A second season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story is upon us and, despite being a dramatization of a true story, its scenes are filled with layers and layers of falsehoods. The responsibility for all this deception rests almost entirely on the shoulders of the season’s main character, Andrew Cunanan, the man that police say killed at least five men in 1997, and who is played with expert, chilling detail by Glee alum Darren Criss.
The anthology series’ first season, The People v. O.J. Simpson, presented a sensationalized account of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. This season, subtitled The Assassination of Gianni Versace, follows — as closely as it can — the events surrounding the ‘97 murder of fashion icon Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramírez) at the hands of Cunanan. The beginning of the first episode depicts the titular murder, and the rest of the series cuts back and forth in time, showing how Cunanan got there and shedding light on the people whose lives he upends along the way.
For its source material, the show’s main writer, Tom Rob Smith, looked primarily to Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, a 1999 biography of Cunanan and account of Versace’s murder, written by Vanity Fair contributor Maureen Orth. In it, Orth paints Cunanan as a narcissistic, sociopathic, habitual liar who sought fame, recognition and status above all else.
Criss follows this characterization closely, presenting countless faces to countless people, shifting his mannerisms and changing stories about the most trivial interactions from one scene to the next, all with the goal of clawing his way to the top of the social food chain and getting close to Versace.
Though, as mesmerizing as Criss’ performance is, this habitual lying makes it hard to pin down exactly who Cunanan was — and that’s the point. To add to the confusion, the real-life Versace family doesn’t seem all that pleased with series creator Ryan Murphy’s take on what happened.
“Since Versace did not authorize the book on which [the show] is partly based nor has it taken part in the writing of the screenplay, this TV series should only be considered as a work of fiction,” the Versace family said in a statement, according to Variety. Both FX and Vulgar Favor’s publisher, Random House, have fired back at the family, saying they stand by the reporting in Orth’s book.
Needless to say, it’s tricky for viewers to suss out what’s true and what’s false when a show’s main character is, at his core, an unreliable narrator. And it’s certainly not any easier when there’s squabbling over the accuracy of the show as a whole.
To that end, here’s a fact-checked list of nearly every claim Criss’ Cunanan makes throughout the premiere episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which aired on Wednesday night. We looked at contradictory claims his character makes within the episode itself, and, when appropriate, claims that don’t align with Orth’s accounts of the real-life Cunanan.
Cunanan’s story about having met Versace in Italy at a party near Lake Como: likely false
In a scene at the beginning of the first episode, we see Criss’ Cunanan first meet Gianni Versace (played by Édgar Ramírez). Cunanan spots him in the swanky VIP area of an otherwise loud, racy gay nightclub and sneaks his way over with the help of a friend.
After his friend briefly introduces him to Versace, Cunanan continually butts into Versace’s ongoing conversation with a group of young men. Eventually, after a number of interruptions, Versace — clearly annoyed — asks Cunanan if they’ve met before.
“Yes,” Cunanan says. “Lago di Como. Garden party at your residence. I was by the shore admiring your view and we exchanged a few words.”
This is the first of many falsehoods that Criss’ Cunanan will spout throughout the series, but it’s not immediately clear he’s lying. In the moment, Versace still doesn’t seem to remember him, but he doesn’t challenge Cunanan’s claim.
Interestingly, this exchange from the show is modeled after a real-life moment from Orth’s Vulgar Favors. In the book, Orth reports that Cunanan bragged about going to Italy and having met Versace many times before he ever did.
“Andrew, it turns out, had never been to Italy,” Orth wrote.
In fact, in Vulgar Favors, Orth reports this same back and forth that’s depicted in American Crime Story, except it’s flipped. In real life, Versace allegedly introduced himself to Cunanan first, saying, “I know you. Lago di Como, no?”
“Reportedly [Versace] would often use the Lago di Como line when he wanted to strike up a conversation with someone,” Orth wrote.
Cunanan’s claim about his mother’s Italian heritage: true
In that same scene at the nightclub, Cunanan tells Versace about his family.
“My mother’s parents are from Italy,” Cunanan says to Versace when they first meet. “From the south. Schillaci is their family name — maybe you know them?”
This detail from the show is true to life, plucked straight from Vulgar Favors. The real Andrew Cunanan’s mother is MaryAnn Schillachi, who Orth reported is the daughter of Italian immigrants.
Andrew Cunanan’s re-telling of meeting Versace for the first time: false — on two counts
Immediately following the scene in the nightclub, we see Cunanan re-telling two different parties about his encounter with Versace. That’s when his pattern of regularly lying through his teeth, of carefully curating the image of a powerful socialite, becomes clear.
When Cunanan recounts his meeting to his roommates Lizzie and Phil, he describes the club as a “private, members-only club [with] cigars, velvet upholstery and a very strict policy on not approaching celebrities — which I would never do by the way. So tacky.” Just seconds before, we saw an entirely different scene: a raunchy club, bare butts as far as the eye can see, with Cunanan aggressively inserting himself into a conversation to which he was not invited.
