When the character of Damian appeared onscreen in the 2004 smash hit film Mean Girls, audiences were immediately taken by him. Played by Daniel Franzese, the openly gay high schooler was a dramatic and oftentimes hilarious addition to the cast, constantly coaching Lindsay Lohan’s Cady Heron through social situations while also delivering some of the film’s most iconic lines.
Fourteen years later, Damian is back, this time played by Broadway actor Grey Henson, who is creating his own interpretation of the iconic role. Henson plays Damian in the new Broadway musical version of Mean Girls, now featuring the character acting, singing and dancing his way through the story, while trying to find his place at North Shore High School.
“I think my favorite part about him as a character is that he is so unapologetically himself, and that’s what I think people are drawn to,” Henson tells Billboard. “Because that just makes people comfortable when you’re watching a show, and somebody just sort of handles themselves that way.”
The show has achieved serious success in only a month on Broadway — along with garnerning general praise from critics, the show has been nominated for 12 Tony Awards, one of which is also a nomination for Henson in best featured actor in a musical.
Henson talked to Billboard about achieving his first-ever Tony Award nomination, setting an example for young fans, the show’s new cast recording (coming out Friday, May 18) and more.
First things first, congratulations on the Tony nomination! I was so thrilled when I saw it — what was your reaction when you found out?
Oh gosh, it was shock and awe, really. Truly, my heart was racing when it was happening. Because you never want to care too much about those things, of course, in case things go the other way. And I was so stoked for the show, because we were racking up a bunch of nominations. But to hear my name called was just wild, and I’m still processing it, for sure.
Like you said, the show is the leading the nominations along with the SpongeBob musical. What has that meant for you to see this kind of a response for Mean Girls?
It just feels like we’re doing it right! [Laughs.] You know, it feels like all of the work is paying off! This whole time, this whole team, the cast, the crew, the creative team has been so amazing. It feels truly like a family, and that started from the top down with Tina [Fey], of course, and our director Casey [Nicholaw].
[Laughs.] I get this question a lot, and I do think that… a lot of me is in Damian, but he’s got way more confidence than I do. I think he’s a little sassier than I am in real life, and I mean, definitely my high school self is not at the same level as Damian.
But that’s what I love so much about it, is [how] Damian’s confidence becomes mine! I think my favorite part about him as a character is that he is so unapologetically himself, and that’s what I think people are drawn to. Because that just makes people comfortable when you’re watching a show and somebody just sort of handles themselves that way. Honestly, I owe so much of it, of course, to Barrett [Wilbert Weed, who plays Janis], who I am always on stage with, we’re basically connected at the hip. No single performance exists inside of a vacuum, and I think that we can all agree that it’s definitely an ensemble piece.
I do bring a lot of myself to the role. For a while, my cop-out thing to say at the stage door was after a compliment, I would just say, “Oh, I’m just playing myself!” But I’ve had to coach myself out of saying that, because it sounds like we’re not doing any work, and we’re definitely sweating up there. But it’s a joy to be able to feel like I can showcase myself in such an amazing way by playing this role, because I think people do get to see a lot of Grey on stage as Damian. Of course, like, I’m ten years older than he is, but hopefully nobody can tell [laughs].
I certainly couldn’t. This story has been adapted to modern times, with social media playing a larger role. How do you think Damian’s character was adapted more for today?
Yes, all of the students are now, of course, on social media, which as you said, has such a huge impact on the life of any teen, or anyone going through high school.That’s something they really wanted to make sure was a big part of the show — because the movie came out in 2004, when everybody had a flip phone, and … was AOL Instant Messenger still a thing then? I don’t know, that’s what I did in middle school.
So Damian is of course on social media. He’s a fan of Drag Race, and he’s really involved, and gets caught up in the same drama as the girls do. I think he’s just as guilty as anyone is at sort of buying into the whole mean aspect of what it is like to go through high school, and to feel judged, and to feel singled out.
But also, I think the biggest adjustment for me was playing a character who is out and proud in high school in 2018, versus someone who is out when the movie came out. I remember watching the movie and thinking it was amazing to see a young gay character portrayed on such a big platform. I had never really seen that before. Now, it’s even bigger, because in 2018, it’s not unheard of to be completely out and proud about it in high school. So I think it changes a lot of the way that I go about navigating the high school halls, you could say.
It’s definitely not the way that I was in high school — I was always myself, and I think I never was really pushed into the closet. But I never felt truly that confident to be able to be like, “I’m the gay kid in high school, I don’t care what you say about me.” Like, it’s exciting and refreshing to see that, because it’s not unheard of nowadays.
I have to say — your clothes in this show are amazing, you wear Drag Race merch, shirts with Liza Minelli, Cher and others printed on them. How did this wardrobe come about?
[Laughs.] I know! Really, I lied, my favorite part of the show is wearing the T-shirts. I don’t know how familiar you are with the steps of a show coming to Broadway, but there’s something called “the lab,” which is where they stage the show completely in a rehearsal room for producers and backers.
So during the lab, we were going to do presentations, and they were like, “You don’t have to get in costume, obviously, but wear something that might inform your role.” And so I showed up in a Cher t-shirt I had from when I was on tour with Book of Mormon. We went to see her on her farewell tour, which I’m sure will happen again, but we all bought this amazing t-shirt with her huge face on the front. So in the presentation, all of the designers were there, and Gregg Barnes, who is a costume designer, was like, “That is funny, that is the look of Damian.”
