TV: A Conversation with Darren Criss of Glee

Darren Criss (left) and Chris Colfer (right) as Blaine & Kurt from Glee in Entertainment Weekly.

I know. Poetic & Chic has a long-standing "no celebrity" policy, but when the celebrity in question is a fellow alumni not just of high school (St. Ignatius College Prep), but of grammar school too (Schools of the Sacred Heart), I had to bend the rules.

After a few weeks of missed connections, I finally got a phone call from Darren Criss. "Hi, it's Darren..." he began, "I’ll tell you right now, I’m rather long winded. So, brace yourself for that." Indeed. Our long and insightful conversation covered everything from his new Chicago play Starship, his love of high school theatre, thoughts on one day hosting Saturday Night Live, and the controlled chaos that is the cultural phenomenon called Glee.

So let’s just start with the obvious: You guys were at the Golden Globes last Sunday. (Glee won for best TV series, Musical or Comedy), and today you’re on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. What has this week been like?

It’s funny – I’ve been so inundated with work for this company that I’m a part of in Chicago – our show opens in 3 weeks, so I’ve been supervising that and just putting every atom of my being into it. So all this great stuff is happening that I haven’t properly soaked it in as much as I should.

But it’s been fun – the Golden Globes and the photo shoot and then the magazine coming out today, it’s been my reprieve from all that work, so it’s certainly been a lovely reminder that once Starship is open I have something fun and promising on the other side. I’m very lucky.

Tell me about Starship. Are you starring in it, or are you doing the music?

Yes, I’m writing the music. It’s an idea that I had developed for a while, and the wheels were already heavily turning on it and then I got cast in Glee. So I knew that while I probably couldn’t be in it, I could still write the music and be involved on the creative side. The music for me is almost like me being there in person. I’ve put a lot of my own soul and quirks into the music.

You know, it’s been very hard but it’s been fun and I’m just trying to make it work. I hope we can open it up in 3 weeks – I hope we can pull it off!

I have no doubt it will be successful, especially in Chicago, which is such a great city for that type of theatre.

Which is why we moved the show to Chicago. We came to a crossroads and we were deciding what it was we wanted to be doing with this entity “Starkid” – this brand, this production thing. We figured that if (much further down the line), if there was a television production we figured we would do it after we had our enjoyment in theatre, and the place for theatre is not really LA, so we decided to go back to Chicago. That was literally a month right before all this stuff happened.

So television’s not really your thing, you really want to be back in theatre?

I don’t really think it’s a matter of what my “thing” is; as an actor you’re inherently kind of a mercenary. Glee has certainly opened up the opportunity door a bit as far as maybe having a little more say in what I want to be doing. I’m still in a position where I’m watching things play out. Obviously I’m happy to be on Glee – I love the show, I love working on it, and that show happens to be on TV, but had this opportunity manifested itself into a feature film then I would be doing that. My heart will always be in theatre – I come from theatre. As an actor, there are many joys of the theatre that you just won’t find anywhere else.

Despite the fact that Starkid is a theatre entity, it is something that is completely made from scratch and made with love. It’s something I care a great deal about. So it’s something I’m extremely, personally passionate about and invested in.  But you know, if the door opened up and someone wanted it to be a new Broadway play, I mean..hell yeah. I’d love to be a part of it – that would be tremendous.

We’re very flexible – we’re not so rigidly in the theatre world. If we [Starkid] were approached (and we have been), to develop screenplays then that’s something that we’re very capable of doing. We just like to incubate things in the theatre. That’s the best place to really find a lot of stuff. The work can find its body a lot better.

Are you guys planning to take Starship to New York?

We’re doing the show because we’ve always wanted to do it, and we’ll see what kind of attention we get. You know, if somebody says they want to pick it up for a TV series, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Broadway is certainly an option and we’re open to all things. It could go in a lot of different directions. It was kind of written that way actually. We did plan for it to have some kind of future embodiment.

So you guys started by doing these online videos. I know that a lot of people in the past couple of years have really been discovered that way. Do you think this is a genre that is going to be getting bigger and bigger in terms of talent discovery?

