The last time we caught up with "Glee" star Criss was at this year's Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta, GA, when he made a surprise appearance for 4,000 youngsters this January. At that point, he couldn't spill the beans about his Hedwig casting, but said he'd "love to go back to Broadway" and would let us know what he was talking about at the next press event.
So, was Hedwig that dream role you were talking about in Atlanta but couldn't tell us?
DC: How coy was I? This is probably it because I've known about this for a long time. This is definitely it. I think I was being extra cautious because I knew you were with Playbill, but this is it. Yup! Surprise!
What are you most excited about with this show?
DC: I don't even know where to begin. I'm running out of ways to say how excited I am daily. I can't wipe the smile off my face. Anytime I see anybody — whether it's John Cameron Mitchell or [director] Michael Mayer or [composer] Stephen Trask, people who are now friends, that's weird — I just get so giddy. I'm at the level of excitement that you think I would be if I was already doing this show. Being a part of this whole process is such an honor for me and such a dream come true, so I guess I'm really excited for an audience to be there, because that's one of the main variables that makes Hedwig "Hedwig." The way she carries herself is very much defined by what she is being given from this crowd, or what she thinks she's being given from the crowd, so I'm excited to start playing with people.
When was the last time you wore heels?
DC: I'm sure I did a few times on "Glee." I mean, it kind of blurs together. "Glee," probably, for a Gaga thing, I'm sure… Yeah, actually, we did this really weird number, where I came out of a hat, and I was wearing heels. I was wearing big, ole platform heels for that, but those were far less comfortable than these heels. These heels are a walk in the park compared to those.
How have you been perfecting your strut? Did you sit down to have a conversation with your girlfriend [Mia Swier] and say, "Give me some pointers!"?
DC: I haven't, but I probably should. I guess I'm a little more observant with the way women move. If I'm not already checking out women blatantly anyway, I'm now doing it with a sort of job requirement behind it. It's not just me being a perv; it's like, "Okay, so how are you walking? Okay." I'm a big physical actor — at least, I've always been interested in physical theatre. It's something that I took very seriously in college, and it's fun to apply that neurotic love of trying to figure out how one moves and how one holds themselves. But with this character, I don't know. I'm slowly getting more and more into it. We're still in the embryotic stages of figuring her out, but our choreographers and directors have been very specific about, "Darren, shoulders back. Hips this way." But, I'll say this — the physicality of Hedwig is very much augmented and helped out by when you put on the makeup and the wigs and the outfits. I don't care who you are — you put on a pair of heels, you're going to hold yourself differently. It immediately empowers one's physique. I mean, you see with women all the time — they take off the flats, put on the heels, and all of a sudden, it's this very regal thing. So, if anything, I can't wait to get into the actual full wardrobe because then it will really inform the way of how I carry myself.
What was that like seeing yourself in the makeup for the first time?
DC: Ah! The first time I put on the makeup, you immediately become this sassy bitch because you just look at yourself and go, "Oh! Who is that?!" It really changes the way you see yourself and, as a result, how you interact with other people. I was like, "Mama look good! Mama look real pretty!" But, it has very little to do with me and everything to do with the magic of drag and contouring and all the tricks of the drag trade for hundreds of years on the stage. So, all credit goes to [wig and makeup designer] Mike Potter, who's been doing the Hedwig makeup since the late '90s. She looks really pretty — a lot prettier than me, that's for damn sure.
Darren Criss and Rebecca Naomi Jones Get Some "Tongue" and Trade Punches as New Hedwig Stars Greet the Press
What liberates you about doing drag?
DC: I don't know if it's a "liberation," so much as it is an "empowering." The cool thing about drag culture is empowering a certain caricature within [of] who you are, depending on who you are. A lot of drag characters are caricatures of a certain [quality] about somebody, and it brings out a lot of things for a lot of men…and women, so for me, it does bring out this very sassy — I won't say composed because Hedwig obvious has a lot of hurt and a lot of turmoil within her — but it brings out this rock 'n' roll energy that can't be messed with, so that's super fun to play with.
Besides the Belasco, what are your favorite rock 'n' roll nightclubs in New York City?
DC: Oh my God! New York City is the king of that. We've lost a lot of the great venues, obviously. Unfortunately, I never could go — I didn't grow up in New York City when it was around — but there was CBGB, and they just closed the Chelsea [Hotel] — Patti Smith used to play there — but the Bowery Ballroom is still here, the Mercury Lounge, Music Hall of Williamsburg. [There are] a lot of great venues in town, and I've had the privilege of playing a lot of them. I used to go with my girlfriend — where we actually met — to see John Cameron Mitchell, [who] used to throw these parties at Don Hill's, may he rest in peace, which was this really great, awesome, subcultural bonanza. He'd have these great drag shows there. It's where he would actually try out a lot of his early Hedwig experiments. John would go in there, and there would be a drag show, where he would just come up and start performing Hedwig before it was a show, so we used to go there a lot. It's no longer with us. I'm sure it's been bought out by a lovely new condo. Rock 'n' roll history of New York City is so very cool and something that I love, and it does definitely collide with this show, when you think about Lou Reed and Velvet Underground and the places they played and the things they did and where they hung out. It's very much associated to Hedwig's love of American rock 'n' roll and the influence it has on him, so, yeah… New York City, doing Hedwig, to me, is infinitely cool!
Last but not least, what words of wisdom have you got from past Hedwig stars?
DC: You know what, they're all technical things that have nothing to do with the show. Neil [Patrick Harris] was talking about which ENT [ear, nose and throat specialist] I should be going to. Everybody else was just like, "Have fun!" But they were all very kind. We all got to meet at Lena Hall's last show, and I kind of felt "not worthy," but everyone's been really welcoming, and I hope that I could do them proud.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)