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Darren Criss on Playing Serial Killer Andrew Cunanan in ACS: Versace and Passing As White

Photo: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

“Yo, man, Darren,” Darren Criss says by way of introduction at the Television Critics Association tour in Pasadena, where he was doing press for his show, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, back in January. Despite the title, Criss is the real lead of 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 of 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 of 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 of all, we all do it to different extremes. He’s at the extremist end of that spectrum, but we all curate our lives within the realms of 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 of inadvertently encouraged by the gay community which has traditionally dealt with multiple identities.

Or secret lives.
Secret identities, secret lives. But that’s part of the journey of a young gay man or a gay woman, and how you can reidentify yourself through your life. That’s a big part of how to relate to each other and how to support each other. And so, when you have that also being a part of 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 of 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 of sociopathic behavior. People go, “Does it come home with you?” And I go, “No, of course not.” If it did, I wouldn’t be an actor. I can check out. It’s not part of 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 of empathy. That is my job. I’m in the business of 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.

Then what is it like then to empathize with someone who is a sociopath and a serial killer?
We have so much more in common with the worst person we can think of than not. Which sucks. We hate to admit or want to think about that. What are you talking about? I would never kill five, four people. I wouldn’t do that! Yeah, but do you know what it is to feel like you’re not good enough? Or know what it is to want something so desperately that you’re not allowed to have? Do you know what it’s like to feel marginalized? It’s a very Shakespearean thing. You find the universal truth in all this. And that’s what I did with Andrew. It was a lot of clay to play with, and you don’t usually have that luxury. You don’t have nine episodes to really dive into something. But what I was getting at? I was on my way to something … help me out.

You were talking about how anyone can relate to certain aspects…
Oh, yes. While I think there are other half-Filipino actors my age and likeness that could have done this a lot of justice, I’m thrilled I got to do it because I’m such a cursed bleeding-heart idealist. To my own detriment. I’m cursed with having to see the best things about people. It drives people insane. I think it’s because of my obsessive life with empathy and trying to find the good parts of people, because I have to believe that people are better than the worst things they’ve ever done. And so, to apply that to somebody so monstrous is a really fun challenge.

Did you feel warmth for him?
Oh yeah. I’ll preface it with this: The heaviest weight I carry was knowing that when the show came out, the families of the victims are very much alive, and now, 20 years later, have to endure watercooler fodder of something that is very real to them. I think of William Reese’s son, who’s probably around my age, having to deal with this being a pop-cultural conversation. I am not unaware or insensitive to that. You just asked something else, man …

I asked if you feel warmth for him.
Oh, yes. I can’t help but have affection for Andrew. And again, I’m coming at somebody like Andrew from the full spectrum of a human life and human capacity. The show I think does a good job of not only showing the worst parts of Andrew, but the best. A lot of people would find me and say, “I knew Andrew back in Hillcrest, and he was the life of the party. We loved him. We were mortified when we found out.” And most of them would say nice things. I met somebody who went to high school with him and hung out with him at prom, and she said something that really stuck with me. She said, “I know what happened was horrible, but I just always remembered Andrew being somebody you could count on.” It’s not perverse; it’s understandable. We almost relish in the dark and disturbing. We put as much focus on that because we’re human beings. It’s bizarrely sexy in some weird, twisted way. We don’t like looking at the good parts of a bad person. I already have my own sympathies towards him, but my goal is that people watching can really question their own sense of empathy. Not for murdering people or anything, but for understanding where these things come from. I hope people watch this and go, “Geez, at what point could this have been me?”

So where do you feel he went wrong in his life?
There’s a lot of turning points. I think there are a few places, but first of all, you start the equation, all the ones and zeroes are doing okay. Because he’s a smart kid and he has a lot of charisma, however, he comes from a broken home with a crook of a father with these unhealthy delusions of grandeur, displaying almost sociopathic tendencies himself, whether diagnosed or not. His mother was definitely severely affected by mental illness. Overmedicated, she is ignored, and not being taken care of. So, you have that little mixed bag. You have the youngest son, the spoiled son of all these kids. Then you have this financial situation — a very poor family being slammed into an era of wealth and excess in an area of San Diego. This whole series is a real good look at the haves and the have-nots and how they are connected. It’s a really interesting time to be a gay man between San Francisco and Hillcrest, during the AIDS scare, which is breeding more homophobia, and then after allowing the crystal-meth addiction to run rampant in the gay community, and how that affects people’s lives and the way they act, personally and sexually, and how that creates its own damage. So there are all these things that are happening around him, but to go back to your question several minutes ago about where he could have gone, his behavioral patterns were set up to where he could have taken the proper left — he went the wrong right.

When he goes to the Philippines, this should be it, this should be the moment, and he’s a young man — he’s only 18. Then he sees that his father’s a liar and a thief and a cheat, and this is not the person he thought he was. This could have been an “Aha!” moment, where he could have come back and said, “Oh my god. I’ve been wrong,” and he could have made this experience help him become a better person. In your late teens, things hit you a lot harder, and you don’t know it but they really do affect the rest of your life. And for whatever reason, nature or nurture, he decided to suppress it and made it inform more lies. He didn’t cover anything up with truth, he just covered the stench with more fragrance, and that came to a head.

