Perhaps surprisingly, preparing for the role of notorious real-life Gianni Versace killer Andrew Cunanan in FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story wasn’t such a terrifying leap for Darren Criss, despite his upbeat musical theater background. Formerly best known for his work on Ryan Murphy’s Glee, Criss embraced this new, dark role, which not only brought him back into the Murphy fold, but gave him the chance to showcase his impressive acting chops.
“Are you kidding me? This is the role of a lifetime,” Criss says of the challenge. “People wait their entire careers for something this juicy to come along. I’m thrilled to be here.”
Criss’s talents are undeniably far-reaching; he sings, dances, composes, writes scripts and plays piano, guitar, harmonica, mandolin and violin. He’s also passionate about literature, and, it seems, something of a poetic romantic, as he recalls Anne Bancroft talking about the sound of her husband Mel Brooks coming home. “I want to get this right,” he says, visibly concentrating. “Bancroft said, ‘I get excited when I hear his key in the door because I think, Oh, now the party’s going to start.’ Can you imagine feeling that way about someone? I even put it in a song I wrote.”
Cunanan was incredibly astute, clever and crafty. A fabulist, he reportedly stayed awake for days, teaching himself about opera and fashion, and building entirely new backstories for himself. He’d tailor himself to what he believed people wanted to hear, and craft wildly intricate lies to order; a methodology which, to some extent, won him popularity. Friends who grew up with Cunanan and attended the Bishop’s School in a tony part of La Jolla reportedly said that he was a likeable character, voted ‘least likely to be forgotten’ by his senior class.
But while Cunanan was obviously an out-of-control sycophant, Criss managed to find a way to relate to him, however distantly. “I’m totally a people pleaser,” he says. “I’m not really sure why. It could be that I’m a baby brother, or perhaps it could be my Catholic upbringing, but I want to make people happy.”
Perhaps this desire partly motivated Criss’s attraction to musical theater. He studied theater, musicology and Italian at the University of Michigan, and even now will occasionally spontaneously break out into song.
Embodying a bon vivant escort-turned homicidal maniac was not as traumatic as it might seem, Criss says. It was really more about finding those aspects of Cunanan’s character that made him more human. “I didn’t feel like I had to go to this extreme dark place to find Andrew, quite the opposite really. It was important to make him empathetic, someone we could all identify with, [because] otherwise it would’ve been a complete disaster.”
Indeed, it is the humanness he brings to the role that makes it such a success. “I am in no way excusing anything that Andrew Cunanan did,” he adds. “His behavior was absolutely repulsive. But if I was going to pull this off, I had to find a way to make him sympathetic or his character wouldn’t have been interesting at all. We all loved O.J. [Simpson] at one point, didn’t we? Even the worst people have their good moments.”
It’s been posited that Cunanan may have had antisocial personality disorder, meaning he had no real control over a total and complete lack of empathy. “He had a lot of pain in his life,” Criss says. “Yes, he was horrible in many ways, but that’s sad.”
After exploring this tragic story, Criss has found some solace in his beloved music once again with a new side venture. He and his fiance Mia Swier recently opened their own club in the heart of Hollywood, a piano bar called Tramp Stamp Granny’s. It’s a place where friends can gather to drink and sing around the piano, in line with the music festival he also co-founded, Elsie Fest, where Broadway and pop stars meet to sing show tunes.
“I wasn’t your typical theater geek but I love everything that comes with that,” he explains. “I like to think that I’m friends with a wider swath of people, and get along with everyone. But yeah, I was known to belt out songs at cast parties and such.”
Criss’s new business was partly motivated by his love of old-style seedy dive bars. His favorite bar in the world is the Claremont Lounge in the basement of an abandoned hotel in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta. As the city’s oldest and longest running strip club, he loves the place for its diversity. “It’s the only place in the world you’ll see a group of frat boys sitting next to your typical hipsters. And then down from them at the other end of the bar will be a group of drunk businessman drinking whatever they can. Every celebrity working in Atlanta has to stop there.”
During Tramp Stamp Granny’s opening week, Criss was seen taking his place behind the piano almost every night. His energy seems boundless, as he never appears to stop moving and working. “Why would I?” he asks. “I don’t have the luxury that some people have, that people are just offering me roles. And actors are only as good as the parts they get, so I can’t wait around. I can create whatever I want whenever. Whether it’s music, or a new show, or a new drink, that’s what I am going to continue to do for as long as I can, and for as often as I can.”