Darren Criss calls it “serendipity” that he already was in Ryan Murphy’s orbit when the producer focused in on telling the tale of serial killer Andrew Cunanan for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” the latest edition of “American Crime Story.” Cunanan was half-Filipino, just as Criss is, which gave the actor a rare opportunity to play his ethnicity.
“I believe there are a lot of great half-Filipino actors out there that could have done this a lot of justice, [but] when Ryan talked about doing this three years ago, before we actually got the ball rolling last year, I would joke with him saying, ‘Hey man, I would love to do this, but if you don’t want me to do it with you, I defy you to find another guy who looks kind of like him, who’s in the same age range, who’s in your Rolodex of actors. Because if you don’t cast a half-Filipino guy, the Filipino community is going to cry bloody murder. So I don’t know what your other options are!’
“I would have never held that against him but I would jokingly think that. I’m glad it all came to fruition when it did.”
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Executive producer Nina Jacobson said it was important that the actor playing Cunanan was half-Filipino, especially after having just produced the upcoming film “Crazy Rich Asians.”
“We did not want to whitewash a role,” she said. “Andrew was half-Filipino, and it was really important to not just get a guy and say that he was. We wanted to be authentic in terms of Andrew’s background. And the fact that Darren had kind of this striking resemblance physically, the chops of an actor and professionalism to take on a role of this disturbing hard role to play that he also could authentically play a half-Filipino character as opposed to the usual Hollywood thing.”
Criss said that he doesn’t think whitewashing comes out of any conscious malice, but admits that he may harbor “half-white privilege” in that view.
“What makes good casting work is when you have good actors. There are a lot of great Filipino actors that I think people just aren’t thinking outside of the box enough,” he said.
Criss pointed specifically to Jon Jon Briones, who plays Modesto Cunanan in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.”
“He’s a tried and true Broadway veteran, he’s been acting for years, he’s not just some newbie — maybe to the film and television world but certainly not as a craftsman of acting,” Criss said. “And Ryan asked me, ‘Who is this guy, I love him! Where’s he from, how come he doesn’t get roles?’ I said, ‘Ryan, he does but he’s a Filipino man who looks a certain way. You have to understand the roles he’s being offered.’ The Thai terrorist on ‘CSI.’ And he’s from the original cast of ‘Miss Saigon,’ he’s doing Miss Saigon right now. He’s the Engineer on Broadway. What it takes is a role like this, hopefully, where people go, ‘oh! This guy is really good!’ It sucks we have to wait around for roles that show you off within the corner you’re put in to be able to play in the larger room.”
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” may have Versace in the title, but it’s really the story of Andrew Cunanan, and the tale of how he became the killer of not just Versace but several other socialites across the country. It was a juicy role for Criss, and IndieWire’s Turn It On podcast recently met up with the actor to discuss the mystery of Cunanan, the sensitivity of the fact that so many people impacted by Cunanan may be watching, and how his ethnicity as a half-Filipino man made him the perfect fit for the role. Later in this episode, we also talked to American Crime Story producers Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson about the franchise. But first, we talked to Criss about how this role impacted him. Listen below!
Criss said “Versace” was a tremendous role for him, but he’s muted in his enthusiasm because of the realization that Cunanan’s murders impacted many people who are still around and may watch the show.
“Now they have to deal with this being on television and being water cooler fodder at work,” he said. “That’s something I’m very much aware of. Saying this is a dream role I’m careful of because I don’t want to be insensitive to the lives that were affected. However, beyond it being a very interesting part as an actor, I got to work with all these people and we got to travel to interesting places All the boxes were ticked. I got to do a show with Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez, Ricky Martin.”
It was also a bit of a challenge because there isn’t much documentation of Cunanan’s life — which meant Criss had to come up with some of the character on his own. “In that sense, I am relieved from having to do an imitation job,” he said. “He’s not a person that people are familiar with who are expecting me to do my version of Andrew. It gives me a lot of leeway.”
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX.
IndieWire’s “TURN IT ON with Michael Schneider” is a weekly dive into what’s new and what’s now on TV — no matter what you’re watching or where you’re watching it. With an enormous amount of choices overwhelming even the most sophisticated viewer, “TURN IT ON” is a must-listen for TV fans looking to make sense of what to watch and where to watch it.