The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story hopes to illustrate how homophobia led to the loss of one of the greatest creative minds of a generation.
On one side of that coin is Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez), the household name that broke barriers with his ostentatious and bold view of fashion and his love for life and the world. On the other is Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), the charismatic murderer who seduced and murdered four other people before fatally shooting Versace in the face.
It's a career redefining role for Darren Criss, who first entered the pop culture zeitgeist far on the other side from Cunanan as Blaine Anderson on Glee. His tenure on the musical high school show had Tumblr dub him as America's boyfriend. Fans who remember him as the sweet-hearted, tender Blaine — and those who dismissed him because of it — will be shocked as they tune into Versace to see Criss play smarmy, manipulative and deeply disturbed. The young actor deftly makes you feel for and deeply fear Cunanan at the same time.
Episode 2 revealed how the series plans to pedals backward through Cunanan's killer spree to show the evolution of a murderer in a new way. While Versace holds title prominence, it is Criss' performance as Cunanan that the series hinges on for the rest of the run. TV Guide talked to Criss about sinking his teeth into the role, the weight of knowing Cunanan's victims' families are watching and why Glee co-creator and American Crime Story overlord Ryan Murphy handpicked him to play the game-changing part.
You're a little bit too good, if you know what I mean, at playing a serial killer.
Darren Criss: Well, I am not thinking of it in terms of playing a serial killer. That's not how I would wake up going to work. So when people say that, it's odd to me because I forget that's something he did.
How did you think of it then?
Criss: I thought of an excitable, ambitious, hungry, young man whose obsessions got the better of him and other people. And he had very basic desires that were pushed to huge extremes. So I would try to not focus on the things we do know and focus more on the things that we didn't get to see and the things that one could like Andrew for, which made those horrible things much harder to ingest because you are coming from a point of entry that's much more palatable, ideally.
Do you want people to sympathize with him, or is that dangerous?
Criss: No. No, no, no, no, no. We have to. First of all, I can say this because I am very cognizant of somebody reading this or hearing this or seeing something. Every day, I walked into work with the weight of the family and friends of his victims, who are very much alive, who are very much around, who are very much, I'm sure, familiar of the TV zeitgeist that this show will be and how difficult this will be for them to have something they've tried to make some kind of peace with over 20 years and all of a sudden it's water cooler talk.
That really weighs heavy on me, so I say that as a prologue to, as an actor, it is my job to sympathize with Andrew. I'm in the business of empathy. That is my livelihood. That is what I do for my living and for my livelihood. It's so hard to do that with somebody like Andrew, but it's necessary, not only for me but... I'm not asking people to sympathize with him. I challenge them to see what happens when they put aside the worst things that a human being can do and not think about, I guess, the end horrible products and seeing where they came from and really questioning at what point could this have been you or could've been any of us, as hard as that is to grasp.
And it is in that journey that we can really start exploring larger issues about obsession and about things that come from good places that can turn into dark endings. That's what I'm hoping happens. It's not as simple as asking people to just sympathize with somebody. It's more about questioning themselves and seeing how much they can find in common with a conventional monster.
Did Ryan Murphy tell you why he thought that you would be the best person for this?
Criss: No...I mean, look, I'm half Filipino, in the same age range as Andrew, and I'm very lucky to be in Ryan Murphy's camp. So part of me jokingly was like, "Ryan, while I know there's plenty of wonderful half-Filipino actors out there, as far as finding another person that kind of looks like him, is in the same age range, and is in your Rolodex of actors, I defy you to find somebody else, man." I would say that jokingly as almost like holding him hostage. Like, "If you want to do this, let's do this together."
So while I'm sure there are a lot of other people that could've done this, I think he stuck with me because I was probably the one closest to his world that was not only game but kind of fit the bill. I also think that if they didn't get a half-Filipino actor to do this, I think the Filipino community would've cried bloody murder, and rightly so. So here we are.
