Last spring, a string of life-altering things happened Daniel Franzese. Media was celebrating the wake of the 10th anniversary of Mean Girls, a cult classic film and fountainhead of gay catchphrases, which he co-starred as Damian–a reigning point of reference for the “Gay Best Friend” archetype. He was coming out with a public letter, even though he’d been out to many of his friends. He was cast in Looking, playing Eddie, a loveable, HIV-positive bear. 2015 is his year, but there are a few things he’d like to address. A decade after Damian, Daniel is having his Norma Rae Moment, louder and beardier than before.
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Until his public letter, Daniel was already out to many of his friends, but had been advised to keep his sexuality hush-hush. Covering his tracks as a gay man–shying away from the “softer” type–would protect him from something he calls “the gay ceiling” of Hollywood. A phenomenon in which gay actors won’t be considered for non-gay roles because of their “type.”
Here’s what it comes down to. Fear and lack of creativity. Those are the two fundamental reasons Hollywood directors and casting directors have formed a barrier many LGBT actors can’t get past. Casting directors were saying to me, “This is for a real man’s man. You’re off the mark.” So I didn’t even get a chance to audition a show that I had the capability to do a role like that because Mean Girls had just come out. People are either conscious of it and afraid, or unconscious and not creative enough to think about it. I see that gay or straight, the identity of an actor shouldn’t matter in the role that they should be allowed to audition for or be considered for.
We’re telling stories! If someone’s a successful artist, and they’re a successful actor, then they’re good at telling stories. So give them a chance to let them come and tell a story that’s different. People do do it. But casting directors won’t stop to consider, “Why don’t I call in a trans actor to play a hotel manager? I’m not even thinking of a trans actor to play a hotel manager, but like, why not?” There are trans hotel managers, I promise. There are actors that work great that would make the world interesting, just like how our world actually is. Our world is so interesting!
I’m not trying to yell at anybody! I just want to make it cool to think about that. Think about hiring a gay actor to come in for the role of a real masculine guy and see what happens. Trick everyone. We’re all doing that anyway. That’s what Hollywood’s all about, right?
After Daniel moved to New York, he was settling into an apartment in Bushwick, trying to make work as an actor, and moonlighting as a gay club bouncer. One night off, he found himself at La Mama Experimental Theatre for “Liquid Nonsense: Amiable Nitrate,” a queer, eclectic musical performance by artist Shane Shane. That evening, he heard some words that made him realize just how oppressive the “gay ceiling” really was.
“You see, all of us queers who stand haughtily before you in this, 2014, the year of our lord,” said Shane Shane. “We are held up in an invisible spiritual web of brave dead queer people who came before us. AIDS activists in the 1980’s, clones in the 1970’s, radical hippies in the 1960’s, the Mattachine Society of the 1950’s. The Pansy Craze of the early 20th Century. The fairies of the late 19th century. The love that acted on its own accord before it dared speak its name. The fashion designers, actors, performers, stagehands, and florists that hid in plain view. The women in Boston marriages who never had a word for the love they felt for one another. The courtiers, the eunuchs, the jesters, and the ancient Romans who literally tended to the temples of Venus and worshipped at the cult of beauty and love.”
Hearing that in La Mama Theater, at his show, was a fist-pump for me. Made me want to spring out of my seat. All of the different people that have done things in their life to pave the way. People that hid in plain view–that’s how I was living my life when I should have been a little more radical. People had already done that for me.
Shane Shane also said, “The gay man I want to be is like a bottle of poppers. Legal and accessible but off the beaten path. Risky but not fatal. Like root beer, poppers come in a brown bottle because the harsh rays of the sun diminish their strength. So, too, the gay man–part of our power derives from keeping ourselves occult, hidden, inscrutable. We can simultaneously flaunt our femininity and worship at the armpit of manhood. We are both and neither, all at never.” This, among other things, gave me the strength to handle to consequences of the gay ceiling–to be more than just a “type”–above it all.
By the time Daniel had come out, more film scripts were lush with gay characters. HBO’s Looking was the most-talked-about gay show on television. Many in the gay community found solace in its accurate and authentic portrait of gay American life. For Daniel, it didn’t do much. Where were the characters like him? Why would no one sing the unsung mythology of a husky gay boy? A year later, after sending his own photos as a pitch to create a “bear” character, he was cast.
They didn’t have guys like me on it. I know I have different body. My body’s not like the bunch. I’m not like this one, I’m not like that one. I got my lovehandles, I got my whatever. But I’ve never seen it exactly like me. I grew up as a person who didn’t take my shirt off like, in front of my brother. Or like any of my family because I always felt too chubby. And on my first movie, Bully, I was 23 years old and found out I had to take my shirt off on set. And I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna let it all hang out!” And I have to take my shirt off on set, and everyone is like, “Okay Danny, now’s your time,” and I’m like, “Okay.” And I take a deep breath, and I take my shirt off, and Bijou Phillips pointed at me, laughing and screaming “Eeeeeewwww!” really loudly, in front of the whole cast and crew.
13 years later, my first day on the set of Looking I was skinny-dipping in the Russian River for an entire camera crew. This time, I was healed. I already knew what that does for other people–to see themselves represented on screen. Different, or whatever. It’s what happened to the Damian’s of The World. Fans were reaching out and saying “Thanks for making it cool to be chubby and gay before we went into high school.”
I just think that whole thing was the essence of what Eddie, for me, was going to be like. And it was all coming to culmination at that time. It was a delicate moment of self-discovery that I really remembered–being that vulnerable. It all goes back to the vulnerability of these characters. I just think all stories need to get out however they have to get out. And I want to exhibit the bravery when I’m challenged to.