Step-touching his way through the halls of the fictional Dalton High School—the hair perfectly parted, the navy blazer impeccably tailored, and amplifying an a capella rendition of a Katy Perry song through the sheer wattage of his all-American smile—a then-22-year-old Darren Criss, fresh out of college and making his debut as Blaine Anderson on a 2010 episode of Glee, was the epitome of the teenage dream.
Now, he’s the 30-year-old stuff of nightmares.
Well, he isn’t, exactly, but the serial killer he plays on The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story certainly is.
In many ways, Criss’ revelatory performance as Andrew Cunanan, the 27-year-old gay man who, after murdering five people including the famed fashion designer, became one of the most wanted serial killers in American history, is all the more unsettling because of its stark contrast to the genial crooner we were introduced to on Fox’s burned-fast-and-bright musical dramedy.
But then again, the surprise of a certain clean-cut progressiveness has been the hallmark of Criss’ still-young career.
“I think it’s really given me an alley-oop,” Criss says, referring to the initial shock a Glee fan might have to watching the actor as Cunanan, say, bind a rich john who hires him as an escort with duct tape and then gouge him with a hammer. “I’d like to think [audiences] would be interested and compelled anyway,” without this lingering image of Criss as Blaine, the consummate Nice Guy. “But I think it’s an extra nudge when you have that to juxtapose against.”
When we first met Darren Criss several years ago, he was wearing a thigh-length kimono and tending to his favorite blonde wig, remnants of sweat-sticky glitter smudging just about everything in sight—aided and abetted in its mission by the runoff from his sparkling go-go boots. We were in his dressing room backstage at the Belasco Theatre, high off the energy of his stage-scorching performance in as the titular transgender rocker in the 2015 musical revival Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
It was Criss’ first major gig after wrapping his run on Glee, and a thundering opening salvo in proving the breadth of his talents, let alone taste in projects.
Things are decidedly bleaker, or at the very least chillier, when we reunite two-and-a-half years later at a café in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York to talk Versace, inarguably the biggest and certainly darkest project of his career thus far. Still, Criss’ fashion choice is doing its part to dial up the fabulousness of the morning: a knee-length, forest green mohair overcoat he pets with pride when we compliment it. “One of the kids from [the boy band] PrettyMuch on Good Morning America this morning was like, ‘Yo bro, it looks like you skinned the Grinch!’” Criss laughs. “I’m like, that is indeed an apt observation.”
Just as when we talked before, Criss bubbles over with the kind of giddiness, but also navel-gazing introspection, that one might expect from a lifelong theater kid—which the 30-year-old actor absolutely is, having grown up attending performance arts schools and raised in the San Francisco theater scene he joined at a young age.
And so there’s a certain amount of objectivity and pragmatism as we discuss the arc of his career, not to mention a pinch-me enthusiasm in promoting a leading role in Ryan Murphy’s follow-up to the blockbuster The People v. O.J. Simpson series. There’s also a refreshing eagerness to engage thoughtfully in conversations about his sexuality and sex appeal—oh yeah, we talked about those nude photos—especially in relation to the coincidence that, though he identifies as straight, the three defining roles of his career have been gay characters.
For all the talk of teenage dreams and historical crime nightmares, Darren Criss is nothing if not woke.
The fact of the matter is that, while Versace’s 1997 murder is the catalyst for the series and crucial in instigating the conversations about sexuality and fame in ’90s America that it explores, Versace (played by Edgar Ramirez), his longtime boyfriend (played by Ricky Martin), and sister, Donatella (Penelope Cruz), are all minor characters. This is almost exclusively a showcase for Criss as Andrew Cunanan, the highly intelligent sociopath with tortured feelings about his own sexuality, driven to murder.
“The thing I keep saying is I feel like I made varsity,” Criss says, about leading the starry ensemble. “I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to be invited into the school, into the program. I put in enough games on J.V. Now they’re like, alright kid, it’s your shot.”
Murphy first floated the idea of playing Cunanan to Criss three years ago. Their working relationship on Glee only bolstered a purely superficial argument for the casting: Criss and Cunanan look uncannily similar, and share almost identical Filipino-American backgrounds. “I would have been happy to audition,” Criss stresses, grinning sheepishly. “I masochistically relish that process.”
He’s fully aware that people are fascinated by the idea of the Tiger Beat cover boy thwarting that image playing the sociopathic serial killer, just as they were by the idea of the straight cisgender teen idol actively pursuing the role of a transgender rock star when he booked meetings for Hedwig when Glee was ending.
“I keep telling reporters that I’m curious what the conversation would be if I started with Versace and then three years later I do this musical comedy,” he says. “And I do think the questions would be the same: ‘Darren you’re sort of this dark brooding dramatic guy and that’s what you’re known for. It must be such a departure to be playing this happy go lucky. When I was watching Versace I never thought I’d be watching this guy singing and dancing on Broadway.’ But we have to categorize. It’s how we keep ourselves sane.”
He chuckles. “My goal in life in all respects is to keep people as off-kilter as possible.”
Well, speaking of throwing fans for a loop, let’s talk about that naked Instagram photo.
While Blaine on Glee was certainly made out to be a handsome, crush-worthy romantic lead—all the more groundbreaking, of course, because the romance was a same-sex teenage one—there was something chaste and sort of juvenile about it. Not anymore. Now, Darren Criss exudes sex.
