Say what you will about the boys of summer in black and orange, San Francisco’s favorite son right now is Darren Criss. Born in the city just over 25 years ago, Criss is the local boy who made good when he made “Glee.”
Playing gay high school student Blaine Anderson on the popular Fox TV show, Criss stepped on the fast track to fame in 2009. He’s had hit songs, like his No. 1 cover of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” appeared on magazine covers and been included in People’s annual Sexiest Men list. This year, Criss, a self-described “musical theater nerd,” made his Broadway debut when he took over for Daniel Radcliffe in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
Criss will be in San Francisco this Sunday to headline the American Conservatory Theater’s annual fundraising gala. A graduate of ACT’s Young Conservatory, Criss appeared as a tween in several ACT main stage shows (“A Christmas Carol” and “The Voyesy Inheritance”).
On his mobile phone while driving to a meeting in Los Angeles (hands free, of course), Criss discussed how his career was born on San Francisco stages and why he loves his “Glee” character.
Q: What’s it like to return home as a headliner for ACT, where you used to be a student?
A: It’s one of those full-circle moments. I started with ACT’s Young Conservatory when I was 9 or 10, and I used to take part in the galas as a kid. I remember one where I played the violin. I probably wasn’t that good on the violin, but I was this cute kid wandering around in coattails. I was a walking, talking prop, which was fun.
Q: You just finished shooting “Imogene,” a movie with Annette Bening, another ACT grad. Did you guys bond over your shared experience?
A: We had a very nice chat about how much we both love San Francisco. I told her that I was one of the ACT kids wandering around at an event she was being honored at.
Q: You made your professional stage debut here in a trio of musicals with 42nd Street Moon, “Fanny,” “Do I Hear a Waltz” and “Babes in Arms.” What does that experience mean to you?
A: The 42nd Street Moon years are in tandem with the ACT years, and I’m grateful I got to foster my love of performing from a young age. Looking back, it was nice to have a place to put those interests. I was learning so much about musical theater that I never could have learned on my own. I mean, what 11-year-old knows every song in “Do I Hear a Waltz?” by heart? On a more personal level with 42nd Street Moon, all my friends were these twenty- and thirty-something theater hopefuls giving me rides home and taking me under their wing. Most kids were home watching TV and playing video games, and I was getting a burger with these guys in the Castro. I was surrounded by this vibrant, wonderful theater culture. I wasn’t really aware of it then. That’s just how it was.
Q: You were born in San Francisco, left for a bit to live in Honolulu, then came back when you were 5. When you return to San Francisco from your crazy show business life, what’s your perfect day?
A: Every time I come home, I do my perfect day. I’m not going to give away all the details and spoil it, but it usually involves going to my favorite sandwich place. If you know me, you know where I’m talking about, and I’ll see you there soon. Ocean Beach is kind of a Zen place for me, as cold and foggy and gross as it can be sometimes. I have many fond memories of going there with friends and walking for miles and talking. It’s a very therapeutic, baptismal place to get rid of things, to talk things out. If my life were some cheap novel, the beach would be a blatant literary device to carry the theme of peace and cathartic revelation and all that. The beach would be the thing you write a paper about after reading the book.
Q: As a straight man playing a gay character on “Glee” you have become a hero to the LGBT community. Do you feel the real-world impact your portrayal is having?
A: This is a role most actors wait a lifetime for. I know I’m very lucky. As a superhero nerd, I feel like I’ve been given a superhero costume. I’m some ordinary schmuck who has been given something far greater than himself. I’m playing somebody who stands for a lot of really wonderful things, and I’m someone who happens to believe in a lot of those things, so I’m privileged to be a vessel for all that positive energy. It’s very fulfilling. You hope a character like Blaine has a positive impact, and the fact that he resonates with people is such a joy. There’s something magical about the character. I’ll do it for as long as they’ll let me.
“Expect the Unexpected!” ACT’s 2012 Season Gala starring Darren Criss and Bill Irwin. Sunday. Regency Center, 1300 Van Ness Ave., S.F. $500-$2,500. (415) 439-2470. www.act-sf.org/gala.