Glee's Darren Criss goes dark as Versace's killer

Darren Criss relished his role in The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, a nine-episode series.
Darren Criss relished his role in The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, a nine-episode series.PHOTO: NYTIMES

MIAMI BEACH (Florida) • At 6.30 in the morning, actor Darren Criss was bright-eyed and perky as he bounded out of his South Beach hotel and into a black car.

It was the last day of shooting for The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, producer Ryan Murphy's nine-episode follow-up to The People V. O.J. Simpson.

Criss plays the assassin and, the night before, he had been up late shooting a manhunt scene that blocked off a stretch of Collins Avenue, to the chagrin of nightclubbers and Uber drivers.

"That was a very cool rock-star moment," Criss said in the car, wearing a ball cap and jeans. He flashed an easy-going grin, the kind that endeared him to legions of young fans of Glee, on which he played Blaine Anderson, the preppy, harmonising love interest of Chris Colfer's Kurt Hummel.

His new role on American Crime Story (which will have its premiere on FX on Thursday at 10pm in Singapore) could not be less gleeful: Andrew Cunanan, the gay gigolo-turned-serial killer who shot designer Versace in 1997 after killing four other men.

Criss, 30, leaned over and pointed out the window.

"See that?" he said. "That's the houseboat, perfectly recreated."

In Indian Creek, the crew had built a replica of Cunanan's final hideout, where he met his demise after a frenzied eight-day manhunt. The series makes use of several real locations in Miami Beach, most notably the Versace mansion, the site of the murder, now a boutique hotel.

As the car turned into a parking lot full of trailers, Criss was all smiles, doling out greetings of "Hey, man!" and "Happy last day!"

Even pre-caffeine, he was relentlessly chipper, which seems antithetical to playing a murderer. Or maybe not. Charm was Cunanan's calling card, masking a desperate need for acceptance that curdled into pathology. And Criss' exuberance on set, he said later, was a way of putting the crew at ease.

"This is the first time I've been No. 1 on the call sheet, so you're kind of the quarterback," he said. "You set a tone. I take my work very seriously, but I don't take myself seriously at all."

It was that chiaroscuro quality that caught the attention of Murphy, who, as a co-creator of Glee, gave Criss his breakout role.

"Darren was seen by people as being a comedic actor, a Broadway musical star and a sensation: Mr Charisma," Murphy said.

"I just knew he had the ability to go dark."

Murphy has a knack for matching actors with career-changing roles, notably Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark in The People V. O.J. Simpson.

The new series features Edgar Ramirez as Versace, Ricky Martin as his lover Antonio D'Amico and Penelope Cruz as his sister Donatella. (Last week, the Versace family released two statements calling the series - based on writer Maureen Orth's book about Cunanan, Vulgar Favours - an unauthorised "work of fiction".)

But Criss was the linchpin. "He was my first and only choice," Murphy said. "I truly wouldn't have made it without him. I don't know any other actor who would have been correct."

Given Criss' squeaky-clean image, the casting seems wildly against type. But Criss and Cunanan had some unlikely similarities, beginning with an uncanny physical resemblance. Both are half-Filipino California natives and "we both revel in being different", Criss said.

As a teenager, he wore vintage bell-bottoms to high school, while the young Cunanan put dimes in his penny loafers for "that extra bit of flair".

But while Criss channelled his charisma into singing and dancing, Cunanan faked his way into high society, lashing out when he did not get his way.

By contrast, fame came easily to Criss. Even before Glee, he had garnered a following from his role in a satirical Harry Potter musical, which he put on with his post-collegiate theatre company in Michigan. A YouTube version, with Criss as the boy wizard, went viral.

His early introduction to gay culture helped prepare him for a career in which his best-known roles and a good chunk of his fan base are gay, although Criss himself is straight. (His long-time girlfriend is Mia Swier, a television director and producer.)

Murphy first floated the idea of the Versace project three years ago, when Criss was in New Orleans while Murphy was there shooting the pilot for Scream Queens.

Hearing the name Andrew Cunanan, Criss responded: "Oh, that's right! The half-Filipino guy!"

In the make-up trailer, a stylist painted a meth scab on Criss' leg and everyone got in a van. The morning's agenda: a fictionalised scene in which the increasingly desperate Cunanan tries to swim his way to safety, but quickly turns back. The van stopped near a jetty at the northern tip of Bal Harbour, with the Ritz-Carlton looming in the background.

"This is going to be rad," Criss said, barely containing his enthusiasm.

The waves were crashing hard against the concrete. As the crew shot the scene at the end of the jetty, it was decided that the water was too choppy for Criss to actually get in, lest they lose their star to the sea.

Still, by the end of the take, he was drenched from ocean sprays, stripped down to soaking white boxer shorts.

"That was insane," he shouted while he walked back, as someone swathed him in a white robe.

He smiled into the sun and took stock of his luck. "Just a day at the office. Who gets to do this?"


• The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story premieres on FX (StarHub TV Channel 507 and Singtel TV Channel 310) on Thursday at 10pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'Glee's Darren Criss goes dark as Versace's killer'. Subscribe