Out of all the characters in the classic 2004 movie comedy “Mean Girls,” gay teen Damian, portrayed by out actor Daniel Franzese, had a special place in the hearts of LGBT folks of all ages.
He was funny, flamboyant, and, ultimately, relatable. It was a role that firmly put Franzese, who grew up in South Florida, on our collective radar. His portrayal of Eddie in HBO’s acclaimed series, and follow-up movie, “Looking,” only increased his queer acting cred. More recently, Franzese was a competitor on “RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race.” In the midst of all that, he was making his popular and hilarious “Shit Italian Moms Say” video series on YouTube, which has garnered views in the millions. Now transformed into a one-man stage show called “Italian Mom Loves You,” co-written by Franzese and Jacques Lamarre, lucky audiences in South Florida will have the Buona Fortuna of experiencing the character of Antoinette (based on Daniel’s mother Denise) live and in person when it opens at Boca Black Box Center for the Arts, 8221 Glades Road in Boca Raton, and runs from Dec. 4-11. I spoke with Daniel about the show shortly before Thanksgiving over breakfast at Peter Pan Diner.
Gregg Shapiro: Even though you had already been in a few movies before the release of “Mean Girls” in 2004, for many LGBT people your portrayal of the character of Damian was something of a breakthrough. When you look back on that experience, how do you feel about it, and what does it mean to you to be associated with Damian?
Daniel Franzese: That's a great question. At first, I didn't know what it was going to end up meaning for me. Three years in, it was kind of like, "I don't want to talk about 'Mean Girls.' Let’s talk about something else." Six years in, it's like, "Don’t you remember I was in that?" and everybody else is like, "Your movie’s old!" But after 10 years it became a classic. Around the 10th anniversary, I got a letter from someone that said, "When I was in 8th grade, I was beaten up for being chubby and tortured for being a sissy. Then your movie came out, and on the first day of my 9th-grade year, the popular senior girls walked up to me and said, 'You’re like Damian. Come sit with us.'" He said (in the letter), "Thank you so much for being something I could point to and say that's me." I'm so proud of that. I realized that Damian was popular because he never got pushed in a locker, never got his head dunked in a toilet, and was able to survive and breathe and live just by being authentic. I was dealing with that personally at the same time. I came out after I got that letter. That was a big experience for me. Because I opened up about it, so many people felt comfortable talking about how it affected them. Now that we're approaching the 20th anniversary, I'm learning even more new things. This director, Assaad Yacoub, who directed “Cherry Pop” right out of college, then went on to direct more than 50 drag queen music videos including Eureka O'Hara's new video and Trixie Mattel's “Hello Hello” which won the Queerty Award. I had worked with him before on Bebe Zahara’s video “Banjo.” When we were at the Queerties, he was holding his award and he came up to me and he was crying. He said, "I want to let you know that I grew up in Dubai. In Dubai, all gay content it's cut out of everything. But because Damian never had a kiss and was in that sweet spot between 'I know I'm gay' and 'I haven't tried anything yet,' it made it past all the censors." I started hearing more stories like that from places where gay content doesn't get in. This was a character that 20 years ago made it through.
GS: That’s really a credit to the writer Tina Fey.
DF: Absolutely! Also Mark Waters, the director. They both explicitly told me that Damian was in that sweet spot. As an actor, that was such a rich place to play.
GS: Are you still in touch with any of the “Mean Girls” cast members?
DF: Yes. We just did an online reunion during the pandemic with Katie Couric. That's the last time we all saw each other. I keep in touch with Jonathan Bennett and Lacey Chabert. Amanda Seyfried, as well. Lacey’s awesome. She just sent my mom her whole clothing line.
GS: I really loved the HBO series, and subsequent movie, “Looking.” I found it to be groundbreaking and honest, and I was crushed when it was canceled. What did playing Eddie in “Looking” mean to you?
DF: I came out the same year that I got offered "Looking." To me, that was so affirming. To not only work in a place where everybody cared about acting, but also to be in a place where it was cool to be gay. We had one straight PA, and we made fun of him [laughs]. Michael Lannan, one of the creators, took me to breakfast and said, "We want to offer you this role. You're going to be pursued by one of the lead actors. He's going to find you irresistible. You're going to have HIV but you're never going to get sick. He's not going to like you in spite of it, he's going to like you because of it." I was like, "Oh my God, this is music to my ears." As a queer person who's always striving for equality, diversity, and inclusion, it was so incredible. What was remarkable about it was that my character was the first to have an HIV storyline in six years. The previous one was Gloria Reuben on “ER.” Because of that, ever since we found out about HIV, the number of infections were lowering every year. But after they were on TV, they started going up again. They found out that there's a direct correlation between how stories are being told about LGBTQ people and how the information is being disseminated. Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation made me an ambassador because I'm friends with her grandson. They asked me to be the celebrity that presented the media playbook on HIV and AIDS to MSNBC with GLAAD. That set me on this whole journey a life of service. I learned so much about Miss Taylor and her legacy. She was an unbelievable movie star. A complete tabloid star. A sought-after woman. A businesswoman. She was famous for her taste in luxury items and jewelry, and was a trendsetter. Yet, so generous, such a fighter. She had an illegal drug ring running out of her mansion for her friends that needed it. She'd show up in full Elizabeth Taylor drag with no cameras and kiss people with lesions on their faces and tell them they were worthy and loved. Even up to her last days, she sat in a wheelchair at The Abbey, a gay club in West Hollywood, with a portrait behind her, telling all the gay people how much she loved them. She was such a champion for us. She's an inspiration to me to this day. How much can I do? What can I do? I add service to my work, my stand-up, and my performance. We have messages in this play about infidelity and bullying and acceptance that I maybe wouldn't have put in if I wasn't thinking in the way of legacy.
