From “Mean Girls” and “Looking” to HIV activism and standup comedy, Daniel Franzese talks his iconic roles

By : Jeremy Williams
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Daniel Franzese came into pop culture view for most people after he appeared in the hit movie “Mean Girls.” The 2004 film was written by comedy queen Tina Fey, produced by “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels and starred a bevy of up-and-coming stars including Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, Amy Poehler and more.

Franzese starred as Damian, the flamboyant kid at school who was openly and unapologetically gay. His character had most of the film’s quotable lines, taking “Mean Girls” from a hit teen comedy to a cult status movie that is still played to its rabid fanbase nearly 15 years later.Franzese went on to cement his status as a gay icon by appearing in HBO’s 2014 series “Looking,” where he played Eddie. The character was a big, lovable bear, the love interest to Frankie Alvarez’s character Agustin and HIV-positive.

Franzese came out of the closet between making “Mean Girls” and “Looking,” and has since built a successful career in standup, on YouTube and as an LGBTQ and HIV activist.

Watermark spoke with Franzese ahead of “Mean Girls: On Wednesdays We Wear Pink,” a one-night event he will be attending with his openly gay “Mean Girls” co-star Jonathan Bennett at the Majestic in Orlando Sept. 26.

You were born in Brooklyn and then moved to South Florida when you were a kid. What was your childhood like?

It was good. I have a very big family in Brooklyn, my grandfather had twelve brothers and they all lived on the same block, so I grew up knowing all my first, second and third cousins. We moved to Florida when I was seven and it was a little different. It was a little harder to make friends but I definitely got more into theatrics.

That’s when you first developed your passion for performing?

Well, living on that block in Brooklyn, whenever I learned something like the ABCs or a new song I would do what I affectionately call the “coffee table circuit” and I would go from family member to family member’s coffee tables and perform. Early on I learned that I could get a lot of positive attention and make people feel really good by performing, so as long as I can remember I’ve been an entertainer.

Your most well-known role is Damian from 2004’s “Mean Girls.” When that film came out Lindsay Lohan was a big name and Tina Fey, who was working on “Saturday Night Live,” penned the script. What went through your mind when you found out that you were going to be starring in a movie with Lindsay Lohan, written by Tina Fey?

To be honest, I actually didn’t know who Lindsay was [at the time]. She had just done “Parent Trap” and “Freaky Friday” but those weren’t the kind of movies I was watching, I was 26 when I did “Mean Girls,” so her films weren’t on my radar. Tina wasn’t on “SNL” yet as a performer, she was a writer, so as much as I really loved her as a writer I didn’t really find her that intimidating either when I first met her. But I was very excited to work with all these up-and-coming people that were about to blow up. You could feel the energy of that about to happen. Also to work with everyone from “SNL,” I was so honored… Lorne Michaels and “SNL” was always a major influence on me.

You were surrounded by a lot of strong, veteran comedic talent: Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey, also Amy Poehler, Tim Meadows, Ana Gasteyer. What did you take away from being able to perform with these comedic giants?

It was incredible! It was very uplifting, it was exciting, there was a nervous energy on it, especially because I was talkative and a closeted gay guy but I felt like for the most part it was all joy. We had so much fun; we laughed so hard and had such a great time.

You have some of the most quotable lines in the movie. Was there much improvising on the set or are those all Tina’s words?

We got to improvise a bit. When Damian said, “I want my pink shirt back,” that was my line. Also, at the end when they throw the crown she goes “look, I’m a queen.” I improvised “as am I,” which I thought was Damian’s way of sort of coming out.

“Mean Girls” was a hit when it came out, but it’s attained this cult status that films rarely do. When you all were shooting the film did you foresee that it was going to be that big?

No, I mean you never know. We were hoping, and it’s so awesome that it happened, but you can’t foresee that.

You mentioned earlier that you were closeted while you were doing the movie. Both you and Jonathan Bennett were in the closet publicly while filming and for several years after. Privately did you both know you were gay?

Yeah, it took awhile but then Jonathan and I and Lizzie Kaplan would hide out every night and hang out together. Lizzie was the only person who we were totally honest with.

