'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Darren Criss ('The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story')

Emmy-nominated for both Ryan Murphy's 'Glee,' in 2015, and now for an FX limited series in which he played serial killer Andrew Cunanan, the Filipino-American discusses "passing" as white, pre-'Glee' life (he made a living playing piano at Maggiano's) and the tricky terrain of being a straight actor who has made his name playing LGBTQ parts.
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Darren Criss

"I can only join Ryan Murphy shows if they've had a successful, Emmy-winning first season," cracks Darren Criss, the 31-year-old actor, singer and songwriter who burst onto the television scene during the second season of Murphy's Fox musical-dramedy Glee and is now poised to win an Emmy, for best actor in a limited series or a TV movie, for the second season of Murphy's FX limited season American Crime Story, subtitled The Assassination of Gianni Versace.

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 12:36], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Lacey Rose, THR's executive editor of TV coverage, about Jim Carrey's upcoming return to the spotlight in the Showtime series Kidding.

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Criss, who is Filipino-American, was born and raised in the Bay Area. He says that his biracial heritage is "one of my favorite things about myself," but he also noted that he has spent his life "passing" as white. He has previously been quoted as saying that he considers himself "lucky" to not appear to be Asian, but wanted to clarify the intention of his remarks during our conversation. "There are so many men and women that have faced a significant amount of obstacles — professionally or personally, perhaps — that they've had to get over in order to stake a claim in certain areas of life," he says. "So for me to say that I have also felt those, and I have faced these hardships, is a fucking lie, and is disrespectful to those people and unfair ... capitalizing on someone else's struggle that I really didn't have to go through by way of the way that I look. And in that regard, I have been 'lucky.'"

Criss' interest in acting dates back at least to the age of 7, when he rang up the father of a classmate, the actor Peter Coyote, seeking advice about entering the profession. Coyote encouraged him to study with the Young Conservatory at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, and his parents enrolled him in that afterschool program until he went off to college years later. He also joined a musical troupe and studied the violin — all on top of his regular classes — and, by the time he headed off to the University of Michigan, he recalls, "I was 'the music guy.'" While in Ann Arbor, Criss was always acting in or directing some production; a musical sendup of Harry Potter in which he starred that was made by a troupe he started went viral not long after his graduation in 2009, bringing him a degree of underground fame.

Before that, during his senior year in Ann Arbor, Criss took a trip to Los Angeles, during which a fellow Wolverine helped him to land an agent, who, in turn, secured for him an audition for the still-forthcoming Glee. That audition didn't pan out, but Criss still moved to Los Angeles after graduating, and went out again for Glee, again coming up short. All the while, he was collaborating remotely with the troupe behind the Harry Potter project on similar web content under the banner StarKid Productions — and some of their music output even broke into the Billboard charts. "We were kind of moonlighting as these subcultural superstars on our computers," he reminisces, "but during the day we were struggling actors going out on auditions for commercials, we were working at restaurants and bars, I was working at Maggiano's in Los Angeles playing the piano."

Then, just as he was preparing to relocate to Chicago with the rest of the StarKid troupe and complete its third production, he was offered a third audition for Glee, and this time he landed the part of Blaine, who would serve as a love interest of Chris Colfer's Kurt. "I really owe my tenure on that show to these StarKid fans," Criss insists. "It was just supposed to be a little guest character, and they ended up keeping me on that show for six years." Catapulted by his rendition of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" on his first episode with the show, which reached No. 8 on the Billboard charts, Criss quickly became a fan favorite. "It was an amazing boot camp," he says of the show, which required singing and dancing and tons of rehearsal to do both, but, he insists, "I had an absolute blast. ... I truly had the greatest time." (Criss, with his musical composition background, also did some composing for the show, landing a songwriting Emmy nomination in 2015.)

Glee ended in the spring of 2015, and it wasn't long after that when Murphy first broached the idea of his playing serial killer Andrew Cunanan, another Filipino-American, on the second season of American Crime Story. (The first, which was being made at the time, was The People v. O.J. Simpson, and it became a critical, ratings and awards phenomenon.) Murphy has described Criss as his "first and only choice" for the part, which would subvert Criss' genial screen persona, catching audience members who knew him from Glee off guard. Criss enthusiastically signed on, and embarked on an eight-month shoot, most of it in and around Miami in the same places where Cunanan himself had once traveled — or, in the case of the Versace mansion itself (now a hotel), tried to. The goal of everyone on the production was to humanize, but never to glamorize, Cunanan. As for the challenges and rewards of playing him? "Andrew was an actor himself," Criss asserts. "He played several different parts in the course of his life with different people to varying degrees. And that was really fun for me as an actor."

As Criss looks ahead to a future with more possibilities than ever before, thanks to the acclaim with which his Versace performance was greeted, he has been forced to ponder a question that much of the industry is currently weighing. Should heterosexual actors play LGBTQ characters, as he did in Glee, as a replacement in a Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and, of course, in Versace? "It is tricky," he admits. "Look, cisgender straight male playing these gay characters — that hasn't been a conscious, 'Oh, I must only play gay characters.' That's been just an honest-to-God coincidence. They're such different people that their homosexuality is sort of the least of the things that make them interesting; it's certainly part of their story, but not the central part of their narrative. But I do think about that now, you know, if roles come by that are LGBT-leaning, you know, I go, 'Gosh, guys [addressing his reps], I really think it would be insensitive to the gay community if I was to take another role. I think they'd have my head, you know? And I would totally understand that.' So I'm totally cognizant of that."