Darren Criss: The New Kid on the Block

Darren Criss: The New Kid on the Block

The first time Glee viewers met newcomer Darren Criss, out-but-tortured Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) was visiting the all-boys Dalton Academy to suss out whether it would suit his escape from McKinley High. Lost in a sea of navy blue blazers, Kurt nervously sought the aid of a handsome stranger named Blaine (Criss) who immediately clasped our protagonist's hand and was leading him on a shortcut through the school's Versailles-like halls before Kurt knew what was happening. In that brief, fantastical sequence, the two teenage boys ran in slow motion to an ethereal piano interlude until they reached the site of the anticipated gathering, a performance by the Warblers, Dalton's glee club. Once there, Blaine released Kurt's hand and launched into Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream,' flirtily crooning it his way. For Kurt, the moment was a first glimpse at a future in which he could be himself and belong.

The next day, Glee's version of 'Teenage Dream' shot up the iTunes charts, becoming the most downloaded song yet from a show that had recently surpassed the Beatles' record for the most singles to chart on Billboard's Hot 100. And in a world teeming with undeserving reality TV insta-stars, Criss became a bona fide overnight sensation.

But the 24-year-old's charm and talent were only part of the equation. After a season and a half of building sympathy for Kurt, Glee's fans want him to find happiness. And ever since Glee cocreator Ryan Murphy let on that Kurt will have a boyfriend this season, the Internet has been filled with speculation about who it will be. (After Bieber-esque new kid Sam, played by Chord Overstreet, proved straight, conjecture turned to Blaine.)

This is more than just a teenage dream, or even a gay one. As a top 10 show among men ages 18 to 49, Fox's kooky jukebox musical has a fanbase that extends beyond the usual coalition of teenage girls and gay guys who tune in to Gossip Girl or 90210. Commercial time on Glee commands top dollar (behind only Sunday Night Football and American Idol, according to Advertising Age) and big-name stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Britney Spears line up for guest appearances. Its coveted berth after the recent Super Bowl -- of all things -- shouted one thing: Glee has become the only true network TV breakout hit of the last few years.


In casting Criss, the show's producers inadvertently landed an ideal spokesman for a new generation of all-American male -- comfortable enough in his own sexuality to be perfectly at ease with someone else's. Knowing that "Are you gay?" would be among the first questions lobbed at him, Criss initially thought he would tell reporters something ambiguous and "idealistic" like "It doesn't matter if I'm gay or straight -- I'm playing a role." Though new to Hollywood, he's wise enough to know that such a tactic could have backfired. He concluded, "I didn't want to make it troublesome."

So Criss came out, as it were, as straight, and now he regularly says things like "I think it's more empowering to everybody, including myself, if I'm articulate about identifying myself as a straight male playing a gay character. Ultimately, that's more powerful for both communities."

Criss's backstory is so good it seems tailor-made for this moment. He grew up in San Francisco (translation: he's gay-friendly), where he was a big musical theater geek (see previous); his mom is Filipino and his dad is Irish (so he's appealingly multicultural); he graduated from the University of Michigan in 2009 (in other words, he's a smartie); his self-produced EP and the Harry Potter musical parody he and his UM friends made became worldwide viral video hits (he's creative, resourceful, and of-the-moment); he auditioned three times for Glee (that's persistence); and he's still deeply involved in Team StarKid, the theater company he started with his friends in college (he's grounded).

When I show up 10 minutes early for our interview, at a nondescript Hollywood caf' a few blocks' walk from his apartment, Criss is dressed in comfortable layers, perched on a stool by the window. A black and blue knit cap conceals his curls while horn-rimmed glasses obscure those thick, look-I'm-the-kid-from-Glee eyebrows. A couple of days' stubble contrasts Blaine's clean-shaven look. This portrait of the artist as a young man comes complete with a napkin full of scribbled lyrics and a few stray lines scrawled on the back of his hand.

Criss is scrambling to complete the music and lyrics for Starship, his theater company's upcoming musical, starting a sold-out mid-February run in Chicago. "It's basically The Little Mermaid meets Aliens," he says, pitching the storyline about "an insect alien who wants to be a human being." (The show's tagline is "One small bug will remind us all what it means to be human.")

