American Crime Story made The People Vs. O.J. Simpson a phenomenon all over again, over 20 years after the actual verdict. The Gianni Versace murder was not as sensationalized a case, so the FX anthology series took a different approach on The Assassination of Gianni Versace.
Based on Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, the show opens with Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) pulling the trigger on Versace (Edgar Ramirez) and flashes back to events that explained how Cunanan and Versace collided in tragedy.
Cunanan killed four men before Versace, and Criss portrays the serial killer’s growing homophobia and escalating delusions. The show unfolds in reverse, with Cunanan and Versace crossing paths, but mostly existing separately.
Criss spoke with Rotten Tomatoes about American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, after the Television Critics Association winter press tour panel, during which creator Ryan Murphy revealed details about the series and its stars. Producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson also weighed in. Here are seven things they shared about the second season of the series.
“Darren was, to me, the male version of Sarah Paulson,” American Crime Story creator Murphy said to reporters after a panel, invoking his muse who played Marcia Clark in The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. Murphy saw her as a lead actor and gave her that role to show the world. He sees that for Criss in the role of Andrew Cunanan.
“Well, I think that’s an insult to Sarah Paulson,” Criss modestly joked. “Poor Sarah, who’s had an amazing career, done amazing work, spanning all kinds of places.”
Ultimately Criss accepts the challenge to live up to Murphy’s go-to star.
“Hey, I’ll take it,” Criss said. “I realize what he means. The person in the roster that is doing a project with a lot of eyes on it. If my name is uttered in the same sentence as her at any point, that’s a thrill.”
If anything, Criss has some catching up to do to live up to Paulson’s ongoing legacy.
“It always blew my mind that after O.J., people said that was a real turning point for her,” Criss said. “I think it has less to do with her ability and more about the visibility of the shows that Ryan touches.”
We all know people who embellish their stories to make themselves sound more important. That behavior may be annoying, but most of them won’t kill us over it. Cunanan’s lies, unfortunately, turned deadly. Criss saw a parallel to some of the more harmless white lies we all commit.
“I think his lies, his stories, his delusions of grandeur were an effort for him to be in control of the way he was viewed, just the way any of us curate our lives with filters on Instagram, with selfies from a certain angle,” Criss said. “These are obviously on a smaller scale and much more socially acceptable. But if you took that to an extreme, that’s what he was doing.”
According to the show, Cunanan lied to Versace to try to make himself a closer acquaintance. Then he lied to others about how close he was to Versace.
“He needed to be in control of all the things that he didn’t have, which is to pretend they were a reality and tell other people they were,” Criss said. “Because he was such a narcissist, by telling people and telling himself, he could ipso facto make them true to himself. And if he couldn’t have it and it couldn’t be true, then he’d have to destroy it.”
Orth’s book suggested that lying was Cunanan’s way of crafting new personas, and Simpson elaborated on the killer’s pathology.
“In some ways, I think it was trying on identities and trying on personalities,” Simpson said. “I think he was taught though. His dad was a scam artist who abandoned the family when Cunanan was 18 and made them all go bankrupt. I think that idea that the truth is elastic was something he was taught by his family.”
Simpson believed Cunanan lied to craft a new identity.
“I also felt like he wanted to be somebody else,” Simpson said. “He wanted to be different. He didn’t want to be that half Filipino kid from a working-class background. He wanted to be the guy in Vanity Fair.”
If Cunanan wanted to be someone else, it was important to cast someone who could embody who he was. Criss’s heritage was a factor; the actor is actually half Filipino on his mother’s side, like Cunanan was.
“The idea of not whitewashing the half Filipino side and casting a white dude was important,” Jacobson said. “Darren had Ryan’s endorsement and understanding of him as an actor, great look for the part, and then was authentically half Filipino like Andrew was.”
Three of Cunanan’s four prior victims get their own episode to explore their relationships with Cunanan. The fourth, William Reese, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, as Cunanan stole his truck. Criss explained how each killing builds off the prior one.
“It escalates,” Criss said. “This was somebody whose crimes were a crime of passion in the beginning. He crossed a certain threshold, and there was a change of his pathology.”
His third victim, Lee Miglin, was a Chicago real estate mogul who’d hired Cunanan as an escort. Miglin was married at the time. His wife Marlyn discovered his body, staged by Cunanan.
“It became less something personal to people around him, more about proving a point on a larger scale to hurting someone like Lee and hurting someone like Versace,” Criss said. “Yeah, there’s a differentiation between each of the murders for sure.”
Each victim was also a step towards Cunanan’s ultimate target, the title of the show.
“The throughline of Andrew’s obsession with Versace, once he snapped, he’s on this mission,” Jacobson added. “Really, the shock of killing people who are dear to you, I still get very disturbed by. The idea that he’s not somebody who has one moment; it’s these sequential moments of calculated choices from a guy that was not a murderer born. I think there are people who are born missing the empathy gene, missing the fear gene. That wasn’t him.”
The show portrays murders like Lee Miglin’s as they must have happened to end up where they did. Miglin’s body was bound with wounds from a screwdriver and saw, ribs broken, throat slashed, and stabbed.
“We’re always trying to strike a balance of you know what the crime scenes look like so you can glean what the murder was,” Jacobson said. “You don’t want to be exploitive and at the same time, you don’t want to shy away from the horror of it.”
The show spends time on Cunanan’s psychological torture of his victims leading up to the murders.
“The Lee Miglin murder was staged to shame and embarrass him,” Jacobson said. “The way he manipulates David by saying, ‘This is what they’ll find. You’ll be assumed to be guilty.’ Those things all seem very important to cover.
Episode 8 ultimately shows Cunanan as a child and in high school, exploring motivations and warning signs that early. It was important to Criss that the show try to explain this tragedy.
“It all has to add up,” Criss said. “It all has to connect together, otherwise there’s no point in showing the horrible stuff, because then it’s just exposing something horrible that we already know is horrible. We have to keep having every moment beforehand connected to it in some way so it’s not just gratuitous.”
Learning of his father’s scam was certainly a turning point for Andrew.
“I think finding anybody when they’re younger tells a bit of an origin story as it were,” Criss continued, “of not only where this guy came from, a better sense of how and why it went wrong, how it went astray.”
Criss still plays Cunanan at 18, by the way.
“For the first half we have a great young actor, Edouard Holdener who plays young Cunanan,” Simpson said. “For the rest of it, it’s Darren because Darren is very youthful looking and can still play an 18-year-old luckily.”
If he is going to be the male Sarah Paulson, that means Criss will have to come back for every show Murphy does. Criss is on board, but isn’t aware of any future roles just yet.
“Who knows what the future holds,” Criss said. “Ryan is a dear friend, a true collaborator, and he’s been a champion for me. So f— yeah, if I can keep doing what we’ve been doing, I should be so lucky.”
Criss’s dream was to be part of a theater company where the same troupe performed different shows. Murphy’s managed to keep most of the same cast together across American Crime Story, American Horror Story, Feud, and Glee.
“I always grew up with this notion, I idolized repertory theater companies,” Criss said. “I had no idea that in my life I would be able to do that in the television world with someone like Ryan Murphy. [Sarah and I] are both lucky enough to have stumbled somehow into Ryan’s repertory player situation.”
American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace premieres January 17 at 10p.m. on FX.