Tim Stack
June 21, 2017 AT 01:00 PM EDT

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How do you top a phenomenon like last year’s The People v. O.J. Simpson? Opulence, sex and Ricky Martin, naturally. Those are just a few of the elements viewers can expect when The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story premieres in early 2018, focusing on the tragic killing of the fashion titan (Martin plays his long-time love Antonio D’Amico). FX’s follow-up to Simpson, featuring the same team of executive producers including Ryan Murphy, Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson, won’t premiere for months but EW was exclusively on the set in May as the cast shot in Versace’s former home, Casa Casuarina. “It was very moving, sometimes disturbing,” says Penelope Cruz, who plays Gianni’s sister Donatella, of shooting in the house. “We all felt a very powerful energy. It just made me have more passion to tell this story.”

On July 15, 1997, Gianni Versace had left to go on his regular run to Miami Beach’s News Cafe. As he returned home and was opening his front gate, Andrew Cunanan, a sociopath who had become fixated on the designer after reportedly meeting him years earlier, walked up behind Versace and shot him twice in the head. The openly gay Versace was one of the most exciting and provocative designers of the moment, famous for his bold skin-baring designs. “Gianni was a disrupter,” says Edgar Ramírez (Joy), who plays the colorful figure. “He was doing things at the time that no one else was doing. He had this rock-star vision of couture and was the master of combining fashion, celebrity, and fame in a way that had never been combined before.” But his future was snuffed out by Cunanan (Glee’s Darren Criss), an intelligent, handsome, and highly disturbed young man from San Diego. Versace, based on the book Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth, hopes to show how these two men’s paths crossed and ended so violently. “Here are two men from comparable backgrounds that had all kinds of similarities,” explains writer Tom Rob Smith (London Spy). “They came from parents who were striving but not wealthy. They had the Italian-heritage connection. This feeling of being an outsider. The sexuality connection. Why does one go on to become this incredible creator and great life force? And the other young man ends up destroying so much?”

GALLERY: See Exclusive Photos of The Assassination of Gianni Versace

The tale haunted Murphy, who pitched doing it even before Simpson aired. “I kept going back to Versace because it was different from O.J. tonally,” says the executive producer, sitting on the back patio of Casa Casuarina. “It was a manhunt and it takes place all over the country.” And just as the O.J. Simpson trial was a lens through which to examine racism, Murphy sees the Versace murder as a chance to do the same with sexuality and homophobia in the ’90s. “The more I had read about it, the more I was startled by the fact that Cunanan really was only allowed to get away with it because of homophobia,” says Murphy. “There was this great apathy about it, and I think part of that was because it seemed like gay people were disposable in our culture.”

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The ACS team now not only has to live up the legacy of Simpson‘s success but also a glut of other true-crime scripted series. “I would only feel pressure if we were doing, like, the Menendez trial,” says ­Murphy. “But this is so dramatically different, and it’s about fashion and celebrity. Everything feels like you’re jumping off a diving board for the first time because there’s no template.” In this week’s cover story, EW has your exclusive deep dive on how Murphy brought together an Oscar winner, a Glee favorite, and a music superstar for one of 2018’s most anticipated television events.

Alexei Hay for EW

 

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