Darren Criss shot to overnight fame in 2010 as Blaine Anderson, the sweetly charming love interest to Chris Colfer's Kurt on TV's Glee. Criss's angelic voice and face helped the duo became television's most iconic gay teen couple -- one that eventually tied the knot this year on the show's finale.
Criss, 28, also starred on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and in addition to shooting Glee, Criss somehow found the time to get naked with Kristen Wiig in the 2012 film Girl Most Likely.
His role as Blaine remains his most famous, but unlike other straight actors playing gay characters, Criss never tried to shrug off his attachment to queer fans -- he's an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights and an active supporter of the Trevor Project. He's lent his voice to many benefit performances, including fundraisers for AIDS Project Los Angeles and the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
In an exclusive Advocate interview, in advance of his Friday Broadway @ The Nourse performance with host Seth Rudetsky in San Francisco, Criss explains why LGBT causes are so important to him.
"For me it was self-implicit. I was lucky enough [on Glee] to have a role that was a beacon for the gay community and it was a privilege and an honor to be part of it," he says. "I personally care about it because I was left-handedly raised by the gay community."
Growing up in San Francisco, Criss made his stage debut at 10 in the musical Fanny and continued to perform onstage throughout his childhood and teens with companies that included the American Conservatory Theater.
"I grew up backstage in the theatre with gay guys in their 20s and 30s who looked after me, bought me meals, and drove me home," he says. "So I have a conscious and unconscious affection for the gay community. I was lucky enough to be part of it."
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Criss and his school chums founded the musical theater company StarKid Productions, and gained YouTube fame with their Harry Potter-inspired shows A Very Potter Musical, A Very Potter Sequel, and A Very Potter Senior Year -- which led to his Glee gig.
Criss would later follow Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, on Broadway in How to Succeed, making it the second role they shared. "I met him a bunch of times and we're very aware of the parallel train tracks we've been on," he says.
But Criss doubts that Radcliffe has seen his musical turn as Harry Potter. "Having spent so much of his life as that character, I'm sure the last thing he'd want to watch is a three-hour musical version."
Nor does he think J.K. Rowling has seen his Potter efforts. "We're one of hundreds of fan-created works based on Harry Potter. I can't imagine she's been through all of them," he says. "I met her once as a stranger in the crowd and I said, 'Hey, thank you. You changed my life.' I'm sure she's heard that a lot, but in my case it's literally true."
Criss's Glee fame put him on the receiving end of plenty of fan love as well. "At first it was kids who were 13, 15, and 17 telling me how much they loved [the show] which was great, but I didn't really identify with them," he says. "Most recently it's been exciting when people in their early 20s who are composed, collected young adults tell me they grew up watching the show. It hits closer to home for me now that they seem more like peers or colleagues."
Having played one of TV's iconic gay teens, Criss had no trepidation about slipping on high heels and that famous flip wig to play theater's most famous transgender character, Hedwig. "There was nothing about it that scared me," he says. "The more challenging the role, the more excited I get."
His only real challenge in playing Hedwig was a physical one. "I was trying to lose muscle mass to make her more waif-like -- which is the opposite of what a dude in Hollywood wants to do!"
For tickets to see Darren Criss Friday in San Francisco, go here.