PASADENA -- Often, when an actor is cast in a movie that's based on a book, the first thing they do is read the original publication. It's a good way to get more details about their character that might not be in the script.
James Franco didn't have to rush to the local bookstore when he was cast in the title role of "Oz the Great and Powerful," a movie based on the writings of L. Frank Baum. Franco was a fan of the "Wonderful Wizard of Oz" writer long before he became an actor.
"When I was a little boy, I loved fantasy literature. I read all the Baum books," says Franco. "I read the Tolkien books and loved 'The Dark Crystal.' I loved being transported to these alternative universes, these fantasy lands. I think the Baum books helped develop my love of literature."
The 34-year-old Franco got his taste of making written words come to life when he began acting in plays while at Palo Alto High School. A year after graduation, he landed his first professional job -- in the TV show "Pacific Blue" -- but it was the 2001 made-for-TV movie "James Dean" that brought him the most attention, including a Golden Globe award. Since then, he's gone on to star in the TV show "Freaks and Geeks," plus the films "Spider-Man" and "Milk."
That fascination with fantasy books and movies was one of the reasons Franco ended up chasing a career in acting. That interest turned into a passion for role-playing games such as "Dungeons and Dragons" ala "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
"One day we were playing a game where we were supposed to be ninjas. I remember saying to my friends one day at lunch that we should really go do this stuff. We could sneak out and be real ninjas," Franco says with a big laugh. "If I think back, in addition to my love of movies, that was an early impulse to role play."
That impulse was fed by his love of movies, especially the 1939 version of "The Wizard of Oz," a film he watched every year. The combination of his love for that movie and his passion for the Baum books made starring in an "Oz" film like stepping into one of his childhood fantasies. He sees the film as a way to pass on something that he's loved to other generations, similar to his starring role in "James Dean."
The ultimate compliment for Franco would be for someone to come up to him and say they found the Baum books because of the movie.
Franco found it easy to play Oz because on one level, the man who arrives at the Emerald City is nothing more than an actor. He has no real magic ability, but he uses the skills he has to make all those around him believe in the role that he's playing. The difference for Franco is the negative connotation in the way Oz cons people in the beginning.
"I don't think that's what I do as an actor. If people buy into my performance, my hand isn't secretly in their pocket," Franco says. "What I do is just for the performance."
His film performances aren't the only way Franco's passing on his passion: He also teaches a graduate film class at New York University and a movie production class at the University of Southern California.
"It's a way to stay in the academic world I love and focus my energy so that I'm not only thinking about my own self or my own career. There's a tendency in Hollywood to get caught up in how to get ahead. You're always looking for the next great project.
"That kind of approach can drive me crazy, so to act against that, I need to do things that take the focus off myself, and teaching is a wonderful way to do that," Franco says. "It's cheesy sounding, but I believe that it's true. If you get out of yourself, you tend to be a little more happy."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.