It’s been a decade since actor Daniel Franzese made a huge splash as Damian, the straight-talking, possibly gay teen character in the widely-adored comedy Mean Girls. In the years since he appeared on numerous TV series including The Comeback and in smaller films, such as the horror remake I Spit On Your Grave, but avoided any repeats of Damian and especially refused any roles he deemed “gay stereotypes.” Last summer, as many media outlets acknowledged the impact Mean Girls had on a generation of fans, Franzese decided to come out publicly by writing an open letter to Damian, in which he acknowledged having played the Hollywood game, had lied about his sexual orientation and wished he’d had someone like his character to inspire him to live more honestly.
Now the 36-year-old actor is back in the spotlight with a key role on HBO’s hit Looking. Franzese joins the half-hour dramedy about a trio of San Francisco-based gay pals (Jonathan Groff, Murray Bartlett and Frankie J. Alvarez), as Eddie, a groundbreaking new character who is just as straight-talking as Damian and just as adept at dropping memorable one-liners. Franzese chatted with Queerty about getting completely naked on the show, why he decided to come out publicly, the impact of his Mean Girls character Damian and shared an important message for narrow-minded casting directors.
Queerty: Had you watched the first season of Looking before you were cast as Eddie?
Daniel Franzese: I did. When it first began airing a friend asked if I’d seen it. I said I hadn’t because I had a reservation that there wouldn’t be guys who looked like me on it. There are never guys who look like me on gay programming. She said, “Why don’t you be that guy on the show?” I told my friend, who is a casting director, that she knows it doesn’t happen like that. If that’s the case I’d be on every show like American Horror Story. When I finally started watching it I got a call to take a meeting about it. Looking’s casting director Carmen Cuba had cast me in my first project, Bully, and she spoke with the producers about me and then I met Andrew [Haigh, Looking’s showrunner]. It happened that fast.
How accurately did you think the series depicts the lives of gay men?
We have such little programming that we can call 100 percent ours as the LGBTQ community, that Looking stands alone as the only show about gay characters. Everyone wants themselves to be represented in that. That’s the current voice so everyone wants to find himself in it. It’s possible you couldn’t find every one in the first season of Looking, but you were learning about these new people. I loved the story and the characters and their journey.
Your character Eddie is one of the first of his kind on TV. How would you describe him?
Without giving too much away I’m excited to be play a realistic gay character, who is HIV-positive and also happens to work in a homeless shelter for gay and trans kids. There are so many social issues and different perspectives to think about with that character alone. I’m also excited that I get to be funny on HBO.
Looking is filmed in San Francisco, which is practically a supporting character on the show. What’s been the response from locals while you’re filming there?
The wonderful thing about the San Francisco community is I felt like I belonged there even though I’d never been there before. I’d been in love with Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series and influenced by San Francisco culture throughout the years, then here I am going there and playing a person from there on a show that’s very important. I was welcomed with open arms.
Your character becomes involved with Agustin, who indulged in some really bad behavior last season. Will Eddie help him evolve as a person?
I think they’re very different people when they first meet and become friends. It’ll be interesting to see what they do for each other’s lives. I don’t want to give too much away.
As actors, we’re very giving toward each other and when it comes to intimacy we’re very connected and listen to each other. He’s a fantastic scene partner. We have a mutual respect for one another and want all of that stuff to look great to tell the story. We lose ourselves in the moment. I don’t necessarily know if that’s hot for me. I just think it’s us being respectful scene partners and making each other comfortable. Plus, he’s a darling of a person.
Did you and the producers have discussions about how explicit the sex scenes would be? Would you film a full frontal nude scene if asked?
I’ll tell you what I told the producers. I gave them a no-limits policy. I was like, if I’m gonna be cute and I’m gonna be sexy, let’s do it. Whatever you need. I’m free and open to that stuff. With this show the sex scenes are important to tell the story. It’s one of the things that’s made the show so critically well-received and why they get the accolades, the sex is real and important and it still manages to be hot. Sometimes the sounds you hear in a sex scene are hotter than the way they do it. I was down to do that. If I’m going to be in something that’s intimate, I trust their vision. If anything comes up, I’m ready. I’m not afraid to get naked if I have to. You can hardly see it, but in the first episode I’m completely naked in the skinny-dipping scene.
