When Darren Criss settles into our Alexa interview at a chic cafe in West LA, he’s friendly and direct.
“I am an outspoken person in real life, but in the media, I find I’m very reserved,” he observes. “I’m asked questions about myself that I haven’t really had to think about. That is a really strange occupational hazard. It would be like if you asked your dental hygienist, ‘Do you think your career choice stems from your interest in cleanliness as a kid?’”
Reading between the lines: The actor-producer-songwriter du jour resists the sound bite.
Criss, 33, may be the consummate showman, but in person — apart from a hint of chipped black nail polish and a pair of gold-rimmed aviators that nod to his love of costume — he seems more cerebral theater nerd (a flag he flies proudly) than flamboyant hunk.
Before long, Criss is expounding on big themes in a delightfully thespy manner. Conversations branch off, reverse direction, then run off on entirely new paths.
“I like keeping myself in balance by taking constant left and right turns,” he explains of his career. “The party trick? You think I’m doing all this stuff spontaneously, but it’s not without a significant attention to detail and planning. I don’t freak out if it doesn’t go as planned, but whatever it is, I will optimize it. Drop me off anywhere, and I will make [it] as awesome as possible.”
For a significant and impassioned fan base, Criss is the guy who sang, danced and heartthrobbed his way through a starring role on “Glee.” He’d go on to become an unsettlingly cheerful killer in 2018’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” a nuanced performance that won him an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
In 2020, things are getting even more extra.
The day of our interview, he was flying to NYC to begin rehearsals for David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” now set to begin previews April 14 at Circle in the Square Theatre (a delay after Broadway shuttered over the coronavirus pandemic). He will play Bobby — one of a trio of hustlers trying to make it rich — alongside Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell.
“I try to do a show in New York every two to three years,” says Criss (who’s previously starred in “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”). “It will be great to be in New York doing one of the great American plays with a great American playwright.”
He’s also experimenting with new formats, namely executive-producing, writing songs for and starring in the new satiric series “Royalties,” which will debut on the short-form video streaming platform Quibi this spring.
In May, he’ll channel the golden age of cinema in “Hollywood,” the hotly anticipated Ryan Murphy-helmed Netflix series, which Criss also executive-produced. (Not to mention his work for Elsie Fest, a musical-theater festival he co-founded five years ago.)
If your head is spinning, that’s all part of the plan.
“I love giving strangers an excuse to connect,” he says. “I just enjoy quirky things and quirky people. And that comes from the idea of challenging people’s expectations. At the end of the day, that’s my biggest driving force — that you can do something weird and have it be cool.”
Born in San Francisco, Criss knew early on that he wanted to follow an original path. He taught himself piano, studied violin and, at the age of 10, made his professional theater debut.
“Had my parents wanted me to be an actor, I wouldn’t have done it,” he reflects. “But I realized I had a knack for it. I’m literally a parrot: I like mimicry, music, accents.”
His hobby, he insists, is practicing his Japanese. A dream vacation, he says, would be a sojourn at Middlebury College’s language immersion program. “It’s where they send the CIA to learn Farsi. I would love it!”
While a student at the University of Michigan, Criss gained fame with his contribution to the YouTube cult hit “A Very Potter Musical”, which led to the co-founding of the musical-comedy sensation StarKid.
“At the time, studio execs didn’t understand the power of social media. In my early 20s, I was this Internet force with my friends, but going to play piano at [a bar] twice a week. I was living a double life, with Billboard-charting albums, and yet, how could you explain this to a casting director? They were like, ‘You make Internet videos?’ It was absurd to them. Nobody [at the time] knew how to monetize that.”
During his mainstream breakout as the chiseled Blaine Anderson — who famously covered “Teenage Dream” on “Glee” — Criss earned what he describes as a “master’s in putting music and the camera together,” an experience that has served him well in both “Hollywood” and his genre-defying Quibi show, where he’ll play a songwriter aside big-name musician guest stars.
While Criss has played several high-profile gay characters in his career, he says he’ll no longer accept such parts, telling Bustle in late 2018: “I want to make sure I won’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role.”
In February 2019 he married his girlfriend — writer-producer-musician Mia Swier — in New Orleans. The experience can only be described as an immersive extravaganza.
Their first “dance” was a rendition of “The Ballroom Blitz” by British rock brand Sweet, with Criss on guitar and Mia on bass. They were later serenaded by friends Lea Michele and John Stamos.
There were umpteen costume changes (during the evening’s silent disco, a Vera Wang gown and Armani suit were traded for matching sequin T-shirts). Although Vogue covered the festivities, Criss says much remains under wraps.
“I want to show people all the things that really go on [in my life], but I’m also quiet about it,” he reflects. “The wedding is a good example. I remember thinking,’I wish everybody in the world could see this, it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever pulled off.’ When I put myself into something, I give it everything I’ve got. That was a big representation of who I am and who my wife is and what we do.
It’s non-conventional, out-of-the-box thinking and that also led Criss and his wife to open the Hollywood piano bar Tramp Stamp Granny’s, in 2018. Mia (whose family founded The Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom in NYC) takes the lead on the project, although Criss says he still occasionally tickles the ivories there, a throwback to his leaner years working piano bars.
If you ask nicely, he may even sing.
Crew Credits: Fashion Editor: Serena French; Stylist: Anahita Moussavian; Fashion Assistants: Nicole Zane and Haley Wells; Grooming: Jessica Ortiz at Forward Artists using Shiseido; Tailoring: Amber Doyle
Photographed at Dear Irving, 55 Irving Place