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Ryan Murphy says Donatella Versace is the Marcia Clark of The Assassination of Gianni Versace

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To read more on The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday, or buy it here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

The hardest person to cast in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story was an actress to play Donatella Versace. With most people only familiar with her via Maya Rudolph’s broad spoof on Saturday Night Live, executive producer Ryan Murphy needed someone who could imbue the role with humanity. (Despite rumors, Murphy says there were no plans to have Lady Gaga play the part.)

“Penelope’s portrayal is very real and human,” says Murphy. “I think Penelope is to Donatella what Sarah [Paulson] is to Marcia [Clark]. I think people have marginalized and under-appreciated Donatella. I thought the interesting parallel is that Marcia Clark was an advocate for Ron [Goldman] and Nicole [Simpson]. I think Donatella was an advocate for Versace and his legacy and his heart.”

But Cruz, who’s had a long-standing relationship with the fashion house, wanted to check in with Donatella before signing on to play Versace.

“I did have one conversation that was between she and I. I don’t want to say the details, but it was a long conversation,” says the Oscar winner (Vicky Cristina Barcelona). “That was very important to me. I think she knows that the way I’m playing her, that I truly love her and respect her.”

Murphy says that Donatella’s biggest concern about the project was the role of her children in the miniseries, and likely particularly daughter Allegra, who captured the public’s imagination at the time of Gianni’s death as the 11-year-old heir to the company. Says the producer, “She didn’t want her children to be characters in the show or exploited, and I understood that, so we removed that element.”

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs in 2018.