James Franco is reading Gertrude Stein. It's homework for a course he's taking at UCLA English 173B: American Fiction 1900-1945 as he continues his long, between-pictures slog toward finally finishing his bachelor's degree. ''I'm graduating this June,'' announces the 30-year-old actor-turned-lit major, plunking down a thick paperback of the Parisian expat's prose onto a tabletop at a busy Westwood coffee shop. ''But I'm going on to graduate school. For creative writing. What I really want to do is write.''
And Gertrude Stein probably wanted to be in Spider-Man. But a rose is a rose is a rose, as somebody once wrote, and for now Franco is stuck being a movie star. In fact, he's here on this early March morning ''the first day of the spring quarter,'' he cheerily notes to discuss a new film, Pineapple Express, in which he and Seth Rogen costar as a couple of hapless stoners whose buzz gets harshed when one of them witnesses a cop committing a murder. ''The whole idea of the movie comes from Brad Pitt's stoner character in True Romance,'' explains producer Judd Apatow, referring to that star's glassy-eyed walk-on in the 1993 Tony Scott crime drama. ''I thought it would be funny to make a movie in which you follow that character out of his apartment and watch him get chased by bad guys.''
It's Franco's first leading role in a major studio comedy also a step up for director David Gordon Green (Snow Angels, Undertow) as well as a huge attention-grabbing stretch for an actor best known for playing Peter Parker's playboy pal. Franco dives so deeply into the character, burying his chiseled features under a mop of greasy hair and blinking into the camera in a heavy-lidded daze, some fans might have trouble recognizing him. ''It really is amazing, isn't it?'' marvels Rogen. ''You see him in the Spider-Man movies wearing $3,000 suits and he's a total heartthrob. But we put him in a grungy wig and some baggy clothes and he's a whole different guy. It's almost like he isn't even handsome in this movie.''
NEXT PAGE: ''That's the thing about Franco. You tell him, 'Okay, you're going to play a pot dealer,' and he comes back with a three-dimensional character you totally believe exists.''