Daniel Franzese lives life in abundance and shares his knowledge about HIV to keep his peeps safe
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Grips shuffle furniture. Electricians position the lights. The crew and staff are squeezed into tiny spaces surrounding the set, an entire house from the front yard to the back rooms. “Rolling!” announces an officious crewmember. Stillness. The director shouts, “Action.”
This is Soundstage 2 at Santa Clarita Studios in Santa Clarita, California, thirty miles north of Los Angeles. Daniel Franzese is on set filming a scene for the new ABC Family series, Recovery Road, portraying a recovering choreographer who’s lost his mojo. He’s the patriarch to the residents at Springtime Meadows, a rehab facility. There’s a few more takes and then lunch is announced.
Entering the set, I find Daniel sitting on a couch gazing at his phone. After introductions, we head off to the commissary trailer where an array of fresh, delectable food awaits. “Are you hungry?” he asks. “Help yourself.”
Carrying copious portions of food, we settle at the end of a long cafeteria table, the room dotted with other hungry chatty cast and crew. Daniel is outfitted in a long loosely tied silk kimono-style robe, a grey shlubby tank top underneath, black sweatpants and slipper-sandals with grey rumpled socks, and donning a simple gold necklace. The six-foot-three inch actor doesn’t look much different than Eddie, the affable HIV-positive character he played on HBO’s Looking. Daniel appeared in Season Two, the final season, and bulldozed the part, giving the series a well-needed touchstone. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, the series was canceled several months ago. But perk up you die-hard fans. In the fall, he and the rest of the San Francisco gang will begin production on a Looking film. “It’s being written as we speak,” offers Daniel.
Commenting on the correct pronunciation of his last name, Daniel asserts, “RuPaul taught me a great way to say it. ‘I don’t have my own air conditioner. I have to use my—friend’s AC.’” He beams that genuine hearty smile and we both giggle. Pronounced Fran-SAY-see, it summons up St. Francis of Assisi.
Daniel was recently appointed Ambassador to the Elizabeth Taylor Foundation (ETAF). “I’ve taken a whole new perspective on the disease since my new position,” he remarks. “I feel a passion and responsibility towards this commitment. I’ve lost friends to AIDS and several friends are HIV-positive.” (The Looking finale party benefitted ETAF.)
Flashback roughly one year ago when Daniel came out. It had been ten years since he was cast in his breakout role in Mean Girls with Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams. He played high school student, Damian, “almost too gay to function,” as his best friend, Janis, described him.
Post-Mean Girls, Daniel was boxed in. He wanted to play many kinds of roles, not just gay roles, but he was being typecast. Like Damian, he wanted the audience to laugh with him, not at him, and so he began to turn down roles. It became harder to pay the rent. Fed up with the situation, in April 2014, Daniel changed the course of his life when he publicly wrote a letter to his Mean Girls character, Damian, part of which is written below.
….Damian, you had ruined my life and I was really pissed at you. I became celibate for a year and a half. I didn’t go to any gay bars, have any flings and I lied to anyone who asked if I was gay. I even brought a girl to the ‘Mean Girls’ premiere and kissed her on the red carpet, making her my unwitting beard.
It wasn’t until years later that grown men started to coming up to me on the street—some of them in tears—and thanking me for being a role model to them. Telling me I gave them comfort not only being young and gay but also being a big dude. It was then that I realized how much of an impact YOU had made on them.
Meanwhile, I was still in the closet….I had the perfect opportunity in 2004 to let people know the REAL Daniel Franzese. Now in 2014—ten years later—looking back, it took YOU to teach me how to be proud of myself again….I had to remind myself that my parents named me Daniel because it means “God is my judge.” So, I’m not afraid anymore. Of Hollywood, the closet or mean girls. Thank you for that, Damian.
[pull_quote_right]“My HIV and AIDS ‘calling’…I had to do it Big to raise awareness.”[/pull_quote_right] His brave letter set Daniel on a new journey—“My HIV and AIDS ‘calling’…,” he explains. “I had to do it Big to raise awareness.” In March he tweeted: “I’m no longer in a place of ‘God, please help me.’ I’m in a place of ‘God, how can I help you?’”
After the letter was published, Daniel’s friend and next-door neighbor, Ryan, who had recently been diagnosed with HIV, developed agoraphobia and his health was declining. To save Ryan, Daniel called Quinn Tivey, Elizabeth Taylor’s grandson, who’s actively involved in amfAR and ETAF. Quinn provided Daniel a roadmap for Ryan’s care.
Weeks later, Daniel was cast in the role of Eddie in Looking. It was serendipitous. The casting director was the same one who had “discovered” Daniel singing in a Florida gay bar and had cast him in his first film, Bully. Daniel excitedly called Quinn to tell him the good news. Quinn congratulated him and said he was in town and was on his way to one of the ETAF facilities. He invited Daniel to join him. There, Daniel met ETAF managing director, Joel Goldman, and subsequently was offered the position of Ambassador. “Before I even had the part of Eddie, there was this pull, this connection [to the HIV community],” he notes, taking a bite of roast chicken and adding, “I was just astounded by all the different things that were available to Ryan, and how Joel took time to meet Ryan one-on-one. Now he had great care.”