No question. The cool thing about YouTube is that it gives everybody a chance. There’s kind of this “do-it-yourself” mentality now, and if you’ve got it, it’s relatively inexpensive to put something out there on the internet for the world. People’s palettes are changing in a sense that they’re open and really receptive to reality, and to the “realness” of things.

I think people respond to kind of this relate-ability and non-polished quality, which is really cool for me because I was terrified when we had this reaction to A Very Potter Musical. I was really afraid because there’s kind of this unfair finality about the internet. No one thinks about context – it’s just very unfair. I was worried because we put it [A Very Potter Musical] out on the internet just for our friends. When people started watching it, I thought “oh no!” because there was no kind of production quality control, but I think that is why people like it. It’s not polished, there’s not a whole lot of hands in this pot, it’s just a few kids having fun.

It [the internet]’s definitely made the audience. The “fan world” has become a little more democratic. The views speak for themselves and then they get passed around virally. It’s a really interesting time to be involved in the entertainment business.

I think that’s also one of the contributing factors to the popularity of Glee. People are sharing the song parts of the show much more on YouTube, than people that are actually watching it when it airs.

And they’ve been really good about their online media. They’re making things more interactive. Also, because of the internet, because of things like YouTube and Twitter…fan connectivity is a lot easier than it was just a few years ago. People really feel like they’re part of people’s lives. The time was right for something like Glee. The mileage that it’s gotten (via the internet) has always helped.

One number in particular, “Teenage Dream”, I saw today on YouTube has almost 10 million views for that one song. When you watch this song, the chemistry between Kurt and Blaine is so clear which is why I think that song is so compelling. It’s a fantasy moment – Kurt walks in the door and it’s all love, popularity, friendship, acceptance, and in this beautiful room, and the enthusiasm comes across so clearly. How was that scene directed and how many takes did you do for that? I feel like it’s such a beautiful, lighthearted moment, but there’s so much more going on there.

You know it’s funny – and I don’t want to deny you the magic you feel watching that. I can watch something like that objectively, (but obviously I’m a little biased), but in the moment, you don’t think about it, you’re kind of just doing work. What you guys see is not what I see. I see about a million lights, I’m sweating my butt off, it’s completely silent, or maybe the music is playing but you don’t have kids cheering, and you have a bunch of cameras in your face, a lot of people running around, a lot of wires, and you’re just hoping you can hit your marks and you’re singing the right words, you’re trying to stay in the moment as an actor… there’s a lot of things that kind of get in the way of your focus. I’m just trying my best to be present, basically, and try and serve this character.

Sometimes Kurt isn’t even there. Sometimes he’s sitting down, or there’s a camera in front of me - it depends on the shot. It is work. And you do your best to just do your job. And then you hope that as a result of that that there will be this kind of extra x-factor that’s added.

I have to ask you – you went to Stuart Hall, right? Because, I also went to Convent.

Oh, great, so you get it! Can you imagine? Can you imagine being me, showing up to the set and seeing the blazer and seeing the staircase and those rooms? I was like oh my god, how did they know?

The uniform (of Dalton Academy) is very eerily similar. The only thing different is the edging on the blazer.

Exactly. That’s so funny. They have the marble staircase like in the Flood Mansion, especially the interior – the wood, the moldings, are all like Stuart Hall. It’s unbelievable.

Darren Criss (center) & The Warblers on the set of Glee at The Cravens Estate.

So is that a set, or is that a home?

That’s a beautiful home [The Cravens Estate] in Pasadena. The Red Cross owns it and they usually rent it out for weddings. It’s beautiful in there.

So what do you think about this character, Blaine? To me there’s nothing wrong with him. So, when is the dark side going to come out?

Oh yeah, totally. Here’s the thing: there’s no better way to introduce a character in any story than to introduce him as seemingly perfect. Then, that’s where the drama lies: you await the fall of the king. Also, like any great story, you can’t do it overnight. It takes time. I look at a guy like Mad Men’s Don Draper being this kind of classic anti-hero; when you meet him he seems so great, or at least he’s got this exterior, and then you peel back the layers and you see the weakness.

