Film

Darren Criss on fantasy, fame and the future

In a brilliant moment of serendipity, Darren Criss discovered he had been Emmy-nominated as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for The Assassination of Gianni Versace at an airport branch of Planet Hollywood. “We were sitting there looking at the most Hollywood thing we could. That just tickled me to no end,” regales the former Glee star, who played Kurt Hummel’s love interest, Blaine Anderson, in the musical comedy television show.

At the time, Darren was on his way to a gig in Aspen, Colorado. “The Emmy nominations were coming out at 8.30am and the flight was leaving at 9.45am and we – me, my fiancée, my manager, publicist, basically the work family – all wanted to go and watch it together, somewhere I would be close enough so that when it was announced I could run over to the gate.”

The punchline came while sitting there waiting for the nominations to be revealed: his Glee version of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” also started to play on the speakers. Looking around to see if perhaps one of the servers had clocked him and was being “cute”, because it was quite a bizarre coincidence, he realised that nope, “this is 8.30am in the international terminal and nobody gives a shit about my version of ‘Teenage Dream’,” he laughs. “But we just couldn’t fucking believe it, like what a crazy auspicious moment! But it was a nice little story.”

By now, it’s one that will have its ending fully wrapped up: the Emmys took place on September 17 in LA, which is where Darren is now on the other end of the phone. For context, it’s one of those intensely hot end-of-July days that everyone in London is complaining about. For Darren it’s a day of playing “Mr Octopus” as he puts it. “Today is insane. When you have ‘free time’, it’s actually more hectic because in the absence of stuff that you’re obligated to do you immediately see everything you’ve neglected a lot more clearly.”

In his perky twang, he gives me “the shorthand” of this: Elsie Fest to organise for autumn, the New York show-tune themed festival he founded; music to work on for Computer Games, the band he started with his brother; marketing for the new piano bar he and his fiancée, Mia Swier, have opened; projects he can’t talk about but is excited about; a wedding to plan “at some point” next year; work on the house; and that general life admin that creeps up on all of us. “Hey, we all got stuff,” he chimes.

And among all of this, he casually slips in: “I’m also reading scripts and trying to get another acting job if I can get one.” Which can’t help but make me laugh. If he can get one? Because, let’s be honest, regardless of the Emmys outcome (a big congratulations if you bagged it and if not, you were robbed!), his portrayal of Andrew Cunanan, as well as a stellar career to date (he replaced Daniel Radcliffe in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on Broadway to great success, is the mind behind A Very Potter Musical and has starred in Hedwig and the Angry Inch), shouldn’t make that too hard. But it’s “cute” – as he would say – to know he doesn’t rest on his laurels.

Darren was terrifying and intriguing in his role as Cunanan, the serial killer who murdered four men before ending his violent spree with fashion designer Gianni Versace in FX’s American Crime Story retelling of the real-life event in Miami in 1997. When it aired earlier this year, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t watching it. If you weren’t binge-streaming it, you were glued to BBC2 desperate for next week’s instalment to watch the unfolding plot of a story that in many ways is little known, certainly on the Cunanan front.

“A lot of it is pretty shrouded in mystery. There are two groups of people who have been particularly aware of the Cunanan story. Filipinos in my life all know someone who knew him,” says Darren, who, hailing from San Francisco, is also half Filipino, as was Cunanan. “And true crime addicts.”

“The story itself, which is endlessly fascinating, is not only interesting but has significant social weight and things to be discussed and topics that I think are important. It goes on and on and on,” he enthuses. “The role is incredibly nuanced and varied and complex, which is something that actors wake up in the morning for.”

Where the first series spotlights The People v. OJ Simpson, a trial that arguably most people in the world – certainly in the US – are familiar with, the Versace murder, while shocking and awful (the designer himself being a significant cultural icon and his death a huge loss to the fashion industry) lent itself to more questions than answers. Which from Darren’s point of view gave him a certain amount of free rein. “You’re not stacked against people’s expectations of an impersonation of somebody. I think that helped audiences; it really gave me and our story a blank slate.”

It’s true. As a viewer, I couldn’t help but find my feelings and point of view change as the narrative revealed Cunanan’s own backstory. “That, to me, is the most heartening thing; that’s the most encouraging thing you could say – that’s the goal.”

His performance has been described as career-defining but it’s not the first time he’s had such an accolade aimed in his direction. Yet you can’t help but think that this one, Emmy nomination aside, might just be the one to carry a little more weight, such was the grit and darkness that came with it and played out by someone we’re more used to associating with the tween spark of Glee.

It seems, therefore, an apt time to ask what his fantasy role would be. “Oh man. I have a pretty wild imagination but I’d like to think that my brain isn’t good enough to imagine the part I’d want,” he says. “And, also, fantasies evolve throughout your life based on whatever situation you find yourself in.” American Crime Story, certainly, he says is the kind of role he’d been working and waiting his whole life to play – which is not to say he dreamt of being a serial killer! “Let’s keep turning left, turning hard rights and hard lefts as much as possible, as long as the story is good. The name of the game for me is variety and versatility. If every time I do a role we have people say that’s a real departure from the last thing that would be awesome.”

