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He Only Plays Gay on TV

Glee’s Darren Criss expands his repertoire.

Styled by Miguel lopez and Gabriel Yanez of Sui Generis

Glee’s Darren Criss plays it straight opposite Kristen Wiig in Girl Most Likely.

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The key to a smooth interview with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, says Darren Criss, is to talk as little as possible. Let the fourth-hour Today hosts prattle back and forth while you sip whatever they’re pouring into your coffee mug and throw in the occasional uh-huh to let the gals know you’re still listening. Unfortunately for Criss, this silent straight-man role is tantamount to torture. Get the 26-year-old, San Francisco–born actor on the phone after Gifford and Kotb are done with him, and you’ll understand why: The boy likes to jabber. A lot.

Within minutes, he's going on breathlessly about his love of storytelling as only a theater kid from West Portal can. “I’m a mercenary, man,” says Criss, his adopted SoCal lilt in full effect. “I strive for eclecticism, so when people ask me what I do—music or acting—my answer is that it’s just not a choice. Acting and doing a scene is very musical to me. Playing a rock show is very theatrical. It’s a real, organic thing that grows and breathes depending on who’s in the audience.”

Such energetic filibustering seems to come naturally to the Glee actor, whose career has taken him from YouTube fame, to a hit TV series about inclusion and acceptance, to starring on Broadway, to a recent 17-city solo music tour, to his first feature role, in the new Kristen Wiig flick, Girl Most Likely, out July 19. “I was always fully prepared to be a struggling actor for a while and play a cop or a pizza boy, but the fact that all this has happened at a very young age is just really extraordinary,” says Criss, who plays Wiig’s eyeliner-wearing, boy band–leading love interest in the film. “Kristen, who’s just a fantastic actress, is so ridiculous, someone you can really play with,” he adds. “Listen to me. I can’t believe I’m calling her on a first-name basis.”

The movie has been dubbed Wiig’s indie pet project, her first comedic lead since the success of 2011’s Bridesmaids. The former SNL actress plays Imogene, a just-hit-rockbottom playwright who is forced to move back home with her dysfunctional mother (Annette Bening), her mother’s boyfriend (Matt Dillon), and Lee (Criss), a much younger man who lives in Imogene’s childhood bedroom as a boarder. Imogene gets close to Lee after attending his performance in a pseudo–Backstreet Boys group, which, Criss concedes, bears a close resemblance to his Glee histrionics. “It’s a great career move for a guy like me—a sort of gateway drug character with a song-and-dance number,” he says. “Lee is definitely a shade of myself. I make no claims to it being a huge character undertaking.”

A much riskier career move for Criss is the solo concert tour that he announced in April. The first show was on May 29 at the Fillmore, where he performed songs that he’s testing out for a still-in-production record (he hasn’t announced a deal yet, though Internet buzz hints at a contract with Columbia Records). The music is exactly what one might expect from a man known for portraying high school and boy-band extroverts: positive, acoustic pop with Criss mostly at the piano or guitar and backed by a six-piece band. Think Adam Levine with a hint of Ben Folds. Tickets for the tour sold out in less than five minutes (thank you, gleeks!). “It’s, like, overwhelming,” Criss says of the response. “I kind of set a pretty low bar for myself, so I’m fully prepared for things to fail at all times.”

Page two: Is He, You Know? Not That There's Anything Wrong With That