The first play 19-year-old Marla Sokoloff ever saw was a production of "Cyrano de Bergerac" at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. The production of this tragic romance about an homely but poetic, 17th Century French cavalier who helps a handsome soldier win the girl they both love struck a chord in her as a little girl, and soon she wanted to become an actress.
By age 9 she was on stage at the ACT, and begging her mom to let her have a shot at Hollywood.
"An agent saw one of the plays I did at ACT and told my mom, 'I really think your daughter should go to L.A.' But my mom was like, 'No, no. She's too young,'" Sokoloff remembers. "I became so annoying (that) a year and a half later she just couldn't stand hearing me anymore. So we went down for (television) pilot season, I got 'Full House' and we wound up never leaving."
Now her career has, in a strange way, come full circle. Sokoloff is starring as the object of two boys' desire in "Whatever It Takes," a teen romantic comedy inspired by "Cyrano."
Joined by James Franco, the sharply handsome actor with a bedroom smile who plays her more contemptible suitor, Sokoloff is barefooting around her San Francisco hotel room during a break from shooting TV's popular legal drama "The Practice" (she plays Lucy, the secretary), contemplating the difference between TV and feature films as she and Franco discuss their roles in the movie.
"On my show, I'm definitely the youngest one," Sokoloff says. "So going from a show where everyone is over 30, to the movie...where everyone was like 20, 25...it was like summer camp."
A TV star himself on "Freaks and Geeks," Franco ads, "Everything is very fast and off the cuff (when shooting TV). They'll rewrite scenes right there. They'll ask us to improvise. Whereas the movie, you have a lot more time, and they liked to stick to the script and perfect what they had. We had a lot more time with the scenes."
Unlike his co-star, Franco didn't start acting until he was in high school. "My girlfriend was in the drama club, and she was asked to do a one act with some drama geek and had to make out with him on stage," he laughs. "It was a devastating blow. I begged her not to do it and she did it anyway, so to get her back, I joined the drama club." He started acting professionally while attending UCLA.
Sokoloff's introspective but playful demeanor (she sits Indian-style on the end of her hotel bed, dispensing sweet smiles and playing with her newly-dyed and red- and blue-highlighted hair) contrasts Franco's apparent seriousness (he rubs his chin and looks strenuously pensive when answering even throw-away questions) -- and as they seem so different the question arises, who did they run when they were in high school?
"I was a big partier but got bored with it," Franco replies intently. "I guess I was a little freak, a little geek."
"I didn't go to a normal high school," says Sokoloff, who was acting all through her school years. "It was (a school) for people in the performing arts. (There were) 20 kids in the whole school. If you were in a clique, you were pretty much by yourself!"
But, she asserts, she still thought she could identify with her character, a beautiful, brainy outsider. "I think it was just interesting to her that somebody liked her that was popular."
In the movie Franco, playing the dull-witted school stud romances her with the help of her best friend and next door neighbor (Shane West), who is getting tips on scoring with the stuck-up school hottie (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe) in exchange.
Despite her "summer camp" experience making "Whatever It Takes," Sokoloff says she's ready to move on to more adult roles after following this picture with "Sugar and Spice," a black comedy in which she plays the friend of a pregnant cheerleader.
"I'm pretty sure this is it for the teen movie thing," she says, noting that she's now being sent several similar scripts. "It's so frustrating to read when you get to page 20 and you're like, Oy! It's the same thing again!"
She'll continue on "The Practice" as long as they'll have her, but when the show ends, Sokoloff wants to go to college -- and take a break from acting.
"I have a couple girlfriends in college right now. They can't even handle the schedule, and they don't have a job, let alone a 12-14 hour (a day) job."
Franco doesn't have any new movies on the horizon, but he's happy to be continuing on "Freaks and Geeks" and dedicating time to his study at Playhouse West, a respected acting collective in Los Angeles where many screen stars teach courses.