James Franco is almost over the hill. On a recent Los Angeles afternoon, as he climbs up a steep path on a hike to Griffith Observatory, he starts ruminating about his life. “I realize, ‘James, you’re 40,’” says the actor, who is actually 39. “I have achieved all the things that I dreamed when I was younger. And realizing, ‘Oh, those things are not going to fill the hole.’” As he approaches this milestone, he says he’s not afraid to slow down and focus, after bouncing from one project to the next for most of his life: “Do fewer things, and do things that you really love, and give them the attention they deserve.”

For Franco, a constant state of frenzy has been a shield, to protect him from failure. “It was a defense mechanism,” he says. “If I do a lot of things and one of them comes out and people don’t like it, I’m already on to the next thing. I’m not even listening to the criticism. But it’s also an escape.” He pauses. “If I kept myself busy, I never had to look at myself or my life.”

Danielle Levitt for Variety

For now, Franco is taking his foot off the pedal (he’s even started clocking at least seven hours of sleep a night), and his most recent work suggests that he’s ready to be taken more seriously as a filmmaker and actor. He’s only acted for two weeks total this year, in the Coen brothers’ Western anthology series “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” for Netflix, which will debut in 2018. He directed and stars in the upcoming movie “The Disaster Artist,” which opens in theaters on Dec. 1. And his HBO show “The Deuce,” in which he plays twins in David Simon’s Dickensian drama about the mob and the porn industry in 1970s New York, has been picked up for a second season. “I wanted to stop going out there and doing these indies on my own, where I was the complete master and nobody was telling me no,” Franco says.

Like a post-millennial “Where’s Waldo,” there’s been a nonstop search for the real James Franco. “My public persona is this weird part of me, but not part of me,” he says a few weeks before our hike, during a 7:30 a.m. breakfast at the Soho House in downtown Manhattan. “Other outlets use it to sell magazines,” Franco says, as he inhales a plate of scrambled eggs with bacon. “Why can’t I have fun with it? On the other hand, it becomes you. There was a period 10 years ago that I wasn’t the James Franco that everyone suddenly knew, doing all these things. It’s almost like the mask gets fused to your face. That mask of fame sort of gets stuck on your face whether you’re being facetious or being serious. It’s a hard thing to talk about because you start sounding like a douche.”

Franco, who broke out in the industry as a high school heartthrob on the 1999 TV show “Freaks and Geeks,” has patched together one of the most intriguing, if at times schizophrenic, trajectories in Hollywood. It’s actually more like a series of careers that could keep a small army busy. There was his time as a chiseled leading man (in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy), a soap opera actor (a meta-twist where he played a character named Franco on “General Hospital”), a Broadway performer (“Of Mice and Men”), a sometime indie director (“The Sound and the Fury”), a short story writer (“Palo Alto”) and a Hulu star (“11.22.63”).

“I wanted to stop going out there and doing these indies on my own, where I was the complete master and nobody was telling me no.”
James Franco

“Not to compare myself to Kurt Cobain,” Franco says. “But he’s such a great example of this. You read the journals, and he’s writing about how he wants success and fame. And then he gets it, and he’s like, ‘This is hell.’”

The new Franco also wants to work harder on his personal relationships. He tells a story about how he accompanied his girlfriend, Isabel Pakzad, to the emergency room after she developed a nasty throat infection at the San Sebastian Film Festival in September. “There was one instance,” he says. “This old girlfriend was visiting me in New York. I had come out here for school. My cat had scratched her in the eye. I had so much work to get done for the next day, I didn’t take her to the hospital. I had my assistant take her. That moment haunted me so much. What kind of selfish, self-centered boyfriend are you?”

He’s made other adjustments, such as quitting Instagram. “It’s very liberating,” Franco says. “I just got rid of it. When I first got on, it just felt silly. I treated it like it was a joke. You get in that weird seductive space where it feels private, but it’s also public. And you get hooked on the reaction.”

He still can’t parse the different identities that he used to project. “I was testing the bounds,” he says. “It’s sort of the way I see people like the Kardashians. They are staking out new ground and what these spaces are. They are making a lot of money off of it. What will happen if I do that? And you get reactions. There was some photo I did. I wasn’t naked. I’m sure Rihanna has posted a bunch more risqué photos. It was just the attitude of the photo. It was sweaty. My hand was in my boxers. It just looked gross. And I remember Gucci” — which had an endorsement deal with him — “saying, ‘Don’t do any more photos like that.’”

