Dave Franco is having the kind of whirlwind week you’d expect of a big star like, well, his older brother James. He’s getting raves for his role in 21 Jump Street, where he (gleefully) plays a nefarious high-school drug dealer opposite Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill’s undercover cops. He just clinched the cover of GQ’s style issue. He’s filming an FBI heist movie with Morgan Freeman and Woody Harrelson in New Orleans. And he recently jetted to Austin for South by Southwest to attend the premiere of a new short film that he wrote and stars in. It’s only seven minutes long and a bit more experimental than 21 Jump Street.
You might call it Francoesque.
Would You stars the little Franco as a goofball who plays "Would You Rather" with a girlfriend, only to discover the hypothetical scenarios they brainstormed are actually coming true. One of the film’s pivotal shots involves a penis. Another key scene has Franco’s character caught by his mother—masturbating to a picture of her. It should be noted that the actress who takes on that difficult role is Dave’s real-life mom (and sometime YouTube sensation), Betsy Franco.
“When Dave told me about the script,” Betsy says, “after he sent it, he said, ‘You can change your mind, you know?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to change my mind!’ I have a good sense of humor. I love sketch comedy.”
Franco worked on the film with a group of close friends, some of whom he’s known since junior high school. “It’s something we built from the ground up,” says Dave, who is 26. “As sick and twisted as it is, I feel like it’s an accurate representation of my sense of humor.”
He wasn’t always known for pushing the envelope. Dave grew up the shy youngest brother of the Franco family. (The middle Franco brother, Tom, is a sculptor in San Francisco.) His interests were primarily photography, soccer, and poetry, including an ode that he wrote to his grandmother. But as his college days were coming to an end, Dave did a career U-turn: at the urging of James’s manager, he plunged into acting full time.
During those early days, he says, he was awkward at auditions, afraid that he was sullying the Franco name. “I was starting from scratch,” he says. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I would go in these rooms and people expected a lot, and I was falling flat on my face.” He lost out on the role of Edward Cullen in Twilight, which he now thinks is a blessing, because he says he wouldn’t have been able to handle Robert Pattinson–size fame. Over the last few years, he’s built a steady body of work, most notably as a lead on Scrubs after Zach Braff left the show, and in supporting roles in films like Fright Night and Charlie St. Cloud.
But Dave’s real claim to fame has been a string of hilarious—and usually grotesque—Funny or Die videos. It started innocuously enough back in 2009, with a shtick where his brother James pretends to teach Dave about acting. From there, Dave began writing his own material and working with his friends. His comedy is so raunchy, it pushes boundaries that even Judd Apatow wouldn’t cross. One of Franco’s shorts, You’re So Hot, has him talking dirty to a male classmate (he compares his foreskin to Silly Putty) until they end up embracing without any pants. His other feature, Go Fuck Yourself, is like an X-rated version of The Parent Trap. The final scene shows Franco having anal sex with himself. (The original scene was longer, but it was so nasty that even the Funny or Die team got squeamish. In retrospect, Dave is grateful for their decision. “It was a lot of dirty talk,” he says. “It was bad. It was really bad. There’s a lot of footage that people will never see.”)
Dave is self-deprecating and witty until he’s asked about the origins of his sense of humor. Then he sounds more opaque: “To be honest, it’s not a conscious decision. I don’t think I’m consciously going to make this dirty, raunchy video. I think I’m just drawn to projects in general that are unique and original and maybe a little risqué.” His mom attributes it to their grandfather: “My dad was hysterical,” she says. “He was an oral surgeon, but he was asked to speak around the world because he was so funny.” One of Dave’s best friends, Brian McGinn, a codirector of all his short films, puts it this way: “Out of our group of friends at home, he was never necessarily the funniest. One day, the sense of humor emerged fully formed. It was a surprise for all of us.”
Dave insists that he and his brother are different, and like most young siblings, he doesn’t count himself as the family’s overachiever. James is an insomniac; Dave loves to sleep. James has numerous master’s and doctoral degrees; Dave is still three classes away from his bachelor’s in psychology at USC, having left abruptly for an acting job. “Yeah, he gives me shit!” Dave says. “He’s like, ‘Dude, I’m directing, I’m acting, I’m going to three schools. You can’t finish up your three classes?!’”
But there’s one area where they have common ground: for both Francos, a lot of their material centers on the penis. In one of his films, The Broken Tower, James performs oral sex on a dildo; he also did a student film where his male stars played naked basketball, and another art project where a fake penis dangled from his nose. Some critics (like New York magazine’s Sam Anderson) have wondered if James’s work is indicative of a sublimated sexual orientation. But that explanation may be too reductive. Maybe the Francos are merely drawn to the outrageous, and it has nothing to do with sexual orientation.
“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I would go in these rooms and people expected a lot, and I was falling flat on my face.”
A large part of their aesthetic must have come from their upbringing in Palo Alto, Calif. Betsy met her husband, Doug, in a drawing class at Stanford University, and she raised her boys against a cultured backdrop of movies and literature. She, too, worked in the arts, as a children’s-book writer. “I just let them be who they were,” she says. “I didn’t get in their way.” Dave remembers sneaking into films like The Lost Boys and Stand by Me when he was still too young for them. He also devoured the books of Roald Dahl, his favorite author to this day. “If you go back and read those books, they’re dark, man,” he says, noting that he recently reread The Witches for fun. “They are going to give kids nightmares and mess up their heads real quick. I think I developed these sensibilities early on.”
Despite his Internet fame, Franco envisions a career for himself working in mainstream movies. He hopes to transition between drama and comedy, and he certainly has the right grit and timing. In 21 Jump Street his high-school villain nearly steals the film. The performance is a kind of Franco smorgasbord: it reminded me of the old James Franco we saw on Freaks and Geeks, mixed with the evil James Franco in Spider-Man and the maniacal Franco on General Hospital. But when you mention that to Dave, he just laughs.
“Interesting,” he says. “I cannot say I’ve ever watched myself and thought, ‘Whoa! That kind of reminds me of James.’”