Daniel learned more about HIV. Through GLAAD, he discovered that he was the only HIV character on television. There hadn’t been one on television in quite a long time. (Currently there’s an HIV-positive character on How To Get Away With Murder.) He also learned that antiretroviral drugs are no longer administered in a cocktail, but rather by as little as one pill a day. Daniel passed on these facts to Ryan.
“Here’s this educated gay male actor, who’s playing an HIV-positive part that’s looking for information and finding out a lot of information for the first time. Then here’s another person who’s just had HIV for a year and he’s also learning things for the first time. Then I knew,” he stops and sighs, “that information was not getting out to those who needed to hear it. I was angry. I had to do everything I could to use my voice so people could be informed. Whether it’d be on a large scale like an interview with A&U or something as a conversation with a bunch of guys at a bar. I haven’t been able to shut up.”
Daniel has played his new part as Ambassador quite well. In April, he joined Joel, Joseph Drungil of AIDS United, Quinn Tivey, and others in Washington, D.C., for AIDSWatch, an annual constituent-based national HIV/AIDS advocacy event hosted by ETAF. Hundreds of activists and people living with AIDS meet with members of Congress, educating them on the epidemic in the United States. Daniel met with several members of Congress. “I was challenging them,” he says bluntly. “I said, ‘You’re taking meetings all day for AIDSWatch. Why aren’t you wearing an AIDS ribbon? If this was 1994, you would be!’”
Daniel’s time on Capitol Hill was revelatory. “I was moved to tears watching how passionate and focused Elizabeth Taylor’s grandchildren were in carrying out what she wanted,” he tenderly mentions in a sonorous voice. “I was once in Barbara Boxer’s office, and there was this older gentleman talking about how most of his money-earning years were spent on medications to keep himself alive and in good shape which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“It’s really time that everybody reevaluate where we stand as a nation and the world on this issue. We have the tools now to eradicate this disease by ninety-six percent in our country and we’re just not using them. That is so frustrating,” he declares, waving his knife in the air, gesturing with a dramatic sweep. “We need to talk about getting rid of these abstinence programs and bringing back needle-exchange programs which work. Abstinence programs do not. We…need…to…be…realistic.” He goes on. “We need to figure how to lower the cost of these drugs, including PrEP, to make them more accessible.” (Daniel admits if he were single he would take PrEP and he encourages his friends to do so.)
He has two beverages, iced tea and mango juice, and every so often pours a bit of mango juice into the iced tea. Daniel takes a sip and continues. “Witnessing how Capitol Hill works, I could see myself being a councilman or something—you know, addressing people, changing their minds, bringing tears to their eyes. Okay. I’ve got the gift of voice. That’s what I do for a living. I can engage and entertain while I get the message across.”
He does that splendidly with “the big hairy dude” he affectionately calls his character Eddie on Looking. Daniel was pleased with the way his character was written. “Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh depicted Eddie in a good light. They showed him being pursued. He was healthy and happy and changing other people’s lives, like working with the trans-kids. They didn’t deal with any [usual HIV-positive victim] bullshit. Eddie was living in an unabashed and unapologetic life.”
Several months ago, Daniel was a guest at the Texas Bear Roundup—a bear convention—in Dallas. “When I appeared on The Doctors talking about PrEP, Dr. Jorge [Jorge E. Rodriguez, a reoccurring guest] brought up the term, ‘a magnetic couple’—someone who’s positive and someone who’s negative—which is kind of beautiful. That stuck with me. Well, I met a magnetic couple in Dallas. They were in tears telling me how much Eddie and Agustín’s relationship had meant to them. One of the guys said, ‘I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that same scare, with my partner, or men before him. This is the first time in a storyline that ended happily.’ Their account moved me,” says Daniel compassionately, looking off briefly when a tray is dropped on the floor that causes a roaring clatter. The Texas couple refers to an episode where Eddie cums on Agustín’s eye and Agustín freaks out with AIDS anxiety. They finally talk it out and it’s resolved.
Out of the blue, Daniel, in an agitated voice, cites the recent HIV epidemic in Austin, Indiana, a rural part of the state, caused by needle sharing. “That has my stomach turning,” he protests with a cayenne pinch of irritation. Tom Friden, CDC Director, addressed the issue stating that this town has a higher rate of HIV than “any country in sub-Saharan Africa. They’ve had more people infected with HIV through injection drug use than in all of New York City last year.”
In small towns, there’s usually a stigma and residents don’t get tested or treated. Also, unlike big urban areas, there’s no funding, awareness, or services.
