Darren Criss, far from 'Glee,' takes darker turn as Gianni Versace's killer

Bill Keveney
Darren Criss plays killer Andrew Cunanan in FX's 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.'

Darren Criss doesn’t have to worry that he’ll be forever typecast as that cute, preppy singer from Glee.

FX's limited series, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (Wednesday, 10 ET/PT) roughs up that wholesome image.

Versace, a follow-up to 2016's Emmy-winning O.J. Simpson courtroom saga, recounts Cunanan’s 1997 murder spree, which claimed five lives as the 27-year-old traversed the country, ending with the iconic fashion designer outside  his mansion in Miami Beach.

Criss, 30, best known as Warblers singer and Kurt’s lover (and eventual husband) Blaine Anderson on Glee, reunites with executive producer Ryan Murphy on a darker story with a bigger, weightier role.

"I had a great time doing Blaine, (but he) is part of a more ensemble piece," he says.  "It was nice to be on a bigger playing field with Ryan and to get our hands dirty."

Fashion designer Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) is murdered by Andrew Cunanan in the latest edition of FX's 'American Crime Story.'

Murphy said Criss was the first actor he cast for the pivotal role in Versace, based on Maureen Orth's book, Vulgar Favors. The high-powered cast also includes Oscar winner Penélope Cruz as Versace's sister, Donatella, and Ricky Martin as his partner, Antonio D'Amico.

Criss acting against his Glee image works well in Versace, executive producer Nina Jacobson says.

People might ask, “How could that (Glee) guy be this guy? (just as) the people who knew Andrew said, ‘How can that guy be this guy?’ “ she says.

Criss has a likability but also an ability to go darker, Jacobson says. “Andrew was not your garden-variety psychopath, torturing animals as a child. He was well-liked, warm, connected to people. To watch his descent and see his humanity but still never excuse his actions, I thought Darren just had that: the glibness, on one hand, and the depth.”

Criss, a San Francisco native who has been playing musical instruments since childhood, likens being part of the troupe Murphy calls on for his various projects to the repertory nature of the American Conservatory Theater, where he was accepted to a youth program.  

Darren Criss, center, first gained fame playing Blaine Anderson on the Fox musical-comedy, 'Glee.'

Criss says Murphy first mentioned the Cunanan role to him three years ago. 

“Lady Gaga had just been announced to do American Horror Story, and so I remember jokingly saying to him, ‘Well, let me know if you need a wily bellhop to run around.’ I was kind of joking — but not,” says Criss, who appeared in two episodes of that season's AHS: Hotel. “He said, ‘I’m doing this O.J. (story). It’s more of a courtroom drama and I really want to do a manhunt. I want to do this Versace-Cunanan story. How much do you know about him?' ”

Criss felt an obligation to understand the well-educated gay man, whom the series portrays as initially killing out of personal passion but later adopting more political motives. Versace, one of the most prominent openly gay men of that time, was his final victim before he took his own life on a houseboat a week later.

More:How we covered the real assassination of Gianni Versace

“It’s my job to be empathetic. If I set out to paint him as a monster, then there’s no point in telling the story. This isn’t a Bond villain,” he says.

Criss shares some surface similarities with Cunanan: Each is from California, has a parent from the Philippines and is college educated. 

Annaleigh Ashford Darren Criss and Nico Evers-Swindell star in 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.'

With an education, friends, a gift for storytelling (or lying) and no history of social problems, why did Cunanan become a murderer?  

Orth suggested the young man was willing to kill to become famous and that he envied Versace, who had the fame, riches and romantic relationship he desired.

That contrast is emphasized in Versace, writer Tom Rob Smith told the Television Critics Association. 

"This is a story of two men born in very different circumstances, a lot of similarities, both gay, both understood that they could be destroyed at any point, and how one person navigates that destruction by building this amazing empire and how he protects against homophobia by surrounding himself with money and power and success, and (how) someone else who fails to do that, who is then destroyed."

Cunanan had disadvantages and setbacks that many others encounter without suffering such "an extreme fall from grace," Criss says. "There are things that happened with him that would have changed most people and made them think about their lives differently, whereas Andrew, instead of facing reality, continued to cover it up with more lies and more fantasy that would ultimately" lead to tragedy.