Darren Criss On His Return To Musical Comedy With New Quibi Series, 'Royalties'
In which he plays “a very goofy, doofy, out-there, rascally version of [himself].”
The last year and a half has been huge for Darren Criss. After starring as Andrew Cunanan in Ryan Murphy’s critically-acclaimed The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, the 33-year-old actor went on to win a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his career-best performance. These awards were preceded by what felt like a neverending press circuit, and it’s safe to say that no one would have blamed the newly-minted award-winner for taking a break to settle down and relax. But Criss did the opposite. Shortly after, he signed up to work with Murphy again for the revisionist Tinseltown fairytale Hollywood, appeared in Roland Emmerich’s World War II flick Midway, and, most excitingly, dove headfirst into a project he’s been sitting on for years: Royalties, a new Quibi musical comedy about two aspiring songwriters who happen to stumble into mainstream success. It was the first made-for-TV project Criss created, wrote, and produced.
In Royalties, which is streaming now, Criss stars as Pierce, “a very goofy, doofy, out-there, rascally version of [himself].” The series, which follows Pierce’s work alongside his songwriting partner Sara (Kether Donohue), is a wild jaunt, taking a heightened spoofy comedic tone to satirize the underexplored world of songwriters. Each of its ten bite-sized episodes features at least one original song (also written by Criss), and more often than not, the deliberately silly jams (like the sexual innuendo-laden ode to mattresses “Break It In” or the small-dick country anthem “Mighty As Kong”) are central to the show’s nonstop amusement.
It feels like something of a passion project for Criss, who got his start producing viral musicals like A Very Potter Musical through his StarKid production company, which he has been running alongside Royalties collaborators Matt and Nick Lang since they were all in college together. Though people may know him best as Glee breakout Blaine Anderson, Criss admits that songwriting was always his first passion. “It has always fascinated me because it is a funny comedy of errors that these people who are on the frontlines of successful pop culture are the hardest ones to get into the party,” he says about his motivation. Now, with Royalties, Criss is finally giving these underappreciated geniuses a chance to soak up some of the limelight.
A month before Royalties’ Quibi premiere, NYLON hopped on the phone with Darren Criss to talk about his inspiration for the show, what it’s been like to work with Matt and Nick Lang for over a decade, how he never identified as a singer before Glee, and why he would never recommend working on two projects close to your heart at the same time. (Hint: it’s exhausting.)
How did you get involved in this project?
I have been sitting on this for years. When you work in the entertainment industry, people always have that bottom-drawer project. Royalties has been a long-gestating project that came from my dual citizenship between the film and television world as an actor, and the songwriting world, which is something that is a huge part of my life. It's strange for me because I do so much work in the music industry that doesn't have the same visibility as the acting stuff, but they have the same currency in my life. They take up equal parts of my brain.
I always wanted to tell a story where I could do both things. When I came to Los Angeles, one of the things that I almost gave up acting for was being a songwriter. I had done well — at least at the time, as a 22-year-old kid in L.A. — in the space of writing songs and being an artist. That was going to be my life for a hot second before the acting thing picked up. I thought [the songwriting industry] was a world that was ripe for real comedy, and that's what we did.
The comedy in Royalties is very spoofy and campy. What was your inspiration for that tone?
When you have tone meetings about how something's going to turn out, you can set guidelines, but you ultimately don't have a whole lot of control until you make the thing. As I was making it, I realized that there was a very scrappy, campy funness to it. And once a child starts showing its potential and personality, you don't want to fight against it. You want to embrace it for what it is.
Very early on, eight fucking years ago, I was knocking around the show being a bit more of a drama. But as things like Empire and Smash and Nashville, which had these very melodramatic looks at the music industry, came out, I really was like, You know what? I'm a really goofy dude. The people that I make stuff with — StarKid, which is my production company that just turned 10 this past year — we have a certain voice. Our comedy is very silly and campy, and I'd be a fool not to involve that into what the show would become. It becomes a really nice counterpoint to the shows I just mentioned.
I recently revisited A Very Potter Musical, which you made with Matt and Nick Lang through StarKid. Now you’re working with them again. Has it been nice to be able to maintain a working relationship with these people you’ve known since college?
Yeah, we have a shorthand. The goal was always to make this with them because we've built our livelihood around making musical comedies. I was really keen on making sure they could have a shot at doing a big ole Hollywood production. I was a huge advocate for them. That sounds like I've got some kind of Christ complex, but what I mean is they've done well by me for too long. I would’ve been an idiot not to take advantage of that. We’ve created a lot of magical things together, but I wanted to see how that would translate to a series instead of a theatrical show. We really make each other laugh, and I think we make a good triumvirate of understanding story through music and vice-versa. So I'm glad that we got to make it.
After spending the better part of the last decade primarily acting in things written by other people, what was it like to actually create a show that you were writing yourself?