Cunanan’s story to Lizzie and Phil ends with him saying that Versace invited him to see Capriccio at a nearby opera house, a production for which Versace designed the wardrobe. Lizzie, in breathless disbelief, asks if he accepted the invitation.
“My dear sweet Lizzie,” Cunanan responds. “Versace invited me to the opera. Of course I said yes.”
Immediately, the scene cuts to a completely different interaction happening a short time later, between Cunanan and one of his friends. Here, it’s clear that Cunanan has just finished telling his other friend the story of how he met Versace — but this time, he integrated his interactions with Lizzie and Phil into the story, too. And in this telling, he tamps down his enthusiastic, giddy tone, instead taking on an icy, unimpressed one.
“So I said,” Cunanan recounts to his third friend, “‘My dear sweet Lizzie, I’m not crazy about Versace, but I certainly wouldn’t mind going to the opera.’”
And this brings us to Cunanan’s next lie.
Versace inviting Cunanan to the opera: possibly false
In this opening set of scenes, American Crime Story does something incredibly devious: Writer Tom Rob Smith wants to make it obvious that Cunanan is a consistent liar. What Smith doesn’t do, however, is tell the audience every single time he’s lying.
Case in point: Cunanan’s so-called invitation to the opera. We never actually see Versace invite Cunanan there. We simply see Cunanan at the opera, sitting alone. Later, we see him and Versace on the now-empty stage of the opera house, chatting and drinking champagne.
It’s possible that Versace did invite Cunanan to the opera; but it’s also possible (and perhaps likely) that he simply showed up at the opera, wormed his way backstage and convinced Versace to have a drink with him once he was there. We don’t know for sure either way.
Cunanan’s claim about his father’s Filipino heritage: true
Once Cunanan and Versace are alone after the opera, Cunanan spouts off a number of stories about his family, some of which are true, and some of which are blatantly false — at least, as far as what we know about the life of the real Andrew Cunanan.
He starts off on the right foot, though. Cunanan begins telling Versace about his family by saying his father is from the Philippines. That’s true. Andrew Cunanan’s father was Modesto “Pete” Cunanan, a native of the Philippines.
Cunanan’s claim about his father’s pineapple plantation: likely false
Cunanan’s tale then immediately spirals into what sounds like more lies.
“I worked for my father on his pineapple plantations in the Philippines,” Cunanan says. “Can you imagine that? Picking them in the midday sun. You should’ve seen me.”
That’s likely false. According to Vulgar Favors, in reality, Andrew Cunanan’s father does not seem to have ever owned a plantation. According to a 1997 New York Times article, the real-life Cunanan often spun “tales of his wealthy family and its Philippine sugar plantations.” Therefore, it’s likely the fictionalized Cunanan in American Crime Story is lying here.
Cunanan’s claim about his father’s job as a pilot for the first lady of the Philippines: likely false
Similarly, the show’s version of Cunanan is probably lying when he says his dad was a pilot. According to Vulgar Favors, the real-life Pete Cunanan took flying lessons but never obtained a pilot’s license. He worked in the navy and then as a stockbroker.
It appears that Smith modeled this claim on an anecdote in Vulgar Favors about Andrew Cunanan’s habit of saying that his father was a Filipino general “who flew then-dictator Ferdinand Marcos around.”
Cunanan’s claim about his father having an affair with a young man: likely false
In the opera house, Cunanan continues talking to Versace about his family, saying that he recently spotted his father driving around town in a Rolls Royce with his boyfriend. Versace seems taken aback and presses Cunanan for more details.
“He left my mom and ran off with one of the young men who worked on the plantations,” Cunanan says. “It’s cute, I guess.”
This, like so much of the scene, seems to be a complete fabrication. It’s likely that writer Smith imagined this might be a lie that Cunanan would spout to justify why his real-life father fled the country. According to Vulgar Favors, Pete Cunanan left the U.S. to evade complaints a former boss filed to the Securities and Exchange Commission about him. His wife had accused him of embezzling money during his days as a stockbroker.
“Pete maintains that he was never officially charged with anything, and that the statute of limitations has run out anyway,” Orth wrote.
Cunanan’s horror at seeing a news broadcast of Versace’s death: false (and frightening)
Once the show’s Cunanan successfully escapes the police after shooting Versace, we see him washing up at a hotel. He then enters the lobby, where he sees a group of people watching a news broadcast on Versace’s death. One woman is holding her hand up to her mouth in horror.
Cunanan mimics her movements, feigning shock to blend in — but beneath his hand, you can see the slightest hint of a smile in the corner of his eyes.
Total lies: Seven(ish), total truths: Two
Turns out, Andrew Cunanan lies a whole lot. Essentially, the only provable claims Cunanan tells throughout the whole first episode of American Crime Story are very basic facts about his parents’ native countries. Everything else is seemingly made up.
Episodes of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace release Wednesday nights on FX.