So we came to the table with this idea of him being a celebrity worshipper, which we all ran with. We started spitballing what sort of iconic divas and legends he would have on his t-shirts. And funny enough, that’s kind of what my wardrobe is — I have some drag merch, I wear a lot of t-shirts with a layer on top. I sort of dress like a gay mechanic.
But, for Damian, they wanted the references that he uses and wears to be a little dated, because even though he definitely watches Drag Race and is definitely is an Alyssa Edwards fan, he also idolizes Judy Garland and Cher and George Michael. I have this whole bit about a George Michael picture, which is what makes him so unique; he truly is an old soul. He gets wrapped up in the teen angst, but at the end of the day, he really gets along with middle-aged women.
With this role and with your former role as Elder McKinley in Book of Mormon, you have now booked two major queer roles on Broadway. What has that experience been like, getting to represent the community in your two Broadway roles?
Oh, it is such an honor. I am so proud to be gay and that means a lot to me, honestly it does. More than McKinley, because with that role, the joke was that he was deeply in the closet. But with Damian specifically, this role has been such a treat to represent a community within the gay community that maybe isn’t as in the spotlight. We aren’t the gays that post the shirtless Instagram selfies and go on magical vacations that are paid for by sponsors. Like, I’m really excited to represent those people, and at the stage door, I’ve met so many “Damians” who say, “This is a new dream role for me.” The fact that this role is so celebrated is amazing.
Now, do I always only want to play gay roles? No, because I’m an actor that wants to have a long career. But, will I play more? Absolutely, because there’s so many different types of gay people and gay characters that exist. Another big thing for me, in taking on the part, was making sure he wasn’t a stereotype and making sure he wasn’t the butt of a joke. I really wanted to make Damian a real human who is multifaceted, because my sexuality doesn’t define all of me — it’s a big part of me, and I’m proud of it, but it’s not something that I walk around breathing, I guess. So it was really important for me to make him human, and a good friend more than anything.
That was something that I picked up on — not to shade the original movie, but oftentimes it felt like Damian being gay was the joke being made. Here, it feels like him being gay is just a part of his character, and he’s just naturally funny.
Good! Yeah, because he is, and it’s not strange and it’s not weird and it’s not something that you really have to poke fun at anymore, because we have come a long way from 2004. I think that more than anything, it’s clear in her writing now, that yeah of course it’s something that people get and obviously know and can figure out on their own, but it’s not something that we’re trying to throw in their faces at all.
Let’s talk about the music for a second. You get two great numbers in the show, with “Where Do You Belong” and “Stop.” If you had to pick one, which would you say is your favorite to perform?
Oh gosh, that’s hard! Well “Where Do You Belong,” has been with the show from the beginning and I’ve known that the longest, and “Stop” is a new song that we added for the Broadway production — we didn’t do that out of town in D.C. So, I think “Stop” is the most exciting one for me to do now, also because it’s a fun, surprising tap dance, which is truly my favorite part.
It’s also got a really cool, interesting message that I have to remind myself of. Like, put down your phone and don’t stalk that person online, and remember that you are better than your Instagram presence. [Laughs.] None of that is real, and your worth does not come from likes and follows and whatnot. So it’s a good message for everyone, and Damian just sort of eases his way into teaching us about it.
The cast recording is coming out on Friday, May 18th — what was it like to go in the studio and record these songs?
That was very cool, it was the first time I had ever recorded anything! And it was hard, it was really challenging. It’s exciting, but it was like … to try to recreate a performance you do live on stage, especially my numbers which are very big and Broadway and over-the-top, it was hard to recreate that in a small little booth by myself on a mic. But I think that it’s going to be great. I’ve heard little samples of things, and they’ve fully been releasing other numbers. But I’m super stoked about hearing everything come out, it’s going to be very exciting and totally surreal — honestly, maybe more surreal than the Tony nom.
The main theme of this show is about how bullying can affect people’s well-being. Why do you think that’s an important idea to be exploring today?
I mean, the high school experience is truly universal, I think. We all went through it, we all know what it’s like, we all know how terrible that was. But you sort of carry it out through the rest of your adult life.
I think ultimately, there is bullying that happens on multiple levels, even if you don’t know that you’re doing it. Like, I can sense myself doing it in small ways on the street and online or whatnot, and it’s important to check yourself and ask “Am I doing that to just make myself feel better in this moment, or am I doing that because this person actually deserves it?” At the end of the day, you don’t know what someone else is going through and you don’t know what their situation is, and you don’t know, ultimately, what kind of day they’ve had. You’re not allowed truth in that way, and that’s truly the message. Be good, be the best version of yourself because that’s really all you can offer.
Even in the gay community, too, I think we notoriously sort of shut each other down — because, I think, for a long time, we had to have tougher skin than anyone. I think growing up that way, for my generation — I know being in the closet was a really difficult thing to do and to go through. So now we’re even more judgmental because of it. I mean, it’s just so important, especially in a community of people that you have to sort of struggle through life with, you have to lift each other up. It’s always a good reminder, and the show is sort of a mini-therapy session for each other every night.
And I hope people are listening. We do have a lot of really young fans, and so when they come, I ask, “Did you learn anything?” Of course they’re mostly just watching a bunch of cute boys dance on stage, so who cares? But there definitely is a message — that’s why Tina wrote it.