In a career-making role garnering critical acclaim and awards show buzz Darren Criss returns to TV playing real-life serial killer Andrew Cunanan in FX’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. It’s a part tailor-made for Criss who shares the same look, age range, and ethnicity as Cunanan; but playing a role so heavily influenced by race has forced Criss to examine his own identity and reclaim what being a Filipino-American means to him.
Darren Criss is a deeply private person. I learn this rather quickly while waiting to talk to him. He had just gotten back to LA from The Met Ball and was getting ready to leave for Australia to do press for American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, but not before coming back home to celebrate a pretty big weekend.
“Really quick, my parents were supposed to get here about an hour and a half ago, and so of course, just as this interview’s about to start they’re gonna knock on the door any minute now,” he says a bit frantic apologizing for having to stop the interview when they arrive.
“No problem, they’re on Filipino time,” I say jokingly to alleviate any worry as I too am Filipino and known for being notoriously late. Criss laughs and is put at ease recognizing our shared cultural background.
“I’m so weird about talking about my personal life,” he says adding that he’s very protective of his parents who are coming over to celebrate both Mother’s Day and their birthdays. “Deep down, I’m a sentiment hoarder. If something is special to me I don’t want to share it with the rest of the world,” meaning you won’t see posts from him about the gifts he got them, his fiance’s engagement ring, or his favorite Filipino food.
“One of my greatest curses, and this is a much deeper thing, is I wish I posted more. I’m not a very big social media person, I’m horrible at it. Mainly because I am too busy doing said interesting shit and I think everything is interesting and funny that if I was to take the time and post all that… I would never be observing said interesting fun shit and I would always be on my phone.”
It’s been three years since Criss has been on television screens. His breakout role was on Glee as Blaine Anderson, the openly gay leader of the all-male a capella group The Warblers. His rendition of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” was an instant hit with audiences and his magnetic charisma inspired show creator Ryan Murphy to expand his storyline into the next four seasons. His on-screen romance with Kurt turned Criss into a hero for many gay youth who found solace in the representation and since then Criss has been an outspoken advocate for the LGTBQ community.
Murphy again gave Criss another career defining role, but this time as real life serial killer Andrew Cunanan in American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. While the previews and press posters would have you believe this is about Gianni or Donatella Versace played by Penelope Cruz… it’s not… Criss is the star and this is his story.
“Actors are only as good as the moments they get and I’ve waited and worked for this moment my entire life,” Criss says. It’s a role that demanded a lot from the young actor– not just in the emotional range required to play this character but the leadership displayed on-set.
When you’re on set almost every day “you’re team captain, you set morale, and tone, and pace.” One way Criss did this was by “joking around and keeping it light not only for [himself] but for the crew and everyone else who has otherwise been living in a dreary atmosphere for several months.”
Throughout the nine episode miniseries you’re shown Cunanan’s descent into madness and playing someone so different from him made it easy to vacillate between the two. “For me the work begins and ends at ‘Action’ and ‘Cut.’
“The luxury that I had was that Andrew himself was very dissociative and was so many different people. He would compartmentalize certain emotions and certain actions into different places… maybe arguably that sort of helped me out because he was jumping back and forth so often I likewise could do that.”
Murphy doesn’t just show a serial killer at his worst but how he gets there and what outside factors might have influenced this transformation. It leaves you wondering if Cunanan was a product of his environment or intrinsically evil. It forces you to question your own humanity… asking, “could this happen to me?”
“The fear comes from the juxtaposition of what it’s against. It’s one thing to just be a cut and dry villain. It’s more scary when you see somebody who has this potential to not be…do it. It’s much scarier when a nice person freaks out than an asshole. When you see the sort of depths, and the spectrum of human emotion, that a person can reach – it’s scarier when you see them turn on a dime. For anybody that you think is so far removed from how you behave or how you think or how you act: we all have more in common with each other than we don’t. The things that make us different are huge in scale but not in number,” Criss says.
The journey to understanding, and ultimately portraying Cunanan, forced Criss to deconstruct his own identity and the parallels that exist between them.
“With Andrew and me I know what the desire is because I have the same desire to want to stand out and be unique in some sort of way. I understand what it is to be ambitious, to want to leave a good impression. I’m attracted to people with big ideas, I’m attracted to grand concepts. I have a love of the flourish and the fantastical, I have a sort of pension for embellishment and articulation and those are some of the things I definitely shared with Andrew. Our tactics are very different and the reason why we love those things are very different and the way we carry those interests into our day-to-day life manifested very differently.”
Besides the physical resemblance and closeness in age they both share something much deeper – their race, or more specifically, their racial ambiguity. Criss and Cunanan are both half-white, half-Filipino men who were able to navigate through life with a certain kind of privilege allotted to them because of their ability to be “white passing.”
Cunanan’s race isn’t simply a mention in the show it is integral to it. You see how race based discrimination leads him to lean into his racial ambiguity in order to social climb, the judgment his Filipino father feels in a room of white men applying for the same job and how this influences a life of delusion and lying which he teaches his son, and their journey back to the Philippines.
There is no denying Criss is a phenomenal actor, but acting chops alone could not have gotten him a part so specific in its ethnicity. After the social media backlash over the whitewashing of Asian characters such as Scarlett Johnasson in Ghost In The Shell and Emma Stone in Aloha, there’s no way a non-Filipino actor could be cast in this role. So, to have an actual Filipino play a Filipino role has reporters asking Criss about his Filipino heritage and the importance of Asian representation – all things he’s not used to answering.
“This is the first time in my life I’ve ever had to think of this. It’s really forcing me to think about my own identity in ways that I haven’t thought about.”
Criss is a first-generation Filipino-Irish-American born in San Francisco. His mom came from Cebu, Philippines and his dad is an Irish “mutt” as he affectionately describes him. Criss was raised in predominantly Asian cities from San Francisco to Hawaii – the “land of the half Asian babies,” he jokes. Yet, he has spent his entire life never having to deal with the discrimination or microagressions that come with looking Asian. He’s never been seen as a foreigner, told he speaks good English, or asked the standard three: “What are you? Where are you from? Where are you really from?” because he looks white.
“That was never was told to me, like ‘Darren, you’re half Filipino, you’re half Filipino.’ There wasn’t a whole world of people in the media or around me that said, ‘Oh, you know, as a half-Filipino guy you’re gonna be put in these roles, or these things.’ It was never something that I was really thinking about whether it was being scared of it, or embracing it, or good or bad, it just wasn’t a thing that I was cognizant of.”
It’s a privilege Criss recognizes to be able to not think about his race, or be defined by it, or advocate for fair representation. However, with the spotlight now on his ethnicity his answers to questions have caused some controversy. Criss tells me, “being Filipino is literally one of my favorite things about myself” and was heartbroken when reports came out saying he was happy he didn’t look Filipino.
“It looked like I was somehow saying it’s a good thing that I don’t look Filipino, what a nice thing that I look like a white guy. I was so disappointed by that,” he says pausing. “It’s the first time in my life anyone has been curious about it [his ethnicity]. I just love being Filipino. I love my mom. I’ve never not supported the Filipino community.”
It’s clear Criss is proud of his Filipino heritage, he speaks of it with a fondness and warmth:
“Filipino breakfast is my favorite thing. I have such nostalgia connected to it – garlic fried rice, sunny side up egg, definitely longanisa and tocino, and you mix in the Hawaiin flavor with some spam… I fuck with that hard!”
However, he expresses a discomfort and disconnect with identifying as Asian American not because he’s ashamed but because society doesn’t see him that way.