Is this the first time you’ve played a half-Filipino character?
Yeah, it is, and the harsh truth is like, when else would that be a specific character? And that’s not a bad thing or a good thing. Somebody was talking about Asian-American representation, and he’s like, “I don’t see a lot of stuff for Filipinos specifically,” and I went, “I guess not, but I guess I don’t think about it.” I have the luxury of being half-white and looking more Caucasian, so it doesn’t weigh on my conscience as much, like, “Ugh, why aren’t there more roles?” I think as an actor, you just study and you wanna bring your A game all the time and hopefully it doesn’t even matter.

But a great story about Jon Jon Briones [who plays Andrew’s father on the show]. Ryan Murphy, everybody was blown away by Jon Jon, and Ryan asked me, “How come I’ve never heard of him? How come he doesn’t get cast in stuff?” And I’m like, “Ryan, he does. He’s been working for a long time. He’s a tried-and-true Broadway actor, man. Just because he’s not on billboards and glamour magazines doesn’t mean he’s not a working actor.” He’s like, “Well, I don’t get why I still haven’t heard of him.” I’m like, “He’s a Filipino man, dude.” There’s only so many opportunities that people can lock themselves into accepting when they’re casting shit, unless he’s playing the Thai terrorist on CSI or something. And what I hope happens is this will be a great stepping stone for him, for people to go, “Ah, he’s a good actor,” and then just cast where race isn’t a thing. But it’s a weird and unfortunate thing that you have to wait for an opportunity like this one. Luckily, Jon Jon did the thing we all hope for, which is you’re just a good actor. He just fucking knocks it out of the park and that transcends his type, and what you hope for any actor, really, if you took race out of the equation, like, you get cast as the hot blonde ingenue and hopefully you’re a good actress, and then they go, “Oh, okay cool, well, we can make her this look,” and everybody gets surprised even though they’re, guess what? A good actor.

Anyway, to answer your question, yes. This is the first time. It’s really an amazing serendipity that I’m the same ethnic makeup, more or less. I was joking with Ryan when he wanted to do this, “Of course I’d love to, but even if you decide to do it with somebody else, good luck finding somebody in your camp that’s the same age range, looks like him and is half-Filipino, because if you don’t cast somebody who’s half-Filipino, the community’s going to cry bloody murder, so don’t not do that.”

And rightfully so.
Yeah. I mean, I’d like to think that there’s some guy reading this who looks the same, maybe the same age, half-Filipino, that’s like, “Ugh, I could have done it.” And he probably really could have. I lucked out. The timing worked out really great.

Has it played a part in casting for you at all?
No. No. I’ve been really happy and really thrilled. I always say one of my favorite things about myself is that I’m half-Filipino but I don’t look like it. It’s always like an ace up my sleeve of like, “Oh really? How nuts.” So it never really has. I just look like a Caucasian guy, which is nice. I’ve got the multiethnic thing going on. People think I’m like Italian or Mediterranean. No, my mom’s very Filipino. I grew up with a Filipino mom. Anybody who’s grown up in that world knows that’s a thing you share.

Did it ever in your life?
No. I suppose I’m very lucky because any people of color, it’s a thing. It’s a thing that is your best asset, and when it doesn’t work, is your greatest enemy. And it’s tough, yeah.

Do you identify as Asian-American?
No. I think that’d be unfair. I think that’d sound like I’m reaching for the minority card on a college application. I think that would be unfair. Yeah, my mom’s Asian-American. She’s from the Philippines and came here and then married a white guy, and here I am. But maybe it’s because of the way I look. Maybe if I looked a little more pan-Asian and I was put in that box then I would be like, “Yeah, I identify as Asian-American,” but maybe because the obstacles that may come up haven’t that I don’t think about it. But that’s a really interesting question. I’ve never thought about that. For better or for worse, I guess not. But I guess I am. What do you think? Am I? On paper I guess I kind of am.

I think it’s however you want to define it, but I do think that phenotype probably plays a large role in how you relate to that identity.
Yeah. I think if it was thrust upon me I would embrace it, because I love that I’m half-Filipino. But I’ve never been put in that corner, like, “We need an Asian-looking guy. Call this guy.” That’s never been a journey that I’ve had to navigate. Anyway, back to the show.

You’ve also played a lot of gay and queer characters. Has playing these parts informed how you think about your sexuality or gender?
That’s a great question. God, we need like an hour. Sure, yes. Absolutely. It definitely has. I think being queer in general evokes more self-questioning than somebody who’s cisgender straight, because you really have to explore a lot of things about yourself that are meeting resistance on conventional social levels. So you have to go, “Okay, cool. Is this really how I feel?” There are questions that arise within yourself that doesn’t have to happen if you live in a hetero-normative universe. So in that sense, I think the journey of questioning oneself, which everybody does anyway — and should do— I admire that narrative. Even though I am not gay myself, or queer, I am a storyteller, and I love and appreciate the strength of character it takes for someone to get through that, whether it was difficult or not. I’ve been very blessed in my career with being allowed in the gay community. Again, as a cisgendered straight dude, that’s not lost on me. I don’t take that for granted. It’s been such a huge part of my life, even pre-Glee. I come from San Francisco doing theater, man. Like, I was raised by gay men. Not literally at home, but you know, as a young kid doing theater, my friends were these men and women in their 20s, driving me home and getting me dinner. These were my adult figures in my life, so unconsciously I’ve always had such affection for the life, whatever that means. So I guess inhabiting a gay voice is important to me because it’s a voice that I find inspiring.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Darren Criss on Playing a Serial Killer and Passing As White