San Francisco-born, LA-based Darren Criss' path to joining the cast of Fox's much-beloved Glee represents a particularly of-the-moment fairy tale: a Lana-Turner-in-the-malt-shop story for the digital age. It started when Criss posted A Very Potter Musical, a show he and friends at the University of Michigan theater department put together during their senior year, on the Internet. In spite of an image and sound quality that Criss calls "equivalent to that of your Uncle Jimmy filming your Christmas pageant," he quickly became a YouTube sensation, garnering a substantial cult following and spurring him to start a production company, Starkids, with his musical co-conspirators. The group produced a sequel to the Harry Potter musical, as well as the inarguably highbrow Me and My Dick. A brief appearance on the short-lived series Eastwick later, Criss landed on Glee playing Blaine, a member of the Warblers, a rival glee club, and love interest to Kurt.
Appearing on Glee is a dream for Criss: "Even if Blaine was to get hit by a bus in two episodes, I'm really thankful for the time I've been given on the show." We spoke with the multi-talented actor, musician, and Internet sensation during a rare break between filming Glee, writing songs, and dreaming up space adventure musicals.
KATIE MENDELSON: Was there any trepidation on your part about taking on the role of a gay character, or concern about being pigeonholed after moving on from Glee?
DARREN CRISS: Not at all. To be quite honest, that doesn't take up a huge chunk of what really matters about Blaine. After having gotten to know the show a little bit, I was really excited to see that a character like this—such a strong gay character, especially a young, male, out-and-proud teen—was going to make its way onto network television, much less Fox. This is the first time I'd really seen an out student that was so young and innocent and really struggling with the big ordeal that it is to be an out student at such an early age. When other shows present the gay character thing, it's typically been in much more adult situations, like gay men living in New York or closeted men who are married and struggling with that ordeal, but never really the core of the journey of defining your sexuality. Blaine offers a beautiful counter to that and makes such a great addition to the many-colored palette that is Glee. So as far as me having any reservations about it, no. I read it being like, this would be so cool, whoever gets to play this, it's going to be a great thing for an already great show.
MENDELSON: He seems like he has the potential to have such a positive influence.
CRISS: Absolutely. Of course, being gay really is an important part of who he is. But Blaine doesn't really think so—at least in this utopian society that he lives in [LAUGHS], at Dalton Academy, where it's almost a little too perfect to be anybody or anything. It's just kind of matter of fact. It's a really positive thing, and I feel very privileged to be the vessel for that, and I hope it speaks to a lot of people who struggle to find a model for who they are and where they fit in.
MENDELSON: How are you fitting in on the set?
CRISS: I'm still a guest star. I'm not there eight days a week, like all the other kids. [LAUGHS] Everyone's been really warm and welcoming, and I have nothing but glowing reviews of everybody. Glee is a wonderful opportunity and a great, great atmosphere. But, you know, as much as I want to tell you when I get there you can feel the energy and all that stuff, of course you can, but the end of the day, it's just work, and you're there to do a job, and you're there to tell a story. And when you show up to work, you don't have millions of people looking at you being like, "Hey, I love the show." I don't mean to devalue how awesome it is, because God knows I love working on the show, and it's very, very special, but what I mean is, it is work. But it certainly is a blast, and I'm very grateful to be there.
MENDELSON: Are you getting recognized on the street?
CRISS: Sometimes. I'm mostly at home or at work, so... [LAUGHS] Even when it happens, I don't mind, because it would be one thing if I was getting recognized for playing the bad guy in some summer blockbuster that I maybe didn't think was my finest hour. And I look very different from my character: he has slicked-back hair, while I have really curly hair. And I never shave. I'm kind of a bum. But when people come up to me, it's nice because it's like we're both in on this thing that we both can get behind.
MENDELSON: What does your background in musicals entail?
CRISS: When I was in college, I was in the theater department, which for anyone who has been involved in any kind of theater program, you know that it's really wacky and tight-knit, a real family. Me and my good friends from college would do random shows and plays that were sometimes serious, but most of the time really goofy and funny. We're all fanboys, so there's been Lord of the Rings plays and play versions of our favorite movies, where we take an awful lot of liberty and go crazy with things that we liked. Senior year, we did a Harry Potter show, adding music and incorporating some of our own songs. We didn't want to make DVD's, so we put it up on YouTube for the people that missed it. Within a week, it virally blew up, which was a complete shock. We were the number-one subscribed-to and viewed, in over 50 countries all over the world. It was unbelievable. As much as I wish we could say that we planned everything and that this was always supposed to happen—not at all, man. It was a complete accident.
MENDELSON: Do you ever play music with your brother [Chuck Criss of Freelance Whales]?
CRISS: All the time. That was the whole plan growing up, playing music together. I'd play drums, he'd play guitar, and then we'd switch. I was always going to go to New York and we were always going to do a band together, but Freelance Whales picked up and then I went to LA and things picked up for me. I did play with them when they were in LA at the Troubadour. I know their entire set like the back of my hand; you give me any instrument on that record and I can play part of that song. Chuck and I have always had our own music, and that's something we've always planned on doing once time permits. We have millions of songs that have been fostered over the course of ten years. [LAUGHS]
MENDELSON: Did you grow up in a really musical family?
CRISS: My parents encouraged it, but they didn't really play music. I'm in a real minority as far as having really supportive parents in regards to the arts. They never batted an eye as far as not letting me do that stuff. That's invaluable. I can't believe how unabashedly supportive they were about everything, between music and acting.
MENDELSON: Between you and your brother, it sounds like it worked out.
CRISS: Yeah, I'd like to think so. It's been working out. Chuck and I always played music, though he picked it up much later on than I did. It was so annoying when he picked up music sometime in high school and really got into and now is vastly better than me at so much of it. [LAUGHS]
MENDELSON: What's next for you?
CRISS: The only thing that's taking up my mind right now is staying healthy, working on Glee when they call me in, and trying to make Starship, my new musical about a space adventure romance that opens in February, the best thing I've ever done. I'm putting all my cards on the table for that show. After I'm done with that, I'll probably focus on getting my head together for a full studio album. I don't take breaks, man, I'm always doing something.
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