The newest star of Glee, Darren Criss, knows how to create a buzz. His creative troupe made a YouTube video, having fun with Harry Potter, which went viral, not once but twice.
Photographs: Mitchell Nguyen McCormack
Styling: Ashley Phan-Weston
Interview: Oliver Singer
Then, his first episode on Glee, he performed a cover version of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and that went viral, reaching No. 1 on iTunes at the end of 2010. Now he’s here to show off his fashionable side in this DA MAN exclusive.
Darren Criss, who affirms that he is a straight guy and very confident about his sexuality—which allows him to play a role such as Blaine—is riding the crest of a huge wave of fame at the moment and hopes to parlay that into a long, acclaimed showbiz career. Born in San Francisco in 1987 (and celebrating his 24th birthday on February 5 this year), he is the son of an Irish-American dad and Filipina-American mom. Before Glee, he studied performing arts at the University of Michigan and acted in theater plays in San Francisco as a kid. He is also an accomplished musician, playing rock ‘n’ roll (like his brother, Chuck) and has started a production troupe with his university mates. He sat down with DA MAN in between photos to give us an in-depth look at how it all came to pass.
DA MAN: Have you found that you share a lot in common with Blaine on Glee?
Darren Criss: Yes, actually. I have felt very fortunate to have the kind of support I did while growing up, and knowing that I’ve escaped the struggle that most are forced to deal with. I feel a sort of survivor’s guilt for having had it so good. I have very much brought these experiences to Blaine in the sense that he has a bit of survivor’s guilt, too. He lives in this magical place where it is cool to be whatever you want. And, you know, it’s almost too perfect. He feels guilt about all the trials and tribulations from before. That is a big similarity between Blaine and myself. I definitely have a lot of guilt about things I never had to deal with. Dalton Academy [the fictional school Blaine attends on Glee] is strangely almost exactly like the school I attended. My blazer is the exact same as my high school blazer, the set is a replica of my high school’s halls and classrooms. It is eerie.
DA MAN: Have you become close with any of the cast members of Glee?
DARREN CRISS: I have a great relationship with Max Adler. He plays the bully, but he’s a great guy. He’s kind of in the same boat as I am, being a guest star on the show and having recently been thrown into this crazy carnival that is Glee. We’re both featured in the same episodes. So, we’ll always find ourselves sitting on the sidelines, joking, talking.
DA MAN: Glee seems to be serving a greater purpose in its commentary on social issues: How are you dealing with the newfound responsibility?
DARREN CRISS: Glee is indeed all about tolerance of others. Of course, I am so new to the crazy machine, but I am a supporter of many causes and organizations.
DA MAN: Do you feel your benevolent point of view has anything to do with your upbringing?
DARREN CRISS: Absolutely. Growing up for the most part in a theater in San Francisco, I was inadvertently raised by the gay community. I grew up in this bubble of accepting people for who they were. It was a very supportive system where I never felt alienated for the interests that I had. Still, it is really important to acknowledge that your situation is not the same as everybody else’s. I have watched the gay community struggle, and personally seen many of my friends struggle with all the things I have been accepted for, be it their sexuality or their personal interests. They do not normally get to see a character like Blaine on TV and I thought it was high time that they did. Blaine’s a great character, I feel privileged to be the vessel for him.
DA MAN: Have you always felt the need to perform on some level?
DARREN CRISS: Of course, always. I have always been overly idealistic, though. I want to do everything, but fame is not the motivation, creating good work has always been the main thing.
DA MAN: What are some other roles you’d love to play?
DARREN CRISS: I’d love to be the Master of Ceremonies for the [Broadway theater production] Cabaret. Alternatively, there are a lot of [playwright Edward] Albee plays that I’d love to work on … There’s a wonderful play called The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? by Albee and I’ve always wanted to be the kid [Alan Strang, a stableboy at a horse ranch with a violent streak] in the theater production of Equus, [written by Peter Shaffer].
DA MAN: What about starring in some of your own plays?
