Assassination of Gianni Versace: Matt Bomer on directing that pivotal origin episode
Tonight’s episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story is notable for giving viewers the origin story of Andrew Cunanan’s childhood and family, particularly his abusive father, Modesto (a terrifying Jon Jon Briones). But it also marks the directorial debut of actor Matt Bomer.
The star, who’s worked with executive producer Ryan Murphy previously on Glee, American Horror Story, and The Normal Heart, talked to EW about being assigned this pivotal hour and his future directing hopes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this happen? Did you mention this to Ryan?
MATT BOMER: I’d worked with Ryan obviously multiple times before. He knew I always came in with excessive reams of research and homework and overly fastidious preparation. He mentioned to me that I should direct at some point, and I didn’t think much of it at the time. I think he knew I needed to be creatively re-inspired and reinvigorated. He called me in December and said, “Hey, I want you to direct!” I was thinking maybe it will be American Horror Story: Cult. When he said, “I want you to direct on Versace,” I promptly fell out, passed out, and when I regained consciousness I was not sane enough to say no, I said yes. It was really the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.
It was like a four-and-a-half-month process for me. I read over 3,000 pages of books on directing. I did an intensive at the DGA. I shadowed two of the directors on the show and met with every film and episodic director friend of mine I could to just be a sponge. I met with editors. I knew the level of work that was going to be going on, and I wanted to be able to come and really be able to play on that level.
Did you get to pick your episode?
No, I was shadowing and kind of waiting in the wings. There was a time when it was going to be maybe the Miglin episode, and then there was a time it was going to be the episode that aired this week. I’m grateful I got the episode I did. It’s such a psychological episode, and we wanted to do it in a Sidney Lumet-esque style. There are some fancy camera moves in it, but it’s really mostly about these relationships and these character dynamics. And this great central question of what makes one person a creator and one person a killer? The answer being hard work. Andrew is someone who’s been told by his family that he’s special and exceptional, and you’d think he’d be the one to rise and succeed. Gianni is being bullied in school and has a loving mother who says you have to work to make your dreams come true. Her work ethic that she instilled in him, plus his art, is really what created the label of Versace.
You played Darren Criss’ brother on Glee. How was it working with him in this regard?
I knew Darren was a tremendous artist and had lots of stories inside of him. I was lucky enough to be in the front row, eating popcorn, watching this performance from very early on. I was watching this performance really since they got to L.A. From the first frame I saw him, I was like, “Whoa. This guy has tapped into something that is electric and spontaneous.” There are moments where Darren is so good, he can be silly and then they’re calling “rolling” and he’s right there. I would look at his face and it was like he had been possessed by this soul. It was really creepy to see and amazing to watch and inspiring.
It’s not a traditional narrative structure. It must have been hard to tell this story backwards.
I had been on set and so immersed in the story for so long that it wasn’t something I had to put a ton of thought into just because I was so entrenched in the story already. I was lucky to get this episode because it’s almost a standalone. So much of this was can we get the audience to sympathize with a monster and understand that he was this child who was inured to violence very early. He had this snake oil salesman of a father who was teaching him that it’s not enough to be smart, you have to fit in. You’re special! Here’s the master bedroom. He basically had this family hostage emotionally, physically, sexually. So we got to watch that all play out on him and then meet him when he’s in high school.
I wanted it all to build up to that great Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now kind of confrontation that they have at the very end. That was kind of our inspiration for that. We wanted to have that final confrontation where you got the feeling if he just lashed out at his dad or punched him or killed him, he wouldn’t have killed anybody else. But because of that moment he turned inward, it later gets expressed outward for other people. We’re all responsible for the choices we make and the actions we take, but Andrew was a victim. We wanted the people to say, “Can I on some level sympathize with a monster?”
Was that in Maureen Orth’s book, that Andrew went to Manila to see his dad?
He did go to Manila and he did see his father one last time. Some of the dialogue and circumstances are imagined, but that’s what makes [Versace writer] Tom Rob Smith so brilliant, and they had all kinds of research going on outside the novel.
Jon Jon Briones as Modesto Cunanan is incredible. Did you have input in casting him?
Yes, it’s owed to a lot of people. I had been asked to direct before on things I was acting in, but I didn’t want that half-assed first experience directing. I wanted the whole experience. I wanted to be in every casting session I could. I wanted to be on location scouts, design meetings. It’s a real testament to Ryan Murphy, but Jon Jon had been brought to my intention very early on by Darren and Tom Rob Smith, who had both seen him in as the Engineer on Broadway in Miss Saigon. So I immediately reached out to Ryan and the producers and said, “We have to make sure we get this guy on tape.” He gave a kick-ass audition. This is a guy who has been doing mostly Miss Saigon for mostly the last 20-something years, but who was ready for this opportunity. Ryan is willing to take risks on people in order to serve the story. He’s done it for me in the past. This was that moment. My favorite part of this experience was getting to work with Jon Jon and getting to see somebody rise to the occasion.
In lesser hands, that performance would be broad and not so gray. But it’s so shaded.
I saw him as Willy Loman. This is somebody who comes from the rural Philippines and has to pull himself up by the bootstraps. He really had to make his own way. It’s that middle-class thing of you work and work to make to that higher class. What do you sacrifice in the process in terms of your morals and your ethics? It’s a very American, human, relatable story.
Where did Darren’s dance come from at the high school party? Was that improvised?
It was largely improvised. They also had a dance instructor there. We were so excited about that moment and that reveal. It was Ryan’s idea to have “Whip It,” which is such a specific beat and not the easiest thing to dance to. Darren just had a ball with it. In my original cut, it ended with him and Annaleigh Ashford on the dance floor and her falling into a full split.
We shot three different endings to this episode, and one of them was the two of them. But one of my favorite scenes to shoot was them by that fire, and you see that fire of their initial romance and coming together.
What do you want people to take away from your episode?
I think we discover in this episode that Andrew was also a victim. Like I said, we’re responsible for the choices we make and the actions we take. But he at one point was an impressionable, open child who was inured to violence at a young age, and messaging that’s not healthy for anyone to have. The things his father says to him and does to him both as a child and when he’s older that he internalizes were a big part of getting the full, holistic picture of who he was by the time we’re in the final episode with him in Miami.
Will we see more “Directed by Matt Bomer” credits?
I would love that! I had such a great time doing it. I was also really blessed because when you’re working with Ryan Murphy, you have the best people in the business around you. I know that I’m going to get to another job at some point and it’s going to be like the Real Deal Holyfield and it’s not all my friends that I’m working with. But I just loved it. It was a huge episode. The first cut was 90 minutes long. I think half the battle is just knowing, oh my gosh, I can do this. I can be given this massive script and do it on time and get it done. Hopefully there will be more stuff, but it’s got to be something that moves me.
Tell me about doing The Boys in the Band on Broadway!
We start rehearsals on Good Friday. I’m so excited. Just to get to share the stage with those guys and work with Joe Mantello as a director and watch and learn. So much of my understanding of our history starts with Larry Kramer and Torch Song Trilogy. To go back another generation and understand what pre-Stonewall life was like and the fact that these guys are all cooped up in this house together because if they’re dancing in public they’ll be arrested! The stakes are so high! Society has told them that they are “other,” “less than,” and “shameful.” So there are all these misdirected emotions coming at each other in different ways, and what they really want to say is “I love you” and “We’re the same!”