'Assassination of Gianni Versace' star Edgar Ramirez sought man, and meaning, behind the label

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Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace in FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”

PASADENA, Calif. — Édgar Ramírez didn’t leap at the chance to play Gianni Versace in a TV show about the fashion designer’s 1997 murder, and American Crime Story executive producer Ryan Murphy was fine with that.

“I loved being in a room with an actor who says, ‘That’s interesting. Come back to me with another script,’ ” Murphy said of Ramírez’s initial response to The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, a nine-episode edition of the anthology series that premieres at 10 p.m. Wednesday on FX.

“And I said, ‘What?’ ” said Murphy, whose credits include Glee, American Horror Story, and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. He’s used to hearing his first choices say yes on the spot.

But, like Murphy, the Venezuelan actor (Hands of Stone, Bright) is a former journalist, and questions come naturally. “I guess I can’t really escape” from that, Ramírez said after an FX session on the show during the Television Critics Association’s winter meetings.

Recalled Murphy: “I think the moment that I got Édgar to say yes was when he said, ‘Why do you want to tell the story?’ Which people very rarely ask me. And I said, ‘I really understand these characters and, like Versace, I really understand what it’s like to be hunted.’ And I think that unlocked something for Édgar, and he knew that as a director that I understood the pain that he was going to have to go through.”

“I do a lot of research. I think that in the end I’m also attracted to characters that are biographical because I’m just obsessed with history,” Ramírez said. “It’s like a meta-inspiration of history, to become the subject.”

Before he could play Versace — a role that required him to gain weight and don prosthetics to make him look older and more like his subject — Ramírez said he wanted to understand the times the designer lived in.

“So that’s why the first thing that I did was try to understand, to create a process, through what was going on in the ’70s, the ’80s, and the ’90s. So basically Versace, he captured the sexuality and the run-down element of the ’70s. He combined and married it to the opulence and exuberance of the ’80s. And then everyone went crazy in the ’90s,” he said.

And in asking to see more of Tom Rob Smith’s scripts, inspired by Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors, “I wanted to understand what the trajectory of the character was going to be,” Ramírez said.

“It’s very dangerous when you approach biographical characters that have a huge impact in history, in real-life history. Because we tend to think that based on the impact that those characters had in real life, that it would immediately translate into an interesting character. And that’s not always the case. A character needs to be … dimensional, needs to be complex, and not only based on the present. So for me it was important to understand that Gianni, in the story, was going to be a force, a force that would affect people,” he said.

That’s certainly the way Murphy saw Versace, the fifth, final, and undeniably most famous victim of spree killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss, Glee). This is a true-crime story, told mostly in flashbacks, one in which Cunanan gets considerably more airtime than Versace.

But it was the designer whose death earned the appellation “assassination,” Murphy said, after I questioned its use in a story about a man who’d killed others, including two once-close friends. (Among his victims was South Jersey cemetery caretaker William Reese, who was killed in Pennsville, where Cunanan stole his truck.)

“It was a political murder. It absolutely was,” Murphy said. “This was a person who targeted people specifically to shame them and to out them [like Cunanan himself, all but one of his victims — Reese — is depicted as gay] and to have a form of payback for a life that he felt he could not live. … There were obviously five victims, but I feel like this case is famous, the most famous, because of the Versace case.”

Ramírez was already friends with Ricky Martin when Martin was cast to play Versace’s longtime lover, Antonio D’Amico. Penelope Cruz portrays Versace’s sister Donatella.

(The Versace family has denounced the project, and Murphy has denied its claims that the show is a “work of fiction,” citing Orth’s extensive reporting on the case and telling Entertainment Weekly it is it “a work of non-fiction….with docudrama elements.”)

Versace may have been Cunanan’s most famous victim, but Orth had been on the case for two months before the designer was killed.

“It was a Vanity Fair article. We were through the final fact-checking stages, we were ready to go to the printers, and all of a sudden the announcement comes” that Versace had been killed and that “this kid” was a suspect, Orth said.

“So that’s when the whole story blew up again. It was two stages for me. And so then I had to fly down to Miami and try to stay ahead of the story once Versace was killed,” she said.

For Ramírez, Versace’s importance lies not in his death, but his life.

“We live in a culture that was partially created and shaped by Versace. He was the first one to combine fashion and celebrity. I wouldn’t be invited to the front row of a runway [show] if it wasn’t for the culture that Versace created,” said the actor, who’s attended shows for Moncler, Armani, and others.

“I like fashion. I’m not ignorant of fashion. My grandmother was a tailor,” he said. “And Versace was not only a designer. He created the things.”

Craftsmanship interests Ramírez, who likened the physical transformation the role required to making broth: “Is this too salty? Is this too dull?”

His accent, too, involved calibration.

“We decided not to speak Italian in the film because then it would force all the family conversations to be in Italian. So Penelope [Cruz] and I, we speak Italian — but …  still, she’s Spanish, I’m Venezuelan,” he said. “We wanted to give the sense of the Italian into it. And basically what we tried to do was speak with each other and speak how they [Gianni and Donatella] spoke English,” while at the same time being understood.

“It’s English with an Italian accent, that’s what I tried. And I have enough Italian friends to be coached and inspired by.”

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. 10 p.m. Wednesday, FX.

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