He might have first hit our TV screens as a squeaky-clean star of Glee, but now Darren Criss is taking off in a much darker role as Gianni Versace's killer. Lucy Pavia tracks him down
Wherever he goes right now, Darren Criss is stopped on the street by people who want to talk about the man he’s playing on TV. Some encountered the real-life version and have stories to share. Others want to chat about friends who met him; one says he was even mistaken for him. All of this would be quite charming if the character in question wasn’t a serial killer.
In 1997, a young man called Andrew Cunanan shot and killed the Italian designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his Miami mansion. A week later, he turned the gun on himself. It was the end of a five-person killing spree that terrified America, and is now – 20 years after the fact – the basis for the second instalment of Ryan Murphy’s Emmy-winning American Crime Story.
Although The Assassination Of Gianni Versace features a fictional Versace (Edgar Ramírez) and Donatella (Penélope Cruz), the drama really zeroes in on former Glee star Darren Criss as Cunanan, working backwards through the weeks leading up to the murder and peeling away the layers of his shape-shifting personality.
At various points (according to the hundreds of people who met him), Cunanan was an obsessive boyfriend, a pathological liar, a party animal, a wannabe celebrity and an unfeeling killer – a slippery mix Criss masters with considerable skill.
‘The story is less about exposing what happened so much as trying to explain how emotionally one person can get from point A to point B,’ says Criss, who personally doesn’t buy the idea of Cunanan as a born monster.
‘You look at some of the more famous serial killers in the United States and they were people who had sociopathic tendencies when they were younger. Later in life people say, “Oh well, I saw that coming”, whereas Andrew [is] much harder to pin down. He was a fun-loving person, he was gifted. He seemed to have a lot of promise.’
Murphy’s screenplay is based on Vulgar Favors, a ‘rigorously researched’ book by Maureen Orth that was published in 2000, though the Versace family and Gianni’s former boyfriend Antonio D’Amico (played by Ricky Martin) have insisted the show is based on flimsy ‘second-hand hearsay’.
Criss acknowledges the difficulties of dramatising something that hurt so many people. ‘The destruction that Andrew wrought on people’s lives is still very much felt 20 years later. To reawaken that… I imagine most of those folks probably have no desire to tune into our show, and for obvious reasons I perfectly understand that, but yeah, that sort of weighs on me a little bit. I think of the families and I hope [they know] what we’re doing is not trying to commodify their pain.’
Criss is an energetic, affable guy with the sing-song voice of someone who spent his teens as a stage-school kid. He apologises a few times for talking too quickly, but his unbridled enthusiasm is catching. His first brush with fame came in his early twenties when footage of A Very Potter Musical – a spoof stage show conceived by Criss as a University of Michigan student – went viral on YouTube. Later, he won a part on Glee as series regular Blaine Anderson. The show’s set was fraught with rumoured rifts and dramas, but Criss insists (perhaps diplomatically) that coming into things later put him at a useful distance.
‘I had a really fortunate relationship with that show because I joined after it was a massive hit. I kind of came in with a bird’s eye view,’ he adds. ‘There’s all kinds of drama that happened that I was aware of but was never part of… I tended to be the last to know.’
A few years later, when Glee creator Murphy mooted his idea for a Versace-based American Crime Story while the two were having a catch-up lunch in New Orleans, Criss bit his arm off. Now he’s being tipped for an Emmy.
‘I’m aware I’m having a moment right now,’ he says, with the tone of someone who has seen enough shut doors not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Acting is a profession of extremes and Criss says he’s experienced ‘both sides of the coin’, so at the age of 31 is happy to acknowledge a peak. It’s a good year for other reasons, as Criss became engaged to his long-term girlfriend Mia Swier in January.
‘Choosing to be an actor is not a great idea,’ he says. ‘It’s a masochistic lifestyle, so you’re just thrilled to have a job at all.’
Although unemployment doesn’t look like something he’s going to have to worry about any time soon.
The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays on BBC Two