DON'T STOP BELIEVING

How Darren Criss Graduated ‘Glee,’ Mastered ‘Hedwig,’ and Became the ‘It Boy’ Again

The ‘Glee’ star talks weathering the decline of the former phenomenon, wowing critics as Broadway’s premier transgender rocker, and being America’s favorite “straight queer boy.”

06.18.15 5:15 AM ET

The sparkling go-go boots have been carefully stowed. The sky-high wig is being treated, and the Swarovski crystal-covered denim miniskirt is being cleaned.

What little glitter hasn’t been sweat off has been sufficiently showered away and Darren Criss, minutes after soaking in his curtain call applause for his exhausting, indisputably brilliant turn as Hedwig in Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is still high on her energy, flitting around his dressing room in a short kimono.

He belches.

“There she goes,” he laughs, gesturing at her spirit as it surely saunters around the room. Hedwig’s just been exorcised. Darren’s ready to chat.

When we meet the next afternoon at Manhattan’s Soho House, Hedwig’s black nail polish is still noticeable as Criss peruses the menu. “It’s always on,” he says. “It’s just chipping off now because it’s Friday.”

A cavalcade of friends are in town, both to see him in his raved-about Broadway run as one of Neil Patrick Harris’s replacements in Hedwig and to just visit New York on a perfect spring day, and a few can’t resist stopping by the table to say hi.

“My tail is, like, wagging off,” he says, apologizing for his frantic energy. Part of it has to do with the friends he’s eager to schedule time with on his already too-packed schedule. And part of it has to do with the excitement of that schedule itself.

Criss is fresh off his five-year run on the burned-fast-and-bright Fox phenomenon Glee, on which he played Blaine, the sweet-crooning teen who would become one-half of TV’s most progressive gay teen couple. The end of Glee is part of why we’re meeting, to reminisce about his time on the show and also discuss his very real shot at his first Emmy nomination—not for playing Blaine (which he should’ve scored a nom for in his debut season), but for penning the emotional original song “ This Time,” performed by Lea Michele in the show’s series finale.

He’s also midway through a 12-week run in Hedwig, fulfilling a dream he’s had of playing the role ever since sneaking viewings of his DVD of the movie version in his parents’ San Francisco basement as a teenager. Winning ecstatic reviews for his revelatory performance and now safely shed of the ghost of Glee, a show that’s long since stopped being cool, Criss is at an exhilarating crossroads in his career.

And the 28-year-old, biding his time at the junction while singing and dancing his ass off eight times a week in the most demanding and rewarding male role on Broadway, is impressively self-aware about the whole thing. But then again, as he ponders future stage, screen, and more music opportunities, that’s probably why he’s more poised than most former It Boys—a status he earned with that a capella “Teenage Dream”—to retain hold of that pop culture crown.

When it was announced that Criss would be “the next Hedwig,” a superlative of star power and faith-in-talent given to those who have played the role on Broadway since Harris’s departure (including Girls star Andrew Rannells and Dexter’s Michael C. Hall), many people assumed it was a high-heeled attempt to add edge to an image made tween-friendly, as happens when a person stars on a teenage soap opera musical for years.

Those people, clearly, were unaware of the extent of Criss’s obsession with John Cameron Mitchell’s progressive musical, about a genderqueer East German rock singer coming to terms with her past and future; after college, he even tried to stage a one-man version of the show. Those people, most likely, were also unaware of how severely Criss finds the presumption that he was in any hurry to break out of a so-called mold to be ridiculous.

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“That’s lazy journalism,” he says. “That’s what people will say about anything. Like, if all you knew Jennifer Lawrence from was Hunger Games and she does something else, which is what we call an actor, it’s like ‘breaking out the cage!’ We are actors. We are acting like other things. That’s how it works.”

Lazy as it might be, it’s certainly what’s happened. To that regard, it’s done Criss many favors in changing people’s minds of what he’s capable of—and if you’ve had the chance to see him perform Hedwig, he’s capable of what even your highest expectations of his talents might suggest—that the last round of headlines he made in his time at Glee were for writing an original song. Nothing says “legit” like being a songwriter.

Still, when it came time to writing “This Time” for the Glee finale, Criss was nervous. He had already received Michele and Murphy’s blessing to have this be Michele’s last song as Rachel, a monumental moment in the series’ fun. “But I was afraid that if I did—I guess this was my fear the entire series—it would feel stunty, or inconsequential,” he says. “If you write a song for something or someone you have to have some sort of weight. Not, ‘Oh an actor wrote a song. How fun!’”

After learning that the series would end with Rachel moving back to New York, “This Time” morphed from what it was originally intended, as a group number where the entire glee club would have a line saying goodbye, to a solo number for Rachel in which she personified the closure that everyone would be feeling at the moment: Rachel, Michele, the other members of the glee club, the audience, and even Criss.

But as Criss discovered, it’s notoriously difficult to write an inspirational song without being treacly. “This is my moment! I’ll live forever! Rainbows are sunshine!” as Criss mocks, singing. “This Time” has a little of that, because of the theatrical nature of it and because the moment called for it. “You gotta come dressed for the party,” he says. “If you’re going to the toga party, wear the toga.” Or, in this case, lean in to a handful of clichés about saying goodbye.