His sci-fi/Disney musical aesthetic may be unique to Criss's generation, but the "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" ethos he shares with Glee is at least as old as Babes in Arms, the 1939 Rodgers and Hart musical film starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. It's Criss's favorite and the source of one of the songs that helped him nail his audition for the role of Blaine: "Where or When," a wistful ballad about romantic d'j' vu. In a two-pack of earnestness and irony, his tryout paired that song with a slowed-down version of Britney Spears's "'Baby One More Time." "I take a lot of joy in recontextualizing songs," says Criss, who supported himself pre-Glee in part by singing a mix of Disney musical numbers and loungy takes on pop songs usually sung by women, at Maggiano's, an Italian restaurant in L.A.'s outdoor mall, the Grove.

Among a certain set, Criss was already a Web celeb before GleeMe and My Dick, a musical about a high school guy and his sex-starved penis, and A Very Potter Musical, which Criss wrote and starred in, are the kind of parodies college theater students have been putting on for decades. Now, they're posted online and Potter part 1 has had more than 4 million views on YouTube.

A supporting role on the short-lived ABC series Eastwick gained him more mainstream media exposure, which fed the popularity of Human, a five-song EP of folky, guitar-strumming angst he recorded in his bedroom. That led to gigs like a quinceañera he played in Ecuador last summer and a bar mitzvah he did in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last month. "I'd booked these before Glee," he marvels. "I just like playing music and hanging out. You want me to play songs for you? Great! You know how inherently gratifying that is?"

Though Glee-dom made a Christmastime tour of the Philippines possible -- Criss's manager booked him solo shows in front of 3,000 to 5,000 people each -- what happened there demonstrates that the multihyphenate is a new kind of young star: talented, ambitious, and a savvy self-promoter, with the world at his fingertips thanks to the Web.

"I thought it would be all Glee," he says of the audiences' interest, "but I had to change my playlist because they wanted StarKid." The Filipino teen girls were sporting StarKid sunglasses, T-shirts, and headbands they had bought online. "I'm on a worldwide network television phenomenon, but they're there because of a kind of ghetto-fabulous musical I did in two weeks with my friends in college. Who would have thought?"

Criss admits that Glee has "kind of complicated" the rest of his career. "I feel like I'm sort of moonlighting on Glee," he says. (The network has yet to make Criss a series regular or announce whether he will return next season, but he is on board for this summer's European tour.) Still, Criss is careful to express his gratitude. "The coolest part is not that it's a hit show -- that's a bonus -- and, of course, that I have a job. But the real cool thing is I was inadvertently raised by the gay community."

As a kid, Criss performed in local musicals ("By the time I was 9, I knew Les Miz like the back of my hand!"), befriending cast members in their 20s and 30s. "I was staying out much later than most kids after shows, going to restaurants," he says. "It's not like I was doing body shots off beautiful Castro boys. I was friends with older guys -- they were who I looked up to. It wasn't until later that I put together that they were gay."

Not only has Criss's preference for gender-subverted musical numbers found a high-profile home (see Blaine's "Baby, It's Cold Outside" duet with Kurt), but Glee has managed to make being a drama geek -- gay or straight -- cool. In its upside-down world, mechanical rain falls from the rafters for a seemingly impromptu "Singin' in the Rain"/"Umbrella" mash-up and a down-on-his-luck gay next door just might have a chance at love with the hot new kid. They're fantasies every gay man -- and evidently the rest of America -- can relate to.

Still, all might not be sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows in Lima, Ohio. "It's my job as showrunner to keep them apart as long as possible," says Ryan Murphy. "Blaine will openly question whether bisexuality is real. I think that some people will love that discussion and some will not love it."

He's even coy about whether they'll get together at all. "When that moment comes -- if it comes, says Murphy, "I want to treat that relationship like we treat all the other relationships on the show. I want it to be as flawed and as exposed as everyone else's."

While an unrequited Kurt-Blaine affair would feel like a cop-out, a platonic friendship between two young gay men might be the best thing Glee could ever model. No doubt Colfer's Kurt -- the most visible gay teen ever on TV -- will eventually find romance, but what could be more subversive and meaningful than for him to develop a lasting bond with a gay man who helps him find his own courage while learning that he doesn't need a boyfriend to be whole?

It's a concept that doesn't elude Criss: "The most important thing to convey to those watching is for Kurt to have someone he can relate to. This is the first time he has a young out male friend, a support system, to show that that's possible." Now that's a teenage dream come true.