wackness is a very underrated movie. Ben Kingsley is great in it.
I know! And then Josh Peck! Where has he been? He was so good in it. And then he was also so great in that movie Mean Creek, set on the river.
He was! So let’s talk about Funny or Die for a minute.
I’ve done a lot for them and it’s been great. Everyone has a camera these days. For me, when you are first starting out as an actor a lot of roles you take aren’t because you love the project or want the connections. But you walk away and it’s like you know it’s not good work. And now that people can take things into their own hands, regardless of whether people like the product or not, it’s an accurate representation of who I am and I can succeed or fail on my own terms. I’ve developed a relationship with them over the years and the website has become so popular now that if you have a video on there that happens to be successful, more people could see it than if you did an independent film. I can’t tell you how many times these shorts have been brought up in interviews and meetings and I am happy to talk about them because they are an accurate representation of my sense of humor!
What about your voice? You have a very distinctive sound.
Yeah. I don’t really know what that is and I didn’t really realize it until I started acting and people started commenting on it. I don’t really know what to say. I grew up in Northern California and sometimes people think that it sounds…
It has a force behind it.
A force behind it! I’ll take that! I’d love to do animation down the line—come in your sweats for a few hours a day.
And you can do that forever.
Special thanks to Dave Franco for this interview