Just to be standing in the river while it was moving in the moonlight was such an incredible experience, even if it was freezing.
What pressure do you feel to accurately represent the bear community?
I don’t feel any pressure. If anything I feel it’s a source of pride. I know the comfort that Damian gave kids in high school so this is an opportunity in an adult manner to continue doing the same thing. I was excited. I said, “I’m going full Lena Dunham! I’m on HBO and I’ll get naked.” I think it’s important to see different body types. One thing that’s so beautiful about the bear community is it’s all-encompassing. It’s bear-plus. Anyone who is nice and doesn’t have an attitude and wants to belong will be friends. So I’m super-proud to represent that. I’ve never seen that on any other gay show before. I was turned off from watching Looking in the first place because of pre-judgments due to being disappointed from previous gay programming. So kudos to them for willing to do that. That’s what’s so crazy. Both Michael [Lannan, Looking‘s other showrunner]and Andrew told me, “We love big dudes. Big dudes are hot!” They’re all scruffy. We have beard high-fives. [Laughs] I’m honored to be able to represent people like me.
I think Eddie will make a big impact on viewers.
I hope so. The reason I waited so long to play another high profile gay character is because I wanted it be so someone who’d make a difference. It didn’t feel right to go backwards.
Besides Eddie, which Looking character would you be most likely to date in real life?
I think everyone is nice and hot and awesome, but I think it would be Patrick because in the past I tend to end up with people who don’t know exactly what they want. I think that’s the flawed hero that Patrick is.
One of the show’s most compelling storylines is the Patrick-Richie-Kevin love triangle. Let’s play “Fuck, Kill, Marry” with the three of them.
[Laughs] I’d fuck Patrick, kill Kevin, marry Richie.
You first came to the attention of many of us a decade ago in Mean Girls, which was a seminal film for a generation. How often are you recognized as Damian?
All the time. People always want to take selfies. I’m an expert at taking selfies.
That makes me want to hug you. When people refer to him as this out and proud character, I disagree. I think Damian was discovering himself. He wasn’t fully admitting it to himself at that time. He knew and maybe his friends knew. But he was completely in the caterpillar stage. To be honest that’s how Tina Fey [the film’s screenwriter, costar] and Mark Waters [the director] thought of him, as well. We had conversations about him being in the pre-exploratory phase. He was discovering himself before he brought his sexuality into it.
Whatever he was, he was very confident. Do you hear from gay kids about how Damian affected them?
The best thing I’ve ever heard was “Thank you for making it OK to be a chubby gay kid right when I went into high school.” He said that all the popular girls wanted to be his friend because he reminded them of Damian. That actually brought a tear to my eye because growing up as a chubby gay kid I wish I had something like that. That comment is what drove the need in my deciding to come out publicly. I knew that if it was reaching people on that level that I needed to be true to myself.
That and some other equally heavy comments I was receiving. It was the 10th anniversary of Mean Girls and it received a lot of attention. I started getting a lot of letters from fans of the film and it was building on me. They’d say “I don’t know if you’re gay or not, but your character did this for me.” I thought it mattered a lot. I felt like one day people would understand why I was holding off on playing other gay characters that were stereotypical. I felt that if I played those characters I’d be discrediting the movement that’s happening right now. I turned down some and after I saw them I thought, Oh, I should have done that one. I was trying to be choosy to help further that idea.
You were already out privately though, right?
Yeah, I was in long-term relationships. I didn’t feel the need to go out to bars in West Hollywood or tell every single person that I’m gay. I had a boyfriend so I could remain private. Sometimes I lied to people or was told to lie. Casting directors would say they saw me in Mean Girls and would ask if I’m gay. My manager would have to say something. She’d ask what she should say. I agreed with her at the time to say I wasn’t so I’d at least have a shot of coming into an audition with an open mind.
How did that weigh on you? It must have affected you on a personal level.
