If there's one constant in the thrilling The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, it's unpredictability; from the very title itself, which obscures the fact that the series is really about Andrew Cunanan, to the seriousness given to pop culture icon Donatella Versace, Ryan Murphy's series keeps the surprises coming. That's true of the penultimate episode "Creator, Destroyer" too, which offers up one of the series' strongest performances not from Darren Criss but from Jon Jon Briones, who plays Andrew's father Modesto "Pete" Cunanan. Briones arrives late to the show, but leaves a lasting, chilling impression as Andrew's disciplinarian dad obsessed with success — and Andrew.
A native of the Philippines, Briones was part of the original London run of Miss Saigon in 1989, and went on to reprise his role in various productions of the work including a West End revival. He became a U.S. citizen in 2010 — a path he shares in common with Pete, who served in the Navy and became a stockbroker. As depicted in Versace, Pete Cunanan worked slavishly to give his children the advantages he didn't have, even if a sense of entitlement and eventually contempt warped his intentions and turned him into a con artist. Briones gives Pete a sense of combustible intensity imbued with danger and though Pete has just now been introduced in the series, Briones perfectly encapsulates the portrait of Pete painted in Vulgar Favors, from his tenderness to his insatiable drive and his propensity for outlandish lies and violence. Because of Briones, viewers go into the final episode of Versace with a new understanding of Andrew — and perhaps a sense of unsettling empathy. TV Guide caught up with Briones over email to talk about the episode, how he got into Modesto's mind and what he hopes people take away from his performance.
How'd you prepare for this role?
Jon Jon Briones: Research was a big part of the preparation, but it was a bit of a challenge in the beginning as there wasn't much information on Modesto Cunanan. Fortunately my director, Matt Bomer, lent me his copy of the book Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth, which is the book the show is based on, and I was able to read it before I began filming. It also helped that Maureen Orth and Tom Rob Smith, the screenwriter, were on set and I was able to pick their brains.
What about Modesto and Andrew interested you?
Briones: Modesto was such a driven individual in his single mindedness toward the pursuit of his goals and his vision of the American Dream. He would do anything to achieve it. He envisioned it and lived in that world, which was really a fantasy as he never actually achieved it. He surrounded himself with lies and grandeur beyond his means; such a tragic and flawed character, as an actor that is so interesting to delve into and so much fun to play. [Andrew also] is such a tragic character. The way he was raised by his parents to believe that he was better than anyone, including his siblings, and that he deserved everything. He seemed to be doomed from the beginning.
It's really easy to hate Andrew up until seeing you play his father. Did you empathize with Andrew more after playing Pete?
Briones: Absolutely! We learn from our parents at an early age. They are the "sacred" voices we listen to and learn from. As Sondheim said "Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see and learn."
You give Modesto some very singular movements, like slamming hands down on the table or slapping them together for emphasis. Where'd that come from?
Briones: I guess the key to that is understanding Modesto's wants and how he tries to achieve them. He is very intense and it's about him getting the attention he needs. When he's speaking he feels people should listen and he will do what it takes to make that happen. So on set, all of these things came out organically. Modesto is definitely a man who likes a good entrance and exit.
Did Modesto's sense of discipline, his sense of aspiration resonate with your own experience as someone who immigrated from to the US?
Briones: I believe all immigrants can understand, but not necessarily agree with, Modesto's pursuit of the American dream. I know when I was growing up in the Philippines, I thought America was this magical place where money grows on trees. I think Modesto must have thought the same thing. Then he managed to get himself to the US and realized that as an immigrant he had to work even harder than most people to achieve that dream.
There's a very eerie and sometime surreal feeling through this whole series. Did you experience that at all?
Briones: The writing is just amazing and I felt the eerie and surreal sense of it while reading the script. Even while filming there were hints of it. Some of the things I was directed to do in certain scenes seemed a little intriguing to me, but now after seeing the preceding episodes I understand the whole flow of it. I believe the eerie, surreal feel makes it even more riveting for the audience.
What was it like filming the scenes depicting the Philippines? How'd that impact you?
Briones: It was cool getting to the sound stage and being shown Modesto's house. They did an amazing job because as soon as I sat on the chair in the kitchen and they turned on the rain machine, I was transported somewhere in rural Philippines. In the middle of FOX studios, Hollywood.
There has been speculation that Andrew's' father was abusing him. Did you have that in mind while playing him?
Briones: I did not have that in mind while playing the role. I believe that Modesto loved his son more than anything or anyone in the whole world. It might have translated into something else, but he wouldn't have seen it that way. In his mind, he was always doing the right thing and being a loving father. He may have been delusional, but not with evil intent.
What do you hope people take away from your performance?
Briones: I want people to know that Asians are good storytellers. There are a lot of us just waiting to be given the chance, just as I have been given with this role.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX.