darren criss on playing versace’s killer in american crime story
The former Glee actor discusses homophobia in the FBI and his nuanced portrayal of serial killer Andrew Cunanan for American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace.
Season two of Ryan Murphy’s true crime epic American Crime Story is, like season one, decidedly not-a-murder-mystery. There’s no process of deduction. No great whodunnit, at its core. In fact, the series’ most famous killing happens in the opening few minutes, in broad daylight, as it did in real life, on the steps of the Casa Casuarina, that baking hot morning in July of 1997.
At the time, Gianni Versace was the most famous fashion designer in the world. His killer, 27-year-old Andrew Cunanan, by contrast, was not famous. At least not nearly as famous as he should have been, as someone on the run for the brutal murders of four other people.
“I think unless you were in the gay community, in San Diego, in Miami, in a certain part of the 90s, or in Versace's personal life at the time, the story seems quite distant,” says Darren Criss, who plays the killer with startling visual likeness.
The former Glee actor grew up in San Francisco when Cunanan would have been going out there. He’d have been in the city around the time Cunanan may or may not have first met Versace (a point of contention the series cleverly side steps). “My parents even went to Capriccio, the opera that Versace designed for,” he says. “So, I was there, but, you know, my parents were both bankers -- they weren't going to be like, ‘Oh, Darren, Gianni Versace was murdered on the steps of his home’. We wouldn’t have talked about it at the dinner table.”
And therein lies the part of the crux. You see, the “American Crime Story” of season two is not the murder of Gianni Versace alone. Rather, it is the failure to prevent the murder of Gianni Versace -- a negligence, ignorance, lack of awareness or other that lead the book upon which the series is based [Maureen Orth’s Vulgar Favours] to be subtitled: The Largest Failed Manhunt in the US History.
“You read something like that and go, no, that can't be the case,” Darren says, today. “There must be other big cases. The Charlie Mansons of the world. But it is. And so you go, how is that possible? And it's because [Cunanan] was targeting gay men and that may not have been something a government institution like the FBI knew how to breach.”
In the same way that season one, The People Versus OJ Simpson, synthesised recent history with the racial politics of today, The Assassination of Gianni Versace holds up a mirror to the systemic homophobia found in organisations such as the FBI. By June 1997, Cunanan had become the 449th fugitive to be listed by the bureau's Ten Most Wanted list. He was wanted for the murders of San Diego acquaintance Jeffrey Trail, architect David Madson, 72-year-old real estate developer Lee Miglin and 45-year-old caretaker William Reese. Yet the police managed to bungle the investigation.
“We were coming out of a very scary AIDs crisis,” Darren suggests. “All of a sudden you have this kind of boogie man of sorts, that's targeting gay men. Why would you want to advertise that? How does it make the gay community look after they're barely getting out alive from a horrible crisis within the community?
“Everything that's happening around these crimes sort of unconsciously supports the actual crime itself,” he continues. “And in doing so, it creates this kind of pressure cooker.”
It’s an idea that Darren carries through into his own nuanced portrayal of Cunanan. Markedly different to previous depictions of on-screen serial killers, Darren presents Cunanan as a product of his time -- someone directly affected by all the things that were happening in America in the 1990s. Someone who could, crucially, have chosen a different course.
“I'm not a criminologist, but I do know that he doesn't actually follow the category of what a serial killer would be,” Darren explains. “He was a fun loving, good looking, charming, very gifted young man. And, you know, I’ve had a lot of people come up to me that knew him when he was younger and he had this charisma that definitely stayed with people.”
He tells a story of a woman who approached him in Las Vegas. “She’s been to high school with him and said, ‘He was always so nice to me and my group of friends, and he was just really someone you could count on.’ And I was so touched by that because, you know, it shows we're so much bigger than the moments that define us.”
Would it be fair to say he grew fond of Cunanan? “I think, for the record, it doesn't matter if it's a real person or not, or if they ended up murdering people or not... One can't help but be fond of those things because they are worth being fond of,” Darren replies, slowly. “I'm not saying I'm fond of what he ended up doing. And by no means would I ever say that I could exonerate him from the horrible things that he did. But, you know, the reason why I love acting so much is storytelling. I'm in the business of empathy. I'm in the business of trying to be compassionate with as many people as possible.”
He continues. “When you think of the things that Andrew idolised and the things that he longed for -- it's really a story of the haves and the have-nots. There was this extreme celebration of glamour and excess coming out of the late 80's and early 90's and Gianni Versace was at the forefront of it. Then you have someone like Andrew, who is desperately obsessed with that lifestyle but finds himself on the outside. It's this amazing dichotomy between great creator and great destroyer. Had Andrew been around at any other time... I don't know if he would've gone down the same path.”
American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace continues on BBC2 this Wednesday.