“This Could Have Been Prevented With A Needle-Exchange Program!” bellows Daniel in majuscules. “That’s why we gave an award to New York Senator Jose Serrano, who was very instrumental in implementing a needle-exchange program. New York used to have fifty-one percent new infections, now it’s down to .3.”
Sitting there, Daniel bears earmarks to the headstrong investigative Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich on a crusade, through trial and error, to fight the good fight.
[pull_quote_right]“I’ve spent a lot of years being silent about issues that I care about because I was in the closet. I felt stigmatized just being a gay male actor in Hollywood. Some people don’t have a voice—children, animals—and I feel the need to speak up. I can’t really shut up about things I really believe in now.” [/pull_quote_right]Inquiring why he forges ahead with fervent motion, he replies sincerely, “I really don’t know how not to.” He presses on. “I’ve spent a lot of years being silent about issues that I care about because I was in the closet. I felt stigmatized just being a gay male actor in Hollywood. Some people don’t have a voice—children, animals—and I feel the need to speak up. I can’t really shut up about things I really believe in now.”
Daniel was born in Brooklyn and lived there until he was seven, when his family (he has two younger siblings) moved to Ft. Lauderdale. He’s extremely close to his family. In fact, one of his all time favorite activities is “laughing with my mom.” (Don’t miss his sidesplitting series, “Shit Italian Mom’s Say,” on YouTube, and other numerous parodies, such as “Please Go Home!”). He’s especially fond of his Nana, so much so that she’s played bit parts in some of his films. Even if she can’t appear, his character mentions her name. This calls to mind Carol Burnett’s tugging at her ear at the end of each show as a nod to her grandmother. Incidentally, Carol Burnett is on the top of Daniel’s list of celebrities that he’d like to meet. He also admires Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, and Ernie Kovacs, and has culled from their talents.
In high school, Daniel took Leadership and was a member of the Student Council. His high school offered a good STD education, as well. “I was a little couch potato so I watched everything from The Ryan White Story to the special episode of Designing Women and all those shows in the nineties, when HIV and AIDS was a big hot-button topic,” he says, whisking his beard.
“I fell in love with Pedro [Zamora on MTV’s The Real World San Francisco] and cried watching Rent.” He pauses. “Beyond The Candelabra and The Normal Heart are great, but yesteryear stories. Liberace died of complications from AIDS but how and what was his journey at that time? Stories are being told today but we need to show everything to erase stigma and to get rid of some of these antiquated laws,” he argues vigorously. “We need to showcase more characters with HIV! When they were visible, it’s been proven that infections declined.”
Finishing his lunch, Daniel crisscrosses one semi-hirsute arm over the other and gracefully leans into the table, fiercely concentrated. He has the right fusion of masculine and feminine that he could have his own brand of scented candle. “Look, everybody needs to get tested. I was shocked by some of the statistics I’ve been learning: every month, a thousand people between the ages of thirteen to twenty-four are newly infected.” He quivers, rocking his head back and forth. “I brought this up on The Doctors too. If you’re straight or in a committed relationship like I am [he’s been coupled for nearly a year], your responsibility isn’t over.” He ponders, while pouring more mango juice into his iced tea.
[pull_quote_left]“I would love a campaign called, ‘Check It!’ Everyone gets tested—no matter what. Married, straight, everybody gets tested just to prove that they got tested.”[/pull_quote_left] “I would love a campaign called, ‘Check It!’ Everyone gets tested—no matter what. Married, straight, everybody gets tested just to prove that they got tested.” He’s on a roll. His dark browns aglow. “You’re more likely to catch HIV from a person who doesn’t know that they have it. In the gay community, many guys are relying on these app profiles [where they say they’re negative], but that’s just not enough to go on,” he urges, eyeing me dead on.
Daniel was tested after his first sexual encounter at age nineteen with a girl. “I was scared, so the next day I got tested. It took a week to get the results!,” he exhales, recalling the angst, relating that he was twenty-one when he first had sex with a guy. When Daniel and his partner, Joseph Bradley Phillips, met at a NoHo [North Hollywood] Starbucks, they were both tested before they had sex. “We are very much in love. He’s adorable…,” coos Daniel softly, with a hint of pride. The couple eventually wants to have children, but for now they own a Dorky (a Dachshund and a Yorkie) named Henry.
As if on cue, an AD (assistant director) approaches. “Daniel, We’re back from lunch, and they’re ready for you on stage.”
He removes his empty tray and helps himself to ice cream. Any remaining thoughts, I ask. Hastily downing his last nibbles of ice cream, Daniel succinctly responds, in an adamant tone, “Anybody that needs me to speak about the epidemic, I am offering my services to your readers. If I don’t know what to say, I’m one phone call away from a person who does. Let’s Talk About It.”
Dann Dulin, Senior Editor of A&U, interviewed actor Jay Ellis for the May coverstory.