It depends. I mean, I always treat everything pretty holistically. If I'm an “actor,” I look at everything as if I'm a writer and a director. I always have a bird's-eye view over the whole piece. I tend to act keeping in mind what the writer thinks, what the director thinks, how it's going to be edited. As a writer, it's the same thing — while I’m putting the story together, I'm thinking about how it's going to play as an actor and how I'm going to play it out. It's all the same to me. It's all storytelling. I'm utilizing the same skills regardless, just with different execution.
It's not like I suddenly wanted to write something. I've always, in my mind, been my own version of an auteur. People always ask, "Are you a musician? Are you a songwriter? Are you an actor? What do you identify with?" And I always say, “A) I'm a storyteller. But B) I'm a mercenary. I'll take whatever you'll give me, and I'll be happy to have it.” I've been lucky having enough work as an actor to sustain the other parts of my life. But while [Royalties] was logistically different, in my mind, it didn’t feel different at all because I'm still trying to tie pieces together to weave the same tapestry for a story, if that makes any sense.
At the same time, you were working with Ryan Murphy on Hollywood, which you were also executive producing. How was that?
I wouldn't recommend it! I don't know how Ryan Murphy does it. Maybe it's because he's not acting in them. Maybe that helps. I mean, I feel like chaos and necessity are the mothers of invention. I thrive on multitasking. But because I put so much of everything I had into Royalties, the amount of care that I have, much like a child, goes through the roof. When I'm acting, there are certain things that I don't really have to feel responsible for. So while I was part of the initial gathering for Hollywood, I was doing both [projects] at the same time. And as a result, I did take a backseat [with producing Hollywood]. Plus, it's Ryan Murphy's television show! I'm just going to let him do his thing. But had I put in the same amount of sweat into Hollywood as I did into Royalties, I don't know if I would have made it out of last year.
Quibi is a new frontier, as far as its mission to deliver “quick bites” of content. Was it exciting for you to adapt your show to this somewhat new formula?
In the same way I try to pride myself on knowing my place and what's appropriate for the party, I also like the versatility of parameters. As a songwriter, they say, "Okay, we want something under four minutes. It's got to be 150 BPM in the key of A-flat, and we want a female vocalist that has to say this word in this note." Those things frustrate people but are great for artists because we need boundaries. Without them, people like me will just go all over the place.
The Langs and I were excited by the notion of this challenge of short-form. If someone had come along and said, "We want a four-hour movie," we would have said, "Okay, here's how we would do that." At the end of the day, you have your ideas and your character. Then, when they tell you how to tailor the suit, you can still maintain the integrity of that piece, but you have to be dexterous enough to be able to have it fit in a coherent way. So I enjoyed the challenge — How do we create these arcs in a short, quick, fun enough way for people to ingest for this platform?
Aside from Andrew Cunanan, your most famous role is probably Blaine in Glee, who is obviously known as a singer. I know you don’t sing too much in Royalties, but were you excited to be singing in a show again?
What's weird is that I never identified as a “singer” my whole life. It was so strange. I fell into [singing] in my 20s. Sure, I liked to sing. I just never saw myself as a guy with a mic singing in front of everybody. If I had a guitar and a mic or a piano and a mic, and I’m singing with a band, then yeah. But the singer thing was definitely something that Glee really pushed forward. I had to assume the role of what it would be to be “the singer guy.” So if anything, it's nice to be a little closer to something that I related to more for most of my life [like songwriting] than the Blaine thing.
I think the most fun thing about the show is being able to use all the things of where I come from [to show] who I'd like to be seen as. Not only in the show itself — where I play a very goofy, doofy, out-there, rascally version of myself — but also professionally. There's this constant renegotiation of how you see yourself and how other people see you, especially in the entertainment world. So getting a step closer to how I'd like to be seen in real life has been really great.
You’ve played a variety of roles throughout your career — a high school a cappella singer on Glee, a serial killer in American Crime Story, an aspiring director in Hollywood, and now, a songwriter in Royalties. Each of these roles feels so distinct, but you’re so fully committed in each one. Do you pride yourself on being versatile as an actor?
Again, this goes back to my simplistic view of storytelling. When we think of the word "role," it's not just as an actor — it’s as a creative person. Versatility is the name of the game. I love the idea that songwriting is just as important to me as acting and that you can't really pin me down in one place. In this show, I take on a variety of different roles as a creative person. I look at acting in the same way I do songwriting. Songwriters get to be active. They get to play the part of the rapper, the top 100, the pop ballad, the country twang throwback song. They get to assume the mask of these different roles. And so that's kind of always what I'm doing in every creative field: How many different masks can I put on and how genuine can I make them for people to believe that that's the only thing that I do, when in fact we're actually running around doing as many different things as possible? Which, in fact, is what a good songwriter does.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.