A Story of an Actor and His Storytelling
Written By: Taylor Simmons
Photographed By: Angel Manuel
Photo Location: Grandpa Johnson’s, 1638 N Cauhuenga Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028
Name: Daniel Franzese
Credentials: Actor, Curator, Youtube star, Ambassador for Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation
“You go, Glenn Coco.” That is all I could think about when I found out I had the privilege to sit down with Daniel Franzese for this interview. He is known for his role of Damien on “Mean Girls.” A gay teenager in high school who’s best known for being, “too gay to function.” Nerves were storming through me as I sat down with this 36-year-old actor who is so much more than Damian but still trying to figure out how to navigate the world of individuality.
As somebody who prides himself on being different, he continues to pick roles and creative pursuits that will challenge every crevice of the creative parts of the brain. Talking to this humble man, you see that he cares deeply for the people he considers friends and family. He takes every experience he can and the lessons that they create. We spoke about the past, present, and future, and as we spoke, passion and confidence floated from his lips. He describes a transformation from an insecure young man, to somebody who understands the world he lives in and has the confidence to succeed in that world. He exudes an excitement for life that is rare and is willing to share it with his fans. As he describes his adventures reciting his ABCs on family coffee tables, acting roles, curating for art galleries, appearances on “The Moth, ” he makes it obvious that performing and storytelling go hand in hand for him.
Q: How was growing up in Florida?
Daniel Franzese: It was weird for me because I lived in Brooklyn until I was seven. It was a fish out of water kind of situation. When I lived in New York, even my Principal was Italian. And then I get to Florida, and I am the only one. It felt weird. And hot. But I did have a beach life, which is something that not many of my relatives got the opportunity to experience and I was grateful for that. I was like the child of the water. It was amazing. And now when I go home, that’s all we do, is fish on the boat. You know, living that salt life. That’s what they call it. Where we lived, you could walk out 100 yards, and you were on the beach. It’s great, especially when you’re a kid.
Q: When did you move over here to LA?
DF: I came over here New Years Eve 2005. I did Mean Girls, and I waited until I had my theater equity card before I moved back to New York. Then I waited until I had a major studio film before I moved to LA. There is no plan when you are doing acting. I am always ready to go. I just downsized because I spent maybe five months in LA in the past three years. Now I am on this show on ABC Family, “Recovery Road, ” that is being shot here in LA, and it feels more substantial. “Recovery Road” is about this 17-year-old girl who gets busted drinking in this ritzy high school. They make a deal with her to spend nights and weekends at an adult rehab until she finishes her senior year. I play this choreographer who got addicted to cocaine and lost his mojo. ABC Family has found their audience in the generation called “The Becomers.” People who are between their first kiss and their first kid. This show is trying to maintain that audience, and I love this show. The cast is like a family to me.
Q: When you look at where you started and where you are today, how do you feel?
DF: Confident. I was so insecure growing up. I had drive. I had determination. I had willpower. I didn’t have a thick skin. Each rejection hurt, and I thought it was “show friends” rather than “show business.” I think that now I have confidence, and I understand what is expected of me. I understand what I can deliver. Dolly Parton said, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” I feel like that is where I am at this point. Oscar Wilde said, “Pretend you are something and nobody will be the wiser.” I think it is 50/50.
Q: How was it working with Tina Fey?
DF: She’s lovely. She’s funny and smart and self-deprecating. And everything you would expect her to be.
Q: When did you first think you wanted to become an actor?
DF: I don’t think I had a choice. When I was born, my grandpa had 12 brothers and they all lived on the same block in Brooklyn with all their families. They all had kids, which is my mom’s generation. When I was born, I was the only kid on that block. And when I learned my ABCs I would do, what I affectionately call, “The Coffee Table Circuit.” I would play at everybody’s coffee table that night. I would learn a song and then I would be on their coffee tables performing. I think I just got used to evoking laughter. I got addicted to that.
Q: What is your favorite genre?
DF: Comedy. Definitely. But I am a story teller. For all intensive purposes of the word, I love doing horrors if they are scary and comedies if they are funny. I do competitive storytelling all the time. I have done “The Moth.” And if there is a comedy theater in LA that does storytelling, then I have been there and performed. And when I travel I call up comedy theaters and just do bits when I can. I love doing it because every time I tell a story or ask the audience for topics of stories, I remember something different. It reminds me or teaches me something new. Storytelling is my true talent, and I use acting as a form of expressing it. All of my artistic ventures can be tied back to storytelling.
Q: Could you talk a little about your role as a curator?
DF: I still want to curate — I fell into that. It wasn’t something that I pursued. World of Wonder, which is an amazing production company run by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, they did “Drag Race” and “Party Monster” — and I became friends with them. When I came to LA, they were some of the only people I knew to call. They opened up a gallery, and I helped them start it. They gave me my own show to curate! From there it blossomed. After they had closed that gallery, I kept going. It is something fun to do to make money, entertain people and be creative. I enjoy the weightlifting that it forces me to do with the creative parts of my brain. I am constantly doing different things to stay creative. I started a band last year called “Peanut Butter and Jealous, ” then I created a t-shirt for my fans. I also plan on starting a jewelry line. Whenever I tell people about my different projects, they aren’t surprised because they know.
