As an actor, producer and director, Daniel Franzese is well-known for his memorable and daring roles on both the small and big screen. He made his film debut in 2001 with Larry Clark’s critically-acclaimed movie Bully, which demonstrated Franzese’s acting chops. In 2004, he scored the role of Damian in Tina Fey’s hit comedy Mean Girls. His other film credits include War of the Worlds, Kill Theory and the highly controversial remake of I Spit on Your Grave.
On television, he continued his trend for making remarkable acting choices, guest starring on the shows The Comeback, CSI, Party Down and Foodies. In 2012, he provided voice-acting for the television short series Electric City. Then, in 2015, he landed the role of Eddie in the HBO series Looking, which inspired him to become an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
In addition to television and movies, Franzese has also ventured onto Broadway. In 2011, he co-wrote and starred in the New York Fringe Festival hit “The Jersey Shoresical: A Frickin’ Rock Opera,” which won him the Overall Excellence Best Ensemble Award and played off-Broadway. Some of his other New York theater credits include “Dog Sees Dog” by Bert V. Royal and his side-splitting solo show “I Never Really Made the Kind of Money to Become a Mess” with The Theatre Project. Moreover, he recently finished his first project as a director, working with Grammy-winning artist Allee Willis for the documentary “Allee Willis Loves Detroit,” which came out in 2015.
Now, he’s starring as Vern Testeverde in the new Freeform series Recovery Road, based on the 2011 young adult novel by Blake Nelson. I recently had the pleasure to chat with Franzese about his role on Recovery Road, his activism with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and his love for American Horror Story. Check it out below!
What appealed to you about “Recovery Road”?
Well, first and foremost, the two creators Bert V. Royal and Karen DiConcetto—I don’t know if you are aware of this—but Bert V. Royal was my college roommate and my best friend for like 20 years. And Karen and I have been friends for over a decade. I wrote a musical about Jersey Shore called “Jersey Shoresical: A Frickin Rock Opera,” and we played on Broadway and Karen was my Sookie. So, we’ve been all collaborating and friends for a long, long time. So, obviously, that’s super appealing to work with my family. But, the role itself I found to be very interesting, in the fact that it’s something important and it’s a great conversation about sobriety that hasn’t happened in this way before, as this digestible on television. Especially something that reaches people from 17-70, and I think that it’s really a unique way to tell some of those stories of their sobriety journey.
I completely agree with you. The show is really starting a conversation about this topic that hasn’t been started via TV before.
Yeah, I mean, there’ve been recovery plotlines, but there’s never been a show about recovery, especially in a way that our show handles it with a lot of humor and humility, and does it in a way that doesn’t glorify it. And, it’s also not afraid to show the dirty parts—or shy away from it, I should say.
So, what was your first impression of Vern?
It’s funny, as Vern goes along, I feel like he gets nosier and nosier, and that’s not really a quality that I possess, so I find it really fun to play what a Papa Bear he is now; he’s in everybody’s business. But, there’s a real vulnerability in him. In some ways, I think that he’s the most fragile in the house.
You mentioned being different from him in some ways. In what ways would you say that you’re similar to him?
I’m funny, and I’m handsome, and people like me (laughs). I don’t know. The way he dresses is different than I am. The way he talks is different. I do feel like the type of person who feels like they have to save a lot of people or be around people who don’t have anyone else. I’ve had that experience a lot in my friendships. I have famously worked with my people who’ve had issues with drugs and alcohol, from my first movie on. I mean, my first movie was “Bully” with Brad Renfro and he died of an overdose. As we go down the line, I’ve worked with people like Natasha Lyonne and Lindsey Lohan and Eddie Furlong, so I’ve always had to deal with that and I’ve always been there, I think, for those people and for other people to lend a helping hand. I definitely see that as a similarity between us because I understand the disease of addiction very well first-hand through friends and co-workers.
Would you say that Papa Bear is the role that Vern plays in the house?
Yes, especially as the episodes unfold. He is the one that a lot of people turn to when something goes wrong. He’s the person who I believe has been in the house the longest and isn’t going to leave anytime soon. I think that he believes in the program and believes in what they have going and knows that it works for him, so he works hard to help everyone else.
Are we going to learn more about Vern’s past this season?
Yeah! What’s really great about one of the formats of our show is—and especially as it goes along—with each episode, you start to get introduced to more people. Each episode contains sort of like a flashback and then a present day story. At some point, you’ll find out where everyone in the house came from and how they got there. I think that these characters are very rich and people want to see how they got to where they are. I like to say that we’re “Orange is the New Black” meets “The Facts of Life.”
What has been your favorite scene to film on the show so far?
Mischa Barton came and guest starred on our show and I had a lot of fun working with her. We knew each other before but I think the character scenes between us are really funny. I had a lot of fun yelling at her (laughs).
That’s awesome to hear that she’ll be guest-starring on the show because I really like her as an actress.