“There are resilient folks that have had to overcome unfortunate obstacles because of the way they look, or the way they are perceived, and they’ve broken through those walls that society can sometimes present. I’ve never had to break through those boundaries. For me to say that I know what that struggle is like is disingenuous and unfair so that’s why when I say I’m lucky that I don’t look.. [what I mean is] you can’t put me in a box. It’s because I’m white passing… that’s something that I acknowledge, so when I say I’m lucky, I don’t mean, ‘oh thank god I didn’t have to go through that.’ I really recognize and acknowledge the struggle that a lot of men and women have had to go through, not just in acting, but throughout time in any job in any livelihood.”
In a time when representation is being celebrated and a lack thereof is being called out, some have criticized Criss for not being a more outspoken advocate for the Asian American community when he has been for the LGBTQ community.
“While I understand people’s identity is important and when you see someone in a position to be loud and proud in a conventional way… I’ve never been that person. If some people are disappointed that I’m not more of a proactive advocate… I’m sorry… I apologize to them, but I know that I am in my own way.”
This goes back to Criss being fiercely private and the conflict he feels with being a public person but wanting to keep his most special moments to himself.
“I celebrate my moms heritage through her success of gaining the American dream. That’s how I celebrate my culture. My parents love and happiness and support that has been predominant throughout my life transcends our culture and our race and that’s how I celebrate their heritage.”
One thing Criss is unapologetically proud of for audiences to see is fellow castmate Jon Jon Briones who plays his father in ACS.
“This is what I told Ryan [Murphy]: You’re giving a Filipino man, from the Philippines, of a certain age, a leading, very complex, powerful role on a very widely exposed television show. That will get him a ton of exposure and he knocked it out of the fucking park.”
It’s an admiration reciprocated by Briones who told me “Darren is an amazing, generous, nuanced actor and a beautiful human being.” Briones also recognizes the social impact a show like this has, “when I first read the script, I couldn’t believe the role was written for an Asian actor. I felt so privileged to play the role, but I also felt the responsibility of doing it well. Having in mind that if I did, other opportunities will come, not just for me but for other actors of Asian descent and hopefully add to the conversation of Asian inclusion.”
Criss says that both him and Briones were cast in something tailor-made for them but at the end of day it’s all about delivering the goods. “You say… look, I’m an actor, I’m a storyteller, I can do this. So that’s an exciting moment for me seeing Jon Jon succeed so hard and sort of kicking people’s sort of categorical limits aside.”
The scenes Criss and Briones share are some of the most powerful ones in the series. Criss says they prepared for those by focusing on and staying true to human emotion and experiences. Their goal was to “to create moments that are accessible that can touch people’s minds and hearts in some way, and if we represent something much larger than that, that’s so much cooler.”
When you talk to Darren Criss you can sense the overwhelming gratitude he feels to play this role in such a hauntingly fascinating story.
“Anytime people joke…like man, you just play a lot of gay characters. I go, “Yeah, lucky me, right?” he says with utmost sincerity. “Because that narrative is an interesting narrative. It’s a heroic narrative. It’s a historically heroic narrative that involve resilient brave people and to be any kind of beacon for that story for any characterization of that element is fucking amazing… Like what a fucking privilege.”
Life after ACS has been a rollercoaster for Criss. He’s about to go on a musical tour with Glee-alum Lea Michele, he just opened up his new piano bar Tramp Stamp Granny’s in Hollywood. What has really changed for him is the amount of attention he gets from people who either knew Cunanan or Versace and want to talk to him about the story.
“For the first time I go to these parties and it’s people that I’ve seen around that would never talk to me and now they’re interested. Again, not for me, [but] because they’re interested in the story and it’s so cool because I’m so happy to talk about it.”
As we start to wrap our interview, Criss is being rushed out the door, already late or rather running on Filipino time to a performance at Tramp Stamp Granny’s – maybe a birthday serenade for his parents? Before he goes he tells me he’s thankful for these conversations about race and identity because it’s “not something [he’s] given a whole lot of thought to” and he wants to continue exploring.
Photographer: Joseph Sinclair
Stylist: Krishan Parmar
Writer: Jackie Fernandez
Location: London at Ten Bells Shoreditch