Styled by Miguel lopez and Gabriel Yanez of Sui Generis
Glee’s Darren Criss plays it straight opposite Kristen Wiig in Girl Most Likely.
The key to a smooth interview with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, says Darren Criss, is to talk as little as possible. Let the fourth-hour Today hosts prattle back and forth while you sip whatever they’re pouring into your coffee mug and throw in the occasional uh-huh to let the gals know you’re still listening. Unfortunately for Criss, this silent straight-man role is tantamount to torture. Get the 26-year-old, San Francisco–born actor on the phone after Gifford and Kotb are done with him, and you’ll understand why: The boy likes to jabber. A lot.
Within minutes, he's going on breathlessly about his love of storytelling as only a theater kid from West Portal can. “I’m a mercenary, man,” says Criss, his adopted SoCal lilt in full effect. “I strive for eclecticism, so when people ask me what I do—music or acting—my answer is that it’s just not a choice. Acting and doing a scene is very musical to me. Playing a rock show is very theatrical. It’s a real, organic thing that grows and breathes depending on who’s in the audience.”
Such energetic filibustering seems to come naturally to the Glee actor, whose career has taken him from YouTube fame, to a hit TV series about inclusion and acceptance, to starring on Broadway, to a recent 17-city solo music tour, to his first feature role, in the new Kristen Wiig flick, Girl Most Likely, out July 19. “I was always fully prepared to be a struggling actor for a while and play a cop or a pizza boy, but the fact that all this has happened at a very young age is just really extraordinary,” says Criss, who plays Wiig’s eyeliner-wearing, boy band–leading love interest in the film. “Kristen, who’s just a fantastic actress, is so ridiculous, someone you can really play with,” he adds. “Listen to me. I can’t believe I’m calling her on a first-name basis.”
The movie has been dubbed Wiig’s indie pet project, her first comedic lead since the success of 2011’s Bridesmaids. The former SNL actress plays Imogene, a just-hit-rockbottom playwright who is forced to move back home with her dysfunctional mother (Annette Bening), her mother’s boyfriend (Matt Dillon), and Lee (Criss), a much younger man who lives in Imogene’s childhood bedroom as a boarder. Imogene gets close to Lee after attending his performance in a pseudo–Backstreet Boys group, which, Criss concedes, bears a close resemblance to his Glee histrionics. “It’s a great career move for a guy like me—a sort of gateway drug character with a song-and-dance number,” he says. “Lee is definitely a shade of myself. I make no claims to it being a huge character undertaking.”
A much riskier career move for Criss is the solo concert tour that he announced in April. The first show was on May 29 at the Fillmore, where he performed songs that he’s testing out for a still-in-production record (he hasn’t announced a deal yet, though Internet buzz hints at a contract with Columbia Records). The music is exactly what one might expect from a man known for portraying high school and boy-band extroverts: positive, acoustic pop with Criss mostly at the piano or guitar and backed by a six-piece band. Think Adam Levine with a hint of Ben Folds. Tickets for the tour sold out in less than five minutes (thank you, gleeks!). “It’s, like, overwhelming,” Criss says of the response. “I kind of set a pretty low bar for myself, so I’m fully prepared for things to fail at all times.”
Not that he’s known many failures. After graduating from St. Ignatius College Prep, where his class named him “most likely to win a Grammy,” Criss got his first taste of mass audience response in college when he and some friends wrote, produced, and acted in the nearly three-hour-long A Very Potter Musical. It was supposed to be a one-time performance—shoddily recorded, then slapped up on YouTube. But someone sent the link to a Harry Potter fan site, whose followers went bananas. Today, Act 1 alone has more than 10 million views and has inspired sequels and screenings at Potter conventions.
Serendipitous, then, that last year Criss took over for Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway in the lead role in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. During the transition, Criss was too embarrassed to bring up his viral video fame to the original Harry. “I wasn’t exactly in a rush to talk to him about it,” says Criss, his pressured speech suddenly slowing. “It’s embarrassing because I’m capable of better things.”
Shortly after the Potter musical, the producers of Glee called Criss to audition for a new character who would go on to be one half of the show’s reigning on-off couple. In his three seasons as Blaine, a popular gay teen with incredible self-esteem and a healthy relationship, Criss has heard it all, from scorn from the conservative likes of Glenn Beck to praise and outreach from LGBT groups such as GLAAD (which had Criss perform at this year’s awards ceremony in Los Angeles).
Which brings us to the bombshell of this story—Darren Criss is not gay. And this isn’t the first time that he has had to make that clear (he says that he also had to come out of the straight closet as a teen in A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory). “I’m the opposite from what people pin me as,” he says, referring to both his sexual preferences and his career choices. “I’ve kind of made it a habit where if you expect me to do something, I am usually immediately averse to that idea, and I try to do something else.”
Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco