The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Darren Criss explains how he succeeded in 'humanising' killer Andrew Cunanan
The breakout star of American Crime Story season two says that while he does not expect viewers to "exonerate or forgive", he does hope that people at least understand better Cunanan's path to murder
While the second season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story may not have had the same water-cooler success in the UK as its predecessor The People vs OJ Simpson, it could go on to have a greater cultural impact - if nothing else, as the springboard for Darren Criss, the magnetic young actor who stars as serial killer Andrew Cunanan.
Before the series aired, promo photos for the drama featured dazzling, pink-hued shots of Edgar Ramirez and Penelope Cruz as legendary designer Versace and his sister Donatella, but they turned out to be little more than bit part players. The real story is the corruption of Cunanan’s soul that led him to embark on a five-person killing spree, ending with the murder of Versace on the front steps of his Miami mansion in July 1997.
It represented a huge challenge for actor Criss, who is best known for his role in musical sitcom Glee. How could he humanise the killer without exonerating him? How could he entertain without glamourising his atrocities?
To put it mildly, he succeeded. Criss is at turns terrifying, charming and downright pathetic as the murderer, and is quite rightly tipped to be a force to be reckoned with come awards season. When RadioTimes.com met him in London a couple of weeks ahead of the show’s heartbreaking finale, he spoke openly about the empathy he felt for Cunanan, and the reasons why, he thinks, he went down such a dark path.
"There we were in Miami, in front of the steps [of Gianni Versace's mansion] recreating this infamous murder," Criss says, only his immaculately trimmed beard and multi-coloured nail polish betraying him as a different entity to Cunanan.
"This isn't on a soundstage. This is in broad daylight in a very public place, in the same exact spot. That was just a tsunami of gravitas and weight that really... I haven’t found the proper adjectives for it yet, but it really gave me pause. Yes, you’re telling a story and there are cameras on, but I felt really bizarre to be doing this where it really happened."
The actor is warm and thoughtful in person, taking each question down a series of meandering paths towards a thorough, considered answer. He doesn't shy away from speculation about the drama's wider conclusions about the murders, and has his own thoughts about the implications of Wednesday's finale.
“It’s a very complex thing,” he says of the possible causes of Cunanan’s killing spree. “There’s this cocktail of a lot of really unhealthy things that were already in place. Things like homophobia in the world around him were just the catalyst to make it all blow up.”
As with the OJ verdict in season one, The Assassination of Gianni Versace contextualises Versace’s murder as a product of the era. Ricky Martin, who plays the designer’s lover Antonio D’Amico, said recently that “homophobia killed Gianni Versace”, suggesting that the FBI’s misunderstanding of the gay community was one of the primary reasons Cunanan was able to evade capture for as long as he did (he was wanted by the FBI for two months prior to shooting the designer).
Criss agrees with Martin to an extent, though he adds that Cunanan’s past played a major role, too: "You know, a lot of these investigative bodies not wanting to go into gay clubs to post flyers [was] not necessarily because they didn’t like gay people, so much as they weren't sure if that's something they could do. Maybe they were scared that they’d be perceived as homophobic."
He continues: “There’s a history of mental health [issues] in his family, and there’s his own social economic situation, which has nothing to do with his sexual identity but his identity as a person in a social context: wanting to be wealthier than he was, and coming from such a poor area and having a delusional father.”
Criss says that while he believed it was his responsibility as an actor to empathise with Cunanan, he doesn't expect the same from viewers.
“There’s no need to exonerate or forgive – these are horrible things that just break my heart,” he says. “But with someone like Andrew, it doesn’t boil down to just the most horrible things he’s ever done. The pallet of the human experience is so many colours and so many things, and the great thing about our show is that I’m not just playing 'The Killer': I’m playing a real person, who had wonderful moments, and we see him at his best, and he was loved, and had really lovely moments with people.”
Criss couldn’t escape Andrew’s humanity, even if he had wanted to. He says that friends and acquaintances of Versace’s killer approach him regularly and regale him – for the most part – with fond stories of their time with him.
“Everybody has an Andrew story. You know, 'My friend’s boyfriend went out with him one night', or had a roommate that spent time with him. Everybody tells me these stories, and I would say the majority of them are quite lovely."
He adds: “You just go, ‘Oh my god, I don’t want to hear that’. I mean, I do, but it’s so sad. It’s just so sad that these people have nice things to say about him because, again, to put [the conflicting ideas of Andrew as a friend and a murderer] together is a hard thing to marry, I guess.”
The star is aware too of the ethical dilemmas for which the series has been criticised since it was announced last year. Among these are the emotional distress it has caused families of victims – the Versace family has voiced their disapproval on multiple occasions, while D’Amico told Radio Times that it was an inaccurate portrayal of his relationship with the designer – but Criss is happy in the belief that the drama was created to serve a greater purpose than exploiting a tragedy.
"I mean, gosh, If any of these things had happened to somebody that I loved would be equally as vocal about it," he says. "And, if I had the public platform that the Versace family did I would say the exact same thing. I think they’ve every right and every reason to feel the way they do.
"But, I hope they understand that we’re not exploiting a story for commercial value. There’s a larger story at play here that isn't necessarily about this one horrible thing, which is the Versace murder, but an investigation and exploration of the time and the tragedies which that entails."
Wednesday’s finale sees Cunanan at the end of his spree, holed up in a houseboat knowing that his days of walking around free in public are numbered. He’s at the end of his tether; members of his victims’ families including Marilyn Miglin and David Madson's father haunt him through the multiple TV screens dotted throughout the house. he eats dog food to sustain himself, as entering a shop to purchase food would likely see him caught.
Whichever way you look at it, it’s distressing to see a human in such dire straits.
“The real tragedy to me is just the complete and utter loss of promise and potential," Criss says, "and that someone who was clearly gifted, who could have used his gifts to make something, decided to use them to destroy. That’s the real heartbreak in the American crime, and how that was allowed by a series of circumstances that were sort of out of his control.”
The Assassination of Gianni Versace concludes on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC2