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Ryan Murphy on ‘Versace,’ Darren Criss’ Star Turn and the #MeToo Movement

Ryan Murphy is poised to give audiences another jolt of innovative storytelling starting Wednesday with the premiere of FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.”

The producer took time out from “Versace’s” Jan. 8 premiere party at the Hollywood Palladium to speak with Variety about the development of the series and the revelatory performance by series star Darren Criss as killer Andrew Cunanan.

How did you come up with the idea of having the story unfold in a backward-chronological fashion?

The idea of telling the story backwards was [FX CEO John] Landgraf’s. We had written the first two (episodes) and then you go in and talk to John and say, “OK, here’s the story.” We just started talking about the “onion peel” of shame — because really it’s all about shame —  and we just started talking narratively about that. The more we talked about it in the room, the more we liked it. We knew that we were following ‘The People V. O.J. Simpson” which is a really difficult thing to do so we have to do everything we can to make it special.

What did that require of you on the production end?

It’s a very hard thing to construct because you have to be uber-prepared. The actors have to be very informed. I liked to work by giving (actors) concentrated information but not giving them much more than that. It was hardest on (writer) Tom Rob Smith and the actors. But it was the question of how do we keep being ambitious, how do we keep challenging ourselves? When you go backward in someone’s trajectory it’s more surprising for the audience and I think the experience is deeper. We tried to make it so that if you watched the show backwards it would be an interesting and oddly symbiotic thing. It’s a narrative device that takes a lot of extra planning, but when it works it’s great.

Darren Criss has drawn mostly rave reviews for his performance, which is very against type for the former “Glee” trouper. What was it that gave you confidence he could handle this role?

It was important to me that we were true to Cunanan’s ethnicity (Filipino and Italian). I had only directed him once (on “Glee”) but we stayed friends. I remember thinking he was a really good dramatic actor. He did something weird once in a “Glee” scene. I told him please don’t lose that excitement, and he never did. He always checked in and checked in with me. I called him when we were ready to greenlight (“Versace”). I wanted Cunanan like Darren to be a discovery for the audience. The interesting thing about Cunanan is you don’t know what he’s capable of and to have the actor in it be on the same powerful journey and I think it is.

Did he have any pause about taking on the role of a spree murderer?

(Darren) really went for it. He studied it, he pushed himself hard. His performance got quieter and more concentrated and studious and I like that. It was powerful to watch. I was not interested in just doing a serial killer story but to track the idea of how does someone become a monster?

How do you think the audience will react?

Darren is reminding me a lot of Sarah Paulson’s trajectory. It was powerful to watch somebody step into adulthood in a way. It’s very rewarding.

With “Versace” you are continuing your commitment to hiring women for at least half of the directing assignments on your show. Your Half Foundation has also been proactive in opening doors for female directors. These initiatives could not be more timely as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements take root.

Everybody’s talking about it. it’s important. I changed the dynamic of my company. The most important thing is that the culture has changed to be more about ideas and the exchange of ideas than ego. It’s interesting when women direct. The work is better. They ask more people to participate. I’ve been doing this a year and a half. It’s been a really good change in my life. That foundation may be the most important thing I’ve ever done in my career. I’m delighted to just keep going.

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