DARREN CRISS: Yes! I have a theater company in Chicago and I write musicals: That’s what I did before Glee. I started a theater company with my best friends from college and it has been a huge part of my life. Being a musician, writing musicals, running a theater company—that’s been my most important endeavor. In fact, sometimes I feel as if I’ve been moonlighting as a Glee actor, while I support my life in the theater.
DA MAN: You must be referring to StarKid Productions, your student-created theater troupe founded in 2009 by you and fellow students from the University of Michigan; what can you tell us about that?
DARREN CRISS: StarKid Productions has become a kind of a brand with the shows we create. Most of what we’ve done you can see on YouTube. It kind of got started with writing shows for ourselves, for fun, and the only reason we started putting it on YouTube was for our friends when they’d miss a show due to exams and stuff like that. And, I was very shocked when so many people that didn’t even know us started watching the productions on YouTube. It was really special, because what we were doing was such fun, and the works were innocent and genuine—very low profile. I’ve written songs for five of the shows. If I ever do a musical on Broadway, I do hope it is one of mine. I would even love to just sit in an audience and see one of my shows on Broadway. Currently, I’m releasing the music from my own musicals and a lot of the people coming to my shows, or starting to follow my character on Glee, are actually StarKid fans.
DA MAN: Does either your work in the theater or on Glee ever interfere with each other?
DARREN CRISS: Yeah, I’m juggling both of these things and it has definitely been a real hard job. But, we keep introducing more shows for StarKid, and I keep shooting for Glee. I was planning on releasing a music album and then Glee happened, and sure, there’s been a holdup, but in the end, it all makes for more interesting records.
DA MAN: Let’s talk a little bit about StarKid Productions and the road before your huge success on Glee: How did it all begin?
DARREN CRISS: It all started when I was in college. My friends and I created StarKid to put on shows, because it was fun for us and our friends. Everyone just wanted to have a good time. We would write versions of Star Wars, and The Hobbit with Celine Dion music—irreverent self-effacing things that aren’t very conscious of the story. A Very Potter Musical, which was the first of our videos to go viral, was the best because it’s clearly by people who love the franchise. But while we were creating these shows, people are in school. They have essays to write and finals to take and when we did the Potter musical, very few people got to see it. So, like many of our shows, we got it on tape, and after we graduated from the University of Michigan, (which was like my own personal Hogwarts), we kept talking about the show and thought, ‘man we really got to get this to our friends,’ so we just put it on YouTube. We didn’t think anyone except our friends would watch it, and then, quite unexpectedly, our video was number one around the world.
DA MAN: How great a challenge is it to produce your theater show in conjunction with shooting Glee?
DARREN CRISS: It’s a huge undertaking. Glee is the most chaotic production and it is a lot of work. I don’t want to misrepresent or belittle Glee, however, I have to admit that Glee is a welcome vacation, which is insane because I work really hard on Glee. But, when it comes down to it, it’s really nothing compared to running your own show—especially through correspondence—from L.A. to Chicago—in my room with just a piano and an Internet connection. I mean, If I told any of the regulars on Glee that it’s my vacation, they would think I’m crazy, but I don’t air as often as them anyways, since I’m a guest star. The great thing about working on TV is the advantage of time. You sit in the trailer for a long time, and I actually get a lot of StarKid Productions work done. Glee has both complicated my ambitions in terms of scheduling and also empowered them because Glee is undeniably one of the largest, if not the largest, platforms for any new young actor. So, I wasn’t going to say no to that. And though I’m proud of all the work I’ve done on StarKid Productions, which has gained a fan base in the hundreds of thousands, it’s nothing compared to Glee’s millions. So, I’m glad that my different projects have reached different demographics. To say the least, Glee has augmented attention for StarKid Productions in a great way.
DA MAN: With Glee showcasing your voice and StarKid Productions showcasing your other musical talents, do you have any interest in pursuing an independent career as a rock ‘n’ roller?
DARREN CRISS: Actually, I was at a crossroads right before I got Glee when my main personal investment was StarKid Productions. At that point, I was really going to start pursuing music more. I was weeks away from sitting down with my agents to say that music had proven to be more lucrative on many levels and, though I was auditioning all the time and things weren’t going badly, I was playing more shows and getting more momentum from pursuing music over acting. I was in the middle of a decision to potentially sign a record deal, and I had some very good options. Being a recording artist was going to be a whole new route in my life: Put a record out, tour around and that was going to be my life. And then Glee called, and when it rains it pours. Glee keeps me busy, but I was anticipating releasing an album, so depending on how things play out in the next few months, I’d still like to pursue that. It’s six years overdue! StarKid Productions takes a lot of time out of me, but I would love to take some of that time for myself and really go for it.
DA MAN: I heard you recently returned from a music tour in the Philippines, how did it go?
DARREN CRISS: Fun! It was nice to be back there. It was certainly different circumstances than in the past, but it was very nostalgic because three years prior I was there the same time of year in the same downtown area for my cousin’s wedding. It was still a lot of fun but this year it was all about work.
DA MAN: So you are part Filipino, right?
DARREN CRISS: I am part Filipino. My mother’s from the Philippines, it’s obviously a very mixed bloodline because of the many different colonizers over the years, like Spain, China, etc. But yes, I associate myself as being half Filipino. Sometimes, I wish I was more than that, they are amazing people.
DA MAN: Do you find that your Asian heritage has helped your career at all?
DARREN CRISS: Any person in the position I’m in I hope would know that having a distinct heritage like being Filipino is a tremendous blessing in a global market. I don’t know if it’s directly responsible for things that have happened, but I know for StarKid Productions at least, every time we’d get the schematics from YouTube or any other sources, the Philippines always made up a really strong percentage of our pageviews. Did they somehow find out I had Filipino blood? Sure, I wouldn’t be surprised. Still, I’d love to think they’d have loved StarKid Productions no matter what, even if I were from Mars.
DA MAN: What can you tell us about StarKid Productions’ most recent show Starship, out in Chicago in February?
DARREN CRISS: It has been the bane and joy of my every breath for the last few weeks. It opens in February and it’s the biggest thing by far that we’ve ever done. We have our own personal ‘spiderman’ on our hands; it’s really very difficult stuff. Starship is our first foray into a more professional world. We have a little space in Chicago and we’re trying to legitimize ourselves with entirely original stuff: it’s a show that focuses on elements of things that are in popular science-fiction. We use many popular motifs, but it’s definitely an original story. It involves very high-level production stuff. I try to streamline my writing efforts into my own album. I have so many songs, that it’s just a matter of deciding which one’s I want to put on it.
DA MAN: How much of your musical knowledge was gained through formal training versus personal study?
DARREN CRISS: Violin was actually the only instrument that I received any formal training on, everything else I learned by myself. But, I would have loved to have some kind of training; I would love to take lessons now. My friend Masu always said to me, ‘If you want to get to Oakland, you just have to walk in that direction long enough, and you’ll get to Oakland. But if you just have to ask one person for directions, you will get there quicker.’ I guess I didn’t ask for a lot of directions. I might get there much quicker if I did, but I know I’m on my way!
DA MAN: Your Oscar pick for best movie of 2010?
DARREN CRISS: Toy Story 3!!!
DA MAN: What’s the potential of StarKid Productions? Could it turn into a full-blown production company that deals not only in theater, but with films and television?
DARREN CRISS: Our doors are open to everything. I have a strange juxtaposition with StarKid Productions where on one hand we’re really just kids having graduated form college trying to figure all this out, and on the other hand, I have this well-oiled machine that is TV acting. We’re all actors, performers and screenwriters. We all have an interest in turning our passions into projects, but it all depends on what opportunities people give us. The actual success and fortunes are the last concern on our mind. All we can hope for is to carry our original work to another level. Again and again and again.
This feature spread, of over a dozen pages, appears in the February/March 2011 edition of DA MAN. To see all of the full high-resolution images and the entire interview, pick up a copy of the magazine or subscribe to get it delivered to your door.