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Baby brother Dave Franco steps into the limelight

James Franco's younger sibling is fast forging his own reputation

Trying to climb out from under the shadow of a successful acting sibling is no easy task; just ask most of the Baldwin brothers, or Eric Roberts. The more high profile the star, the harder it seems to be. So the fact that Dave Franco is no longer hanging onto the coattails of older brother James is impressive.

It's arguable that the 28-year-old is the cooler of the two. Certainly he plays less pretentious types. His career has been built on comedy turns or characters he describes as "jerks or douchebags". In 21 Jump Street he was the nerdy student who sold drugs. Pushing drugs was also his shtick in a brilliant appearance at a party in Greenberg. On the final series of TV show Scrubs he played a rich airhead who owes his internship to the deep pockets of his parents.

Having done his schooling in teen comedies and playing the guy with the evil glint, Franco is tired of being typecast. His next role is a sleight-of-hand magician in Now You See Me.

"I'm going to be honest with you, I think at first it was liberating for me to play someone that was so different from who I am, but after a while I've completely exhausted that role. There is nothing else I can do with it and that is one of the reasons why I was really attracted to Now You See Me, where I could play somewhat the underdog, the wide-eyed naive kid who looks up at all these other magicians, who knows he is a rookie and needs to earn his keep and prove himself. So hopefully people will see a slightly difference side to me."

In the film, directed by Louis Leterrier, he is one of a group of magicians, alongside Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Isla Fisher, who appear on stage in Las Vegas and pull off a stunning heist in which they seemingly rob a bank in France. I point out to Franco that robbing banks could still, at the very least, be seen as a bit underhand.

"Technically we are not doing the most morally sound things in the world – committing crimes," he agrees. "But if you see the movie, our hearts are in the right place; we are essentially stealing from these very rich, greedy people."

The crowd-pleasing thriller, with a fantastic set-up, was a box-office smash in America but critical reception was mixed: like many magic-themed movies the action falters just as the rabbit is pulled out of the bag. To get into character, says Franco, "We had a magic consultant on set with us, I was primarily learning card tricks. One of the tricks that I learned was how to throw cards really fast. I spent more time than I'd like to admit learning how to throw cards. I got pretty proficient at it, to the point where I can cut a banana in half by throwing cards at it. It's a skill that I'll never use again in my life." Not even as a party trick? "I think that I personally would not be attracted to the person who carries a deck of cards and a banana wherever they go. I don't know if that would be the coolest thing in the world – to be that guy."

There is a frankness to Franco. Born in Palo Alto to a Silicon Valley businessman father (who died in 2011) and an actress mother, he talks openly about joining the same industry as big brother James. "It's always been a blessing and a curse. He helped me get a manager, which I don't take for granted, but from there on out, no one is going to hire me because I'm James Franco's little brother. I had to prove myself. It's definitely been tough because in every meeting and every interview people bring him up. And I love him to death and I respect him so much but if anyone knows the two of us they know how different we are. He can tackle roles that I could never touch and vice versa."

How do he and James differ? "I think, I mean… OK what can I say," he stalls. "He has, for example, done a lot more tortured roles than I have. I have done maybe more silly and comedic roles than he has. Honestly, it's hard for me to describe, because I'm one of the two people that I have to compare."

The brothers' mutual appreciation is apparent in the hilarious Acting with James Franco videos on [comedy website] Funny or Die in which James gives Dave acting lessons. In three films they go through elements such as learning how to cry on screen, acting in front of green screens, and working on scene from Rebel without a Cause. It ends when their mother Betsy Lou makes her own film to rebuke James for using his cat as a memory device to make him cry in movies, and announces that she has killed the pet.

Now Franco Jr is starring in his own Funny or Die videos, a process that helped him through the dark days of his early career, starring in flops like After Sex and The Shortcut. "When anyone is starting out as an actor, you take on roles that you do not necessarily love because you want the experience or you want make connections. But you walk away from those projects and are not proud of them. We have complete freedom and creative control [on Funny or Die]. I feel like they are an accurate representation of my sense of humour and I'm actually very proud of them."

His latest short, Dream Girl, which co-stars his real-life girlfriend, the Mad Men actress Alison Brie, came out of his work on Now You See Me: "I learned that magic trick that you see in the video where I solve a Rubik's cube in a couple of seconds while making Now You See Me. They didn't put it in the movie and I figured it was a kind of cool trick. So I wanted to make a video revolving around that."

Next up for the actor is a starring role in Townies alongside Seth Rogen, Zac Efron and Rose Byrne and directed by Nicholas Stoller, best known for Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

"I'm surrounded again by really talented people that make me look a lot better than I normally am, and a lot funnier," he says. "It's as you would expect from a comedy like this; it's very raunchy and full of very intelligent, character-driven penis jokes."

'Now You See Me' is out on 3 July