There are a ton of great performances in FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story but perhaps the most revelatory is Darren Criss as serial killer Andrew Cunanan.
Previously best known for the sweet, Katy Perry-singing Warbler Blaine Anderson on Glee, Criss goes fully over to the dark side as Cunanan, a sociopath who killed five men in 1997, including fashion designer Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez).
EW talked to Criss about Cunanan, reuniting with Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy, and the show’s connection to our social media culture.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were you at all nervous stepping into this? It’s the biggest and most complicated role you’ve tackled.
DARREN CRISS: There were no nerves whatsoever. This was the most exciting, I-can’t-wait-to-do-this experience I’ve ever had. This is an opportunity I’ve been waiting and working my entire life for… This is a role of a lifetime. I’m dripping with gratitude and overwhelmed. I’m so fully aware that this is not something that comes around often. So that’s what it felt like every day. There’s not nervousness or trepidation or fear. I sort of always loved things that look to other people like they’re hard to take on. I’m not saying anything is easy.
There’s so many things about this that are great. Not only is it a great role but it’s a fantastic story with a lot of fantastic weight that I really think sheds light on a lot of things that haven’t been able to be exposed.
So no, I wasn’t nervous at all. I think people have this fixation with dark things — they think they’re scary or hard. Maybe I’m just a dark person. I just find that all dark, scary, conventionally negative things come from pretty relatable places: fear, embarrassment, ambition, and disappointment.
You’re thinking about the emotions that bare them. It doesn’t come home to me. It doesn’t make me afraid of Andrew. It doesn’t make me love him or hate him any less. I get disappointed by him. My heart breaks for him, mainly because of all the good things we get to see about him.
On a professional level, it’s the excitement of being with people that I love working with within a story I think is really important and really matters. On a personal, role level, it’s so nice to be in something that has so many layers and has an opportunity to challenge audiences senses of empathy. Being able to be a part of that is like being able to go to do the most invigorating work one can do.
How did you get inside the character of Andrew? He’s so complicated and mysterious. What was the preparation?
Because he’s all over the place, it’s kind of an indoor safety net for me. I think because he’s a person who disassociates and compartmentalizes, I could likewise do that going to work or coming home. Also when you go to a certain place, he would turn on a dime and that would help me. There’s not a whole lot of preparation you can do. The people who knew him only knew one side of him. This is actually an advantage to me that this isn’t a person people are familiar with. It’s this sort of alibi. The only thing you can really do is not so much preparation but being available to all emotions at all times which I think is probably the most important thing. At any point, he’s ready to fire off in any direction. You can’t really prepare for that.
I did as much research as humanly possible. There’s not a whole lot to go on. At the end of the day, there’s the Andrew who walks and talks on this Earth. There’s the Andrew that people experienced. Then there’s this person who’s my guiding light, which is the person on this page. I did as much homework as possible. You just have to be available on the day and just play each scene.
What was the biggest challenge of this?
I really relate to Andrew mainly because I got to live with him in a different capacity. I had to live with this young man. Living with him as a teenager and a young man. We all remember what it is to want to be liked or stand out or use whatever wiles you have to assert yourself or not assert yourself. All these things that are extremely relatable that I really do relate to him and we have more similarities than that. Obviously, the things that make us different are big but I think they’re few in number.
Ryan Murphy launched your career in so many ways. What was it like working with him this time? He was adamant you play this role.
This was the first time I got to work with Ryan in a real sense as far as us getting in the kitchen and getting our hands dirty and really working on the material. By the time I got to Glee, he wasn’t really directing and he didn’t direct me on American Horror Story [Criss guest-starred on AHS: Hotel]. I never worked directly with him. We’ve been friends obviously as my boss and seen him at events and parties and stuff and he’s always been a great supporter of me. But we never had really made something like this together. It was cool for me to see.
Ryan is a very prolific guy and he’s created this whole brand around himself and that’s the guy I knew and would have rosé with. But seeing him actually at the helm, creating this world, doing what he does best is really cool. It’s really inspiring. It was really a thrill to work with someone in that capacity. Actors are only as good as the moments they get and he’s given me quite an extraordinary moment.
It could easily have veered into camp or gone over the top. But you all keep it very human and grounded.
If that’s what came out, great because I would like to think all of us were shooting for that. You always want something to be as grounded as possible. My interest from day one was showing the humanity of Andrew and that’s something everyone has been interested in from day one. If you just have a cut and dry good guy/bad guy, that’s not interesting. We can’t just vilify Andrew and then what’s the point of following this person if we’re not going to mess with her our sense of relatability to a conventional “villain.” We have to humanize him — that’s the only route to get to know him on a larger level.
I’m really excited to see a lot of the Ricky [Martin], Edgar, and Penelope [Cruz] stuff because I was not there for any of that. It was like shooting two completely different shows. I have no idea how it’s going to play out. I can’t wait to see the parallels.
What do you want people to take away from this?
I really want people to question their sense of empathy and really try and figure out at one point this could have been their own selves. It’s not about Andrew specifically and more people like Andrew: people who idolize excess and how they obsess over the things they don’t have and it ultimately destroys them and the dangers of that. Andrew is somebody that curated his image very well, like with doctoral accuracy, surgical accuracy. He really wants to make sure he was viewed a certain way by certain people. It’s not too dissimilar with how many of us filter our own lives now. I’m talking in extremes here but it can be related to the social media world with how we literally filter our lives and we’re obsessed that people perceive us in a certain way. It’s a totally natural thing but it’s that other side of the coin: looking at other people and what they have. People always say, “I hate going on social media when you’re single and seeing people in love and leading happy lives.” There’s a difference between letting that get you a little bummed and having it drive you truly mad and letting what you do not have not only destroy yourself but other people.
I think people will relate to that anguish and what it feels like to want to have your image of yourself be as fantastic and larger than life as possible, even if it is false. At what point is it a crime to want to embellish your life. I think he was the pre-Instagram filter Instagrammer. He filtered his own life. The thing people said about him was that he was a storyteller. He wanted people to think a certain way of him. That to me is less devious and more misguided and heartbreaking. I don’t get mad at Andrew — my heart breaks for him. The enormous potential that someone so creative and charismatic put his energies in a totally misguided place: that’s the stuff that really interests me.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.