He’s damn hot, too, and clearly leaning into it. Ryan Murphy, god bless him, is nothing if not the Patron Saint of Sexualizing Male TV Stars, and thus had Criss shooting in nothing but a red Speedo very early on in the Versace shoot. One particular day ended with a sunburned Criss as red as his skimpy wardrobe. So, after getting the blessing of his girlfriend of seven years, Mia, Criss thought it would be funny to post a nude selfie, covering his naughty bits with the crumpled up bathing suit, on his Instagram.
The gay community collectively gasped in unison.
“I learned what the word ‘thirsty’ meant after that,” Criss laughs.
“My favorite part of the post was the caption, which was completely upstaged,” he says.
Uh, there was a caption?
“Exactly! That’s what’s so funny about these things. When something goes viral, all context gets thrown out the window.” (For the record, the caption mocked his sunburn: “So what’s more red? My sunburn, my Speedo, or YOUR FACE???”)
Criss takes it all in good humor, of course. “It tickles me, and I think it’s, in a weird, twisted way, endearing,” he says when we mention that his nude scene from the Versace premiere—a lingering look at his naked body and butt from behind—has already leaked and is circulating on gay porn sites. But he gets a little weary when all that becomes the focus of discussion around Cunanan. At the premiere in Los Angeles, for example, gossip rags bombarded him with questions about how he got into shape for the show, the usual tired questions about an actor’s exercise regimen. “I freaked out,” he says. “Like, no, no, no. Andrew’s not supposed to be a sexual object.”
You can take sex appeal out of the conversation, of course, but you can’t take sexuality out of it. And it’s an interesting, if complicated, conversation in relation to Criss’ career. As we mentioned earlier, Andrew Cunanan marks the third time Criss has played a LGBTQ character, after Blaine on Glee and Hedwig.
At a time when the visibility and normalization of gay characters is trumpeted in tandem with a cry for opportunity for LGBTQ performers and creators, it’s a coincidence that invites a certain amount of scrutiny for a straight actor whose career has benefited from these characters.
“I’ve been really fortunate in that, while I almost bizarrely invite that, there hasn’t really been any scrutiny,” Criss says. “As a straight, cisgender white guy, I can definitely see how people in the LGBTQ community could be a little weirded out about the consistency of these roles. But it’s not conscious. I’m not going, ooh, I’m going to go after all these queer roles. It’s sort of no different than a gay actor only doing straight roles. I think in our political climate those things are important to talk about and important to notice.”
“Especially for a community who’s had to fight for its voice to be heard and recognized for so fucking long, I completely understand the sensitivity to what my approach or reasonings are,” he continues. “But I think hopefully the art transcends the politics in that I’m an actor. Just plain and simple. Maybe that sounds pandering, or maybe it sounds like I’m trying to put that curiosity down. I’ve been thrilled that no one’s ever really given me grief for this. Because I think we all agree the stories are more important than the pieces that make them.”
Rather than shy away from questions about this, skittish that something he says might be deemed controversial, Criss actually continues to elaborate, saying “there’s so much to unpack here.”
“I like talking about it,” he says. “Because I feel like the gay community has embraced me when it really didn’t have to. I am aware that I’m an outsider. I didn’t grow up gay. I didn’t go through the same journey that a lot of gay men and women went through. That is something that binds the gay community together in a very real way. I would never deign to say that I deserve to be included, but I’ve been so touched and privileged to be a voice and connected to a part personally and professionally that I’m just thrilled there hasn’t really been any visible or audible backlash.”
Plus, he reaps the benefits of being a satellite member of the community, such as trusting whoever encouraged him to wear that fabulous—and hardly heteronormative—green overcoat.
“That’s true!” he laughs.
It reminds him of a joke that was in Hedwig at the expense of an actor, whom he’d rather not name now, talking about how he enjoyed “all the privileges of homosexuality and none of the responsibilities.” It always got a big laugh, to the point that when co-star Lena Hall filled in for him as Hedwig, he suggested that she make the same joke but using his name instead.
“I tend to step outside my body and look at this all from the back seat. I was like that is a really, really funny joke,” he says. “Because it’s true. I’ve been really lucky to have all the privileges, all the fun things of the gay community without all the responsibilities and burdens that come with it. And I’m so aware of that.”
He then launches into a story that he apologizes several times for having told before to other media outlets, but which seems to so genuinely reflect his attitude about his place in the gay community as an outsider who plays these characters.
“This is the nerdiest analogy,” he starts, before likening the experience to being given the Green Lantern ring from some LGBTQ powers-that-be and being told to be a symbol for the community, thinking in response: “Me? Are you sure?”
“But I’m glad it was me,” he says. “I’m glad that these things have fallen on my plate, and that things have happened in my life that I think actually make me a good candidate for being put in the position that I was put in, having grown up like I did in San Francisco, being raised basically by gay twentysomethings in theater. These are people who I looked up to. These are people who I wanted to be around. These are people who raised my adult consciousness without them even being aware of it. So later in life, yeah, fuck yeah, those are the people I want to be connected with. It is really cool. I really lucked out.”
Teenage dreams grow up, and even become realities. Darren Criss is in the midst of his.