Criss stresses that writing a song like “This Time” is highly specific to Glee, and not entirely emblematic of who he is as a songwriter—something that excites him. “I look forward to writing a song for some artist that is nothing like that song and people are like, ‘I can’t believe that guy who wrote ‘This Time’ wrote that song, too.’”

It’s a version of what’s happening to him right now with Hedwig. Sure, people knew he could act, sing, and dance. He was arguably the brightest spot of Glee for years because of how well he could do those very things. But those people were still unprepared for the mature, ribald, all-dressed-up and yet emotionally naked performance he’s giving in The Angry Inch.

“I’m a soldier,” he says. “Give me a job and I’ll be there to do it. That’s how I apply myself in the acting world. They’re a team. You follow orders. I’m there to serve the larger battalion that is our story and the goal in that battle we have to fight.”

Glee takes place in a very specific world, with a distinct vibe and distinct rhythm. Blaine was a character within that world, and Criss had to carry his voice and constrain his talents, he says, to fit into that world. “You have to know how to build your piece within the confines of what works for that medium,” he says. “Having said that, Blaine was an interesting exercise in trying to be one thing. So it’s nice to be out and to remind people we’re actors.”

Criss is nothing but warm while talking about Glee, even if he’s more pragmatic than you’d expect about its decline in popularity. He recalls auditioning for the role of Finn Hudson long before he was cast as Blaine. He remembers when Glee first premiered he was acting on his first TV series, the short-lived Eastwick, that would come on right after it. He’d invite friends over to watch Eastwick at 9, but they’d insist on coming over at 8 to watch Glee first.

Then there’s the wild Comic-Con tale. In 2009, Criss appeared there on a Harry Potter panel (he created and starred in the YouTube hit “A Very Potter Musical”), which took place across the hall from the extremely crowded Glee panel. He made a self-deprecating joke about how his audience got lost on the way to the Glee event. The next year, he was asked to appear on the Harry Potter dais again, but had to decline because he was across the hall promoting Glee.

“It was interesting to see that all come and go,” he says. “We toured the world. I was Bono for two months. It was extraordinary. And the viewership declined. It’s no secret that Glee burned hot and fast.”

Not every episode was great later on in the run, he concedes. But there was still good stuff. “The number of times where I read a script and would go, ‘Oh no, how is this going to go over?’ was equal to the amount of times when I see an episode and go, ‘That was nice. That was genuinely very nice.’ So it evened out.”

Especially as his own star rose, there were offers that would take him out of the halls of McKinley High which he turned down because he felt a sense of loyalty to the creative team that gave him his big break. “All of a sudden all these doors open up that you’re too fat to fit through anymore,” he says. “And I didn’t want to leave out of respect and gratitude for what was given to me.”

When it started to become clear that Hedwig and the Angry Inch would live on past Neil Patrick Harris’s departure, that Criss would be a replacement became somewhat inevitable. One of the first connections he made after Glee made him into a name was with the show’s producer David Binder, who he passionately told he wanted to be in a revival of the show one day—even before the Harris-led Broadway sojourn was in the cards.

“John Cameron Mitchell has given us a Hamlet,” he says, of what has quickly become a Holy Grail role for musical theatre actors. “He’s given us a Mama Rose.”

On the one hand, some might find it odd that a straight 16-year-old boy would spend more than a decade with such a passionate desire to play a transgender German rock star, a character that has become an icon for the queer community.

“You do kind of raise an eyebrow,” he says. But he recalls those days watching the movie in the basement terrified that his mom would walk in on him. “It was inappropriate and subversive and different, everything you like as a teenager. Fucking punk rock, you know?”

“I was the kid who wore weird-colored pants because I liked people questioning what was cool,” he continues. “I wore nail polish and weird glasses because I thought it was funny, but I still would show up at the football games like a bro. And she’s really fucking funny.”

The sacred keeper of Hedwig, her creator and original star John Cameron Mitchell, certainly has given Criss his approval. The two have struck up a friendship over the years, stretching back to even before Criss starred in his show. He’s called Criss, who has turned intense interest over his own sexuality because of the characters he plays (he’s straight, and has a girlfriend) into impassioned advocacy for LGBT rights, “the sweetest, hippest straight queer boy on the block.”

It’s a compliment that Criss has embraced, but which has stirred a bit of controversy in a community in which identity and labels are a constantly evolving, always sensitive thing.

“If anyone is allowed to say that, and it’s an endearment and it’s a compliment, it’s John Cameron Mitchell,” he says. “If some rando dude said that, I’d be like, ‘What the fuck does that even mean?’ But John being such a force and a name in the community, so to speak, whether it’s theatre or the LGBT community, what have you, it means a lot coming from him. I think the people who don’t necessarily know the complications of what that means could maybe take offense. If I was a different person, I could be like, ‘What!?’”

It’s at this juncture that we discuss what’s next for Criss when his 12-week Broadway run ends in mid- July. He’d like to do more songwriting, he says, and there are talks of more projects with Star-Kid Productions, the team he created “A Very Potter Musical” with. As for acting, “just give me a fucking interesting character,” he says, “that’s all I need”—while admitting that, after a demanding Broadway run, a film that shoots on a beach would be nice.

“I didn’t dream about Glee because I didn’t grow up with Glee,” he says. “It happened and turned out to be a dream. But I’m truly in the midst of a fantasy. I dread this being over.”

The rest of us, however, should be very excited.