The story of “The Disaster Artist” was a match made in heaven for Franco, who loves old Hollywood tales. In the film, he plays the real-life actor and director Tommy Wiseau, who was behind what’s largely regarded as the worst movie ever made, the 2003 indie “The Room.” It’s a role that required an on-screen metamorphosis (think Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” meets Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in “Man on the Moon”). In addition to producing and starring, Franco directed in full character mode, sporting a shaggy wig and barking out commands to his cast in Wiseau’s indistinct accent.

James Franco stayed in character while directing his film about Tommy Wiseau.
Justina Mintz

Franco’s younger brother Dave Franco, who plays Tommy’s best friend and “Room” collaborator Greg Sestero, says he believes audiences will respond to “The Disaster Artist.” “I think it’s his best performance to date,” says Dave, who is launching a production company, Ramona Films, with James named after the street they grew up on. “He keeps you on your toes.”

In the late ’90s, Wiseau and Sestero were two acting-class buddies trying to crash into Hollywood. They made the trek from San Francisco to Los Angeles, but the industry wouldn’t take them seriously. Wiseau, with his Eastern European upbringing (despite pretending to be from New Orleans) and hulking figure, was told that he was less of a leading man than a Frankenstein. To push back, he financed his first script out of his own pocket, intent on proving to the world that he was the next James Dean.

“The Room” is a convoluted drama about a man (Wiseau) who discovers that his best pal (Sestero) has betrayed him by stealing his girlfriend. The movie has a cheesy dubbed track, sex scenes that bring to mind soft-core porn and lines that are delivered with such exaggeration, they become instant camp. At “The Room’s” rather unglamorous premiere, the crowd laughed in all the wrong moments. But instead of disappearing forever, Wiseau started to screen his opus at midnight to college students. They watched “The Room” to mock it, and the movie became a cult phenomenon. “I always say ‘The Room’ is successful because it has heart,” says Wiseau, who dismisses his critics with a shrug. “It has heart like a human being.”

Franco is fascinated by Wiseau’s ability to make a drastic U-turn, to take something that was widely ridiculed and act like he was in on the joke. After he read “The Disaster Artist,” a non-fiction book written by Sestero, Franco optioned the rights in 2014. “When he reached out, I couldn’t believe it,” Sestero says. “I had known Tommy for 20 years. To pull him off and not be a cartoon I felt would be really difficult.”

Franco had an early conversation with Wiseau, who wanted Johnny Depp to play him. Wiseau says that Franco was a suitable second choice because he’d portrayed Dean in a 2001 TNT biopic. “I don’t know if you know the movie ‘Sonny,’” Wiseau says, referring to a little-seen 2002 film that stars Franco as a prostitute. “I watched that movie several times — at least 10.”

Franco wanted to build Wiseau from the inside out. He studied the original dailies from “The Room,” and he listened to Wiseau’s private taped journals. To prepare for his film’s climactic sex scene, he stuck to a lengthy diet that consisted of Whole Foods salads for lunch and dinner, on top of 300 daily sit-ups and push-ups. “He’s muscular, but it’s a very strange muscularity,” Franco says of Wiseau’s physique.

The actor underwent a dramatic transformation, right down to a fake Virginia Woolf-like snout. “I had two and a half hours of prosthetics,” he says. “We used cheeks because he has very severe cheekbones. A nosepiece not for the full nose but for the bridge. We did a little piece on the eyelid because he has a lazy eye on one side. And blue contacts.”

“My public persona is this weird part of me, but not part of me. The mask of fame sort of gets stuck on your face whether you’re being facetious or being serious.”
James Franco

The cast, which included Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith and Judd Apatow in A-list cameos, had to adjust to Franco directing in character. “To me, one of the most interesting things about the movie is how many talented people are in it,” says Seth Rogen, who produced the film through his company Point Grey Pictures and plays the script supervisor Sandy Schklair. “A lot of them did it because they wanted to be in a movie that James Franco was directing, because they thought it would be a strange, surreal, bizarre experience. And then it was like a thousand points beyond what they ever conceived.”

