With a just-wrapped concert tour, new music in the works and an Emmy nod for The Assassination of Gianni Versace, multitalented University of Michigan grad Darren Criss just might be one of the most versatile performers of his generation—and he’s just getting started.
Knit sweater, $1,150, at Salvatore Ferragamo; Harris tweed mélange light camel pants, $370, by Kenzo at Barneys New York.
To television viewers used to seeing Darren Criss belting out pop tunes on Glee, his unsettling, riveting performance as serial killer Andrew Cunanan in Ryan Murphy’s blockbuster series American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace was completely unexpected. One person who wasn’t surprised? Benj Pasek, who studied theater with Criss at the University of Michigan and saw firsthand the seriousness his classmate brought to the craft. On the heels of Criss’ Emmy nomination for best actor in a limited series/TV movie, Pasek (an award-winning songwriter for projects like Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman) caught up with the 31-year-old Criss in an exclusive chat for Michigan Avenue to talk Penélope Cruz, favorite Chicago dining spots, why he’s a champion of the gay community and the best acting advice he’s ever received.
Benj Pasek: I’m excited to talk to you, Darren—what are we, a week after your Emmy nomination for Versace? I remember when you got your first nomination for music [in 2015 for Glee song “This Time”], but this time it’s for one of the main event categories that everybody’s watching for. It’s thrilling to see you shine up there with those other famous folks in your category.
Darren Criss: Thanks, Benj! We have a fun history of anticipating nominations together. I’ve been on that side for you as well, so I’m glad we can share that. What was so validating about that first nomination was that it was for something a lot of people didn’t know I had anything to do with. You know songwriting is a huge part of my creative life. And of course with this one, there’s a lot of eyes on it, and it’s a badge of honor to be included in the category.
BP: Versace received 18 nominations, which is extraordinary. Did you have a sense when you were filming that it was going to catch fire?
DC: My mantra is, ‘One hopes for everything but expects nothing.’ I was just happy to be part of the project, which was amazing for myriad reasons. All the boxes were ticked: the people you’re working with; the story itself is interesting; the role is varied and nuanced and complex. This is a role I’ve worked and waited for my entire life. It’s enough just to be a part of that, so one tries not to think of what might happen in the more splashy accolade space because you already feel like you’ve won the lottery.
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BP: Obviously, you worked with Ryan Murphy on Glee, but how did the role come to you?
DC: You and I have talked about this at length—we both admire versatility and range, not only in other people’s work, but in having the opportunity to use different colors on the proverbial artist’s palette. So if you do a project that’s green, you look forward to the next thing that can be blue, and the next one that can be red, and others that mix the two. You want to bring to life different forms and personalities that you have within yourself. And that’s something I am deeply indebted to Ryan for. I think he recognizes that I’ve studied acting as a craft and I take storytelling seriously, and I’m glad, because actors—unless you’re writing and producing your own stuff—are only as good as the moments they’re given from other people. When the opportunity arose, I’m grateful that Coach Ryan was like, “All right kid, you made it to varsity, get in there.” And I was ready.
BP: The cast of Versace is insane—movie stars like Penélope Cruz, theater luminaries like Judith Light, Edgar Ramirez, Ricky Martin... What was it like working with them?
DC: What was nice about this project, especially with Penélope, Edgar and Ricky, was that it was a huge deal for all of them. It was Penélope’s first foray into television. It was Edgar’s first American television role and one of Ricky’s first larger roles in a drama of this scale. So it wasn’t just another day at the office for them. If anything, I was sort of the veteran, which was crazy. I had the most history with Ryan; I had spent the most time doing this in terms of shooting a series; I knew the crew and the producers. At this point, a lot of these people are family to me. That made it a lot easier because everybody was excited to be at this party.
BP: Any funny anecdotes from set that no one in the world’s heard yet?
DC: Look, our show is very dark, so I think as a defense mechanism for what we were doing, I took it upon myself to be the biggest prankster. Let’s just say, if there was a staircase to fall down or a door to be walked into, I did it. I was the quarterback of the bloopers.
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BP: Moving on from Versace: You just finished touring with Lea Michele.
DC: It was a good time. I really enjoy live performance. People always ask what I like most, but look: Performing is performing. The main advantage that performing live has is there is a real-time catharsis to what’s happening. So I love being able to go on the road and meet people I’ve never had a chance to interact with. I’m a fan of the more human elements. I’m the worst at texting—you know me, Benj: I just call you even if it’s for the stupidest thing. I always yield to phone calls and I always prefer in-person meetings. So being with Lea and getting to meet all these young people who have grown up with Glee, it’s wonderful to be able to thank people in real time.
BP: You have a lot of connections to Chicago.
DC: Chicago is one of my favorite places to eat and drink in the world. Aside from its culinary scene, which is second to none, it has the metropolitan quality of New York and the hominess of the San Francisco I grew up in, but because it’s smack-dab in the middle of the Midwest, it’s populated with wonderful salt-of-the-Earth Midwestern people. So it’s this cocktail of all my favorite things about our country. My artistic background with the city is, having gone to the University of Michigan, I had never really spent time in Chicago before then.
