For ‘Mean Girls’ Actor Daniel Franzese, Playing an Iconic Gay Best Friend Was a Blessing and a Curse

Daniel Franzese. Emily Assiran for Observer

Mean Girls, the seminal teen comedy that feels permanently wedged in the zeitgeist, just turned 15, and actor Daniel Franzese still considers it a flash point in his circuitous journey.

“I could cry because I feel so many complex human emotions about it,” Franzese, now 40, says during a chat backstage at New York’s legendary Comic Strip Live, the same venue where days later he’ll host a comedy show in honor of the film’s anniversary. “I have the resentment that I didn’t work after it. I have the complete honor of knowing that I truly saved some people’s lives when I read the letters they’ve written me. And then there’s the fact that it’s still cool. I mean, who has a 15-year-old movie that people still want to do interviews about?”

Subscribe to Observer’s Entertainment Newsletter

Franzese may seem slightly frustrated to be in town celebrating the past rather than toasting the future, but really, how can we not look back fondly? Mean Girls and his character Damian Leigh—the chubby, flamboyant, openly gay best friend to Lizzy Caplan’s deadpan Janis Ian—aren’t just kitschy, slightly dated nostalgia triggers—they are relevant. Go on Twitter any given day, and someone is out there quoting one of Damian’s many saucy one-liners. “She doesn’t even go here!” “That’s why her hair is so big. It’s full of secrets.” Or my personal go-to: “I WANT MY PINK SHIRT BACK! I WANT MY PINK SHIRT BACK!”

So why the resentment? “The celebration we’re doing here at Comic Strip isn’t a celebration of my success,” Franzese says. “It’s a celebration of the fans and a celebration of how impactful that role was. But it’s not like, ‘Hey, I’m successful, come celebrate me.’”

He continues: “There were times when I didn’t have food, and I didn’t have rent, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I would walk outside onto the street and people would be like, ‘You go, Glen Coco,’ and it’s just like, ‘What the fuck?’ Even after Mean Girls I applied at one point to be a security guard again at Target in the Valley, and they wouldn’t hire me.” It’s a weird conundrum, he points out, when the thing that feeds you is also the thing keeping you from doing what you feel you’re meant to be doing.

What he was meant to do—entertain—seemed clear from a young age, a time he recalls with greater joy. After Franzese’s family relocated from Brooklyn to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when he was 7, he caught the proverbial acting bug, faking appendicitis one day so that he could ditch school and tag along with his sister, whom his mother was taking to meet an agent. That agent, smitten with him and not his sister, booked Danny his first commercial. “It was for a toy car,” he remembers, “which I didn’t really play with ’cause I was, like, a little gay kid.”

He was going to major in communications, but his high school guidance counselor helped him find a talent scholarship for Florida School of the Arts, where he studied for two years before heading to New York and booking two plays and then the first national touring production of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. Not long after, he landed his first movie role in Larry Clark’s 2001 film, Bully, opposite Brad Renfro. His next film, 2002’s Hometown Legend, starred Lacey Chabert, someone Franzese would come to know very well two years later when the pair were cast in Mean Girls.

“I had never read a movie before where I was bawling, laughing out loud,” he says of the film, which also starred Lindsay Lohan, whose character, Cady Heron, befriends his character before getting entangled with “the Plastics,” the nasty high school clique led by queen bee Regina George (Rachel McAdams). “Everything about it made me laugh, and I had the best lines, and I couldn’t believe it.” He auditioned but learned later while watching E! True Hollywood Story that director Mark Waters and writer Tina Fey thought he “sucked.”

“They had an idea for someone they wanted to play Damian, but they thought he was too old,” Franzese says. “So they had him read again, and he wore makeup to look younger and got so nervous that he sweated all over his white shirt and his face was melting and they were like, ‘Nope!’”

Daniel Franzese. Emily Assiran for Observer

The outcome: Franzese got a call one Sunday from his agent saying he would be flying out to Los Angeles the next morning for a dinner with the cast and the movie’s producer, Lorne Michaels. He was told he would be in attendance to read for Damian at the table read the following day but that he hadn’t formally been offered the part yet. However, after the table read, the part could go to no one else. Even though he was 10 years older than the character at the time, Franzese was Damian. The only difference? Damian was open about his sexual orientation.

“I was like Hannah Montana,” Franzese says. “I had two separate lives. There was Donny DeFranco, and then there was Daniel Franzese. I was Donny and working as the bouncer at the Duplex, and then I had my career.” His fear, he explains, stemmed from the rampant homophobia in Hollywood. “I had seen Chad Allen get busted,” he recalls, referencing the Our House actor who was outed by The Globe after pictures surfaced of him making out with his then-boyfriend at a pool party. “It killed me to watch that happen to him because I thought, I’m next. I hate to say that, but it’s true. Maybe I would have been more of a trailblazer or something if I had come out.”

His decision to finally leave the closet arrived unexpectedly five years ago during the 10th anniversary of a film that, by then, had essentially exhausted him and his co-stars. “To my old publicist I’d be like, ‘Mean Girls? Not speaking about it.’ I know some of the people involved, even Rachel McAdams, are like, ‘We don’t want anything to do with Mean Girls,’ because they have other things to talk about and feel like it’s beating a dead horse. I felt the same way until the 10th anniversary, when it made me come out.”

That was when Franzese received a note from a fan recounting his experience in eighth grade, when he was tortured for being heavy and beaten up for being a sissy. The fan then explained how in ninth grade, on the first day of school, the popular senior girls were like, “You’re like Damian—come sit with us.”

“That letter changed it for me,” Franzese says. “I don’t mind talking about it now. In fact, I lean into it, because the fans needed it and it changed them and it changed me, because it made me learn to be comfortable with myself. I was like, ‘Look at what this piece of art did for so many people.’”

Daniel Franzese. Emily Assiran for Observer

It’s not like he stopped working after Mean Girls. Franzese continued with bit parts, mostly on television series, including The Comeback, Party Down and Burn Notice. In 2015, he became a series regular—and one of the best, most three-dimensional characters—on HBO’s short-lived LGBTQ show Looking. But finding consistent gigs proved challenging. So what did he do? “I started creating. And I think it changed me, in a way, for the better.” His output included the rock opera Jersey Shoresical, the viral sketch-comedy series Shit Italian Moms Say and “Please Go Home,” his parody video of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” (which has racked up 1,395,971 views and counting).

“All of that stuff came out of a need for me to be creating content and contributing what I’m supposed to be doing with my art when other people weren’t letting me,” Franzese says.

It’s one of the reasons he says he loves doing stand-up. “I’m creating my own destiny, I’m writing my own jokes, I’m making people laugh, I’m having a great time and I don’t have to take a stupid movie that I don’t really like,” he says.

Franzese hosts a monthly stand-up show, West Hollywood Brunch, at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, and he’s currently touring the country with another stand-up performance, Yass You’re Amazing, before heading to Hong Kong to reprise his role as Pierre in Vesturport and Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Heart of Robin Hood.

But he insists he’s not done with the big screen. “I’ll wait six years or whatever it takes until a really great movie comes along, and then I’ll do that movie,” he says. “But until then, I can do things that matter and that are important to me.”

For ‘Mean Girls’ Actor Daniel Franzese, Playing an Iconic Gay Best Friend Was a Blessing and a Curse