Darren Criss on Getting Inside a Murderer's Mind for 'Versace': "I Embrace Darkness"

THR-Darren Criss-Photographed by Koury Angelo- H 2018
Koury Angelo

The 'Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story' star dissects his character's fall from grace, talks leading a show for the first time and finally being a part of the A-Team.

At first glance, the FX series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story appears to be a narration of the tragic murder of an acclaimed fashion visionary — but beneath the surface, the series dives into the manipulative world of murderer Andrew Cunanan, who is notoriously remembered for killing not only Versace but four others in the spring and summer of 1997.

Helmed by executive producer Ryan Murphy, the nine-part series journeys through the trials and tribulations of Cunanan, portrayed as a once-promising young man whose conflicted feelings about his sexuality and infatuation with the unattainable wealth he saw all around him drove him over the edge. Though taking on the dark role was no easy feat, Darren Criss embraced its complexities and earned an Emmy in September for his efforts.

Criss, 31, spoke to THR about exploring the downward spiral of his character, what it's like joining the elite class of Emmy winners and how social media might have changed the trajectory of a man like Cunanan.

You’re not only coming off of a successful run with American Crime Story but you are now an Emmy winner. How does it feel?

Gosh, there’s too many adjectives! It’s exciting. It’s humbling. I think like most things in my life, I’m constantly aware of the fact that this stuff is very fleeting, which is kind of a twisted way to look at it. It helps you enjoy it more, but it also makes you dread it more. It’s this constant battle of always being so appreciative of what you have as a result of you knowing that it’s not always like this. But maybe my posture is a little taller. If anything less favorable happened to me in the last couple of weeks, I just have to sit there and say, "It’s OK! I have an Emmy!" It’s a nice reminder. I’m very pleased it happened for something I’m really proud of and had such a wonderful experience doing. It would be difficult if it were a negative experience or felt something like a false accomplishment. It doesn’t. I think all the boxes are ticked to make it a very positive thing. I just have to remember that that particular acknowledgment is for one particular thing in an isolated world. It’s not to do with everything else in your life. It doesn’t mean that you excel in any other field or any other job for that matter. It was an extraordinary feeling. It’s much bigger than myself and I feel so incredibly honored.

Apart from winning an Emmy, what would you say was the highlight of that night for you?

The most exciting bit was when it was over. (Laughs.) Not the show, but the anticipation of waiting on your category is agonizing. I think the most nerve-wracking thing is not that you are going to get an award or not. That's actually secondary to the primary source of nerves, which is: Do I have to go up and speak in front of millions of people? For me, being a stickler for public speaking, I really beat myself up about being concise and compelling. Getting to walk backstage and just breathe out was a relief.

Now for ACS, you were able to work with Ryan Murphy once again. In your time of working with him on this show and in Glee, what would you say has been the most you’ve learned from him whether personally or regarding your craft as an actor?

Well, this is the first time we got to work together in a real creative capacity because he’d been the boss when I was on Glee, but by the time I had joined the show, he had kind of moved on to a lot of other things and wasn’t around very much. I knew him as a colleague and [he] certainly became a friend, and I always appreciated his belief in me, but I never got to kind of get in the sandbox and really get our hands dirty. For years and years, I had known him as this prolific creator but I’ve never seen it first-hand. So I guess by the time we got to working on the [ACS] pilot, it was so fun because I finally got to connect this person people said has this gift and the showman that I knew. He did something that I was very pleased about — and I’m very careful with this because I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all me because it certainly is not — but I was very thrilled with how much Ryan got to let me do my own thing, which I think has a lot to do with the trust that he had in me. He puts a great deal of trust in people, and having Ryan’s trust is one of the most invaluable gifts of my career. I wouldn’t have trusted me as much as Ryan did.

In the show, you’re part of a very accomplished cast including Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez and Ricky Martin. Having a talented supporting cast, did that make it easier for you to take on leading the story or did you feel pressured to live up to a certain set standard?

I think what a lot of people look at as obstacles, I look at like a nitro tanks to throw in the car. It emboldens me. That invigorates my whole wanting to work. Getting to do anything with them [Ramirez, Cruz, Martin], I guess it’s the younger brother in me, [who] just has this constant desire to want to impress my older siblings. If you’re going to put me on a team with the A-Team, I want the A-Team to know that I can hang. I want to make a good impression and I want to show them that I want to be worthy of their gifts and their time and their efforts. It means a lot to me to be able to rise to whatever occasion they set.