BP: I had never realized how unbelievable Chicago theater is. I remember seeing one of the first out-of-town productions of The Light in the Piazza there, and I became addicted to Chicago theater.
DC: There’s this pride in being a Chicago actor. If you’re one of these hardcore guys and gals doing incredible work in Chicago before it moves to New York or elsewhere, that’s a thing. I’ve even pitched buddies of mine like, ‘He’s a Chicago theater guy.” And the casting person is like, ‘Ooh, that’s good.’ It adds cache.
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BP: You’re a real actor’s actor in Chicago.
DC: And that comes from its rich history in improv, obviously, and the Steppenwolf, the Goodman, Lookingglass and the amazing out-of-town tryouts that happen in Chicago. Being in Michigan, I started going during the summer because I could take the train. Talk about a great way to go to Chicago for the first time. Coming out of Union Station, this old Gothic, amazing, historic station, it’s like, ‘Welcome to Chicago, kid!’ Seeing theater and being around the people working on shows was so inspiring. We founded StarKid in L.A. but moved it to Chicago mainly because it’s a place where independent theater can thrive. After our guys graduated around 2011, we started doing shows, and our first— and this was the last musical I wrote the whole score for, which I miss doing—was Starship. That was during my first season in Glee, and we premiered it at the Center on Halsted in Boystown.
BP: Do you have a favorite restaurant in Chicago? I remember you eating at Girl & the Goat.
DC: The West Loop has exploded in the past several years. Soho House is there. Girl & the Goat opened a new restaurant, Duck Duck Goat, that’s also good. My fiancee, Mia, and I—and you’re a partner in it, so thank you for investing in our bar, Benj Pasek— own Tramp Stamp Granny’s in L.A., which is a cocktail club and piano bar. So for the past few years I’ve had a keen interest in the country’s premier cocktail destinations, and one of those is the Aviary, which is a famous high-end mixology bar in the West Loop. I make sure to visit if I can get a ticket. And Chicago has my favorite art museum in the world, the Art Institute. I always make sure to spend some part of my summer in Chicago so I can ride Jet Skis on the lake, go to the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Adler Planetarium, where a lot of my buddies from Michigan work. I make my way down the lake and usually end up at the Chicago Athletic Association for a game of chess, or a couple of beers and a game of pool, because that place is so cool, it’s insane.
White cotton classic-fit three-pack ribbed tank top, $40, at calvinklein.com; fall/ winter 2018 wool pants, price upon request, similar styles at Valentino; classic chain dog tag pendant with black sapphire, $965, by John Hardy at Neiman Marcus, Criss’ own.
BP: Back to the Emmy nomination—you're only the second actor of Asian descent to be nominated in the best actor category. What does that mean to you?
DC: I feel fortunate to be part of that history. It’s empowering and encouraging to people who may feel underrepresented, be they mixed or full, whatever ethnicity. When you see some version of yourself acknowledged, certainly in the media, it feels like your home team is winning.
BP: What’s the best piece of advice you ever got about being an actor?
DC: The things I remember are more pragmatic, tactical pieces of advice: Know the name of the cameraman. Know your crew. Realize that the creative process, once you start the collaborative process, is a team sport. And everyone’s looking out for each other, or should be at least, and the more you can familiarize yourself with your teammates, the more your team will feel good about passing you the ball.
Knit sweater, $1,150, at Salvatore Ferragamo; Harris tweed mélange light camel pants, $370, by Kenzo at Barneys New York; Garavani Bounce sneakers, $895, at valentino.com; titanium rectangular aviator sunglasses, $295, at krewe.com.
BP: You have been such a champion of the LGBTQ+ community. How did your involvement in that cause come about?
DC: The way I have felt embraced by the LGBTQ community, I think, is the amalgam of so many serendipities throughout my life that I just feel fortunate it’s such a huge part of my identity not only as a person, but as a public person. I consider it sheer providence that a kid from San Francisco who grew up in a very troubled and ultimately resilient time for the gay community, and being raised by—not at home but backstage in theaters when I was a kid—these young men and women who were part of that, always gave me a respect and understanding for the gay community in whatever way I could understand it as a young cisgender straight person.
BP: Last question: What’s next for you?
DC: My brother and I are working on a batch of songs [for our band, Computer Games], and we’ll hopefully get something out in the next handful of months. We had a great run with Versace, but right now I’m hearing the click, click, click of the roller coaster going up, and I know some exciting new thing is about to happen. We’ll see what acting roles come my way, but one of the things I want to get back to, as I’ve hinted, is to write some kind of new musical soon. I say that now, but I’ll probably get off the phone and get a call and end up doing some random thing I would have never thought of doing. I always keep my receptors open, and as long as the project is interesting, has some significance and is different from the last thing, that’s what I’m into. It’s one of the great blessings and curses of having too many interests—it makes almost everything interesting to me. So, I’m as curious as the next guy.
Styled by Ashley Weston. Shot on location at Hubble Studio, Los Angeles. Grooming by Sydney Sollod at The Wall Group using Baxter of California. Digital Tech: Liz McAlevey. Photo Assistants: Leland Hayward and Dillon Couchois