The charming actor Daniel Franzese first came to national fame as the lovable gay teddy bear Damian in Tina Fey’s 2004 hit comedy, Mean Girls. The Brooklyn native went on to play roles in film and television, most notably the HIV-positive Eddie in the HBO series, Looking. He’s taken his fame and put it to good work, becoming an HIV advocate and ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) in 2015. I caught up with the dashing and friendly actor at AIDSWatch, where we chatted about HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and what he’s up to now.
Charles Sanchez: How did you get involved with HIV advocacy?
Daniel Franzese: Initially, I was friends with Quinn Tivey, who is the grandson of Elizabeth Taylor, and he had asked me to be involved with AmfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research and different things, but not exactly the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation yet.
And then, I had a friend who was diagnosed [with HIV], but was not taking care of himself. He became agoraphobic, locked himself in his apartment and wasn’t getting his meds. And I was like, “There’s got to be some way we can get meds delivered to him. I’ve got to figure out how to get him healthy.” I called Quinn, and he said he was going to meet the new director of ETAF, who at the time was Joel Goldman (this was six years ago). And I met Joel, and Joel embraced the whole situation, and helped to get my friend help. My friend is now happy, no longer suicidal, [HIV] undetectable. And so I saw firsthand the great work that ETAF did.
Then I was offered the role of Eddie on Looking, and my character was HIV positive. And it was the first HIV-positive character on television in six years, since Gloria Reuben on E.R., as a series regular. And the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation was underwriting the new media playbook on HIV with GLAAD to present to MSNBC, and they were looking for a celebrity to do it, and so they contacted me, and I became an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. And when I did the four-hour media training, I learned so many things that I felt, as an educated gay man, I should already have known. And I couldn’t believe where we were in today’s age of prevention and treatment, and how much I didn’t know. And I learned of PrEP for the first time. And I learned of all these things, and I thought, if I don’t know about this stuff, and I’m a person that, you know, reads the news every day and considers himself a healthy sexual person, then I know a lot of people who have a lot less resources than I have don’t know this.
So GLAAD informed me that in the six years that there wasn’t an HIV-positive character on television, infections went up. They saw a direct connection between the lack of stories being told about people who were living with HIV on television, and the rise of new infections. Because we get a lot of our education in the initial television appearances, when they had, you know, a “very special episode” of this and that, they [television shows] would teach tolerance, they would teach awareness, and even some prevention. But there was nothing [on television] telling what it’s like in today’s age of prevention and treatment. And with 1.1 million people who are HIV positive in this country, it was just inexcusable. So we asked Hollywood to recommit themselves. We did a roundtable with Variety, and now we have several stories out there, several shows that have HIV storylines, that we pioneered with that initiative.
CS: How did you start coming to AIDSWatch?
DF: I was asked to come to AIDSWatch [as part of ETAF]. This is my fifth AIDSWatch — I missed one last year. I have seen deliverables from people [on the Hill] we’ve questioned and people we’ve asked, and we’ve held people accountable that didn’t deliver, and celebrated people who did. And I’ve actually seen the needle move. I’m so involved and I’m so inspired by Ms. Taylor’s legacy, that even though my show is cancelled, my advocacy has just begun. I am committed to this until we eradicate the disease.
CS: So, what’s next for you?
DF: I’m on tour doing my Yass! You’re Amazing! comedy tour. I’m touring colleges, clubs, and theatres throughout the country with my standup tour. And I even include stories about PrEP and things within my comedy, because I have the ear of all these college students — I try to find ways to at least mention it and make them aware about PrEP and other things. It’s been really great! I’ve been really enjoying myself, waiting for the next big project on the horizon.
To find out more about Daniel Franzese and check out his comedy tour dates, you can find info on his website www.whatsupdanny.com, or follow him on all social media platforms @whatsupdanny.