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Darren Criss on His Broadway Debut, Glee Fans Getting Backstage, and Playing Kristen Wiig’s Love Interest

Darren Criss. Photo: PAUL BRUINOOGE/Patrick McMullan

Darren Criss sings a lot on Glee and gives impromptu performances on promenades and at benefits — but are you ready for him to sing Backstreet Boys on the big screen? Well, it’s definitely happening, Imogene co-director Shari Springer Berman told Vulture. Criss, who plays Kristen Wiig’s much younger love interest in the movie, will act as a sorta-kinda-Jersey guy “in a nineties impersonation band,” Berman said. “I made him work really hard.” Berman was one of many guests, including Alan Cumming and Susan Sarandon, at the Darby in New York last night, where Criss was being feted by the Peggy Siegal Company and Calvin Klein Collection for his three-week stint on Broadway. (He’s replaced Daniel Radcliffe as the lead in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; later this month, Nick Jonas will take on the role.) We spoke with Criss — who performed five songs at the intimate event, including his piano-ballad rendition of “Teenage Dream” — about the challenges of Broadway, Glee fans getting backstage, and acting opposite Kristen Wiig.

It’s been about a week since you’ve been on Broadway.
I know, yes. It’s been insane.

So what have you learned?
Well, I’ve learned that Daniel Radcliffe is a freaking superhero. You know, I know exactly what I signed up for … I’m very fortunate that it was a three-week run, and there’s the pro and cons: The pro is that you’re in and you’re out. But the con is also, oh, bummer, by the time you’re at three weeks you’ve gotten really in the swing of things, you have to leave. It’s kind of bittersweet. But because I know that’s the amount of time I’m doing it, I’ve kind of exerted my energy in sort of … what’s the word I’m looking for? Accordingly. I’ve been exerting energy accordingly, whereas Dan was doing it for a better half of a year, so I don’t know how he paced himself, because I would have just puttered out, man. [Laughs.]

What’s been the sort of most amazing moment about this whole experience, when you said, “Wow!”?
I mean, God, I’m so inarticulate about the whole experience because it’s been so overwhelming. It’s everything that all of my Broadway friends said it would be, which is complete and total elation, you know, at the end of the show. The fun thing about doing live theater is that there’s a sort of real-time catharsis and there’s a real sense of immediacy of creating it then, there, and now, and the audience and the people onstage are really experiencing something together. And there’s a rush to that that cannot be defined into words. When you’re doing TV and film it’s very secluded, and it’s inherently sort of compartmentalized into different things.

Have there been any snafus? Cell phones ringing in the audience, missed cues, split pants?
My opening night, I have an electric shaver, it broke in the sink. You know, they combust very easily; if you press one button, the springs and all kinds of stuff fall apart and they kind of combusted in my hands. But nobody saw it and I put it together in the knick of time before you saw it again. So it never happened.

You were shaving your beard?
In the show, yes. But yes, I had a little winter beard before that.

The Times said you grow a beard when you’re off the Glee set.
Well, when I don’t have to shave I don’t shave. [Laughs.]

What about working with Beau Bridges? He told me before it began that you have to jump over him.
Yes, I do. Was he being figurative or was he saying [laughs] metaphorically I have to leap over his talent?

He was being literal. He said you have to leap over him, he hoped you had hops.
Yeah, there’s a number where we’re sort of jumping around and playing a little leapfrog, and, uh, I certainly do jump over Beau. But he’s, obviously, such a talented, wonderful man, and he’s one of these guys that’s been in the business forever, so my fun experience has just been picking his brain. [Whispers]: Tell me stories. Tell me Elizabeth Taylor stories. You know, Tell me anything you’ve got. And he will. So he’s been a delight to work with.

Nick Jonas is going to take your place, and you are taking Daniel Radcliffe’s place. Have you met either of them?
I’ve met both. And Dan has been nothing short of a complete gentleman, and so supportive and available to me. He made that very clear when we met, if I had any questions or concerns — and this was during the remainder of his run. I told him at one point, like, “Hey, man, that is so nice of you, but I won’t come bugging you. Enjoy yourself, you know, this is a very significant and emotional time for you. I’d hate to bug you during your last week.” But all the same, he was very open and said if you want to talk or anything and talk about the show or the character, I’d be happy to give some pointers. And I certainly haven’t felt held back from doing that. Nick is a phenomenal musician, a phenomenal talent; unlike me and Dan, this is not his first time at the rodeo. This is a welcome home for him, for Broadway. He’ll be just fine. It’s us newbies you’ve got to worry about. [Laughs.]

Any fun stories about the Glee fans that have been coming to the show and crowding the stage door?
Uh, yeah. The cool thing for me is that a lot of the fans that have come backstage that I’ve met are fans that have been with me since before Glee. And those are the people that are really touching to me. And all the Starkid — I have a production company called Starkid, and, obviously, Glee kids. Of course there’s the Glee kids. But I sort of expect that because there’s an exposure level there that’s a little more palpable. But it’s nice when I see the people that have been there since the beginning, that knew me from nothing and now know me on Broadway. So it’s a pretty special wheel.

You did the movie Imogene with Kristen Wiig. What was that like?
Like a big old smile. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s a delightful little story.

What was it like working with Kristen Wiig?
Amazing. She’s incredible. I mean, what is there to say that hasn’t already been said about Kristen Wiig? She’s a phenomenal star, and she deserves everything that’s coming her way right now.

When you performed Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” you said it was the song that changed your life. Can you elaborate on that?
Do I really need to? I was a struggling actor, a part-time composer, and all of a sudden they put me in a blazer, slick my hair back, and give me a Katy Perry song on a hit show, and a year and a half later I’m on Broadway. So, yes, it’s the song that changed my life.

Darren Criss on His Broadway Debut, Glee Fans Getting Backstage, and Playing Kristen Wiig’s Love Interest