Darren Criss sat at a grand piano, leaning in as he played and performed with a group of Burbank high school students. “Standing in the Hall of Fame and the world’s gonna know your name,” he sang.
Criss was belting the inspirational chorus of the Script’s hit song “Hall of Fame” to the John Burroughs High School choir, but he could have been singing to himself.
One of the breakout stars of “Glee,” Criss is becoming a household name. In between a concert tour and movie premieres, Criss actually spent Saturday in the Hall of Fame. He joined the high schoolers for the weekend concert at the Hollywood Bowl celebrating the Bowl’s latest Hall of Fame inductees.
“If you get asked, ‘Hey, do you want to play the Hollywood Bowl,’ the answer is yes,” he said, sitting in the empty Bowl seats hours before the appearance. “The Hollywood Bowl is an iconic venue. To be a part of the tradition that this place has is a no-brainer.”
When Criss talks, his answers are thoughtful; he often gets caught up in what he’s saying. He was dressed comfortably for the day of rehearsing and performing, in jeans and a light gray button-down T. Teal socks peaked from beneath the cuff of his jeans. His five o’clock shadow distinguished him from the high school students; otherwise, he easily could have passed for one, even though he’s 26.
Playing Blaine, an openly gay lead singer in a rival show choir on “Glee,” wasn’t his first break. He first received attention while a student at the University of Michigan when he and some friends created the YouTube sensation “A Very Potter Musical.” Criss wrote the music and lyrics to the parody and played Harry.
“That was the first taste of people paying attention to me,” Criss said. “It was overwhelming, it happened by accident. It was right at the advent of the viral video.”
The success of “A Very Potter Musical” led to the founding of StarKid Productions by Criss and his costars from the musical. The company creates theater productions, and Criss continues to write the music and lyrics for some of its projects.
Criss’ love for music and performing are evident. He took many breaks during the interview to listen to the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles rehearse for its part of the Bowl program. The music, he said, was “beautiful” and “like heaven.”
The San Francisco native always knew he wanted to perform for his career.
“No one is supposed to know what they want to do for the rest of their life as a kid,” he said. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve always worked at it, I certainly didn’t fall into it. It takes a lifetime to be an overnight sensation.”
Criss decided to go to college to learn and “cultivate himself.” He believes college is an experience that everyone should have. His four years at Michigan opened doors and gave him a lot of connections.
College led to his first break, which catapulted him into other roles, notably joining the cast of “Glee.” Before he tried out for the role, he was aiming for the best friend and surfer pothead roles. As a straight man, Criss prepared to play the openly gay, preppy Blaine.
“I was a bumbling long-haired, nerdy actor,” Criss joked. “When I got an audition for ‘Glee,’ I thought, ‘That’s pretty important, I’ll cut my hair.’ ‘Glee’ really was the turning point.”
Criss joined the series as a regular in Season 2 and made his mark from the start with a version of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard. This was a first for the television show. In the fall, “Glee” will start its fifth season.
During “Glee’s” run, Criss has grown into a jack of many trades. He followed Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” During Criss’ three-week run, the show drew its most lucrative box office, making just under $4 million.
“There’s a long and proud tradition of men on Broadway,” he said as the sun bounced off of his dark Ray-Ban sunglasses. “To be in the lineage is pretty amazing.”
Despite his theater background and his singing role on “Glee,” Criss said he never thought he would do musical theater on Broadway. The first performance was “surreal,” he said. During his stint on Broadway and while filming for his upcoming film “Girl Most Likely,” he missed only one episode of “Glee.”
In the “Girl Most Likely,” opening July 19, Criss has a supporting role to Kristen Wiig and Matt Dillon. He plays a post-grad who sings in a “novelty boy band,” trying to navigate his way through life.
Future projects include continuing on “Glee” and writing and recording songs for his Columbia Records debut. Criss is in the process of a 16-city music tour performing original content from his EP “Human,” which includes covers and other works. At the end of the month he travels to New York, Philadelphia and Boston to finish up his tour.
Performing as a musician is different from acting because with music you really put yourself out there, Criss said.
“It’s a very masochistic lifestyle,” he said. “All of a sudden the world is watching and sometimes it’s like, ‘I don’t know if what I’ve been writing is what you want to hear.’ ”
“Glee” takes up most of his time, but he’s open to other projects.
People often ask Criss about the transition between the different mediums.
“There’s this misconception of the hierarchy of how things are supposed to go,” Criss said.
“We’re all just actors, we’re all performers, we all use the same muscles. Yes, it’s a different execution and different nuances. But ideally, you have the tools to do all of them.”