Ten years ago today, "Mean Girls" debuted in theaters, introducing a ground-breaking character: Damian, Cady Heron's (Lindsay Lohan) early friend at the animal house of North Shore High School.
As portrayed by Daniel Franzese with nearly pitch-perfect comedic timing, Damian showed millions of impressionable kids that not only was it OK to have a gay best friend, it was cool.
Unfortunately, as we learned last week in Franzese's eloquent coming-out letter to his "Mean Girls" character, not everyone in Hollywood believes that sentiment. While Franzese's post-"Mean Girls" career has seen plenty of peaks, the 35-year-old actor has also seen a disturbing amount of typecasting.
I spoke with Franzese over the phone recently to talk about his coming-out letter, why pushing "send" was the most courageous moment of his life, and how he's been received since the news broke.
And, of course, he talked all about Damian, my very first gay friend.
"Mean Girls" writer Tina Fey helped Franzese find Damian.
Damian was based on her best friend in high school, so it was important to her that he was realistic. Originally, I had certain ideas, like, I wanted highlights and certain things, and she would go, "No, Damian didn't have highlights." It was very real to her.
During Damien's talent show song, "Beautiful," Franzese channeled his own anger when a bully throws a shoe at him.
I wanted him to be like, "If you throw a shoe at me, I'm going to hit you as hard as I can." If somebody threw something at me, I would throw it back. So it was an honest reaction and I tried to throw it back as hard as I could, even if I missed.
It turns out that "Beautiful" isn't even close to Franzese's go-to karaoke song:
Never again. It's actually funny because I met Christina Aguilera and I thought for sure that would be an exciting moment in my life. And I was like, "Christina, my name's Daniel. I sing 'Beautiful' in 'Mean Girls.' And she was like, "Never saw it." And then turned her back and walked away. She was so rude.
Glen Coco, the mystery man who receives four candy canes, can thank Franzese for his popularity.
I remember helping choose who was going to play Glen Coco, because I just was pointing to who everybody loves, like Taylor Zimmerman or whoever, you know... His name is David Reale, and he gets recognized as Glen Coco all the time. Like, he's on the Urban Dictionary for what "You go, Glen Coco" is.
Actually, there is a real person named Glen Coco that's friends with Tina. She always thought that was a funny name so she used it because it was a friend of hers.
Damian addresses "Danny DeVito Girl" when he says, "I love your work!"
She was on the script, on the call sheet, as Danny DeVito Girl, and her dad was like, "Hey, what's up? It's nice to meet you." He knew me from some other films, and he was like, "My daughter's in the movie." And I'm like, "Oh really? Who's your daughter? What does she play?" And he's like, "Danny DeVito Girl." Really looking sad.
Franzese stressed out about driving during the scene outside of Cady's house when Damian and Janis (Lizzy Caplan) pull up to find the party they weren't invited to.
A walk and talk is something that used to be really difficult for me when I was first starting out... And I'm like, "Oh my God, I have to do a drive and talk?" I have to be at a certain part of the cul-de-sac and think about acting and think about everything, or otherwise I would screw the whole shot up. You have to be like exactly in a certain place at a certain time."
How much popcorn did Caplan and Franzese go through when Cady scares them watching a movie on Halloween?
A lot. As a matter of fact, I think it's one of the imperfect moments of the movie because when you watch it, it's like I throw the popcorn and then it's full again. You know, I hate to point that out. ... But it was a lot of popcorn. There was definitely a lot of popcorn.
How did he mess up his kiss with Caplan?
The first take that we did of that, we really went for it and like made out. And [director] Mark [Waters] was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. That's not it, it's too much!" And everybody was lapping it up. We like really went for like a real kiss. It was really funny... It was actually my first onscreen kiss.
Franzese barely remembers meeting Lohan for the first time, since he was still trying to land the part.
I didn't really have like a major impression. I was really nervous about filming, about getting the part.
But now he considers Lohan a friend...
We've been hanging out a lot lately. We have reconnected in a different way now. Lindsay is doing really well. She's sober. She's been really kind and fun, and we've just been reconnecting. And like 10 years later, looking back on what we've been a part of, you know, I think we have a feeling like high school about that. I mean, she grew up on that set. She was 17, you know? Like when she started going into being a star, a big star. Not even just a child star. And I think that there's a lot of nostalgia attached to that, that's not lost on us. We definitely are grateful to have had that opportunity together.
Franzese had no idea Damian would be so appreciated.
I really didn't think that comedy would have that kind of social impact on someone. I knew people were fans of mine, I knew they liked it, and they thought it was funny, but I didn't really realize that I was actually helping people with their struggles.
It wasn't just men. It was girls, too — gay and straight — that were just like, "You were my first gay friend. By watching you, I understood what gay people are. And I was able in high school to think it was cool to have a gay best friend."
But the responses weren't always positive, especially with the way Franzese was perceived in Hollywood.
If the character wasn't gay, it might have been a different landscape for me. And it felt like a lot of times when I was meeting studios, they're like, "Well, we don't really have any gay roles for you so we'll let you know. Like, that was kind of like the vibe. And I was like, "But there's other things that I can do. Especially right after ["Mean Girls"].
I just feel like my career is probably one-third what it could have been had I been given all the opportunities that should have been allotted to me based off of my ability, instead of who people thought I was sleeping with.
Franzese particularly gets annoyed by people who think it's easier to act gay if you are gay.
I found that people were like, "Are you really gay?" And when I would lie and say no I'm not, then people would be like, "Oh, you were SO good. Then you're REALLY talented."
Finally, with the 10-year anniversary, Franzese felt like he had to speak up.
I was feeling like I was lying to my fans and to myself and to the character and to everything else until I had decided to come forward and say something... a lot of people knew already. But there's a big difference between coming out to your friends and family and coming out publically to the media and the industry. And I think the more people to do that sort of thing the less it will matter.
I should have said something in the beginning and I didn't because I was advised not to, and then it got to the point where I knew my voice would be heard and I felt like this was the perfect time to let people know.
So Franzese wrote the now-famous letter to Damian.
Well, I really sat on that egg a long time before it hatched. I revised it… it took me months to hand that thing in, and even when I did, I was like,"Here it goes." And then I pressed the send button on my laptop and I just was like, "Oh man, I don't know what I just did. I hope I did the right thing."
It turns out Franzese did do the right thing.
I've gotten such amazing feedback from kids and adults alike, all were both either moved by the character originally or by the letter. And it's just been so wonderful. I'm so confident now, so humbled and fulfilled, and I feel like I did do the right thing and I did it in the right way at the right time. And I feel really good about that.
For somebody who has dealt with all of the masculinity and homophobic issues in Hollywood, [writing that letter] made me feel like a real man. There was nothing more. There was no time in my life that can compare to how I felt like a real man when I really stood up for myself and pressed down on that button.
As Franzese looks back at Damian, he also looks forward to the future.
There are some definite valleys in my career, and I'm definitely in a peak right now. I mean, I'm booked through October, so I'm really excited and happy.