Earning his first Emmy nomination for acting hasn’t gone to Darren Criss’ head — even if he’s also the one to beat.
“It was fun to live out my old-age rivalry between me and Antonio,” says Criss playfully, early one morning from the Made Hotel in New York. Antonio is Antonio Banderas, and both actors are up for an Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy award in a limited series this year. “No,” he quickly adds, “I’m kidding!”
The 31-year-old actor shows up to the tropical-themed rooftop venue Good Behavior in pink shorts, a T-shirt bearing Giorgio Armani’s face — obtained through a gift bag from an event — and a drawstring gym bag emblazoned with the University of Michigan, his alma mater. He’s a “Glee” alum (his original song “This Time” earned him his first Emmy nomination in 2015), and his musical theater background is quickly apparent — he launches into a short rendition of “Love Me Do,” which he’s also been singing for his driver all morning. The easygoing class of 2009 grad is nominated for his portrayal of serial killer Andrew Cunanan in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.” He’s favored to win in the limited series category, in which he’s the second actor of Asian descent to be nominated; like Cunanan, Criss is half Filipino.
As a whole, the show picked up 18 nominations across categories, including for best limited series. When asked about his individual nomination, Criss, a true team player, expresses his gratitude before passing the ball back to his team.
“I feel like the nomination is this absurdly generous bonus to something that I’ve already been excited by for quite some time now,” he says. “My general attitude toward life is I hope for everything but expect nothing. But when you’re playing for the Warriors, there’s a good chance you’ll make it to the championships. And I’m not saying I’m Steph Curry, but when you’re on [showrunner] Ryan Murphy’s team, it seems more palpable than ever,” he continues. (Criss previously starred on “Glee,” another Murphy creation, although they didn’t directly work together.) “I feel like I’ve already won the lottery.”
Criss has been riding the wave with his “American Crime Story” cohorts, which includes Penélope Cruz, Ricky Martin and Édgar Ramírez; all three are also nominated, for best supporting roles.
He may not be starstruck by his castmates, but he is in awe of his co-nominees — Banderas, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeff Daniels, John Legend and Jesse Plemons.
“The only real freak-out moment is seeing who else is nominated — they’re all people who I have very specific fan relationships with — people who I’ve experienced their work in a theater or concert hall, or at home watching on my couch going, ‘Goddamn, I love this person.’ So that’s cool. I have very distinct memories of each person taking part in something that I really was wowed by. So to be in the same brethren is pretty wild.”
Criss has had some time, and many interviews, to process his involvement since the show began airing in January. Portraying a real character responsible for the murder of five people has weighed heavily on him.
“It runs the gamut. It’s a provocative story. So it provokes a lot of different emotions, and completely understandably. So many people come up to me that knew Andrew.…so many. On the bus, on the subway — it’s a s–tload, it never ends, everybody knew this guy,” he says. “He kind of had this ubiquitous bogeyman presence where, after somebody becomes that infamous, suddenly their notoriety augments their presence.…Everyone has a secondhand story, but a lot of people who knew him wanted to talk to me,” he continues. “Most of those stories were incredibly positive. That’s the really heartbreaking thing — granted, a lot of them were negative, but most people who came up to me knew him when he was younger, early 20s, figuring out life, just like a lot of us were.”
Not that empathy for Cunanan is a prerequisite for viewers. “Nor are we looking to forgive or exonerate, that’s absurd,” Criss offers.
One group that Criss hasn’t interacted with is the friends and families of Cunanan’s victims.
“This is a trauma, a very public trauma, that they’ve all had to deal with for the past 20 years,” he says. “Maybe they were a fan of the O.J. series, and now they have to deal with this being the zeitgeist water-cooler fodder every week. It doesn’t not occur to me that there are people out there that have to deal with seeing those billboards and commercials on television, and the knife that must twist in something that has taken decades to try and grapple with.”
In telling Cunanan’s story, Criss hopes that the show brought to light into an otherwise dark chapter. “We’re trying to spark a discussion, that there’s something much bigger going on than those specific tragedies,” he said, adding that he hopes the show is able to “bring justice” for those impacted.
“That to me is what is so great about ‘American Crime Story’ — obviously, we’re framing it around a famous series of crimes, but we’re also talking about the distinctly American crimes that allowed these things to happen. In our case, it’s homophobia in the Nineties,” Criss says, recounting Cunanan’s victims. “How homophobia affects not only a world-famous successful fashion design, but also a deeply closeted successful real estate developer in Chicago, and a young man in the military in San Diego.” Also, Cunanan. “How it affects a bright, talented, good-looking, charismatic kid from one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Diego, born into a family wrought with mental illness. How its tentacles connects and affects all these people and shapes all their lives in a really unfortunate way.
“That’s why storytelling and acting can be so powerful,” Criss adds. “It’s one of the few places I can think in life where relative strangers, audiences, can proactively subscribe their minds to thinking differently, and experiencing someone else’s narrative.”
While Criss has a few projects in the works, which he’s unable to discuss, he does note some of his other upcoming ventures: working on another EP with his brother for their band Computer Games, writing another score for a musical, the New York-based Elsie Fest that he coproduces. He and his fiancé, Mia Swier, just opened a bar, Tramp Stamp Granny’s, in Los Angeles. (“I’m quite literally just the piano player,” he says.)
Oh, and he also has the Emmy Awards ceremony on Sept. 17.
“As far as the acting thing is concerned, I don’t know,” Criss adds. “I’m waiting around for the fates to let me know what’s next. I’m looking out on the edge of the precipice looking down, and seeing who has the funnest net to jump into.”