ACS: Versace’s Darren Criss on Playing a Serial Killer and Passing As White

“Yo, man, Darren,” Darren Criss says by way introduction at the Television Critics Association tour in Pasadena, where he was doing press for his show, American Crime Story: The Assassination Gianni Versace, back in January. Despite the title, Criss is the real lead the FX crime anthology as Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer who murdered at least five people, ending with the famed Italian designer in 1997. It’s a drastic role reversal for Criss, who was best known as the shiny, bright-eyed crooner the Warblers in Ryan Murphy’s high-school-musical show Glee, and it’s a challenge he relishes. We spoke about how playing Cunanan challenges the limits empathy, creating false guises, and whether he identifies as Asian-American.

Andrew Cunanan must be a fascinating character to play because he was a changeling. He always wanted to create different personas, different backstories. Is that something that resonated with you as an actor?
Well, first all, we all do it to different extremes. He’s at the extremist end that spectrum, but we all curate our lives within the realms acceptable protocol. You’re a different person to your parents than you are to your lover, to your teachers, to your authorities, to your colleagues. His was much more heightened and followed more sociopathic tendencies because he could. It was possible. You couldn’t get away with that now. Social media and everything, Andrew Silva in one place, Andrew Cunanan in another. You’d be called out relatively quickly. Another thing I think is important to remember, and this is coming as a cis straight guy talking about this, but what’s so interesting about his multiple identities is that it was sort inadvertently encouraged by the gay community which has traditionally dealt with multiple identities.

Or secret lives.
Secret identities, secret lives. But that’s part the journey a young gay man or a gay woman, and how you can reidentify yourself through your life. That’s a big part how to relate to each other and how to support each other. And so, when you have that also being a part his world, where suddenly, he can be this person or that person, and another person and another person, and they understand why and they say, “Oh, you know, that’s Andrew.” He would play up his sexuality when convenient or downplay it when it was dangerous, which was something a lot people around him could relate to., and wouldn’t call him out on because this is something they’re also dealing with. We’re getting to a different point here. You were talking about relating to this as an actor.

As an actor, I compartmentalize things. I can put this person in this box, and that one, and it doesn’t affect my life. And in a way that’s sort sociopathic behavior. People go, “Does it come home with you?” And I go, “No, course not.” If it did, I wouldn’t be an actor. I can check out. It’s not part me. It’s somewhere else. And then you go, “Geez, what else does Darren do this for?” But it’s true. And that’s something Andrew could do.

What else does Darren do that for?
I don’t know! Probably suppressing other things I don’t want to think or talk about. Who knows, it’s something we all do. But I’m in the business empathy. That is my job. I’m in the business finding as many common denominators with myself to another person, which is probably the biggest difference between me and Andrew. Whereas I try and be like other people and see the best in people, Andrew was other people, because he hated himself and didn’t want to be who he was. So, even though we were putting on the same masks, we had very different reasons for doing it.