How much research did you do for it beyond the book the series is based on? Or did you kind of want to stay within the script?
Criss: I'm glad you asked that. There's only so much research one can do for somebody like Andrew because he was a hundred different people to a thousand different people, so even the people that I have talked to who have approached me, that knew Andrew in different capacities, even different stages of his life, knew him at different moments, so there's only so much you can glean from that.
There's a couple of different Andrews that exist to me. There's the one that walked and talked and navigated this earth. That person I will never get to know. There is the person that I can glean from Maureen's book, which is, again, a thousand different Andrews. And then there is the person in the script that is written by Tom Rob Smith and the world that Ryan Murphy has curated. That's the one I have to service. We take some liberties with characters. I don't think for any storytelling flourish but for necessary thematic connective tissue. So that was the one that I ultimately wanted to service.
There's only so much research I could do, which is nice because it's a nice way to be like, "I don't have to do any research." But that's not the case. I think you just have to make yourself available to all emotions at all times, and then just go into work every day playing each individual scene and hoping they stitch together as a whole.
I think as far as getting into Andrew's head is concerned, there's a lot of things that I found in common with him, and I think there's more things that we all have in common with somebody like Andrew than we like to admit. And so just holding onto those common denominators are not only important but easy and a good way to stay on his, dare I say, side, as horrible as that sounds.
What was the shooting order for this series? Did you guys largely go in episode order? Because I know you went and shot at the actual house.
Criss: It was all over the place. It was like shooting a nine-hour movie. We shot everything all over the place. Yeah, it's kind of hard to track the timing of stuff.
Even the order of the series is kind of weird because we're going backwards through his evolution as a serial killer. So for you, how did you track of like, "Okay, it's this day, and I am at this place in his psyche"?
Criss: Oh, yeah. I enjoy that chronological Tetris. I sort of have this masochistic joy of piecing those things together. Maybe it's my weird OCD thinking. So it wasn't hard for me. I enjoyed that challenge. I don't know what the question is. I think I'm just agreeing with you that, yeah, it's hard, but you do have to sort of map out where everything is. And you have to be very delicate with it because you can't go to a 10 when you know in sequence you haven't earned it yet. Or conversely, let's say you're at Chapter 2, and you dial it to an 11, but now you've blown your wad on where you get to in Chapter 12.
Emotionally mapping things is really, really fun for me, so it didn't get confusing. It's like a fun game for me as an actor, and I enjoy that process a lot. But yes, to your point, yes, I did do that. And that's a very important thing to do because we went a lot through time. And I still haven't seen the series, so I have no idea how it ends up playing out.
The series is going backwards through the murders, which is sort of a weird trip for the audience to go through.
Criss: What I realized we were doing while we were shooting was that we're setting up — because you're going backwards — you're starting with the worst parts of Andrew. So it's really weird to go back and then see the best parts of Andrew, and then really kind of question how they're connected, but you see how they're connected at the same time. And it feels bizarre.
The tension of this is built on his obsession with Versace and that connection that he feels to the designer, but you and Edgar don't share a lot of time on screen together. Did you and Edgar keep that distance off set as well? What were those conversations like about forming Andrew and Gianni's relationship?
Criss: I didn't observe that distance because we were already apart most of the time anyway. But I think we are both excited to see the show for many reasons, but one, because we didn't get to experience each other's experience of the show. I haven't seen all the stuff with the Versace family. He hasn't seen any of the Andrew stuff. He wasn't there. I wasn't there. So it was like we were shooting two completely separate movies. One existed in this very glamorous, beautiful, lush world of '80s and '90s excess, and the other one exists in this very dreary, sad world.
For that reason, I think we're both excited to see what it looks like and how they juxtapose against each other because with the show, what we've heard, what we're going for was kind of dichotomizing these two men's lives and trying to parallel them or juxtapose them in whatever way they naturally do.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story continues Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX.