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‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’: How Darren Criss Stayed Sane While Playing Serial Killer Andrew Cunanan

Darren Criss wasn’t nervous at all to move on from “Glee” to the darker role of serial killer Andrew Cunanan in FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”

At least, that’s what he told uber-producer Ryan Murphy during a For Your Consideration event at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I’d been waiting and working for this moment my entire life…You really are just waiting for someone to pass you the ball,” Criss told Murphy.

It wasn’t just Criss who’d taken the ball and scored — the acclaimed FX series dramatizing the murder of the iconic fashion designer Versace at Cunanan’s hands and the harrowing path that led there scored 18 total Emmy nods in the limited series or movie category, and several of the show’s nominees were on hand for a panel discussion led by Murphy, himself nominated for outstanding directing. Joining them onstage were the series sole writer Tom Rob Smith (outstanding writing nominee), Edgar Ramirez and Finn Wittrock (both outstanding supporting actor nominees), and producers Brad Simpson and Alexis Martin Woodall (outstanding limited series), as well as surprise video callers Ricky Martin (outstanding supporting actor) and Judith Light (outstanding supporting actress).

On the red carpet before the panel, Criss told Variety that he felt his Emmy nomination was the culmination of a big-picture approach to his career, as well as a considerable team effort.

“I’ve always been a long-game guy, and I recognize that opportunities don’t come instantaneously,” he explained. “So while it’s been a very exciting year and exciting time, I think it’s the amalgam of a lot of time put in — years — and other things that people may not be as familiar with. And to make it a lot less about myself, because it really is more about the people around me, it’s the investment in those people and the mutual belief we have in each other. When you have acknowledgement at this level it’s validating for the whole team, I think, because show business is not a one-man army.”

Criss also recalled making a specific effort to shake off any lingering darkness from playing the troubled Cunanan as quickly as he could, as much for the sake of his fellow cast and crew members as for himself.

“I’m a very goofy person,” he admitted. “I don’t take myself very seriously, and so I took it upon myself to be as light and goofy as I possibly could on set; basically to help not only myself, but everybody on set that’s been working for hours and hours, for weeks and months at a time on really grim material, to have a reason to put a smile on our faces…I think that’s almost a self-preservation method of getting out of Andrew’s skin and his mind, but to me, it lives and dies between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ I guess I’m lucky in that sense, that it never really followed me home.”

Darren Criss, Edgar Ramirez, Finn Wittrock'The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story' TV show FYC event, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 15 Aug 2018
CREDIT: Frank Micelotta/Fox/PictureGroup

Shaking off the haunting nature of the story’s many facets sometimes proved difficult, admitted Wittrock, who played Cunanan victim and closeted Naval officer Jeff Trail. “I try not to take things home with me too much, but there was this one scene where I was giving the interview about coming out against the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” he recalled. “It was a very close reenactment to what really happened, so that was the one thing that was hard to shake. Sometimes whether you want to or not, you go home beaten up, so that was one where I had to go to a happy hour somewhere to forget my troubles.”

Ramirez said that while he and Martin, with whom he was close friends prior to their work playing Versace and his lover Antonio D’Amico, respectively, briefly had a chance to raise a celebratory glass together at the recent Television Critics Association Awards, he was still anticipating reuniting for a more elaborate celebration to mark their nominations in the same category when Martin returns to Los Angeles from his tour.

“A good proper celebration – like, a long one, a wild one – it’s in the cards, yeah,” laughed Ramirez.

The actor was sporting the bushy beard and mustache he adopted for his role in Disney’s upcoming “Jungle Cruise” film, opposite Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, and he was looking forward to his first-ever excursion to the classic ride at Disneyland. “I haven’t done it – I don’t know it!” he confessed.

Video calling from the road, Martin said he was as exuberant about the series and the opportunity it presented him now as he was when he first met with Murphy for the role.

“This is full-on activism,” he told Murphy. “You gave me an opportunity to talk on behalf of those who are struggling right now, not only with their sexual identity but so many levels of injustice…I said that we need to be loud and be very specific and be aggressive about telling the story to see if we can really make a difference for everyone that’s a part of the LGBT community that are really struggling with what’s happening.”

Martin also noted that he’s even recently fielded questions about the lives of Versace and D’Amico as a gay couple in the ’90s from journalists in famously repressive and conservative Dubai. “Man, Ryan — we’ve made a difference,” he said. “This is something to celebrate.”

Light Skyped in from New York where she was preparing a play, and she offered a surprising response when Murphy praised her ability to sell fragrances in character as Marilyn Miglin, the wife of one of Cunanan’s victims.

“I was actually the first spokesperson for ProActive Solution, which is an acne product, and literally, I swear to you, I sold it on QVC,” she laughed. “I know how that system operates, so I felt very blessed that I had that in my background. It made it easier for me.”

Smith praised Murphy’s always enviable ensemble of actors for their ability to elevate some of the series’ trickier sequences. “It’s unusual to give characters three-page scenes, which are essentially just two-handers,” he told Variety. “Those actors can hold that scene…TV now can take what’s the best of theater, I think, and give it this great visual spectacle as well, and I think that was the real takeaway: when you have the cast, you can really, in some ways, just let them do their thing for those three-page moments, and that’s certainly some of my favorite moments in the series.”

Producer Martin Woodall revealed that while development on a third installment of “American Crime Story” based on Hurricane Katrina remains in development, the team is currently focused on enjoying the post-“Versace” accolades. “We are really excited about the Emmy run, because we all worked really hard on this show, and we’re grateful that it was sort of a quiet response initially that sort of turned into a roar,” she said.

She’s also been enjoying watching Murphy in his current moment, developing new series for Netflix in the wake of his reported $300 million deal with the streaming giant. As a fixture of Murphy’s behind-the-scenes team since she started out with him as a production assistant, “I know him intimately and I respect him immensely, and my favorite thing about what changed: nothing,” she said. “It’s always about do the work and do the work well with him, and I really respect that. Of course we all joke about the new zeroes added to his name, but really and truly he is the same person. He works really hard, he really quests for something more when it comes to both entertainment and education.”

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