Inside 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace's' Story of High Fashion, Homicide and HIV

Edgar Ramirez as Versace

Are you watching The Assassination of Gianni Versace on FX? The series is the second in the American Crime Story anthology, the folks who brought you The People versus OJ Simpson. It's based on the book Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth about Andrew Cunanan's murderous spree in 1997 that ended in the shooting of the famous designer on the steps of his Miami mansion.

With openly gay Hollywood producer Ryan Murphy (executive producer, known for creating Nip/Tuck, Glee, Feud, and American Horror Story, among others) at the helm, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is sensational. Truly, it causes all the sensations. It's super gay. It's got fabulous '90s Versace fashions. It's violent, bloody, and disturbing. It's a little bit sexy (as sexy as you can be in a series about a spree killer) with a soupcon of nudity and a smidge of S&M. There are drugs, nightclubs, models, and hot military guys. It's got an amazing cast, starring Darren Criss as Cunanan, Penelope Cruz savagely portraying Donatella Versace, Ricky Martin as Versace's partner Antonio, and Edgar Ramirez -- who looks and acts so much like the real Versace that it's spooky -- and featuring performers such as Judith Light, Mike Farrell, Finn Wittrock, and Broadway's Annaleigh Ashford. The plot contrasts the pampered opulence of Versace's privileged life with the underbelly creepiness of Cunanan and his development from a pathetic, disillusioned liar into a deranged, notorious killer. It's fantastic, delicious television.

The show also includes a very powerful HIV storyline. Gianni Versace is revealed as being HIV positive at a time in history when homophobia and AIDS panic were rampant. Not only is Versace portrayed as HIV positive, he is shown to be at times so weak from advanced sickness that he needs help even to walk. Then, in later scenes, he's shown to be recovered after (presumably) being put on antiretroviral therapy, which became available in the mid-1990s.

After his recovery, Versace decides to use his new lease on life not only to continue creating fashions but also to come out as gay at a time when not many celebrities were brave enough to do so.

Related: Embracing My Inner Annie to Combat HIV Stigma

"I was sick, but I didn't die," he says in Episode 5 of the show. "I have a second chance. It's a miracle that I'm alive. And yet, I ask myself every day, what have I done to deserve this? Why am I still here? To be afraid? No. I'm alive, and I must use it."

The Assassination of Gianni Versace might be the first major media movie or television show to present a person sick with advanced HIV infection and then recovered and vibrant due to the miracle of HIV medications. This is an amazing and important landmark for HIV in film/television, and the storyline is told with a lot of respect for those of us living with the virus. By exploring other aspects of the AIDS crisis and its implications in the aftermath of Versace's murder, the series shows in living color what it was like to be living in the good ol' bad ol' '90s.

I had a phone conversation with award-winning executive producer Brad Simpson and screenwriter and author Tom Rob Smith about the production, the creative process, and the decision to use HIV in the storyline.

Charles Sanchez: Why do you think it's important to tell this story about Andrew Cunanan and Gianni Versace at this time?

Brad Simpson: This story, in a lot of ways, was a journey through the politics of gay identity and what it meant to be out in the 1990s. The 1990s being this volatile time -- even though it's still volatile for a lot of people -- of the Defense of Marriage Act, and Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and celebrities starting to come out, and the sort of shift and also the transformation with AIDS drugs that happened and a generation of activists who'd been politicized by the AIDS crisis, all intersecting in this decade -- and it felt like, you know, for us, true crime is bigger than just a murder. It really felt to us like there was something to be said about the 1990s and about where we are today, by telling this story.

Tom Rob Smith: [Cunanan] is very unusual. One of the things we've confronted is that people are talking about him as being a serial killer, and that's just simply not the case. This is someone who didn't have a pathology of violence. He wasn't committing arson or sexual assault, all of the early warning signals that you have with lots of serial killers. This is someone that, if you had jumped back and met him at age 20, and said, "You're going to be a killer," he would have found it impossible to believe. Exploring him presents lots of challenges, and ... it was very interesting to contrast [Versace] as someone who creates, as someone who is curious about the world, and someone who experienced intolerance and managed to navigate around it, with Cunanan, who just seemed to be defeated by it.

Simpson: Gianni Versace was one of the few people who were celebrities who were out [as gay] in the 1990s. It was actually shocking to us. We went back to make a list of who was out pre-Ellen [DeGeneres] coming out, and the list is 5, 6, 7 famous people? No fashion designers.

