LOS ANGELES — The title of the new FX short-run series, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” suggests the production focuses on the noted designer who was gunned down in front of his Miami mansion. The death of Versace at the hands of Andrew Cunanan is one of the biggest moments in the nine-part series, but the heart of the project focuses more on Versace’s killer as played by Darren Criss (“Glee”).
Versace was one of at least five people Cunanan killed during a three-month period in the late ’90s. He was a masterful liar who was able to charm or talk his way into events where he lived a life way above his means. Cunanan’s connection to Versace came through such maneuvering.
Despite the darkness of the “American Crime Story” character, Criss made sure he didn’t let the work haunt him after he left the set.
“I know a lot of people who jump into these kinds of things and it really consumes their whole lives. I think what saved me is that Andrew compartmentalized so many things in his life: emotions, people, experiences. And he could disassociate, and likewise, I could sort of disassociate,” Criss said. “As an actor, it’s your job to find as many common denominators between you and the person you are playing, however close or far or good or bad.
“So even though I found a lot of similarities … the differences are few in number but high in content. So I think it was those differences that made it OK for me to step away from it because I’d been doing things that were so far from myself at home — I mean, excuse me — on set.”
Criss explains part of his job is to have empathy even for the worst of people and for the worst things you’ve done. The trick for Criss finding empathy with Cunanan was despite the role being based on a real person, the actor didn’t look at playing the part any differently than taking on a fictional character. There never was going to be a way he could relate to someone who murdered multiple people, but by reducing Cunanan down to what he calls “primary colors,” Criss could find some relatable aspects. Those elements include both he and Cunanan going to Catholic school, knowing what it feels like to want something that you don’t have and the desire to stand out. Criss fully understands Cunanan’s desire to not be ordinary.
Criss could also relate to Cunanan on an acting level.
“We are both performers,” Criss said. “I do it professionally and he did it personally. I was always curious why I never saw him involved in drama at school. My two-penny analysis is that he wasn’t a hard worker.
“Part of his sociopathic pathology was that he wanted greater things than he had but didn’t want to work for that. He wanted fame and fortune and recognition but wasn’t willing to put in the actual labor. He was a successful actor in his everyday life convincing everyone he was different people.”
Playing the serial killer would seem to be a big change for Criss, especially to those who watched him on “Glee” or for his work in the comic book TV series “Supergirl” and “The Flash.” He’s also part of the indie pop band Computer Games with his brother Chuck Criss.
But, he stresses the “American Crime Story” is closer to the kind of work he has done in his career, and it was “Glee” that was the big departure.
Despite what many may think, Criss doesn’t spend his days singing and dancing. Ryan Murphy, the man behind “Glee,” helped create that thinking when he cast Criss. He’s now also responsible for giving Criss the opportunity to show his wide range of acting skills, as Murphy is an executive producer on “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.”
“I’m always looking for interesting material. I’m looking for things with clay that I can get my hands on and really do something different and big. … I don’t have a choice. I’m not Penelope Cruz. I can’t just be, like, ‘Here’s what I want to do.’ I have to wait for these kinds of opportunities,” Criss said. “And this certainly is a once in a lifetime opportunity that happened to be within the hands of the person that I had been creating other things with and who had been such a champion for me on ‘Glee.’
“So I really hit the jackpot. I wish I could say it was calculated. This was something that I was clamoring for, but I definitely lucked out. I think a lot of actors have to wait a lifetime for something like this, and it came a lot quicker than I had anticipated. So, thank you Ryan Murphy.”
The FX production is based on Maureen Orth’s book “Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U. S. History.” Edgar Ramirez, Penelope Cruz and Ricky Martin also star in the series that is a follow-up to “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” that received 22 Emmy nominations and won in nine categories.