A little lipstick, lighter eyebrows, a platinum blonde wig and authentic runway costume acquisitions were all it took to visually transform Penelope Cruz into fashion icon Donatella Versace for the “Assassination of Gianni Versace” chapter of FX’s “American Crime Story.”
But emotionally, the task of portraying the head of an internationally recognizable designer brand during the most painful episode of her life wasn’t quite as simple. “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” dramatizes the 1997 murder of Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez), as well as the events leading up to the crime through the eyes of his assassin (Darren Criss).
In her first TV role, Cruz plays Gianni Versace’s sister and business partner, Donatella. The Oscar-winner proved she could translate her acting chops to the small screen, scoring a 2018 supporting actress Emmy nomination for emulating the designer’s distinct mannerisms and intimate relationship with her late brother.
Here, she talks with Variety about her inspiration for the role, her research process and how she and Ramirez worked on creating a brother-sister dynamic on-screen.
What drew you to the role of Donatella Versace?
When [Ryan Murphy] said, “I want you to play Donatella Versace,” I was completely shocked. I said, “OK, say that again. I didn’t hear you correctly.” And then he explained to me what he wanted to do. I was very attracted to the idea, and I thought, this is a great character to play and somebody that I really like and respect — because I met her a few times during the last few years, and she’s always been really kind. She’s very special. And I said, “OK, I want to say yes, but I cannot say yes before I call Donatella because I’m playing a real person. I want to know how she feels about me playing her.” I called her, and she was not involved with the show in any way, but she told me, “If somebody’s gonna do it, I’m happy it’s you.” And I think she said that because she knows that I really respect her and that I feel a lot of affection for her. Everybody involved in the show feels the same way about Donatella. We see her as some kind of heroine — somebody that had to go through such a difficult time, a difficult situation, and during that emotional [time], she had to have the entire weight of this brand, of this empire, on her shoulders. She had to keep it alive, and she did it, probably inspired by the love of this brother she lost in the most terrible way. Anyway, when she said those words to me, then that’s when I accepted the role, and I spent a lot of months preparing and enjoyed every second. And it was like my own personal homage to her and Gianni because I’ve always been such a big fan of them.
What research did you conduct into the fashion industry and Versace?
I have been in contact with the fashion industry because of my job and this kind of marriage that happens between movies and fashion, and they both support and help each other. I’ve been a witness of many peculiar situations in the fashion world, and also being [a witness to] what hard work it is, or how the great ones like Donatella or Gianni … how they are really true artists, some of them. The amount of work that goes into creating a couture collection — I knew about that, but I went to study even farther. Mainly, I focused on trying to capture an essence of Donatella and trying not to do an imitation. The key thing for me was to try to find her voice — to find a voice that, when you hear me, you don’t hear my voice but also, hopefully, you don’t hear an imitation. It’s an in-between thing that is trying to capture something that makes you feel her energy without doing an caricature because, of course, that’s not what anybody wanted here — not me, not Ryan, nobody. It was challenging because she’s somebody that has had, even, people imitating her on TV because she has a very charismatic personality and a unique personality and her voice, the way she moves. I had to work for many, many months on the voice. It’s a much lower pitch. It’s the accent that is an Italian accent, but in English. And on top of that, it’s her own way — her very, very specific, unique way of speaking. I am not the judge now, for the audience, to say if they can see something in there that is her and not me. Hopefully that’s how they feel. For me, that’s what I tried. That’s what I tried to do with many months of hard work with my coach … and also watching hours and hours of footage of her every day for many months.
How did you go about finding and choosing footage to use?
Mainly on YouTube. There are so many interviews of her in Italian, in English. Footage of her with her brother backstage before coming out — before the show. In those chaotic moments before a show, you could see them so present, so in the moment, that you could see a lot about their personalities and their relationship. I didn’t find a lot of that, but what I found was like a treasure for me, and I started to get detailed about their behavior with each other. And also, I talked to a lot of people that have been working with her for 20, 30 years, and they love her, and the fact that she’s had the same people for so long — it says a lot of good things about her. That’s the preparation that I did. And going back to the Italian accent — because I learned Italian for an Italian movie, but that was a while ago, and then going back and getting that accent but then transfer it to English — the Italian accent is there, but it’s English, and it’s her very unique look and her own way of speaking and moving. For me, she’s very rock and roll in everything she does, and it’s not a pose. She’s really like that.
How did you build the Versace sibling relationship?
Edgar and I were doing very similar things in terms of trying to find new footage of them, new interviews. If we found something new, we would tell each other, ‘Look what I found!’ And that way, you’re not making up things. You’re just finding more reality of things that they did and they said and things that they expressed themselves, with their own words. And then we listened to a lot of opera and Prince together because, we decided, both opera and Prince are like the two extremes where, probably, these two characters are both of them, in those two different styles of music. They could be both a combination of that because they are so similar in many ways, this brother and sister. We would listen to some of that together, and it would inspire us to get into that energy. And we connected from day one, Edgar and I. We were almost knowing what the other one was thinking. There is some connection with a lot of casts with each other, and that is wonderful when that happens. It’s a wonderful experience, and no matter what the result is, it’s an experience, and you always have a special relationship with that person — the same with Ricky [Martin] and Ryan. With Darren, I didn’t have any scenes, but we were always doing some singing together. Even if we saw each other in the middle of the street, we would always find something to sing. I’m not a singer — he’s the most incredible singer, so it was just my way to get him to sing and listen to that incredible voice.
How did you get into the mindset for the grief of the post-assassination scenes?
I was imagining the reality of what happened. This woman — what would that pain be for her? What did she feel? The desperation of that and having to get the strength to continue with the pressure of having to continue the brand. Just seeing what happened to them, imagining their situation, I didn’t have to substitute that for something else, like, “Oh, imagine if this happened to me.” Acting is sometimes about compassion, sometimes about just understanding and no judgment of the characters. It was very easy to feel that love for them, and there were little things that trigger a lot of that, like seeing the stairs on Gianni’s house. When I saw the real stairs where he died, that was so heartbreaking because that was so unfair that this young, very kind, very talented man that was so friendly and so kind to everyone, and in two seconds he was gone. To me, looking at those stairs, without making any effort or trying to force it, it just comes to you. I feel like, how can life be so crazy sometimes? That compassion and those feelings would come, not just to me, to anyone who is in that house and seeing those stairs and that room and that place where he lived — this place that he created with so much passion. He loved that house, and you can see in every corner what an artist he was … It’s hard to put it into words, but it gave us a lot of information, almost on a cellular level — more than having to go through your brain, you were there, and it was such a strong thing. It made me feel so angry, also, that somebody had to go in such an unfair way.