By Zorianna Kit
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Actor James Franco, lauded for his serious roles and forays into art, was almost too earnest to land the lead in the big screen 3D adventure film "Oz the Great and Powerful," which opens on Friday ahead of the summer blockbuster season.
Filmmaker Sam Raimi, who directed Franco in the "Spider-Man" trilogy from 2002 to 2007, said he initially considered other heavyweight actors such as Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. for the lead role in Disney's big-budget unofficial prequel to the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz."
Both Depp and Downey have already spearheaded two juggernaut Disney blockbuster franchises, with Depp as raucous Captain Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean" and Downey as the main character in "Iron Man."
Franco has not carried a blockbuster film alone, but Raimi told Reuters the 34-year-old actor's maturation would enable him to do so in "Oz," in which he plays the charming, morally dubious circus magician who cons others on and off stage.
When the character lands in Oz he continues his unethical ways, but becomes a reluctant hero after tapping into his inner goodness.
"I started thinking about what I knew about James in real life and realized they were very similar to Oz's," Raimi said.
"James started out as a 21-year-old actor, was a little into himself, a little selfish, a womanizer. But he had a good heart."
When Franco and Raimi worked together on "Spider-Man," the actor was a relative newcomer in Hollywood, playing the supporting role of Harry Osborn to Toby Maguire's Peter Park/Spider-Man.
Franco, who stars alongside actresses Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz In "Oz," admitted that he lacked the maturity as a performer to play a character like the wizard when he supported Maguire in the "Spider-Man" franchise.
"I was still in a stage where I think I took acting too seriously," Franco told Reuters in a recent interview. "I couldn't relax in the roles ... there was a kind of strangulation of the performances that was going on."
LEARNING TO RELAX
In recent years, Franco has undertaken several ventures outside of acting, including writing a book of poetry, curating an art exhibition in Los Angeles, engaging in performance art and teaching screenwriting at the University of California-Los Angeles.
The actor also stepped behind the camera as director on numerous projects including this year's LGBT film "Interior. Leather Bar."
Preoccupied with his serious artistic endeavors, Franco credited the 2008 stoner comedy "Pineapple Express" with loosening him up as an actor and allowing him to embrace the lighter side of filmmaking.
"That movie really taught me that movie-making could be fun, that I don't need to have complete control over everything, that if I relax my performances will be better," he said.
"I thought I needed to be this young, serious brooding performer," Franco added. "And I was just blind to the value of comedy."
Over the course of the three "Spider-Man" films, Raimi said he watched Franco become "more generous, more aware of others," and it was that parallel arc that made the director believe Franco was the right person to play Oz.
It also helped that since their last pairing Franco had starred in hit films like 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and scored a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Danny Boyle's 2010 survival drama "127 Hours."
Franco said he played the role of Oz "for comedy," and studied privately with Las Vegas magician Lance Burton who taught him tricks and how magicians carried themselves.
In an attempt to reshape the often tedious atmosphere during the obligatory promotional tours for "Oz" that took Franco to Japan, Moscow and London, he brought his UCLA students along to film the trips as part of their class work.
Their presence made the media blitzes more endurable, Franco said, as he watched the students process "a side of the business I'm used to" with fresh eyes.
"At least we're not spinning our wheels promoting this thing like we're used to," he said. "Other people are getting to learn."
(Reporting By Zorianna Kit; Editing by Eric Kelsey, Piya Sinha-Roy and Paul Simao)