Darren Criss Talks His Unique Hollywood Origin Story and Being an Ally to Women

In September of 2018, Darren Criss took the stage to accept his first Emmy, won for playing serial killer Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace. “You guys are witnessing the most extraordinary moment of my life thus far,” he said when he reached the microphone, a smile breaking across his face and his breath catching just a little bit. From Glee, to the Broadway stage, to his vast music projects, to Versace and all that came with it, it’s been a wild time for Criss for quite a while now. And as his star has grown, so has his platform, his influence, and his impact. He understands this, which is clear as he discusses gender equality, male allyship, and Hollywood. But of course, Darren Criss wasn’t always the Darren Criss.

It’s true that recognition and fame may seem standard for him now, but a video from a decade ago tells a bit of a different story. He and a group of friends in University of Michigan’s theater program had just gone viral for A Very Potter Musical, a fanfiction-y production they’d written and staged themselves — “the success of that was completely accidental and totally organic,” he says. Criss co-wrote the music, and in the video, he and his co-stars were playing songs at the Harry Potter convention, Azkatraz. Criss wields the guitar and the solo, and just when he reaches the end of the first verse, the entire crowd rises up in unison to sing along. A giant smile and a laugh bursts across Criss’ face, and he pauses for a second to collect himself as it sinks in that, wow, yes, people have been moved by a thing he made, they know all the words to his songs, and this is only the start of something weird and cool. “You can see on our faces how overwhelmed we are,” Criss recalls now. It’s a moment of realizing that his words and his thoughts could have an impact. The video now has almost a million views and is riddled with effusive comments from fans new and old.

Criss says he owes his career to the types of fans who’ve been following him from that first sing-along. “I think even my tenure on Glee is indebted to these really devoted, avid, engaged fans,” he said. “Those people really hold the keys to a lot of people’s longevity.” It’s a unique privilege to be able to watch somebody just as their dreams have started coming true — and in Criss’ case, we’re lucky to have it immortalized on YouTube. It makes things all the more interesting when their influence grows beyond subculture and they start winning Emmys. 

Criss has lost none of his Potter Musicalhumor and none of the earnestness from that YouTube moment — even though the ups and downs of public attention have become old hat. As a bonafide public figure, Criss is all the more aware of the weight his words carry now. When I speak with him, we’re in the midst of a photoshoot for a campaign based around male allyship and gender equality. It’s an exercise in the use of his very public voice — something he’s still getting used to after all these years, but feels adamant about when it comes to standing in solidarity with women who are trying to change harmful systems through movements like #MeToo. 

Just before the 2018 Golden Globes, Criss posted a video talking about his support of the #HeForShe campaign and the organization Time’s Up. “I’m thrilled to be a small part of a bigger change in whatever way I can,” he said, “and to hopefully be held accountable for taking my part in trying to end the rampant injustice that has been happening to our brothers and sisters, not only in the Hollywood community but in many different work communities.” 

According to Criss, striving to be a good ally should be “a no-brainer.” He says that the past few years of mainstream attention on issues of gender inequality, while emotionally rough, have also reaped great benefit. He sees the massive #MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke, as one part of pushing society into a new era — the chance to challenge habits and rebuild some of the structures that have been enabling abuse from the ground up for so long. “It’s bringing us all into a higher sensitivity rate on a much larger scale. We need to break the stone down, recast the iron, remodel the house, because there are so many [societal habits] that get set in over generations, and every few generations we have to redefine what that is through social revolution.” 

For men who might be earlier on their journey to thoughtful allyship, Criss has some words of wisdom: “Equality in general just comes down to mindfulness, and realizing that your narrative is not the only narrative.” One thing that’s helped shape Criss’ own perception is his mother who emigrated from the Philippines in the 1970s. “I think any immigrant kid can attest to this, but my mother’s narrative has always been inspiring to me because the cards were just stacked against her,” he said. “Shit wasn’t easy.”

For Criss, what’s most important is retaining that sense of being a teammate. “As this Earth is slowly being destroyed by our negligence, [we have to remember] we don’t have anybody else,” he said. “Struggles manifest themselves in so many different ways with so many different people, but we have so many more things that unite us than divide us.”

At some point in our conversation about gender equality, he summed it up pretty succinctly, “It’s so imbecilically simple. We’re all human beings and we should be on the same team.”

Photos by Paola Kudacki