Were you ever fearful of taking on the challenge of portraying such a dark character, or was that the challenge you've been looking for?

Look at it this way: The human experience is made up of an infinite amount of colors, right? If, as an actor, I'm a painter with a palette of infinite colors with my brush, the things that are going to interest me most are the canvases where I can use as many colors as humanly possible. If you have somebody that requires every shade of every color, that's so fun that you get to really explore and dig into as many of the colors as possible — some bright and beautiful and exciting. I'm well aware that the Shakespearean level of this real person is someone we don't get to come by very often. I have no idea — not like I'd ever want to match it per se — but I find it difficult to think of another role that would call upon as much as this one did.

While portraying Andrew, what was a realization you had that changed your perspective on who he was?

People come up to me all the time who grew up with Andrew or went to school with him or knew him … and have things to say about Andrew, and the majority of them are quite endearing. So one has to wonder, what happened there? I mean obviously this person went down a very deep, dark path, and now that’s what he’s famous for. And by no means, just because he was lovely at certain points in his life, [that] doesn’t exonerate or forgive the deplorable things that he’s known for. It’s a nice little mindfuck that I enjoy as an actor and as a storyteller. I like to bend people’s capacity for sympathy and empathy. I’m not asking them to forgive, but I do like people’s minds sort of questioning their own sense of at what point could this have been me? At what point could this have been somebody that I love? At what point do I try to rationalize this in a much more accessible place than this sort of black-and-white villain? People always ask me is if it's hard to live with a dark character and I say it's no more difficult than living with the darkness in our world. I'm a happy-go-lucky person and I think that it's because I embrace so much darkness and I embrace skepticism and negativity, and I've made my peace with it so I can be happy. In the same way that you can really embrace the dark, scary things about ourselves and with things about people like Andrew … you're well aware of the fact that there is also light within this person and potential. I think if we just painted a negative and scary version of Andrew the entire time, it would've not only been unbearable as an actor, but it would've been uninteresting.

When watching the show, at times your heart almost breaks for him.

Yeah, that’s what I always say! It’s just so, so, so sad. I don’t really get creeped out. The tragedy of Andrew Cunanan is obviously the lives he took and the destruction that he brought — that is the obvious tragedy — but he is such a tragedy in himself, the loss of himself and this Shakespearean fall from grace that has always been present in some of the great dramas of our time.

Andrew was obsessed with fame, which makes you wonder how his life would have panned out if it were to happen in this current age of social media.

I think about that all the time. I wonder how he would've functioned with social media. I think a lot of the things he got away with were a result [of the fact] that we couldn't track him. But now, if he kept up to date on social media, it'd be really hard to weave these different personalities. But on the other side of that coin, it also would be really easy to fabricate a whole existence, which a lot of people do. We have catfishing [and] even in small phases — a little face tuning, a filter. He was his own X-Pro II filter. He filtered his own life with surgical precision. I wonder if he would've found a different outlet through social media. I think it would've been a completely different setup. The pressure cooker would've been on much cooler.

After playing Andrew, what would you say were the biggest lessons you learned as an actor?

I guess this is one of the first times I got to lead a show. It’s the first time I ever had to be the quarterback, so to speak. It was a role that suited me well, not because I need to be in charge, but because I enjoy bringing people together. That’s something that I think is an all-pervasive theme in my life. Being in a position where I could set that tone with my fellow crew and production team, I enjoyed doing that. I think what I learned the most from my fellow actors is that everyone has a different process when they’re acting and there’s no certain rulebook. I always admire seeing how people get to wherever we’re supposed to get [and] where we’re supposed to land.

What's next for you?

The thing that started my career was writing musicals. That still remains one of my favorite things to do, so I'm really excited about trying to get back into that and we'll see what acting opportunities come my way. But I can't get arrested in this town. I mean, the last audition that I booked was Glee. I keep auditioning and nothing's doing it, so hopefully I can book one one of these days and have a job lined up. (Laughs.)

A version of this story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.