Yeah, I’ve known her for a few years so it was exciting when I heard that she was cast because I already knew her, and that’s always so fun to have that happen. There’re a lot of people in Hollywood that you’re friends with but you don’t always get the chance to work with them, so it’s nice when other people make that choice but you still get to work with a friend.
As an actor, how do you prepare to play a character? What is your process like?
Well, whatever the character is, I think one of the processes is—and this isn’t my method, this is the method; they tell you to learn all these different acting methods and pick the ones you like and throw the rest away—but I like the method in which you go through the script and look at everything that you say about yourself and write that down. Then, you go through the script again and look at everything that other people say about you and sort of start to build a Bible that way of how the world perceives you—how the world of the show perceives you—and also how you perceive yourself. And, obviously, like in real life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. My personal take, which is something that I think is unique to me, is that I also like to find the line in the script that I’m the most uncomfortable saying, something that doesn’t role off the tongue easily or doesn’t seem like something that I would say. I feel like that’s a good place to start to find your character.
What would you like to see happen with Vern’s storyline this season?
Well, we already finished this season, so anything that I would’ve liked that didn’t happen isn’t going to happen in this season. But, we’ve got some interesting things lined up for season two if we get picked up. There’re some really interesting ways that I don’t think people are expecting the storyline to go. I don’t want to give any of those away but I’m already excited about the next few years of the show, God willing.
So, you’ve also guest starred on quite a few shows over the years. Is there a show that you’d love to guest star on that you haven’t had the chance to yet?
Yeah! “American Horror Story”—I would love to be on that show. I would also love to guest star on “Young & Hungry,” which is on my network Freeform. I love Emily Osment; we’ve become friends because when you’re part of the same network, you have to go to all these different things together, so we’ve become friends and I’d love to work with her. I love that show.
You’ve directed in the past. Do you have any plans to direct an episode of “Recovery Road”?
That’s so cool that you asked that. I definitely want to do that for sure. I’m going to shadow somebody probably next season and start there. If not season two, then season three for sure I’ll probably direct an episode. I’ve already began talking to them about it because it’s something that I have a passion for.
How did your experience directing change you as an actor?
That’s interesting….I think being an actor changed me more as a director than being a director changed me as an actor. I definitely have a lot of sympathy for what directors go through, because a lot of times, there are directors that you don’t even get to speak with. Me, as an actor, I would make sure to have lengthy conversations and be a more hands-on director with my actors. But, directors constantly have to make every little decision and putting their stamp on every little thing that goes by, so it’s definitely a stressful position to be in if you’re not comfortable. I’ve filmed with a lot of first-time film-makers—several of my movies have been with first-time film-makers—and I could see the stress that they go under to the point where I’m less stressed than them, so I’ve guided a few film-makers.
So, what shows, movies or books bring out the nerd in you?
It’s so funny because my partner grew up Mormon and because of that hadn’t seen a lot of pop culture things growing up; for one reason or the other, he was just not really into television or the media. It’s been so fun to show him things like “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time. Like, last night, for the first time, he sat and watched “Grease,” and it literally was like “How can you not know every word to this?!” (laughs) I didn’t realize what an impact—I mean, I knew that I loved it growing up—but, watching it again last night, it was fascinating to see. I’m starting to get like geeky again because I’m showing him things like “Ghostbusters” and Tarantino films, and all of those things make me into a geek. And the Muppets! But, I really love going to see revival movies. I go to the new Beverley Hills cinema out here and they have double features for $7 and all these old films, and I love that kind of stuff. And Quentin Tarantino owns the theater and all the concessions are the price from the 1960s as well, so you can get like $1 sodas and $2 popcorn; it’s amazing!
You mentioned wanting to be on “American Horror Story” if you got the chance. Do you have a favorite season of “American Horror Story”?
That’s mine, too.
That’s everyone’s! It’s so good. It’s not that the other ones aren’t good; it’s just that one is so good!
I think “Coven” felt more concise to me, like they had a clear direction story-wise and were moving toward it.
Yeah, that’s it!
Besides acting, what are you passionate about?
I’m definitely passionate about family and God and that stuff, but when it comes to my work life, I’m an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and it happened because I played a HIV positive character on “Looking” so I’ve dedicated a huge portion of my life to working for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Next month, I’m going to Washington D.C. for AIDS Watch to speak with different Senators and talk about what it is that we need today for HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment. It’s become something that I’m extremely passionate about and will probably spend the rest of my life doing until we eradicate the disease.
That’s so awesome. I give you so many props for doing that.
I couldn’t not after hearing all the stories and stuff. It’s not only about eradicating the disease; it’s also about erasing the stigma for people who are living with HIV and AIDS today, and it’s definitely a problem that is happening in our country that not enough people are addressing.
Recovery Road premieres on the Freeform network at 9:00 pm EST on January 25.