“I was only playing dead but I was playing someone who was dying, so who knows if he was aware, if he was listening and he couldn’t say good-bye, he couldn’t explain what happened,” Ramirez says. “The fear, the terror of being paralysed. It was very moving for everyone.”
The series, written by Tom Rob Smith and directed by Murphy, Tom Minahan, Matt Bomer and others, stars singer Ricky Martin as Versace’s partner Antonio D’Amico, Penelope Cruz as his sister Donatella and Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, the 27-year-old who assassinated the designer on the steps of his Miami home.
Understanding the Versace empire, Ramirez says, requires exploring the designer’s early life in the south of Italy, surrounded by Roman ruins.
“He interpreted the world through the Roman Empire, and when we think of that we think of statues in white and beige marble but that’s the ruins of the Roman Empire,” Ramirez says. “What we discovered was how he was actually very lush and vibrant and the blues were blues and the reds were reds, it was very explosive in colour.”
Notably, Ramirez says Versace built a world in which he was emperor. “He was like an emperor, he was the centre of the universe,” Ramirez says. “And he knew very well that once this sun disappeared, the whole universe would collapse. And that was one of the main tragedies that his family had to go through.”
What lingers in popular culture is a memory of the lavishness of the world, Ramirez says. “Many people think about the House of Versace and think about the mystique and what he created, we think about the parties and the wonder, the luxury and the lush exuberance, all the parties and the excess and the richness.”
And yet, Ramirez says, the man himself was very ordinary. “He would rather go to bed early and wake up early, as any other craftsman would do, that was an interesting contradiction,” Ramirez says. “He was fascinated by beauty and luxury but as a source of inspiration, he would have all these parties but not really take part in them.”
Martin says his conversations with the real D’Amico revealed a similar aspect to Versace: that the real man, in contrast to the fashion czar the world knew, was quite an ordinary man.
“[Tony] was extremely open and he was very beautiful in saying like, Gianni was extremely powerful and he was very organised with everything that happened toward the empire but at the end of the day when he would take a shower, he would take off his clothes and leave a mess,” Martin says.
The couple’s open relationship, while a complex topic for some, sat comfortably with Martin when he accepted the role.
“With what we show I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong and a relationship being open and that’s just the way it is,” Martin says. “It was something that we needed to explore because this is a reality of [same-sex] couples nowadays and there’s nothing wrong with the openness.
“Whatever level of trust that they have between each other, they could play with fire like this,” Martin says.
The role also sits in a fascinating context when reflected against Martin’s own professional life as a high-profile recording artist, much of which was spent denying his homosexuality publicly.
“The scene where he actually brings me in, when he’s going to come out, and says, this is the man that I’ve been with … it’s something I can feel both sides because we meet in the 90s, [when] I was hiding my voice,” Martin says. “And I was very egotistical and self-centred.
“I needed to keep it quiet because, in my head, the stupid fear, which is an illusion of if I come out everything is going to collapse, that’s where I was. So when I did this scene, I could see Gianni’s side and Antonio’s side, and me playing both, because I’ve been in both situations.
“It was very, very beautiful to be able to talk about this and to normalise my family. Which is one of the reasons why I jumped into this [role] because there is a lot of injustice in this story, from homophobia to the fact that he was not allowed to come out because everything was going to collapse in the eyes of everyone around him.
“When I came out a lot of people around me, people I love, told me, this is the end of your life if you come out, so I beg you please don’t do it,” Martin says. “I did it because I had to and I had the need and it was fantastic, why didn’t I do it earlier? It’s one of those things.”
For Ramirez, encapsulating the character of Versace was not so easy. And simply imitating the designer, the actor says, was never an option.
“I’ve portrayed real-life characters before and in some ways it is a recreation of what their life would have been,” he says. “It’s never a photograph it’s always a painting. So what you try to capture is the essence of these characters and try to bring to them as much empathy as possible. It’s not about imitation, you can’t really imitate life.”
Impersonation, he says, is not a form of art. “Art needs to be created and free and new, it is a creation, it needs to have dimension,” Ramirez says.
“Impersonation does not have dimension. It’s flat. I cannot, for example, walk onto a balcony standing like a boxer if I’m playing a fashion designer like Gianni Versace. You have to respect certain traits that are inherent to that character but you have to make it your own.”
WHAT: The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
WHEN: Thursday May 24, Showcase, 8.30pm
Michael Idato is a Senior Writer based in Los Angeles for The Sydney Morning Herald.
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