FX’s Versace murder drama visceral and terrifying

January 12, 2018

FX’s widely celebrated O.J. Simpson “American Crime Story” focused on the theatrics and hijinks of the celebrity athlete’s televised murder trial and the colorful characters involved.

Don’t expect any such amusement from “Crime Story’s” second season, which details the murder of fashion icon Gianni Versace in the summer of 1997 and the events leading up to him being gunned down.

While viewing the first four episodes, I didn’t smile once. What I did feel was stunned, sad, chilled, mortified and thoroughly sickened, as if someone had delivered a hard punch to my gut.

The drama is breathtakingly beautiful at times, inviting us into the opulent, glamorous and often decadent world of Versace (Emmy-nominated Edgar Ramirez, “Carlos”), his handsome longtime partner Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin) and his fiercely devoted sister Donatella (Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz), a realm made even more dreamy by pastel-washed Miami.

But that’s only the backdrop. This new nine-part “American Crime Story” is primarily a no-holds-barred depiction of the horrific crimes of sociopath Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss, “Glee”), his calculated killing of Versace, the gruesome slayings that preceded it and the effect on the various victims’ friends and families.

“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” debuts at 9 p.m. Wednesday on FX.

“Every season of this show will have a different tonality,” co-executive producer Ryan Murphy told TV critics at a recent FX press session in Pasadena, California. “The first season was very much a courtroom pot boiler. The second season that you’ve seen is a manhunt thriller.

“I loved that this was not glamorizing the Cunanan story, and we never want to do that on this show,” Murphy added. “I really loved how we laid into everybody who was affected, not just the people who were killed, but also the relatives, the siblings. I think what (Cunanan) did was very, very destructive, and the reasons why he did it — the homophobia of the day, which still persists — is something really topical.”

What both series have in common is they’re topical and reflective of the day.

“With ‘O.J.’ we looked at sexism and racism, and we are doing the same with this season,” Murphy said.

As for the drama’s honesty, the Versace family recently decried it as “fiction.” However, journalist and author Maureen Orth, whose book “Vulgar Favors” served as the basis for the drama, stands by its authenticity.

“I would say my sourcing in the book is 95 percent or more on the record, and I talked to over 400 people, and so, so many things that you might think were made up aren’t made up,” Orth said.

As indicated before, it’s not an easily digested story: Each of the murders is terrifying, as is Cunanan’s manipulation and shaming of his victims.

However, it’s portrayed with such realism and emotional commitment by its magnetic and meticulous cast that you are hooked instantly and will want to see it through to its conclusion.

The stars met with us to share their feelings about the characters they play and how being part of such a sad, brutal and disturbing series affected their lives.

Murphy said Ramirez was the only central cast member who didn’t instantly say yes when approached.

The actor eventually was convinced, however, and said he came away surprised by what he learned about Versace the man: “How family oriented he was and how strong those family ties were and how important they were in his life. And how rather subtle and intimate and private he was in comparison to the public perception of the House of Versace.”

“He was rather a quiet person that would go kind of shy, you know, extroverted, but shy at the same time,” Ramirez said. “And he would go to bed rather early and wake up rather early and had more the demeanor and the life of a craftsman than like a larger-than-life celebrity. So that’s something that even to me was very surprising.”

Martin, known best as the Latin pop star who gave us hits such as “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” said he had a conversation with his character, D’Amico, to assure him that his relationship with Versace would be “treated with utmost respect.”

“I told him, ‘I will make sure that people fall in love with your relationship with Gianni. That is what I’m here for. I really want them to see the beauty and the connection that you guys had.’”

He also got the biggest laugh during the FX press session. “I peed a little bit,” he said when he learned Donatella would be played by Penelope Cruz.

As for Criss, people who’ve seen him in lighter roles, such as the singing-dancing Blaine in “Glee,” no doubt will be astonished by the intensity of the actor’s performance here, particularly when the sadistic side of Cunanan comes out.

However, Criss made sure he also found something likable about Cunanan, such as his charm, to turn in a fleshed-out portrayal.

To preserve his sanity through filming, he said, the role “didn’t come home with me. I know a lot of people who jump into these kinds of things, and it really consumes their whole lives. And maybe that’s just the kind of person I am, but my alibi of how that, sort of, works is I think what saved me is that Andrew compartmentalized so many things in his life: emotions, people, experiences. He could disassociate, and likewise, I could sort of disassociate.”

Jeanne Jakle’s column appears Thursdays and Sundays in mySA. Read more of her columns here. | jjakle@express-news.net | @JakleJ