Darren Criss has taken on a “Shakespearean” role in bringing the tortured life story of serial killer Andrew Cunanan to life in FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.”
So said “Versace” director and executive producer Ryan Murphy on Monday night as he “played Barbara Walters” during a Q&A with stars and producers following the series’ first public screening, held at New York City’s Metrograph theater.
“Versace” stars Criss, Edgar Ramirez, Ricky Martin, writer Tom Rob Smith, author Maureen Orth, and executive producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson offered insights into the limited series, which has the hard task of following “The People V. O.J. Simpson” as the second installment of FX’s “American Crime Story” franchise.
Here are 6 things we learned from the first look at “Versace”:
- Like “People V. O.J. Simpson,” “Versace” takes on larger cultural and societal issues beyond the sensational details of how Cunanan gunned down fashion superstar Versace on the steps of his Miami Beach villa on July 15, 1997. Through the once-and-future prism of a period drama, the first episode raises timely questions about discrimination against LGBT crime victims by law enforcement, disparity in health care for rich and poor, and the sick market for cashing in on grisly celebrity deaths. Versace was one of the first major public figures to live his life openly as a gay man, and, based on the first episode, the then-and-now perspective on cultural attitudes toward the LGBT community is clearly a major theme. “We want every season of this show to be about that crime that America is guilty of,” Jacobson said. “We wanted to re-conjure what it meant to be gay in the 1990s.”
- Don’t expect a simple linear storyline in “Versace’s” nine episodes. “We’re telling the story backwards. The first and second episodes are about the assassination [of Versace] and the manhunt, and then we go back in time. In episode eight you meet Andrew Cunanan as a child. The final episode deals with his eventual demise,” Murphy said.
- Orth, author of the 1999 book “Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” said Cunanan’s obsession with achieving a measure of celebrity was a product of the modern age. He was “besotted” with the idea of fame. “He was willing to kill for fame. He wanted to be everything Versace was, but he wasn’t willing to work for it,” Orth said. She added a harsh observation about the nation’s current political climate: “The idea that he was willing to kill for fame — there’s a line from there to getting famous from a sex tape like the Kardashians down to becoming president of the United States because you’re a reality TV star,” Orth opined.
- Criss became emotionally invested in playing the disturbed serial killer. The role is without question a career-accelerator for the former “Glee” star. Murphy noted that Criss is in every episode, as the story drills down on the factors that made Cunanan kill five people including Versace during his 1997 spree. “Stories that bend people’s sense of empathy are what interest me,” Criss said. “We’re trying to humanize somebody who is so conventionally vilified.” Murphy added: “We’re not interested in the killer-of-the-week approach,” he said. “We’re trying to understand the psychology of someone who would be driven to do those deeds.”
- Ramirez also got under the skin of Versace, even though his character spends most of episode one on a gurney in the morgue. Recreating the scenes of Versace’s murder on the actual site of his villa in Miami was a challenging process, said Martin, who plays Versace’s longtime lover, Antonio. “It was a profound, moving experience,” Martin said. “The crew was crying, the actors were crying — it was very intense.” Ramirez felt he channeled the soul of his character during his big death scene. He believed Versace lived through the trauma of being taken to the emergency room before he was declared dead at 9:21 a.m. “He was there,” Ramirez said. “He wanted to express something, but he couldn’t, about the insanity and the tragedy that [his murder] could have been prevented and it wasn’t.”
- Criss also emphasized the importance of the production having access to the Versace villa. “That house — it bleeds his soul,” Criss said. “His creativity exits in every wall and every doorknob in the house. It’s a living vestige of his legacy. I did feel his presence. I had to say a prayer for thanks and an apology for us exposing it. I’m hoping some light can be made from this very, very dark thing.”
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” premieres on Jan. 17.