As he celebrates 15 years since Mean Girls, Daniel Franzese reveals how he’s parlaying fame into fighting for the environment and people living with HIV.
For the last two and a half decades, scores of protesters have converged on the nation’s capital. Their goal is to urge legislators to address the persisting HIV epidemic in the country. The annual AIDSWatch advocacy event brings together people living with HIV and AIDS, organizational leaders and other advocates. Throughout the years, celebrities have helped raise the visibility of those messages.
This year, HIV/AIDS service organizations partnered with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to host the 26th annual advocacy event. Among those meeting with lawmakers — for the fifth time — was actor Daniel Franzese. He is known for his breakout role in Mean Girls and as a recurring cast member in HBO’s series Looking (where he played the HIV-positive Eddie).
“We were in Maxine Waters’ office, Adam Schiff’s office,” says Franzese, describing the packed schedule. “A lot of our job today is to thank them for what they’ve done already as very strong supporters.” Franzese, still riding a high from the day’s encounters, adds, “Just like most of us live in our own little worlds, they live in a Washington bubble — and have to be reminded what it’s like to be a real person.”
Franzese’s entrée to AIDS advocacy came via a friend, Quinn Tivey, the grandson of Elizabeth Taylor. Franzese first turned to Tivey for advice after a friend tested positive for the virus. Impressed by the Foundation’s work and the Taylor’s “undeniable legacy,” the now-41-year-old Franzese soon enlisted as an ambassador. Since then, he has remained outspoken about the lack of prominent HIV-related storylines on mainstream television.
“In the six years that there wasn’t an HIV storyline on television, there was a rise in new infections,” Franzese says ruefully. “There wasn’t a story that people could learn from.”
The New York native who now calls Los Angeles home is passionate about educating younger generations, and laments that many aren’t even aware that the AIDS epidemic still exists. His 2015 role in the second season Looking finale brought him considerable acclaim when his character had to grapple with a mixed-status relationship — living a life once unimaginable for most HIV-positive people.
“Even though my role on Looking is over, I feel like my role as an advocate has begun — not just for HIV and AIDS, but also to work on many other causes,” he says. That includes a fierce environmental advocacy focused on another plague, plastic waste, as part of Bacardi and Lonely Whale’s “The Future Doesn’t Suck” initiative for the planet to use a billion fewer plastic straws by 2020.
So more than 15 years after taking on the Plastics in Mean Girls, he’s taking on plastics in the ocean. “Everyone knows I hate the plastics now and I have to end them once and for all.” He laughs, but doesn’t want to undercut his message: “It’s about my caring for the ocean.”
“I’m at this point in my life where if I am aware of something wrong, I must be defiant,” he says. “Sometimes I like to be a voice [for those] who can’t talk, and in this case it’s marine life. The same thing for HIV, speaking for people who have been marginalized and stigmatized; or LGBT homeless youth.”
Part of this journey also has meant coming to terms with his own identity. Franzese concedes that it was playing Damian in Mean Girls, one of the most recognizable LGBTQ characters in popular culture, that led him to come to terms with himself, then his family, and finally to be open publicly about his homosexuality in 2014.
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“I get letters all the time that remind me that Damian was pretty much the first character to be seen in a major studio teen-focused film that was queer and of size and was able to live a life without fear,” he says. “He was never shoved inside a locker. He was just able to live and exist in school.”
Coming out led Franzese to more freely express his feelings on stage as well. “I always wanted to do standup, but in the golden age I didn’t feel like there was a place for a gay person,” he says. “Then when I came out it was the first thing I wanted to do.”
Franzese also hosts a monthly standup show, the West Hollywood Brunch, at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. He has also been touring with the “Yass! You’re Amazing!” comedy tour. This spring, he headed to NYC to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Mean Girls.
Franzese now believes his future includes both acting and advocacy, and expects his work will continue with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to end the AIDS epidemic, remarking, “I am so in love with Liz Taylor’s family and her legacy and I’m all in it to win it with them.”
Read another conversation we had with Daniel shortly after the second season of Looking.
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