The cross-country murder spree of Andrew Cunanan — leading to the 1997 killing of designer Gianni Versace — is "a very American story," says Ryan Murphy, executive producer–director of the FX anthology series that brought the real-life tale to television.
It's not quite five o'clock, but Darren Criss is sipping his first glass of champagne moments after arriving in a small basement lounge in Park City, Utah.
The Sundance Film Festival is in full swing, accounting for much of the activity in the cramped space, but Criss isn't here for that. The star of FX's The Assassination of Gianni Versace just wrapped a set nearby at the ASCAP Music Café, where he performed angsty songs from his sophomore solo release, Homework.
Though plenty of Hollywood types are in town for the indie film festival, Criss says he recognized no one in the crowd at his gig, save for his fiancée, Mia Swier, who has also been joining him on the ski slopes during the day. It's a bit of a celebratory trip, given that the pair recently got engaged and Criss just finished shooting the final episode in season two of the American Crime Story anthology series, in which he plays megalomaniacal spree killer Andrew Cunanan.
Belting out tunes for a roomful of strangers can be just as gratifying as heading an ensemble cast for his former Glee boss Ryan Murphy on Versace, where he played (briefly) opposite titular victim Edgar Ramírez and on a parallel but separate track from costars Penélope Cruz (as Donatella Versace) and Ricky Martin (as Gianni's lover Antonio D'Amico).
The nine-episode storyline moves in reverse chronological order: Criss operates in his own thread, which traces the roots of the Talented Mr. Ripley-esque maniac, once dubbed "most likely to be remembered" by his graduating class at a posh San Diego high school.
"One of the great goals in my career is to keep things as versatile as possible and to confuse and to throw people off," he says. "So, I like it when you have a room full of Sundance people, you know, music folks, music supervisors, filmmakers that are like, 'Wait, what? He's a songwriter?' That really excites me. The same way that, when I was mostly playing music and booked an acting gig, people would be like, 'What? You're an actor?'"
Unlike his famous costars, who have toplined studio movies (Ramírez), won an Oscar (Cruz) and enjoyed huge musical success (Martin), Criss has been waiting for his breakout.
Spending time with the San Francisco native, one can easily spot some similarities with Cunanan — a man who, with a slightly different nudge to his trajectory, might have become a brash social-media personality. Criss oozes charm and willingness to entertain. During this interview, he quickly turns the tables and pretends he is the one asking the questions, complete with an exaggerated news-anchor voice.
It's all part of what Criss brings to the table, according to Murphy, be it for a role or an everyday interaction. "He's a great performer and kind of a showman," Murphy says.
Criss, who hasn't seen the final three episodes at this point, then drops the façade and admits he is nervous about how his performance will be received. The series has just begun airing. Appropriately, Criss is wearing a maroon sweater emblazoned with cheerleaders spelling out the word H-E-L-P. "I just hope to be cool enough to have a movie at Sundance someday," he says.
Considering that such a prospect seems well within the realm of possibility, it's unclear if he's joking or feeling a genuine twinge of career apprehension.
"I think Darren has a strange mix of charm and vulnerability as well as danger," says Tom Rob Smith, the British novelist who wrote all nine hours of Versace. "And that, I think, was the key to Cunanan."
In March 2015, the final season of Glee had recently wrapped and Murphy was in preproduction on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. But he was already thinking ahead when he ran into Criss on the New Orleans set of Scream Queens. Criss was traveling with Swier, who directs and produces promotional content and campaigns for Fox series, including Murphy's Scream Queens.
Criss, about to star in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, was looking to line up his next gig. He pitched himself to Murphy as "a wily bellhop to come in and cause shenanigans around the hotel" for American Horror Story. Murphy interrupted the pitch with a dismissive "No" — but only because he had a better idea.
"He said, 'We're doing this anthology, American Crime Story, and we're thinking about the Andrew Cunanan story. How much do you know about him?'" Criss recalls. "I didn't know anything."
He only vaguely remembered Cunanan because they shared a half-Filipino ancestry. But other than that, he could only recall that Cunanan had killed Versace — nothing about the four other victims or the high-profile manhunt or his suicide as the authorities closed in, eight days after his shooting of Versace on the steps of his palatial Miami home. Nevertheless, he felt excited by the prospect of reteaming with Murphy.