Incredibly. It affected my personal relationship and my relationship with my family and it affected my work and my art. I was meeting too many roadblocks to really have a career for a while. I remember going in for a western show and they didn’t want to see me because they thought I’d read too light, which is their way of saying I was too gay. Meanwhile, I’d just come off of making I Spit on Your Grave, which is the darkest thing you could ever see. Hollywood is a very “What have you done for me lately”-kind of town. Ellen Page spoke about it when she came out. She was afraid of experiencing that. And as wonderful as Ellen Page is I think she should be in more movies than she’s in, so maybe she is experiencing it.
I guess it’s not surprising that some casting directors are still so narrow-minded.
If the part calls for a real “man’s man-salt of the earth”-type, they’re probably not going to call in a gay actor. The problem isn’t just with gay actors. Think about trans actors. Why couldn’t a trans actor play a hotel manager or a best friend? There are people who have trans best friends and there are trans hotel managers. But when they’re casting parts like that they’re not even considering trans actors. It’s a problem and I don’t know how to solve it. The first draft of that letter I wrote was very angry. I was pissed that this was happening to actors. I was trying to Norma Rae a movement and ask casting directors to look at things differently. Then I thought it wasn’t the ideal first step. I need to just say that I’m gay and then take a breath and enjoy the release of being honest before being angry. But I am still mad about it. It’s still an issue in Hollywood.
I love people like Ryan Murphy who just completely ignore that and cast by talent. I admire casting directors like Carmen Cuba who met me in a gay club and still cast me as a straight character in Bully, which was my first role. Last season on Looking she cast a trans actor to play a chef and didn’t say anything about it. I think that’s something that people need to look forward to doing right now. It needs to become cool to do that, for casting directors to try to cast trans actors. You can change the mind of someone in the so-called Bible Belt or wherever else there’s prejudice against LGBTQ people in two seconds with an awesome episode of a TV show. The power lies within the studios and within casting to do that. They can change the way people will feel tomorrow by what and who they put in our TV shows. So cast more trans people to see what happens. It’s going to create a level of equality within the acting community. I played Damian, who was a very popular gay character and gay publications didn’t write about me until I came out. I’d never been in Out or The Advocate or anywhere. Why is that? Maybe they didn’t know.
You mentioned Bully, which starred Brad Renfro and Nick Stahl, who have both succumbed to drugs in different ways. How challenging is it for young actors in Hollywood to not become casualties? How have you managed to stay on track?
I didn’t start my film career until I was 23. I think that helped. The people you mentioned started really young. I started my career at the time Brad was already having those problems. Bully was almost canceled the day before we started shooting because Brad stole a boat in Miami the night before. I’ve seen what people will put at stake, but I’m just not a gambling man. I dont’ want to gamble with my career. I’m very fortunate to be able to work at my art. It seemed like too much of a risk to get involved in that kind of stuff. Plus the title of my one-man show off-Broadway last January was I Never Really Made the Kind of Money to Become a Mess. [Laughs]
I have kept in touch with her recently since we reconnected because I see such an amazing change in her. I’m proud of her sobriety and the steps she’s taking to accomplish what she wants to accomplish. I will always support that, especially with the history of my other friends. To see someone like Brad Renfro go through that and die and then to see Lindsay try to turn her life around, I will always support that.
What kind of career do you think she’ll have?
I think that’s up to her.
You’ve developed something of a side career as a video parody artist. What inspires you to make them?
Just making people laugh. We don’t make money off them and they cost money to make. They’re fun to do and it’s fun to make people laugh. I think that’s why I’ve done anything in my career, to entertain people.
You have a strong rapport with your fans on social media. Why is this important to you?
I love to talk to my fans on Twitter and Instagram so tell them to hit me up. I enjoy it. I grew up a fan and collected autograph pictures. I love the opportunity to talk to people who enjoy what I’m putting out there.
As a gay man in the public eye and with a high-profile new project,do you feel a responsibility to be socially conscious or political active?
One hundred percent. I’ve reached out to The Trevor Project. I’m going to be working with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. I just want to contribute any way I can. I definitely want to be involved with as much as I can. At this point I feel if I do something that hurts my career, at least I’m doing something to provoke change. Anyway, I can hold my head up high.