Darren Criss rocketed to teen idol status by playing a gay high school heartthrob. Leena Tailor talks to the ascending star about 'living the dream'
Not so long ago, Glee's Darren Criss was rocking up to Italian restaurant Maggiano's at The Grove mall in Los Angeles, performing Disney songs in non-stop, four-hour sets and using the cash to get by as another struggling Hollywood actor/musician.
"My buddy was the manager so he'd let me come in every Thursday and Sunday with my guitar and play a bunch of songs. I just did it for tips and for fun."
Now, as the 24-year-old sits down for an exclusive chat with TimeOut, he's back at the same mall, but circumstances couldn't be more different. Having shot to fame as Glee's out-and-proud Blaine Anderson, the San Francisco native has gone from being background restaurant music to the face of Glee's breakout TV band, The Warblers, whose rendition of Katy Perry's Teenage Dream rocketed up the charts.
His face graces countless magazines, he's about to join the US Glee tour and 500 screaming girls have queued for hours to have him sign copies of Glee: The Music Presents The Warblers.
But while it's the high-decibel young females making themselves heard in anticipation of Darren's entrance, it's the handful of young guys scattered through the crowd whose quiet presence speaks volumes about the impact Blaine has had on youth. His will-they-won't-they romance with Kurt, played by Golden Globe-winning Chris Colfer, has kept viewers on the edges of their seats and culminated with the pair locking lips in a highly-anticipated recent episode, which cemented his status as a global icon for gay youth.
"That kiss was something we've all been waiting for," says Darren. "It was a relief for it to finally happen and it was a beautiful, well-written scene. Filming it was a very heart-pounding moment of, 'Am I gonna do this, am I gonna do this?' Anyone who's been in that position knows what it's like. You're terrified your heart's going to melt out of your throat. I just tried to tap into that."
While being a straight guy tapping into a gay romance might be a challenge for any young actor, Darren pulled off the scene in what many media outlets have called "the best gay kiss on primetime television".
Humbled by the attention it continues to throw his way, he shrugs off the fact that every interview now involves gay questions.
"I did theatre from a young age with older people, so I was raised by 30-somethings and it made me grow up very quickly. It has definitely made me more enthusiastic about the socio-political package that's attached to Blaine - I'm very comfortable talking about the concerns the show has raised and addressing people's interest in my take on it. But it's just a character; a job. I'm no more a gay high school kid than Max Adler [who plays Dave] is a homophobic bully or Heather Morris [Brittany] is a dumb cheerleader. Both are the antithesis of their characters - Max is a warm, loving teddy-bear and Heather's a genius. As an actor you play different parts and this one happens to be a gay character - and a strong one, so really I lucked out."
Having made his name in A Very Potter Musical, a Harry Potter spoof which went viral two years ago, Darren admits he was worried his fans might shun him for ditching his "sub-cultural" projects and "going mainstream" with Glee. Not only have they stuck with him but he has found himself a new legion of followers and is proudly "living the dream".
Joking that the biggest obstacle to achieving his greatest goals by age 24 is LA traffic, he has no intention of slowing down, with further musical ventures and projects with his theatre production company Team StarKid planned.
He also hopes to visit family in Wellington soon. "My mum's family are from the Philippines ... which means they all marry outside of the Philippines! They've married into Germany, Egypt and then my German-Filipino cousin married a Swiss Kiwi. We're basically like the UN.
"I met the groom's Kiwi friends at the wedding and the whole time I was thinking, 'Do not pigeon-hole New Zealanders. Do not talk about Lord of the Rings or Flight of the Conchords.' To say I'm a fan is an understatement.
"But within two seconds of every conversation, people were like, 'So do you know Flight of the Conchords? They're from Wellington and I went to school with them.' I've always wanted to go but now my cousin's there I have the perfect excuse."
Who: Darren Criss
What: Glee: The Music Presents The Warblers
Also: Glee, Fridays, TV3, 7.30pm