Edgar Ramirez Talks Transforming into Gianni Versace for 'American Crime Story'

By Scott Huver | June 19, 2018 | People Feature


Does the transformative Edgar Ramirez tailor himself to the role … or vice versa? Even he isn’t certain.

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“I’m going a little Versace with my lunch,” says Edgar Ramirez as a sumptuous plate of spaghetti Bolognese is placed before him on the sun-dappled patio restaurant of the legendary Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. “So you see, I haven’t shaken him off completely.”

It’s not just a taste for Italian cuisine that’s lingered with the 41-year-old Venezuelan-born actor after his much-lauded performance as the iconic fashion designer in TV uberproducer Ryan Murphy’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story for FX. Having already garnered a reputation for a string of transformative performances—most notably his stint playing the infamous revolutionary Carlos the Jackal in the 2010 miniseries Carlos—Ramirez admits his experience playing Versace, for which he’s topping shortlists for an Emmy nomination, has lingered longer than previous roles.

“The character is still with me,” he explains, noting that a year-plus of filming and press duties has kept Versace—murdered at age 50 in Miami Beach by serial killer Andrew Cunanan in 1997—at the forefront of his consciousness. And then there's the 20 pounds he gained for the part (“a constant reminder that I was in the process”) and has since shed. “It was intense,” he says, “but also a beautiful experience.”

Initially, Ramirez wasn’t so sure it would be beautiful—literally. Along with the added weight, he required some prosthetic assistance. “I didn’t use anything for the face, just a bald cap and the wig on it.” But after his first makeup session, looking in the mirror “freaked me out,” he says. “I was even willing to shave my head and just apply the wig because the prosthetics thing made me nervous!”

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Murphy explained that the look would be convincing on camera, but as shooting commenced, Ramirez was still texting photos to confidants “all over the world” looking for reassurance. It was his longtime friend and co-star, Ricky Martin—who plays Versace’s enduring romantic partner, Antonio D’Amico—who helped quash any insecurity. “Ricky cried when he saw it: ‘God, this is Versace,’ and that calmed me down.” Soon enough, Ramirez inhabited the look so completely that when he’d show up on set for costume fittings, people would just walk by. “Nobody recognized me!” he says.

The son of a military officer who traveled extensively around the globe with his family, Ramirez was first a journalist in his native country and later a filmmaker before acting lured him away from his earlier passions. That reporter’s attention to detail, the artist’s search for deeper meaning and a historian’s view for patterns were critical when it came to capturing the two sides of Versace: the private man and the public icon.

“Where I found a huge connection is he was obsessed with history, and so am I,” Ramirez says. “I’m fascinated by the human experience. And Versace designed clothes while very aware of the human experience at large. He was democratic in his connections to other people. He was surrounded by people from all walks of life, so basically he was doing a topological research in order to make his clothes.”

In the end, Ramirez realized the intimate and iconic aspects of the character weren’t all that different. “Gianni was the sun within this system, and he had all these amazing planets orbiting around him. When he went down, the whole universe collapsed. And that really moves me, because we’re never really ready for that kind of loss.” Ramirez also believes, as the show reveals, that the designer’s life existed in sharp relief to that of his murderer. “They were both outsiders; they were both people trying to look in from the outside. But one became destructive, and the other became constructive.”

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Versace executive producer Nina Jacobson says the creative team knew Ramirez brought both a superficial resemblance to the designer and well-established acting chops to the table, but admits she wasn’t prepared for the depth of humanity Ramirez displayed on screen. “Edgar has incredible warmth and charisma as a person, but he also brought that to the character,” she says. “There was no way you couldn’t fall in love with his Versace... that you couldn’t feel the loss of that person.”

Brad Simpson, another of the show’s EPs, adds that despite Ramirez being Murphy’s first choice, it took several months of courtship to secure his commitment. “I actually think Penélope Cruz signed on more quickly [to play Donatella Versace],” Simpson says with a laugh. “Most actors are, and should be, focused on ‘Who’s my character? What’s the journey?’ But he was a guy who didn’t just look at his role on the page. He wanted to talk about what our intentions were thematically. He wanted to discuss what the entire show was about, and how his character fit within those themes of the project.”

Ramirez recognizes he’s attained a sweet spot in his career, but he continually strives to take on unexpected creative challenges. His next projects are Wasp Network and Disney’s Jungle Cruise, the latter for a longtime friend, director Jaume Collet-Serra. It’s a high-profile popcorn movie and a fresh but recognizable franchise with blockbuster potential and marquee-familiar co-stars like Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, which allows Ramirez a new experience through epic-scale production and CG flourishes. “It’s a whole different vibe,” he says, noting his fondness for genre-shifting. “That’s how I watch movies. It’s basically a reflection of my taste as a viewer because I’m a huge cine-fan.”

Despite his clear dedication to his craft, the actor sticks close to advice he once received from a former co-star and acting idol, William Hurt, who counseled that in order to be able to focus sharply on his performances, he also needed to pull back frequently and expend his focus on life. “I know how to find my buckets full of fun—I mean, I love snowboarding. I love sports,” Ramirez says. His professed passion for history and the vagaries of the passage of time inform even his sense of style: He’s an ardent collector of wristwatches. “I think those are the accessories for men, our jewelry,” he explains. “Because I love time and history, they’re completely correlated; there’s something very romantic about watches!”

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In 2017, Ramirez turned 40, a significant occasion that provided an opportunity to consider his journey. “I’m very happy with the life I have, but at the same time, I’m always considering the things I still want to explore,” he says. “I wasn’t fearful when it happened—it was a great moment to think, to reflect. That’s always very important, to just take a moment to do that.”

Still, Ramirez admits it took an outside perspective to spark a personal revelation while he was celebrating that milestone birthday in Barcelona. Renowned Catalan chef Ferran Adrià not only crafted his meal, but also offered a canny theory as to why Ramirez is so frequently attracted to playing real-life characters. “He said, ‘It’s because you’re a journalist. What you’re doing is like a metaresearch of those characters. You’re becoming the subject.’ That rang true.”

“I want to live so much, but my physical life won’t allow for all the choices I want to make,” Ramirez concedes. “So acting has allowed me to explore many things I couldn’t explore otherwise... It’s very interesting to put myself into the shoes of these characters—to become a doctor, a military hero, a fashion designer. In a way, it’s my own exploration of history. I become the subject.”

“Up until that moment, clearly, it was something unconscious, but then [Adrià] opened the door for me to think about those things,” he says. “I mean, it’s like, do we look for the characters or do the characters find us?” Whoever’s doing the choosing, here’s to all the future lives of Edgar Ramirez.

Categories: People Feature

Photographed by Sarah Dunn; Styled by Warren Alfie Baker; Grooming by Sascha Breuer