In their own way, Wiseau and Franco are kindred spirits. Despite all his bravado, Franco is sincere about his work. He says that growing up in Palo Alto, he was an introvert who fell into acting while doing plays as a senior in high school. There are actually three Franco boys. Tom, the middle child, is a sculptor. Their mom, Betsy, who is a prolific children’s book writer and occasional actress, keeps up the Twitter account @FrancosMom. Their dad, Doug, who was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, died in 2011.

One of James’ first jobs, after he dropped out of UCLA, was at the overnight drive-through of a McDonald’s, where he practiced accents while taking orders. “I had very little work experience,” he says. “I couldn’t get a restaurant job. I would show up smelly.” A friend suggested trying a fast-food chain. “‘What, are you too good to work at McDonald’s?’ I guess not.” He shrugs. “I was following my dreams.”

When “The Disaster Artist” premiered at SXSW in March, it earned some of the biggest laughs ever at Austin’s Paramount Theatre, a tall order given the venue’s history of launching breakout comedic hits like “Sausage Party” and “21 Jump Street.” The movie, which is being marketed and released by indie distributor A24, has become this year’s dark horse awards darling. Franco’s already picked up a nomination at the Gotham Independent Spirit Awards. “I think this is the upside-down ‘La La Land,’” he says. “It’s about two people trying to make it and follow their dreams.” It’s possible that the gonzo valentine to Hollywood can catapult the actor all the way to the Oscars.

Danielle Levitt for Variety

He’s been there before, of course. In 2011, he was nominated for “127 Hours,” which coincided with a widely panned turn as the co-emcee of the Academy Awards with Anne Hathaway. “At the time I justified it to myself,” Franco says. “‘This will be an experiment. This will be weird.’ Part of me was so uncomfortable with the attention of being nominated, but also fear of losing, because everybody was talking about Colin Firth,” he says about the eventual winner in his category.

By taking on extra duties as Oscar host, he thought it wouldn’t look so bad if he went home empty-handed. He didn’t even know he was tanking during the telecast because there was laughter in the auditorium. “I mean, I shouldn’t have been doing it,” he says. “Honestly, I think the biggest criticism of me, it seemed like I was high or low energy. In my head, I was trying to be the straight man. I guess I just went too far or came across as the dead man.”

Before our hike, Franco is behind the wheel of his car, fiddling with an old cell phone. As part of the advertising campaign for “The Disaster Artist,” A24 has taken over a Los Angeles billboard with a toll-free number (an homage to the original billboard that Wiseau took out for “The Room”). Every day, Franco fields five to 10 calls as Tommy, to the delighted laughter of the groupies who manage to get through. After “The Disaster Artist” charmed the pants off SXSW, the film’s original distributor, New Line, wasn’t sure if it was the right home, given a lack of recent box office success with midsize comedies. So A24 picked up the project instead. “It was an incredibly cool thing that they did,” Rogen says. “You don’t see that happen very often, studios financing movies and selling them to independent distribution houses.”

Driving to Griffith Observatory was Franco’s idea. He first came up here when he was playing Dean in his early 20s, shortly after “Freaks and Geeks” was canceled. At the time, Franco wasn’t too torn up about it. “I didn’t know how rare it is to find a group of people working on such incredible material,” he says. “I just thought, ‘Oh, perfect, now I can start my movie career.’” Wiseau also made the pilgrimage because he saw himself as the next Dean, who wound up at the famed location in “Rebel Without a Cause.” “To me, his fascination and desire to be James Dean epitomizes his lack of touch with reality,” says Franco, who is drawn to the gap between perception and truth. It’s plainly on display in the Hollywood Hills. For the rest of the day, the actor, who is wearing glasses and a hat, blends in with the crowd. He dodges past cell phone-wielding tourists taking selfies, oblivious to the fact that they just missed a major celebrity sighting.

When we reach the observatory, Franco pauses, letting it all sink in. He says that the movie industry is in a tricky place. “It’s a cliché now to say, but I think it’s very true,” he says. “The movies are like short stories, and television is like novels.” He makes a weekly trek to his local multiplex, listing off a quadruple feature at the ArcLight that included the horror movie “Happy Death Day,” the drama “Una,” the crime thriller “The Snowman” and the action story “Only the Brave.” “This was just a fun day at the movies,” he says sheepishly of the eclectic list. “I see everything.”