Darren got the acting bug – or “storytelling” bug as he prefers to call it – at a young age. He was a child at the heart of the Disney Renaissance era and Robin Williams lived locally in his native San Francisco. One day, when seeing Aladdin at the cinema (“I can’t even tell you how many times I went to go see it,”) and realising that the Genie was voiced by Williams, his eureka moment came.

“You know when you’re a kid and you have dreams of being something and they seem kind of far off from you unless there’s somebody you can see do it?” he offers. “I remember very distinctly watching this Genie bring so much joy to the people around me… and I wanted in on that, I wanted to be the Genie. But once you realise you can’t necessarily do that and I found out the voice of the genie was Robin Williams, I was like that’s the guy, that’s the famous guy that lives in our city! I can do that and so he was really a massive inspiration for me.”

So, too, was Peter Coyote, another San Francisco-based actor, whom Darren in fact cold-called to find out what he should do to be an actor. He subsequently enrolled at the American Conservatory Theater’s Young Conservatory Programme before studying drama at college. A keen violinist, music and acting had always worked in constant tandem. “So that’s why it’s so hilarious to me that by the time I got Glee I’d already been doing this my whole life,” he says.

At the time of the Gianni Versace murder, Darren was 10 years old. “I did [remember it] in a sort of vague sense of pop cultural event. Obviously, Versace is a massive international figure so I was aware that he was murdered.” It wasn’t until much later in 2011, when his Hollywood lifestyle led him to the world of high fashion, that the dots joined.

“We were on tour for Glee and I popped down to Milan to go to this Versace fashion show, which was an amazing event and you’re there with Donatella and there in the house, the estate of the Versace family.” On a tour of it, Darren recalls seeing beautiful home pieces and fashion works. “There were a lot of things from his personal collection and [the steward] of course was saying ‘Well this was made after Gianni’s murder in 1997.’ It codified in my brain. He was taken away a little too early.”

For ACS producer Ryan Murphy, it was Darren who codified in the brain. The Glee co-creator had long had him in mind for the part. “People like Ryan have had their eye on the Cunanan story for a long time and we had worked closely in a few capacities.” Darren just had to play the waiting game. “I honestly said just let me know when you want to do this because obviously it would be a huge opportunity for me and I think it would be an incredible story but I don’t really have the keys for that car, man. You’re the driver, let me know when you want to pick me up!” Three years later and that proverbial beep came.

In real life, Darren has to be one of the most modest and upbeat people, armed with an always-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life attitude. You imagine he’s not all that good at sitting still, hence his potentially self-inflicted to-do list, which you also get the feeling is built from passion not pain. “I just feel so grateful at every turn of my career; if you’re able to do anything and that there’s any definition at all is a huge win so I’ll take it where I can get it,” he says referring to the praise he’s received in playing Cunanan, one he’s also quick to bring back down to earth with a very grounding analogy. “Every moment of your life is defining. The fact that I decided to have granola this morning defines the rest of the way my digestive system works…” he laughs. He has quite the way with words.

This too is helpful in a Hollywood landscape right now that, post-Weinstein and post-Trump, has found itself in troubling times. “What a big, big topic,” he begins. “It’s the Wild West right now, truly, there are so many things that I think it’s not necessarily Hollywood figuring itself out, it’s our whole society figuring it out as represented by Hollywood. It kind of gets the brunt of it because of its exposure and its influence,” he explains. “There are a lot of good things happening in it for people who have been marginalised and we’re setting new standards for ourselves that we should have set a long time ago, and in that sense it’s really good. But there are unfortunately other things that are happening where it’s hard to draw the line of what’s right and wrong and a lot of questions are being asked that we’ve never asked ourselves before about what’s appropriate.”

Social media, too, he thinks plays a significant role, moving faster than we are able to keep up with. “There’s a lot of things that are falling by the wayside as a result of that. I’m making very vague comments but yeah it’s very tricky,” he concludes before diplomatically topic-shifting to his own lack of social media usage. Firstly, because he’s a private person. And secondly, unlike so many people, he does realise the responsibility that comes with publishing a post. “Even when Twitter started and people would post joke-stuff and I would say ‘Woah, woah, that’s out there forever, are you sure? I think you think only I’m seeing this,’.” He says he’s always been uneasy with the idea of this kind of ‘stuff’ existing in perpetuity.

Which means that the answer to the next question requires some serious thought. Who would make for his fantasy dinner party guests? British comedian Eddie Izzard (because Darren is a big Anglophile); if we could roll back time, Sammy Davis Jr, “who the world knows as a great entertainer but he was also an insane dancer and musician”; Nat King Cole for the same reasons; and, his number one choice, Howard Ashman, the lyricist and dramaturge behind the previously mentioned Disney renaissance (aka Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast). “I’ve always admired his craftsmanship and he’s someone I’ve always thought, if I had a dinner, I’d really like to have a chat with. All of my heroes are the people who were hyphenates,” says Darren, which makes sense because he’s just the same. One small suggestion: hold the fantasy dinner party at Planet Hollywood. That would make a nice story.

Follow Darren Criss on Instagram here.

Originally published in HUNGER Magazine issue 15, Fantasy Meets Reality, out now.

23 November 2018