In 2014, Daniel Franzese was asked by his friend Lori Malkin, a casting director, if he would be watching Looking, a new series about gay men in San Francisco that was about to debut on HBO. He told her no.
“I don’t see myself on-screen when I watch gay programming,” the Mean Girls actor said at the time. As a large gay Italian man, he felt he was not represented in media.
“Well, why don’t you be the sexy bear guy on the show?” Malkin responded.
Flash-forward one year, a few submitted head shots, and a breakfast with executive producer Andrew Haigh later, and Franzese has succeeded in becoming the “sexy bear guy on the show.” He plays Eddie, a character who works with gay and trans youth. He is HIV-positive and also “body-positive,” as Franzese puts it. He also loves the fact that neither of those things define his character.
“Eddie’s not sick. There’s no sad things that have to do with Eddie. There are problematic things that he has to deal with in his life, but most of them are social, “ Franzese says. “It’s not going to be a ‘very special episode’ about Eddie. I found that to be so progressive.”
Another person who was thrilled by the character is Franzese’s real life best friend Ryan. In a situation similar to Eddie’s, Ryan had been infected with HIV by a past partner who cheated on him. And like Franzese, he was frustrated that his experience was not represented in media. Major recent projects that dealt with HIV, like Dallas Buyers Club and HBO’s The Normal Heart, were period pieces set during the height of the AIDS crisis, when a positive diagnosis meant a death sentence. Franzese remembers his friend's excitement to hear about Eddie, a character who is healthy and thriving in the present day, who is not shown as a victim. "I've never seen that before," Ryan had told Franzese.
“It’s really cool to see Daniel playing a character like Eddie,” Ryan later told The Advocate. “As someone who is living with HIV, it’s refreshing to see that Hollywood is beginning to show characters who are HIV-positive and depicting them in a healthy way."
While Eddie’s positive status may not be a big deal in the world of Looking, it is in the world of entertainment. When the show premiered in January, Franzese had the sad distinction of portraying the only HIV-positive character on scripted television — a vacuum that had existed for two years. Recently, only one other has been added to this list, when a character tested HIV-positive on the season finale of the progressive ABC show How to Get Away With Murder.
“Currently, 1.7 million people [in the United States] are living with HIV, and they’re only represented by two characters on television? I think that things need to change,” Franzese says.
The actor has become part of this change. After talks with his friend Quinn Tivey, an HIV activist and Elizabeth's Taylor's grandson, Franzese joined the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation as an ambassador, where he uses his platform to increase dialogue on issues related to HIV and AIDS. He also works with GLAAD in examining how media and television can raise awareness of the virus and its prevention.
“There’s a direct correlation between representation of a story in media and people knowing about it,” Franzese says. “If it’s not being seen, it’s not being talked about, and it’s not being learned.”
HBO’s Looking has played a major part in this dialogue. Topics related to HIV, like the prevention strategy PrEP and mixed-status dating, have been present throughout its second season, and they have been treated naturally, without the “very special episode” sentiment seen when other television shows have attempted to broach conversations about the virus.
“The brief conversation that we have in the Halloween episode happens in a way that I’ve heard PrEP come up amongst my friends, and whenever I’ve heard it come up in public amongst people who are discussing it: just a matter-of-fact way, not too preachy. I really like the way that it’s handled,” Franzese says of the way Looking addresses PrEP, which can be up to 99 percent effective in HIV prevention if administered daily.
“I think it’s an important thing that misconceptions about PrEP be clarified, not only for our community but for everybody, to learn all of the different measures that we can do to prevent and stop new infections,” he says.
Franzese is currently in a monogamous relationship — he and his partner both got tested for STIs before having sex. But he says if he were still single, PrEP is something “that I would immediately be on,” knowing what he knows now.
The 36-year-old actor is perhaps best known to audiences for his performance in another groundbreaking role: Damian, an out teen in the hit 2004 comedy Mean Girls. For Franzese, it is difficult to imagine Damian as anything other than a virgin — yet the character, as an LGBT youth, falls within an at-risk group. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people ages 13-24 account for 26 percent of new HIV infections.
With this in mind, Franzese, who has gotten tested biannually since his first time having sex in college, offered some advice for Damian and other LGBT youth as they begin their sex lives.
“I would say start using condoms immediately when you start having sex, that way it’s never an issue. And stay healthy, and be tested, and be aware,” he says.
“I think it’s really important to charge the youth of the LGBTQ community to be political and to know what’s going on and to read a little about what it means to be LGBT,” he adds.
In addition to youth, Franzese challenges all people to take charge of their sexual health, and to help end an epidemic that has plagued the world for far too long.
“We have the tools out there currently right now to end new HIV infections by 96 percent,” he says. “They exist. But the first step is knowing your status and making sure that we’re able to stop it. It’s time that we make this new commitment to stopping HIV and AIDS once and for all.”