So, not to compare Blaine to Don Draper, but I’ve been excited to see what would happen. You know Ryan (Murphy) has said to me that’s he’s not interested (and I’m not interested either) in Blaine being this kind of knight in shining armor character. As fun as it is, when we meet him and introduce him that way I think that’s not going to do anybody a lick of good. There’s only so much knowledge you can get out of that. I think it will be very important to explore the dark regions. When we meet him, he does immediately admit to this kind of cowardice and to this background – that he did in fact run away from his problems. He certainly has a lot of regrets there, which is the reason why he immediately gravitates towards Kurt. Yeah, I think things are going to start to shake up a little bit with Blaine. The character definitely has a lot of potential to go there.

How does the song selection process happen? Do the cast members have input? Is there a song that you’d like to sing on the show?

I’m still the new guy, but I feel little bit more comfortable now. I used to feel very wary about saying anything. As it gets friendlier, Ryan will ask: “Is there a song you want to do?” I’m like, “you know what man, you’ve given me such incredible songs that beggars can’t be choosers… I’m just happy to be here!...Can I get you coffee? Anything you want…you guys have changed my life…”

I don’t know what the process is - they keep an eye out for things. The cool thing about the songs that I sing with The Warblers is that they get The Beelzebubs from Tufts University to rearrange them, so even if it’s a song that I wasn’t crazy about, which has never happened, they change it up into a very unique vocal arrangement and make it something new and fresh and different anyway. The Beelzebubs have really done a knock-out job with the songs. Dalton is reminiscent of a lot of East Coast, all-male schools where there’s a lot of traditional and rather famous groups in the acapella world. These all-male groups have been around for a very long time in the Ivy League world, The Beelzebubs are one of the oldest. They do all The Warblers songs – that’s their voices on the track.

It’s only recently that I’ll tell him (Ryan Murphy) songs that I think are kind of cool. I’ve told Ryan a song and… I won’t tell you what song it is but there’s a song coming up that I kind of put in as a suggestion. (Whether or not he listened to me, I’m not going to make any claims) …but I remember mentioning the song and now it’s showing up and that’s kind of cool. He’s very open to work things off the cast.

The Hollywood momentum is crazy. Are there any special cameos that you can share?

I have no idea. I don’t know anything until the last minute.

Do they hold back on telling you guys?

No, they’re just busy. Glee is incredibly chaotic, it’s a really hard show to do, I mean you’re shooting like four or five music videos a week. Plus, writing the new ones, casting the new ones, doing production and editing the new ones, and you’re doing 22 a year. You know, they’re not twisting their mustache like “he he he, we’re not going to tell them, it’ll be great”, it’s more like “we’re working as fast as we can and we’ll get it to you when we can.”

Darren Criss by Mitchell McCormack for Interview magazine.

I saw your red carpet interview at the American Music Awards where you mentioned that you wanted Christopher Walken to be on the show?

Yes. That would be mine. I would love Chris Walken to be my kooky uncle or kooky grandfather, I guess, or anybody in Blaine’s family. He’s just one of my favorite people on the planet.

Have you met him?

Oh God, no. I’ve never met Christopher Walken – good lord, I would die. He’s just a legend. He comes from a Vaudeville, practical theatre background. He’s a great dancer, he’s a great singer… God, I’d love to have Chris Walken on the show.

So if you ever got to host Saturday Night Live, would you want it to be as an actor/comedian or as a musician?

I’ve seen JT [Justin Timberlake] pull it off, so I’d like to do both. I don’t know if I’d do it as well as JT, but I’d love to. I’ve been really blessed in a number of ways, but the cool thing about me… It’s a comedy show, it’s a dramatic character or a serious character at least, and people get to see that side of me. But I do come from comedy and theatre, so it’s nice to know that I don’t think I’ll be pigeon-holed in one way or the other…

But yeah, I’d love to do both. Saturday Night Live…that would be…phew!

