Magazine article Newsweek

'American Crime Story' Star Darren Criss on Serial Killers and Queer Narratives; the Former 'Glee' Star Takes on a Much Darker Role for 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace.'

Magazine article Newsweek

'American Crime Story' Star Darren Criss on Serial Killers and Queer Narratives; the Former 'Glee' Star Takes on a Much Darker Role for 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace.'

Article excerpt

Byline: Anna Menta

The title for the second season of Ryan Murphy's true crime anthology series, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, is misleading. Yes, it concerns the murder of the famous Italian designer, but it is about the man who killed him, the serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Versace was the last of his five victims, before Cunanan killed himself.

Murphy's first American Crime Story, which premiered in February 2016, was a critically acclaimed no-brainer for American audiences: The People v. O.J. Simpson focused on America's most infamous modern crime. Gianni Versace's murder, which happened in 1997, was shocking at the time and is now mostly forgotten. The luxury label Versace has been run by his sister, Donatella, for so long, a generation of fashionistas think it was she, rather than her older brother, who started it. And Cunanan? Even in a country fixated on serial killers, his name rarely comes up.

But it certainly makes sense for Murphy and his producing partner Brad Falchuk to take on this tale. The duo's resume of shows--Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story, Feud--are stories of excess, envy, greed and revenge; Versace lived a fabulously extravagant lifestyle in Miami, and his luxurious clothing and ad campaigns were created to titillate. Murphy's casting hallmarks are well represented too; there are offbeat choices (Ricky Martin plays Versace's boyfriend), A-list movie stars slumming it on TV (Penelope Cruz plays Donatella) and a plum part for a regular--in this case, Darren Criss as Cunanan.

On Glee, Murphy's hit musical comedy, Criss played happy, confident high school student Blaine Anderson, the openly gay leader of the Dalton Academy Warblers. Cunanan is a tonal about-face. But because of some superficial similarities between Criss and his character--both half-Filipino and California-raised--Criss told Murphy, "I defy you to find somebody else."

Murphy didn't need persuading. He'd seen Criss on Broadway, in the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, playing a tortured, genderqueer German rocker--a notoriously taxing role. "I just felt there was an untapped, dramatically darker side of him," says Murphy. "He was hungry and anxious to push forward. When Glee ended, that was graduation day for [American Crime Story]. I always thought he was the only one for Cunanan."

The serial killer will certainly put a creepier spin on the 30-year-old performer's career, which began with A Very Potter Musical, a 2009 parody of J.K. Rowling's universe. Criss co-wrote and starred in it with University of Michigan theater friends, and it quickly went viral. "I don't think I'm being delusional when I say that was the genesis of my career," says Criss. "It brings a huge smile to my face when people approach me about that."

Glee took a viral fan base and quadrupled it. The TV show's fastest-selling single was Criss's version of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream," and he was nominated for a 2015 Emmy for writing the song "This Time" for the show's finale. Last March, he debuted his indie rock band, Computer Games, with brother Chuck, and in December, he released a solo EP, Homework, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers Chart.

Criss expects to get more serious attention for Cunanan than for covering Perry, even if he sees no distinction in the effort made. "There's a notion, which I'm allergic to, that the darker the role--the more a departure a role is from somebody--the more weight it has," says the actor, who took the part of Cunanan because it allowed him to "tackle someone with a huge emotional range. It was my job to understand Andrew, as hard as that may seem, [without] glorifying someone who was monstrous."

Versace gets the titular murder out of the way in the first eight minutes of Episode 1. The rest of the nine-episode series pieces together Cunanan's story, in reverse chronology, with glimpses of Versace (Edgar Ramirez) and his family, before and after his death. …

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