You’re also well known for appearing in the HBO series “Looking.” What was it about that series that made you want to be a part of it?

They offered me the role, so that was the first step [laughs]. But when [“Looking” co-creator] Michael Lannan took me to breakfast and offered me the role he explained to me that Eddie was going to be pursued by Agustin, and he was going to be a sexy bigger guy, a cuddly bigger guy, who spoke his mind, and that he would be HIV-positive, but he’ll never ever get sick in the history of the show. We’re going to show what it’s like in today’s age of prevention and treatment. I found that so exciting. I found it exciting not only to tell an HIV-positive storyline, but to see a sexualized, larger size guy who in the gay lexicon would usually be the gay comic relief and it was really exciting to know, despite these things that normally in gay storytelling end up being “unlovable,” he was going to not only be pursued in spite of this but perhaps because of it. He just lives his life so proud. I mean who would say no to that, it’s so exciting. I was so proud to play it and I tried to play it honestly and fearlessly but a lot of credit has to go to Andrew [Haigh] and Michael [Lannan] for creating a character like that.

You have a popular YouTube series called “Shit Italian Moms Say,” and they are hilarious. Any chance we will be getting anymore of those videos?

I’m actually looking into ways right now to do it animated. That’s what we’d really love to do for the future of that. We are going to be releasing an Italian mom doll sometime in the spring where it will say a lot of phrases from the videos and along with that I’d love to complete some sort of animated project that I could release.

Are you looking at expanding the YouTube series or is it going to be an animated series on television?

I’m certainly going to shoot high and try to see if I can get it on television but if not I’ll do it myself. I’ve got to do it for the fans either way.

You and Jonathan are coming to Orlando for an event called “Mean Girls: On Wednesdays We Wear Pink Party” at the Majestic. What can you tell us about it?

It’s going to be really fun. We’re going to be doing a meet-and-greet, and I’m sure there will be a lot of fun surprises. I don’t think fans of “Mean Girls” will be disappointed.

You are also doing a lot of travel with your standup. How is that going?

Fantastic. I’ve had such an incredible outpouring of love from new fans and old fans and it’s awesome. My audience is filled with comedy fans, it’s filled with queer people, it’s filled with old Italian moms that come and check it out. It’s a really great mix of people. I leave for Scotland soon, then I come back to the States and head to Ohio and then a bunch of other states. I’m actually going to be in Orlando and Tampa at the Improv in November.

Is this your first standup tour?

Yeah, the past four years I’ve been on TV shows so I haven’t been able to leave and before that I was working on different projects, so now it’s really exciting because I’m going to be touring through 2019.

How many cities are you doing?

A lot [laughs]. I really lost count, it’s not a set tour so if I find a way to add a city I do it.

I want to talk to you about your charity work. You’re really big into LGBTQ activism and HIV/AIDS awareness, in fact you’re an official ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS foundation. How did that come about?

I am friends with Elizabeth Taylor’s grandson, Quinn Tivey. A friend of mine found out he was HIV-positive and I called Quinn for some advice and some help for him because he wasn’t taking his meds and he was hiding out in his house and he didn’t want to face his diagnosis. So Quinn immediately got me in touch with Joe Goldman, who’s the managing director of Elizabeth Taylor’s AIDS Foundation, who found him some help, found him a new doctor, found him a way to get meds delivered to his house, got him to be happy, healthy and undetectable. I watched it happen before my eyes, it was wonderful.

At that point I was able to announce that I was on “Looking,” so before we started filming we were able to get some of the current information to HBO and build a bridge between them and the charity so they could make sure that the information was current and up-to-date.

I go every year to Washington with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation for AIDS Watch and we lobby Congress and talk to them about our needs for reducing stigmas and getting better information out there and prevention. It was combined with my love for Eddie and my research and my friend, but really it was Mrs. Taylor’s commitment and legacy, the stories I have heard about her, what she has left behind and her beautiful family that has inspired me. I will be an activist until we eradicate this disease.

Looking for something to do? Check out the 2018 Fall Arts Guide available now online for a full listing of events in your area! Live shows, art exhibits and so much more! 

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