Do you have any favorite memories of theatre at St Ignatius?

Oh my God, a ton! High school theatre is super-special. That’s when it’s all about fun; all the really wonderful sincerity that can be in theatre is still a learning process. Quite often I’ll go see high school productions of things, or I’ll find out some high school is doing a play and I’ll see it. It kind of reminds me of where I come from and why I’m doing all of this. You know, before contracts and being an adult, really…it’s nice to be in touch with this time in one’s life where it’s about having fun with your friends.

One of my many mantras in life is that I take my work very seriously, however I don’t take myself seriously at all - that was what high school theatre was about. Theatre at SI was super-special because of its really well-rooted tradition, there’s a lot of great theatre traditions that anyone who’s gone through SI will know about. It was really special for me and I’ll always have that connection with my friends at SI who did theatre because it was this little club of crazies.

The cool thing about SI is that once you get into the Ignatian side of it and you get into the Jesuit side of things, and you start delving into the realm of spirituality – tying that into young people and theatre is something really unique & special. I’m careful of my words because I don’t want to make this religious, but just in general, tying in that notion of spirituality interlaced with artistic expression is a really cool thing to be exposed to and a really cool way of evaluating the arts at a really young age. Because for me, I don’t do what I do for myself. I do it for other people. There’s a certain shared experience there (in performance) and that’s what makes things special.

What would you advise to some kid at SI in the theatre group? Or not in the theatre group, but a writer or musician – something that’s otherwise creative. How do they take that next step? SI is a place where a lot is expected of you, obviously to whom much is given much is expected. Going the artistic/bohemian route isn’t necessarily what they always want us to do, and yet you can do it and be successful. But I think there’s a lot of fear inherent in making that choice.

Yeah, as you know, there are no rules. There’s no one path for anybody. I think…I was going to say be true to yourself, but there’s a balance between being true to yourself and being realistic. Knowing your limits. As bohemian & romantic as it sounds – is that who you are? Do you come from a background where that makes sense to you? I think it’s important to keep taking that which is on your plate and utilize it toward what you want to do. Don’t look at what’s on your plate as an obstacle to what you want to do. Going back to the internet, there’s so many different paths now to do so many different things. The important thing is if you’re a writer, an artist, anything is just do it. You can just create.

Nothing happens overnight. People think it does. People tell me “you’re an overnight success with Glee”, and I guess that’s so in the public eye. But, I went to college, I did this in high school, I went to conservatory as a kid, I’ve worked a long time as an actor. Yes, I know I’m young, but there’s a process here. It’s important to recognize that when you’re young. Things don’t happen over night. The journey is okay, in fact it’s the best part.

I had a huge dry spell before Glee. I was really struggling. I was going to move to Chicago, I couldn’t get any work as an actor, so I was really going to pursue being a musician. I was an hour away from calling my acting team and saying “we need to take some time off from this”, and I was gonna go that way, so you never know. Be open to all avenues. I’ve always had my goals, but by no means have I had my blinders on, which has made me happy. It’s good to have dreams, but it’s good to not alienate yourself from the endless possibilities. You know, it’s always being gracious and grateful for the things that you do have until it needles its way into the future path of what you do want to do. I’m so glad I went to college; I’m so glad I grew up. (Well, I haven’t really grown up, but on paper I’ve grown up.) There are parts of me that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t finished college. But that was really for me. I enjoy school, I enjoy academia, and it’s something that I think has been really important to my development as a human being and I’ve always been that person that wanted to go back to school and I fully intend on doing that in my later years.

Before I let you go, any insight into the Super Bowl Sunday episode?

Yeah. It’s going to be 1.21 jiggawatts of pure grade-A entertainment. It won’t take you back in time, but it’s just a lot of big, adrenaline-filled entertainment. It’s going to be like an hour-long half time show. Because there’s an audience that may not necessarily watch the show, the first ten minutes of it is like…bonkers. A lot of bells & whistles for sure.

Is that the episode that “Bills Bills Bills” is going to be on?

That’s the one. I love that song. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I’m excited too…