He acts, he sings, he dances. And in his latest role, the 30-year-old, who shot to fame with “Glee,” is the serial killer who murdered Gianni Versace.
MIAMI BEACH — At 6:30 in the morning, Darren Criss was bright-eyed and perky as he bounded out of his South Beach hotel and into a black car. It was the last day of shooting for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” Ryan Murphy’s nine-episode follow-up to “The People v. O. J. Simpson.”
Mr. Criss plays the assassin and, the night before, he had been up late shooting a manhunt scene that blocked off a stretch of Collins Avenue, to the chagrin of nightclubbers and Uber drivers.
“That was a very cool rock-star moment,” Mr. Criss said in the car, wearing a ball cap and jeans. He flashed an easygoing grin, the kind that endeared him to legions of young fans of “Glee,” on which he played Blaine Anderson, the preppy, harmonizing love interest of Chris Colfer’s Kurt Hummel.
His new role on “American Crime Story” (which has its premiere on FX on Jan. 17) couldn’t be less gleeful: Andrew Cunanan, the gay gigolo turned serial killer who shot Mr. Versace in 1997, after killing four other men.
Mr. Criss, 30, leaned over and pointed out the window. “See that?” he said. “That’s the houseboat, perfectly recreated.” In Indian Creek, the crew had built a replica of Mr. Cunanan’s final hide-out, where he met his demise after a frenzied eight-day manhunt. The series makes use of several real locations in Miami Beach, most notably the Versace Mansion, the site of the murder, now a boutique hotel.
As the car turned into a parking lot full of trailers, Mr. Criss was all smiles, doling out greetings of “Hey, man!” and “Happy last day!” Even pre-caffeine, he was relentlessly chipper, which seems antithetical to playing a murderer. Or maybe not. Charm was Mr. Cunanan’s calling card, masking a desperate need for acceptance that curdled into pathology. And Mr. Criss’s exuberance on set, he said later, was a way of putting the crew at ease.
“This is the first time I’ve been No. 1 on the call sheet, so you’re kind of the quarterback,” he said. “You set a tone. I take my work very seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously at all.”
He plopped down in front of a mirror, where a hair-and-makeup artist fitted him with a wig. Like any decent actor playing a villain, he had looked for Mr. Cunanan’s redeeming traits: his talent, his likability. “The bleeding idealist in me always likes to think that there are more things in common between all of us than there aren’t,” he said. Presumably, he meant “bleeding-heart idealist,” but the phrase seemed apt.
It was that chiaroscuro quality that caught the attention of Mr. Murphy, who as a co-creator of “Glee” gave Mr. Criss his breakout role. “Darren was seen by people as being a comedic actor, a Broadway musical star and a sensation: Mr. Charisma,” Mr. Murphy said. “I just knew he had the ability to go dark.”
Mr. Murphy has a knack for matching actors with career-changing roles, notably Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark in “The People v. O. J. Simpson.” The new series features Edgar Ramirez as Mr. Versace, Ricky Martin as his lover Antonio D’Amico and Penélope Cruz as his sister Donatella. (Last week, the Versace family released two statements calling the series an unauthorized “work of fiction.”)
But Mr. Criss was the linchpin. “He was my first and only choice,” Mr. Murphy said. “I truly wouldn’t have made it without him. I don’t know any other actor who would have been correct.”
Given Mr. Criss’s squeaky-clean image, the casting seems wildly against type. But Mr. Criss and Mr. Cunanan had some unlikely similarities, beginning with an uncanny physical resemblance. Both are half-Filipino California natives, and “we both revel in being different,” Mr. Criss said. As a teenager, he wore vintage bell-bottoms to high school, while the young Mr. Cunanan put dimes in his penny loafers for “that extra bit of flair.”
But while Mr. Criss channeled his charisma into singing and dancing, Mr. Cunanan faked his way into high society, lashing out when he didn’t get his way. Growing up in San Diego, Mr. Cunanan was a social butterfly in the Hillcrest neighborhood, where the gay and military communities overlapped, subsisting on sugar daddies and outrageous lies.
“The evidence is strong that he was a drug dealer and involved in crystal meth, so he would get a lot of money in cash and treat people to elaborate dinners,” said the writer Maureen Orth, whose Vanity Fair article about Mr. Cunanan grew into the book “Vulgar Favors,” the basis of the FX series. “At the same time, he was extremely aspirational. Even when he was hiding out in South Beach, he had the biography of William Paley. He had Architectural Digest. And then he’d go out at night and hustle.”
Shooting Mr. Versace was a crime “very much of anger,” Ms. Orth said. “Andrew had been rejected, and things hadn’t turned out for him the way he wanted. And he also was desperate to be famous, and he was willing to kill.”
From Theater Geek to ‘Glee’
By contrast, fame came easily to Mr. Criss. Even before “Glee,” he had garnered a following from his role in a satirical “Harry Potter” musical, which he put on with his post-collegiate theater company in Michigan. A YouTube version, with Mr. Criss as the boy wizard, went viral.
