Daniel Franzese Is Still Breaking New Ground 10 Years After "Mean Girls"
Over a decade after Damian, the actor is playing another full-figured, unapologetic gay character — and he wouldn't have it any other way.
Eddie on HBO’s Looking is a rarity on television. The full-figured, HIV-positive gay man isn’t ashamed of his body or his status, which has helped make him the breakout character on the stellar second season of the series.
The character was exactly what Daniel Franzese, still best known for his turn as Damian in 2004’s Mean Girls, had been holding out for. The actor, who came out in an open letter to his Mean Girls character last year, had been offered many roles in the 10 years since, but he wasn’t willing to settle.
"Big dudes get left out of the gay lexicon."
“For the most part, nothing was as progressive as Damian was,” Franzese told BuzzFeed News at Alcove Café in Los Feliz, California, recently. “I felt like Damian was unapologetically himself, and really progressive and had a story arc, and had feelings. Literally, a lot of the characters were just token gays during the initial gaysploitation period we were experiencing in the early noughties.”
Looking’s San Francisco-based characters are certainly far from “token gays,” but Franzese was reluctant to give the HBO series a try, even as a viewer, because — as many of the show’s most vocal critics have said — there wasn’t “anyone like [him] on the show.”
“Big dudes get left out of the gay lexicon,” Franzese said, recalling a conversation he had with his friend, casting director Lori Malkin, who suggested he correct Looking’s “big dude” blind spot by joining the show.
Though he was doubtful at first, Franzese sent photos to Looking casting director Carmen Cuba, who discovered him and cast him in his first film, 2001’s Bully. By the time Cuba shared the photos with Looking’s creative team, they had already started imagining the character of Eddie — and Franzese was a perfect fit.
Looking executive producer Andrew Haigh offered him the role over breakfast, describing the character of Eddie as happy and healthy, and promising that Eddie would be portrayed as sexy and body positive.
“As an actor, you get grouped into different segments: I’m the Italian guy, I’m the chubby guy, I’m the gay guy,” Franzese said. “A lot of times all those different subgroups get played for laughs, or are just castrated comic relief. This was an opportunity where multiple subgroups were being elevated and treated as humans, and that was so exciting to me.”
Television as a whole has rarely been kind to bigger characters, whether slightly overweight or obese. And Eddie’s proud bear status is an exciting chance for an marginalized subset of the gay community to see themselves on screen, a group of people who probably haven’t felt represented since Mean Girls’ Damian.
“I didn’t see a representation of myself in high school, and years later, I had a lot of people thanking me for Damian,” Franzese remembered. “People saying, ‘Thanks for making it cool to be chubby and gay right before I went into high school.’ If I had the power to do that with that movie, imagine what could happen with me being sexy on a show like Looking. That was the most appealing thing about the job, was being able to be there and be big and proud of myself and my body, and to feel sexy doing it.”
Eddie is a much more grown-up version of his high school counterpart, including the relationship he’s been negotiating with Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) throughout Season 2. In the March 8 episode, “Looking for Glory,” Eddie became even more distinctly adult with his first sex scene, during which Franzese went full frontal.
The scene and its aftermath — in which Eddie tries to comfort Agustín, who is freaking out after contact with Eddie’s bodily fluids — is a remarkable display of vulnerability from Franzese’s character, though the actor admitted he was slightly nervous. “Going from my first real kiss on screen to being totally naked is kind of a big deal,” Franzese said. “It just felt like it really was right for the story. One of the things I love about all of the sex on Looking is that, even when it feels sexy and gratuitous, it’s still serving the story first and foremost. I’m a storyteller. I’m an actor-y type actor. And I think once I was there, I felt really free to do it in order to tell the story properly.”
"It's time for bigger dudes to rise up and get the guy."
But beyond that, it was important for Franzese to be naked and have it presented as something desirable and attractive. On television, any not-thin body tends to get dismissed or relegated to the butt of jokes. Looking’s insistence on making Eddie a sexually viable character is one of the show’s most transgressive aspects. And it reflects a reality for Franzese, who does not feel any less attractive because of his weight.
“I have a very fulfilled sexual life. I’ve never had a problem meeting guys,” Franzese said. “To me, I think that should say something. It’s time for bigger dudes to rise up and get the guy.”
But Eddie is groundbreaking not only because of what he looks like, but because there are hardly evercharacters living with HIV on television. Until the season finale of How to Get Away With Murder, Eddie was the only HIV-positive character on a current series — and he breaks the mold further by being able to live a full, happy life while talking openly about the disease.
“America had a big influx of HIV-positive representation on screen, very special episode of The Golden Girls and whatnot, and then that sort of died out in the mid-‘90s,” he said. Those very special episodes of series like The Golden Girls and Designing Women largely focused on the fear of contracting HIV, teaching valuable lessons about how HIV is transmitted, and why it’s important to show compassion for HIV-positive people. But that particular teaching moment is behind us, and — unlike How to Get Away With Murder — Looking is not interested in a retread. If there is a lesson to be gained through Eddie, it’s that HIV-positive people can live relatively normal lives.
"We have all the tools to cut down HIV by 96% — we're just not using them."
Since joining Looking, Franzese has become an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which has kept him educated on current advancements in HIV treatment and how HIV-positive people live their lives in 2015. The show has also sought to keep up with the current conversation. In the Feb. 15 episode, “Looking for Truth,” for example, Agustín asks about Eddie’s cocktail of pills, a reference to the way HIV was once treated. Eddie explains that he takes a single daily pill for his treatment; the rest are standard vitamins. And in the Feb. 22 episode, “Looking for Gordon Freeman,” the characters debate the merits of Truvada or PrEP, a pill taken by some as a prophylactic against HIV infection. Like Eddie in that installment, Franzese has strong opinions about the merits of the drug.
“It’s important that people know about it. It’s a great tool in preventing HIV. We have all the tools to cut HIV down by 96% — we’re just not using them,” he said. “If you take PrEP and if you wear a condom, it’s virtually impossible for you to contract the HIV virus. I think that’s an important idea that everyone needs to know.”
The actor also has a close friend named Ryan, who is HIV-positive and has given him guidance when it comes to playing Eddie. Through Ryan, Franzese has seen first-hand how important and groundbreaking a character like Eddie really can be.
“We have coffee every morning together, and I think a lot of his story spilled into Eddie’s story,” he said. “Ryan had tears in his eyes hearing that this character was able to date and nothing was wrong with him.”
His friend’s response has only confirmed for Franzese that he was right to join Looking.
“Eddie is living a fulfilled life, changing other people’s lives by working in the shelter and doing good things,” he concluded. “That was a huge motivator for me.”