Q: What motivates you?
DF: God and my family and my boyfriend and my friends. Whenever I try to be funny, I am trying to be funny to make my friends laugh. My whole role doing “Mean Girls, ” I was thinking of ways to make my college friends laugh. My motivation is with the people I love. I am really close to my fans too. I talk to them daily on Instagram and Twitter. I try to stay close to them, and I consider them like an extended friendship.
Q: How did “Mean Girls” affect the rest of your career?
DF: It changed my life. Before, I was recognizable from things, but in a very casual way. Not in a way where 15-year-old girls would be running down the street chasing me like I’m Beiber. It made me grow my beard. It made me change things in certain ways. It affected me professionally. I was staying in the closet, and I was trying to distance myself from the thing that put me on the map. This is a really emotional thing for an actor. I felt that I was being denied access to auditions and parts because I played gay at a time that gay wasn’t as widely accepted as it is now. I was road blocked to try for things. The parts I was being offered were very antiquated ideas of what people thought being gay was. Damian was progressive and forward moving in its time. Now they are writing amazing roles. My role on “Looking” was amazing and groundbreaking. I feel like I am playing another progressive role now, and it I don’t feel like the roles are hurting me and my soul. I don’t feel I need to go backward anymore. Now I have nothing but joy, to see that people are still affected by the movie today. “Mean Girls” fans are loyal fans. The movie brings me a lot of joy today despite the struggle it brought in the beginning.
Q: What has been a favorite past role of yours?
DF: I loved this movie I did called “Kill Theory.” You know they talk about being in the moment as an actor, which is this unicorn that you never find. I found something in that movie, even if it was for a glimmer of a second, that I leveled up and became a better actor because of my role in that film. I was going through something personal with a real-life friend. Agnes Brucker, who worked with me on this movie, was also a real life friend and she was involved in this personal matter. And so at the time of the movie I was going through the same things personally that the character in the movie was going through. Something kind of clicked as I was acting with Agnes, and I feel like I can access different parts of myself when it comes to acting now. This was a very special time in my career.
Q: Is it hard to keep your real life and your acting separate sometimes?
DF: I try to infuse a lot of real emotions and real moments into my work. I definitely tap into things. But I don’t try to feel things when I act. I find that selfish. My job is to evoke emotions in the audience, not myself. I love playing characters that are inspirational and change over the course of the show or movie. And maybe the audience changes by watching them. I think it is selfish to want to feel selfish. I think it’s really easy to keep my work and my personal life separate.
Q: What are you working on now?
DF: Well there is “Recovery Road” on ABC Family. I will be doing the “Looking” movie in the fall. I have a couple other movies on the pipeline. I have a film called “Mind Puppets.” It is about five people who get hypnotized and then the hypnotist has a heart attack in the middle and we get stuck in our trance. I think I play a pregnant woman. That will be coming out at the end of this year. I will be doing more Youtube stuff and parodies. I always try to do the most.
Q: What’s your inspiration?
DF: I am inspired a lot by people who have done things that haven’t been done before; John Waters is an example. I am a spiritual guy; my family inspires me. But if we are going to go artistically, then is would be John Waters and Zachery Quinto, who is like my age, but he has done so many different roles. I am inspired a lot by the old comedians of yesteryear; Phil Silvers, Side Ceasar, Mel Brooks. People are still using their same styles and rhythms. I like evergreen comedy. I think stuff that is always funny is great. I am also inspired by Todrick Hall and by people who get stuff done. In this day and age, it is so easy to get stuff done, but people still don’t do it.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?
DF: Happy. And a dad. I can’t wait t be a dad.
Q: What has been your biggest hurdle?
DF: I think my biggest hurdle has been being different. But that is also my biggest asset. So now it’s about selling the hurdle. I don’t know what else to do about it.
Q: What role has taught you the most?
DF: The role of being a son to my mom. I have learned a lot through my relationship with my mom. We have communicated and supported each other and what it means to be a family. That is something that I have been very thoughtful for. We support each other. I give her money if she needs it and she does the same for me when I need it. And just the support I get from her by coming to everything I do. She has been in rooms where there is nobody else in the audience. I have learned how to be a better friend and a better boyfriend and a better everything because of my relationship with my mom.
Q: Which actor past or present would have you star struck?
DF: Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball. I wouldn’t even know what to do.
Q: Where can we find you on your days off?
DF: First I would have to have a day off. I do love The Short Stop. I love Motown night or the New Beverly Theater — it’s $7.00 for two movies.
Q: How have you remained throughout celebrity life?
DF: I am an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation. I’d rather show up to things like that and charity events then go out to the hottest clubs. The places I go to are for a good cause or something artistic. I only go out when I celebrate. I like feeding my mind or helping other people. A celebrity is celebrated. When I get an opportunity to give back, I feel like it just balances it out.