GS: It’s been said that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Would you say that Italian mothers, your mother Denise included, would agree with that statement when it comes to your “Shit Italian Moms Say” videos?
DF: I would say it's 50% imitation, the other 50 is a prank. Above anything I've ever done, I still cackle at this character. It's almost like I put a bucket of ice above the door, and she opened the door. The play breathes life into a lot of people who are gone already. We have 85-year-old women in tears going, "I was sitting with my sister again. I was sitting with my mother. You reminded me of my grandma." A lot of our idiosyncratic dialogue is old world mixed with new world. We keep it alive as our generation, but it was theirs. And it’s done with love.
GS: I love the way Italian mom Antoinette slips in the Yiddish words “alter kocker” in the “Florida is Like One Big Game of Frogger” episode. Between the food and the family drama, are Italian mothers all that different from Jewish mothers?
DF: Jewish people are very close to us. It's familiar to us. We share words. Brooklyn brought us all together. We say "arugula" and you say "ruggelah" [laughs].
GS: When did you know you wanted to bring alive onstage as you’re doing at the Boca Black Box Center for the Arts in early December?
DF: I've always tried to find a way to do something like that. Even though I did "[Secret] Celebrity Drag Race," I'm not a real drag queen, in that regard. I don't think I could make a living out of it. I was thinking, "How do I do this for the stage? There's got to be some way." Years went by. Then I ended up doing this game show that the comedian Deven Green hosts on Revry. Jacques Lamarre, who is this Connecticut-based playwright, who writes all of Varla Jean Merman’s shows, hit me up. He saw me doing the Italian mom on the game show. He’s written three or four full-length one-woman shows about Italian women. He said, "I write for Italian women and drag queens." I met with him at the Florida Creativity Conference in Tampa, and I stayed with him for the weekend, and we talked about what I thought the play should be about. We took a couple of months, and he gave me the first draft of the script which we co-wrote – it has my jokes, my characters, and my storyline. He married it in such a beautiful way. He put his own twisted and fun spin on it. We came up with concepts for monologues and fine-tuned the comedy and edited it. It was a big collaborative effort, along with the director Michael Schiralli, who directs for Jackie Hoffman and Coco Peru. Michael and I would ask my mother to tell a story and then we’d telephone it to Jacques. Jacques would come back with something that was part Denise and part Antoinette.
GS: You recently performed “Italian Mom Loves You” in Connecticut.
DF: It was a smash hit. People drove from four to six hours away. People were tailgating from Staten Island. People drove from Albany, Boston, to Pittsburgh. It was unbelievable. They would come in groups of cousins. It was loving and beautiful and so much fun to perform. They brought me back, again, a month later for Italian Heritage Month, and we had an encore presentation. We elevated the show, and tightened some of the acting, costumes, and whatever. The plot line of the show is that it's an hour and 45 minutes before her mother's surprise 85th birthday party. She's cooking up a storm, but she's dealing with the fact that her son's getting married, her daughter's going to college, her ex-husband wants to bring his girlfriend over, and she's worried about all her friends’ problems, along with a potential real estate transaction to move to Boca to retire. The first hour is all jokes and then it gets into the story more.
GS: What does it mean to you to be performing for the hometown crowd?
DF: South Florida theater means a lot to me. I got my equity card here. I did my first play here. I did my first Broadway tour here. I did my first movie here. I did my first commercial here. I was nominated for a Carbonell Award when I was 21. I have such a connection here, that I couldn't wait to come back and do something theatrical. I do stand up at the Miami Improv from time to time, but this is different. This is coming back and doing a play.
GS: In our pre-interview correspondence, you mentioned being “on set.”
DF: I did a PrEP commercial. It's going to air during “Drag Race.”
GS: You’ve mentioned “Drag Race” a couple of times. Did appearing on the show “Secret Celebrity Drag Race” (as Donna Bellissima) change you in any way, and if yes, how so?
DF: It did. I didn't understand when Ru said, "The power that you have in drag you have out of drag." I've really been able to inform myself. Donna felt like she was worth something. Donna felt beautiful. I knew that she knew what she wanted. I'm more collaborative, but Donna was the boss. I've taken that with me. I kind of put things together now a little bit differently. I've been painting my nails. I had roadblocks and certain biases about femininity in myself. Doing this broke those walls down. None of it really matters. I've been having a blast.
GS: In spite of now being known as the “Don’t Say Gay” state, Florida, and South Florida in particular, is the birthplace of gay playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Tarell Alvin McRaney (“Moonlight”), as well as being where you, Randy Rainbow, and Obama’s inaugural poet Richard Blanco were all raised. Ginger Minj from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is also from Florida. With that in mind, do you have any thoughts about what’s Florida?
DF: I went to conversion therapy here. When I was here, I felt the pressure, the “don't say gay” of it all. but that's why I'm back. That's the job of a gay person, a gay Christian at that, is to come back and shine your light in places that you felt were darker so it's easier for someone else. Everywhere I go, when I go on tour, I spend money in all the little queer spaces. I tip the queens and I tip the bartenders and I buy people shots, because I'm so grateful for my community, for my siblings. I will always be a part of anything that South Florida ever calls me to do. I plan on moving here and one day raising a family here. My nieces and nephews are all in school here. When I go to Washington, I talk to the senators from here. Because I am a constituent. Even though I don't vote here yet until I own property, I'm still here and queer. At this point in my life, I've realized how much representation can do. I'm queer, I'm fat, and Italian, and those are the things I want to work on. Even in the Italian lexicon, they don't highlight women enough and they never highlight gay people enough. That's what I'm doing with this play. It's a queer son’s love letter to his Italian mother. I think people will see that love. The best thing an LGBTQ+ person can be in this world is an example of love.