'Versace': Darren Criss Opens Up About the Revealing "Don't Ask Don't Tell" Episode

"At this point in the series you haven't seen a lot from the Versaces, and so it's nice to be juxtaposing someone like Jeff's coming-out story against Gianni coming out with 'The Advocate,'" Criss tells THR.
Courtesy of FX

[This story contains spoilers from episode five of FX's The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.]

Before the midpoint of FX's The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, the narrative of serial killer Andrew Cunanan's life had been told in reverse chronological order, devoting episodes to each of the murderer's victims. But the fifth episode, titled "Don't Ask Don't Tell," lives up to the promise creator Ryan Murphy made to shed a light on institutionalized homophobia in the 1990s, juxtaposing the coming-out stories of two of Cunanan's victims with the moment the killer unravels.

Darren Criss, who plays Cunanan, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the pivotal episode, and how it helps fuse the past few episodes of the series — which have focused on Cunanan's victims Lee Miglin, David Madson, Jeffrey Trail and William Reese — back with the titular fashion designer. "Don't Ask Don't Tell" follows the struggle of military man Jeff Trail to come to terms with his sexuality while Versace toys with the idea of publicly revealing his own relationship status. Their two very different experiences — one leading to Trail's discharge from the service and the other leading to a high-profile piece in a national magazine — are both in conflict with Cunanan's spiral about his identity and self-worth.

"At this point in the series, you haven't seen a lot from the Versaces, and so it's nice to be juxtaposing someone like Jeff's coming-out story against Gianni coming out with The Advocate," Criss tells THR. "Two different worlds are trying to face the same obstacles and being met with very different resistance is really interesting because you can see this very harrowing world that Jeff is in constant conflict with versus this very ... glamorous side of the coin, which would be Gianni's side. There's a real heroism to both."

Below, Criss discusses the series' unique structure, building Cunanan's backstory and the lack of Versace in the series.

It's interesting to see Andrew there for Jeff when he needs help accepting his identity as a gay man, but Andrew's entire trip to Minneapolis to see David and Jeff is a cry for help and he won't accept any from either of them.

Andrew has this savior complex, which is why I think he really thrived so much in a place as complex as San Diego in the '90s because you have a vibrant gay scene right on top of the vibrant military town. So it's sort of built-in conflict within a lot of young men who Andrew meets. Andrew stands for everything that these men would find attractive — not in a sexual sense but in a personality and joie de vivre sense, the guy that is now offering refuge and a place to celebrate what would otherwise be a source of conflict for them. It was a feeding ground for someone like Andrew to feel needed in a really fulfilling way.

[Andrew] has many tragedies, but one of his biggest tragedies is that I think he needs to be the purveyor of everything. He needs to be in control. He has to be the one that is buying the drinks, throwing the parties, introducing people. He needs to be the one that is giving the help, and as a result I think his output is so high that nothing goes in. And so his own help system, as far as gaining help, is manifested by only being able to help others. He just gives himself away to so many people to the point where he can sort of cover up his own shortcomings by being this constant giver.

Finding somebody like Jeff is sort of the gold mine Andrew gravitated toward. Even though he was really helping out Jeff — and he really does in a very earnest, beautiful way, I think — Jeff was also unconsciously there to help Andrew, just to give him some kind of purpose because he needed to feel love. So their meeting was very tragic.

Watching this episode from the perspective of someone who might not have really understood the nuances of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" military policy at the time, what can you say about how the episode might have enlightened you?

Even if you are of an age where this is something that you were aware of, unless you were gay and in the military at the time, I feel like there's no way you'd have the same insight or experience as somebody like Jeff or his peers. You really can't have a shot at working with what that actually means on a day-to-day basis. It's a continuing question and struggle for our brothers and sisters in arms and people who serve our country. I think maybe hearing the specifics of Jeff's particular story hopefully will make this more accessible to people and seem a little more real, and seeing the real struggle that it presents for a lot of young men and women.

Although the story is being told in reverse, the first four episodes have a very clear structure. This episode played with time a bit differently — what was filming it like?

Luckily and very thankfully, to the credit of Dan Minahan, who directed both four and five, we did something that I hadn't done in a very long time, and it's something that actors really thirst for — we had a table reading. We actually read through both episodes in chronological order, and we shot in chronological order as much as possible, those two episodes together, which is really an absurd luxury. I was thrilled that they took the diligence to really try and execute this in a more linear way. So, in that sense, it made these very much a two-parter. I watched two episodes together, so I actually would be curious to see how people experience it, having had a week or so in between. It's a really interesting structure. Some people seem to take to it, others really don't like it because there's less of, I guess, a payoff — or it's an inverse payoff, because you already made your decisions about the person.