By then he was already a seasoned performer. Raised in San Francisco, the son of a prominent banker, he began studying classical violin when he was 5. Not long after, he saw “Aladdin” and decided he wanted to be the genie, or, barring that, an actor. The year of the Versace murder, he made his professional theater debut at age 10, in a local production of the 1954 musical “Fanny.” His big number was “Be Kind to Your Parents.”
He spent the next eight years studying at the American Conservatory Theater’s young conservatory program, while acting with 42nd Street Moon, a San Francisco troupe known for musical revivals. “After school, I was raised by gay 20-somethings,” he said of his adolescent years. “These are the people that I loved and looked up to and wanted to be around.”
His early introduction to gay culture helped prepare him for a career in which his best-known roles and a good chunk of his fan base are gay, though Mr. Criss himself is straight. (His longtime girlfriend is Mia Swier, a TV director and producer.) He’s a rare breed: theater geek filtered through California bro, which made an ideal combination for the pop dorkiness of “Glee.”
In the show’s early days, he auditioned unsuccessfully for a few bit parts, including a football player, until Mr. Murphy finally took notice of him and cast him as Blaine in Season 2. “I knew he could sing, I knew he could act, and I knew before we shot a frame of it, this kid’s going to blow up,” Mr. Murphy said.
He was right: Mr. Criss debuted on “Glee” in 2010, not long after getting a theater degree at the University of Michigan, and his cover of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” from his first episode shot up the Billboard charts. A vocal fan base kept the Kurt and Blaine romance steaming along, breaking television barriers as it went.
Mr. Criss burnished his overnight fame with stints on Broadway in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and recorded music as a solo artist and with Computer Games, an alt-pop band he started with his brother, Chuck Criss. In 2015, he helped found Elsie Fest, an outdoor music festival in New York that has been called “Coachella for Show Tunes.”
Mr. Murphy first floated the idea of the Versace project three years ago, when Mr. Criss was in New Orleans while Mr. Murphy was there shooting the pilot for “Scream Queens.” Hearing the name Andrew Cunanan, Mr. Criss responded, “Oh, that’s right! The half-Filipino guy!” Later that summer, he was backstage at “Hedwig” in full makeup and heels when Mr. Murphy called: “‘Do you still want to do the Cunanan thing?’”
Channeling a Killer
In the makeup trailer in Miami, a stylist painted a meth scab on Mr. Criss’s leg and everyone got in a van. The morning’s agenda: a fictionalized scene in which the increasingly desperate Mr. Cunanan tries to swim his way to safety, but quickly turns back. The van stopped near a jetty at the northern tip of Bal Harbour, with the Ritz-Carlton looming in the background.
“This is going to be rad!” Mr. Criss said, barely containing his enthusiasm. The first assistant director went over the shot: stare at the water; take off shirt, shoes and sunglasses; zip up backpack; jump in.
“Shirt, shoes, sunglasses,” the actor repeated. “I like the alliteration of that.” Mr. Criss gazed at the beach. “Look at these colors, guys. It looks fake!”
The waves were crashing hard against the concrete. As the crew shot the scene at the end of the jetty, it was decided that the water was too choppy for Mr. Criss to actually get in, lest they lose their star to sea. Still, by the end of the take he was drenched from ocean sprays, stripped down to soaking white boxer shorts.
“That was insane,” he shouted while he walked back, as someone swathed him in a white robe. He smiled into the sun and took stock of his luck: “Just a day at the office. Who gets to do this?”
On a break, I mentioned that he seemed to be having fun, and he bridled. “I’m really careful with that word,” he said, his smile dissipating. “This is pretty gruesome material.”
During the eight-month shoot, he had been approached by several people who knew Mr. Cunanan. At an event in Los Angeles, he recalled, a Hollywood producer came up to him and said, “Oh, yeah, Andrew Cunanan, I used to hook up with him,” and added that the F.B.I. had warned him to be careful while Mr. Cunanan was still on the loose.
After a few takes, the crew moved to the beach to shoot Andrew’s dejected return to the shore: “my anti-James Bond moment,” Mr. Criss joked. He flung himself into the waves and trudged back onto the sand, kneeling and agonizing for the camera.
“Show us your face,” the episode’s director, Dan Minahan, instructed, and Mr. Criss revealed an anguished expression out of “Guernica.” After “Cut!,” he instantly reverted to his sunny self, saying, “I haven’t been in the water since we got back to Miami, so: check!”
Sitting down for lunch after the shoot, Mr. Criss described the series as a parable about “the ultimate creator and the ultimate destroyer,” in which resentment turned Mr. Cunanan from aspirant to assassin. “I approached Andrew from a pretty big place of hurt and pain and sorrow and sadness,” he said. “The story doesn’t horrify me as much as it breaks my heart.”
“And that’s why acting is such a fun art form to me, again as a bleeding idealist, a bleeding happy-go-lucky dude,” he said, grinning again at his sheer dumb luck. “People casually ask me, ‘How’s the show going?’ And I will say with no ounce of irony or hyperbole, ‘I’ve worked and waited my entire life for this moment, and I couldn’t be happier.’”
Moments later, something close to an irony did cross his mind: “It’s the life Andrew Cunanan would have dreamed of, frankly.”