"'You're the one with the keys to this castle, so I'll wait by the phone until you're ready to go,'" he told Murphy. "It took three years."
That's because a Hurricane Katrina–focused tale was poised to follow O.J. as the second American Crime Story outing. But that series kept hitting script snags and became too sprawling, even for an FX-backed anthology series. "Ultimately, I decided this is not the right way to tell the story. The story is too big," Murphy says of shelving the Katrina project. "The episodes became so expensive that we could not produce them."
Just as that decision was being made, Smith delivered three Versace scripts — based on Maureen Orth's 1999 book, Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History — that blew Murphy away. In many ways, they offered "something that was the opposite of O.J.," he says.
With Cunanan, he got just that — a killer unknown to the general public until he took down a world-famous fashion designer. By contrast, Simpson was already one of the most recognizable names and faces in the world before he was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in the so-called trial of the century.
Aptly, Cunanan proved to be a Zelig-type character in the southern California gay community. Everyone seemed to have crossed paths with him or knew someone who had.
"I also had a visceral personal connection to that Cunanan story when it was happening," Murphy says. "I was living in Los Angeles then, and I had friends who knew him. So, there was a personal thing there for me with that story."
By the end of 2016, FX was thrilled by the scripts coming in, so it committed to shooting Versace in 2017. And Murphy could already count on Criss, who, he says, was "the only person in the world who could play Andrew Cunanan effectively."
Coincidentally, Criss was once again starring in Hedwig — this time in San Francisco — when he saw an online news story that Versace was a go, instead of Katrina. He texted Murphy immediately to make sure their conversation in New Orleans still held true.
"He was a man of his word," Criss says. "I ran out of words to express my thanks for his belief in me. If he hadn't gone through with this, that would've been fine — I wouldn't have held it against him. But he really did what he said he was going to do. And so here we are."
Murphy didn't exactly meet resistance when he first floated Criss's name. But, initially, there were some blank stares. However, the über-producer was emphatic. "If Darren didn't play this part, then we weren't going to make it," he says. "When you lead with that kind of passion to a network or a studio or other producers, they sit up a little straighter, and they're like, 'Oh, okay.'"
Coming in, Criss wasn't a name actor like Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr., who'd portrayed Simpson. Playing in Criss's favor was his ethnicity — half Filipino from his mother's side (unlike Cunanan, whose father hailed from Manila). Hollywood has taken a PR drubbing for casting white actors and actresses in roles that called for Asians (think Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell). No one involved with Versace wanted to court the inevitable Care2 petition.
"I thought it was completely necessary [to cast a Filipino actor]," Murphy says. "I didn't want to whitewash that part. I had been obsessed with the Cunanan and Versace story for years and years and years. And I remember, when I first cast Darren on Glee back in 2010, just filing it in the back of my head. Like, 'Well, there's your Cunanan.'"
More important, he was convinced that Criss could pull off the gravitas of a killer.
"Darren had been typecast before as this good-time Charlie song-and- dance guy," Murphy adds. "But I always thought, having seen him do Hedwig on Broadway, that there was a darkness in Darren that I knew he was wanting to show. As somebody who supervised the editing of all of the episodes, [I know] it was almost always Darren's first take that we used. He was just plugged into the experience of 'I'm going to go for it.'"
Criss wasn't Murphy's only top pick. "They were all my first choices," he says of the other three main cast members. He cast Criss first, followed by Ramírez, then Cruz and finally Martin. With perhaps the busiest schedule of the four, Cruz was the hardest to nail down. But she and Murphy had been discussing a potential collaboration for years.
"When he called me with this project and talked to me about playing Donatella, I was very surprised that he thought of me for that role," says the Spanish actress. "And then I thought, 'I can play an Italian woman. I've played an Italian woman before. I can do that accent.' The first thing I did was to call her."
"Her" being Donatella. It turned into a one-hour conversation. Versace hadn't read any of the scripts, which would likely have been painful, given that they dredged up the 1997 murder of her brother — who may or may not have had a brief dalliance with his killer years earlier.
But Versace gave her blessing, at least to Cruz. "If somebody was going to play her, she was happy it was me," Cruz says.
When the series was closer to its airdate, Versace's family made its displeasure known, issuing a statement calling it fiction. Smith argues that Orth's book was meticulously researched, not to mention that he and the executive producers — who include Murphy, Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson — obtained Cunanan's complete FBI file as well as police files from the various states along Cunanan's deadly path to Miami. Together, the documents formed an enormous archive.
"Obviously, we don't know what actually happened in rooms, conversations that were had," Criss notes. "If Andrew's interactions with any of these people were real or of his own fantasy, we don't know. To me, [what matters is] the emotional content… [and what may have led] him on such a destructive path."
Ultimately, Cruz received something of a thumbs-up from Versace. "The same day that the statement was out, Donatella sent me flowers for the Golden Globes," she says.
When production began in march 2017, spanning such locations as Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago, the actors largely avoided soliciting input from the persons portrayed in the series.
"We've discouraged actors from contacting the people they're playing," Jacobson says. "You end up feeling either an attachment to them — that you want to portray them the way they would like to be portrayed — or you don't like them, and that figures into your portrayal. Some of our actors do it anyway."
Martin was one of those exceptions. "I said, 'Antonio, I want you to help me bring justice to your story with Gianni. I'm going to become a journalist. I'm going to be asking some key questions. But, at the end of the day, all I want is for everyone to get to know exactly what your love for Gianni was about,'" he remembers.
The storyline offered a particularly personal entry point for Martin, who came out as gay in 2010. "Gianni struggled with coming out, because people were like, 'You're going to destroy your career.' So, it was a flashback to my reality, my story," Martin says.
For Ramírez, one of the most challenging scenes was the first sequence he shot. One of his only scenes with Criss, it chronicles the murky narrative of the early 1990s, when Cunanan and Gianni Versace met in San Francisco, where the designer was creating costumes for a Puccini opera.
"From the minute we met, we clicked and became very good friends," Ramírez says. "That helped, because Darren and I felt very comfortable with each other when we were thrown into one of the most difficult scenes in the entire show as our first. Honestly, it felt like we had always worked together."
Smith structured each episode around a victim, with Versace providing the bookends. Other victims included Lee Miglin, David Madson and Jeff Trail. In episode eight, Cunanan himself is the victim — of his father, who is portrayed as a swindler in the office and a molester at home.
For Criss, the toughest scenes were those shot with M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell, who played Miglin, a closeted gay millionaire in Chicago. Well before killing him in a ritualistic way, Cunanan preyed upon his fragility as a family man with a secret.
"This is a man right around my father's age, and there was such a sweetness and heartbreak and sadness in his performance that made me so bummed out on set," Criss says. "It was like kicking a puppy. It was nothing violent — it's all the psychological fuckery, to use a really academic term."
Still, Versace proved to be one of the most collaborative sets, according to several of the performers.
"I enjoyed every second," Cruz says. "I felt like we could trust each other, that we were safe, that we could play and make mistakes and take risks and try things, because we were there to help each other, all of us. There were not a lot of egos." And, though Martin and Criss share zero screen time, they, too, forged a bond, with Martin hosting Criss and Swier for weekly Sunday barbecues.
"We're really close now — his fiancée and my family," Martin says. "And we're not even in the same storyline."
The ratings for Versace haven't approached the stratospheric numbers reached by O.J., which debuted to almost 9 million viewers versus Versace's 5.5 million. After all, the O.J. trial captured the zeitgeist in a way that few crimes can, with its mix of celebrity, money and racial tension playing out on national TV.
But Versace is perhaps more timely and relevant, chronicling an era that spawned the Defense of Marriage Act and the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Still reeling from the AIDS crisis, politicians and talk-show hosts were openly discussing quarantines.
"Part of the thing we want the show to talk about is what America did to gay men and women in the 1980s and 1990s, and explore the pain of being in the closet," executive producer Brad Simpson says.
In a more subtle way, the story examines what happens when the American Dream goes wrong. Cunanan's immigrant father placed financial success above all else, instilling values that could easily be corrupted. Motivated by the destructive allure of celebrity, Cunanan pursued fame and settled for infamy.
"Ultimately, it's a very American story," Murphy says. "That idea of wanting something so badly — your nose pressed against the glass — and seeing other people have what you [want], and you don't have the resources or the talent or the means to get it. So, finally, you just take it. And the way that Andrew ultimately took it was by literally taking someone's life. A very famous person."
Go behind the scenes of emmy's cover shoot with the stars of American Crime Story at TelevisionAcademy.com/cover.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018