Shooting out of sequence, to me, just means I get to have this kind of CSI map emotional trajectory on my wall and I have to kind of play emotion Tetris as far as what fits where, in order to get what yields this to get this. And how does point A have to connect to point B? I'm still curious because I still haven't seen the very last episode. To me, that's where it all comes together again.

In the next three episodes that you have seen, what did you learn about Andrew and what are you looking forward to audiences learning about him?

I was always interested in Andrew's life as a teenager because it's always easier to identify with a young person that has so much more time to go. I think, inevitably, when you know somebody has done something as terrible as Andrew did, you connect every moment of their life to those actions. Any little thing he did in high school, "Well that's, you know..." Now you look at it differently because you know that they've committed murder. It's interesting in looking at a really gifted, young, talented kid and just really exploring how fun and charming he was. A lot of the grim atmosphere that he was breathing in towards the latter part of his life, I really, really wanted to make sure that we couldn't connect that dot to the dots of his youth.

We shot a lot of stuff that I thought was really fun and showed just an honest-to-goodness, lovable teenager. I don't know if that all made it into the show, but I remember those scenes and I really enjoyed being able to paint those colors of Andrew. I had to wait the entire shoot to be able to finally show these more affable colors. Earlier in the season, where we know what he's done, there's sinister undertones of even his happier moments because we're closer to the famous murders. We can't help but question everything he's doing. I couldn't wait to get him as a teenager because I really wanted to confuse people's senses of who and what you're rooting for.

That was the first chance to really embrace the best parts of someone's life.... You may have not liked him, but you couldn't say that he wasn't the life of the party. [A high school classmate of Cunanan's told Criss], "I just want you to know that Andrew was such a good friend. We really loved him. He was so much fun and he was just someone you could count on." She said it with such — it was so heartbreaking to hear because you could tell the tone was totally mortified when she read the news 10, 15 years after the fact.

That's the person that I was really hoping to create and that's what makes this structure interesting. It's like Merrily We Roll Along. You start with them at their worst, and how do you feel about them when you see them at their best? It's pretty divisive. It's either going to make you really mad, or its just going break your heart that there was such a loss of potential there. The memorable parts for me was just showing a kid that's just trying to figure out his life like every other kid.

The end of this "Don't Ask Don't Tell" episode saw Andrew and Jeff fighting about honor, which really seemed to be what set Andrew off on his killing spree.

I was speaking earlier about the metaphorical mapping out of Andrew, and as far as the big red circles, with the red pins on 'em, that moment is a huge one. That comes back to a question a lot of people have who don't know the story and this case very well: "What happened between San Diego and Minneapolis? What triggered Andrew to go AWOL? What happened between the two of them? They were inseparable." Something must've happened between them for him to go to Minneapolis and carry out this action that you can't help but assume is planned.

That's a big question mark for a lot of people. We will never know what happened, and our show could never dare to say that this is truth by any means. But for our storytelling sake, it's not necessarily about what really happened so much as it's about the emotional arcs that had to have happened in order for these things to take place. So in our case, we have this scene where there is a cathartic laying of cards on the table, where the ethos of both characters is kind of put on the line. You have, basically, Jeff calling Andrew out. Not too dissimilar from what had happened in the last episode, where the thing that set Andrew off on David was [David] finally calling [Andrew] out for what he was and basically making Andrew live inside a world that is real and therefore not very pretty.

Any time Andrew is forced to be exposed to the real world around him or the truth, it's a very unpleasant thing for him. So that set him off in the last episode, and ultimately ended with a fight in the car and very rageful homicide. That was the second of the murders. So the first one — "no one wants your love" is the line that Jeff says. And that's enough to turn a cog in Andrew's brain. To hear that from the one person that he's given everything to, you can't help but feel bad for the guy, even though hopefully most people wouldn't do what he did.

He's giving so much of himself to people that they now have to feel beholden to holding him up. And so it's sort of emotional hostage — you're now feeling entitled to someone's life because you've given them something that they didn't ever really ask for. That's a pretty big awakening point, for Jeff to realize that this guy is unconsciously using him. And he calls that out, the truth that Andrew's not ready or emotionally prepared to hear or deal with. And if he can't have something, he has to take it and he has to destroy it.

He couldn't have Jeff; he couldn't have David; so he had to literally take it. He couldn't have Versace's fame, success, everything, so he tried to take it. Even to take someone's car. So when Andrew is deprived something, the ultimate way to really take it back and be in control is to be more powerful, and to be the controller of that person's life.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.