Gianni Versace and Andrew Cunanan were both smart, talented, engaging and popular. Versace grew up to become the most influential fashion designer of his generation. Cunanan grew up to kill Versace.
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” examines this tragic 1997 confluence when the second season of Ryan Murphy’s anthology series premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX.
“We can’t know what went on in Andrew Cunanan’s head,” executive producer Brad Simpson tells the Daily News. “But we try to get under his skin. How does a guy with so much to give end up going to such a dark place?”
This gives “Versace” a considerably different feel from “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Murphy’s acclaimed first season of “American Crime Story,” which aired in 2016.
“The O.J. series was more focused on the trial, the lawyers and its impact on America,” says Simpson. “This is more of a thriller.”
Darren Criss plays killer Andrew Cunanan in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.”
“Versace,” which stars Darren Criss as Cunanan and Edgar Ramirez as Versace, is based on the 1999 book “Vulgar Favors” by Maureen Orth. She is a consultant on the TV series, which also features Ricky Martin as Versace’s lover Antonio D’Amico and Penelope Cruz as the designer’s sister and inspiration, Donatella Versace.
The real-life Versace family has disowned the show, as it disowned Orth’s book, labeling it “a work of fiction.” The book and the TV series both show Gianni Versace, who was 50 when he was murdered, as sexually promiscuous and Donatella with a snappish edge, particularly toward D’Amico.
Simpson says no disrespect is intended.
“Any crime like this is tough on the families of the victim,” he says. “I can understand why families don’t want it replayed.
Ricky Martin (left) and Edgar Ramirez in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.”
“But crime is a genre, in books and on TV, and Maureen Orth is an accomplished and respected reporter,” Simpson adds. “We have tried to be ethical and do right by Versace. We believe he was a genius, and the series makes that clear.”
The opening of the first episode also makes it clear, Simpson notes, “that Versace loved life.”
In a long scene that cuts back and forth between Versace and Cunanan on the morning of the murder, we see the Italian designer rising in his luxurious, sun-drenched Miami Beach mansion, then dressing and strolling out to a local news dealer to buy fashion magazines.
Multiple scenes also show the designer talking about how the most important part of his clothing is the expressions on the faces of the models.
Gianni Versace was gunned down in front of his Miami Beach mansion, seen here with police tape and small flags after the 1997 murder.
If they seem joyful, he says, the clothes themselves will exude the same pleasure.
Conversely, Cunanan increasingly exudes darkness, right up until he takes his own life at age 27, eight days after gunning down Versace. “He’s not a murderer born,” says Simpson. “He’s a murderer made. He was born, like Versace, with a ton of potential. He just went another way.”
Fans who know Criss from Murphy’s “Glee” and musical roles will see him morph into pure menace here.
“They may be shocked,” says Simpson. “But he’s an incredibly versatile performer.”
Penelope Cruz stars as Donatella Versace in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.”
“Versace” also inevitably dives into the gay culture of the 1990s, which Simpson notes was much further underground than the LGBT world today.
“Versace was one of the few public figures who dared to be out,” Simpson says, and the attitudes of police and others in the show feel much more distant than just 20 years ago.
“Back then, you couldn’t imagine gay people getting married,” says Simpson. “We’ve come a long way in 20 years, though not all the old attitudes are gone.”
In the end, “Versace” leaves several questions unanswered or unknowable: why Cunanan took the turn he did, and why he wasn’t caught after killing four other people.
Whatever happened, two smart men with great potential wound up dead. That’s a crime.