I think this is a show that only Ryan Murphy could get on the air. Because I like to think that we're incredibly advanced, but the show is deeply gay and touches on things that you haven't seen dealt with on TV before. There's a freedom that Ryan's success gives to allow us to tell a story like this.

Sanchez: Speaking of things we've never seen before, I think it's the first time I've ever seen [on film], from an HIV standpoint, a person with HIV, sick and near death, turning around and becoming miraculously better through medications. What was the process of deciding how to tell that part of the story?

Smith: The reason we told that ... it was just very powerful that Versace was very sick in '93-'94 when his symptoms became severe, and it's debated by the family, so I should put it in as a caveat that the family, they dispute this, but ...

Sanchez: I believe in the book it says that, publicly, he had cancer.

Smith: Yeah, that's right. I think they say "ear cancer," and we know that is infamous [as code for HIV]. But we do know that he was very sick in '93-'94, that he was on the brink of death, that is uncontested, and we know that he was refusing to submit to this illness. And that he would walk, still, when he was very sick, from his house in Miami to that news kiosk; he would go with Antonio [his partner], and he'd be so weak that Antonio would have to carry the magazines back. I thought it was a remarkably powerful structure [for the script] to have that walk contrasted with the walk when he's then fully recovered. And he is then, in '97 [when he's shot], walking to that newsstand, not needing anyone's help. He's full of the joy of life in many ways. This medication gave him a rejuvenation.

And it was a great life force, you know, [Versace] was saying: "I want to live, I have so much more to give. I have so much more work, but also in terms of the people I love, my grandchildren, my family. I'm going to cling on to life for as long as I can." And this new wave of medication came along, and he was saved.

Edgar Ramirez as Versace
Edgar Ramirez as Versace

Simpson: There's something bittersweet about the fact that he thought he was going to die and had been given this new lease on life. There was this generation of men who thought they had a death sentence and then were slowly realizing maybe they didn't. He was starting to create again, and right at that moment, his life was taken away.

There were rumors that ran at the time, the hysteria after Versace was killed, there were these rumors spread by the media and some nefarious friends of Andrew that Versace gave Andrew AIDS and this was a revenge murder, and this is a widely held belief that is actually still held by a lot of people. It was revealed in Andrew's autopsy that he was actually HIV negative. It was a narrative that was out there and one that we wanted to correct with the show: The evil murderer was actually not the one who had AIDS; it was the victim.

Sanchez: What do you think the responsibility of the media and artists of your caliber is in telling stories about HIV in the modern world?

Smith: It's hard to come up with a generalized formula for it. I think you have to react to the nature of the period and the people involved. In the '80s, the stories were horrific. It's very hard to go into the '80s and find stories that weren't heartbreaking. And so, if you were telling that story, I don't see how you could put a demand that somehow people be upbeat about it.

The responsibility just comes from looking at the truth of it and not landing on what appears to be an easy explanation. I think that's both wrong and offensive.

Simpson: Ryan, you know, obviously did The Normal Heart. We had a lot of conversation in terms of how to portray the AIDS-related illnesses. We're adapting Maureen's book, and this is her position that, you know, [Versace] was positive. We felt that to not portray that would be to play into the stigma that still surrounds HIV to this day.

Sanchez: Speaking of stigma, I wanted to ask you about that. You and Nina Jacobson [Simpson's producing partner] were on NPR at the end of January, and you both stated [while talking about the series] that HIV stigma was no longer prevalent. Then, two prominent HIV bloggers [Josh Robbins and Mark S. King] called you out on it on social media. I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about it.

Simpson: Yeah, yeah, of course. I mean, I feel horrible about it. On radio, unlike an interview like this, you're like racing through it and trying to be compact in your answers. I did not say want I meant to say. That's not an excuse; it's just an explanation.

We talked about this a lot in terms of how to talk about Versace's HIV status. One of the conversations we had, we felt that were we to ignore our belief in that status and Maureen's beliefs on that status, then we would be playing into the very stigma that we're all trying to get rid of, that we would be reifying the stigma and shame of living with HIV by denying that part of a character. What I meant to say was that we didn't want to play into the stigma of having HIV. What I ended up saying was that there is no stigma to having HIV today. I don't believe that at all!

I'm not going to pretend that I know what it's like to live with HIV or how complicated it is to decide how public to be about your status with partners, with friends, with family, or how to navigate the health care system. That's something that I can't know, that I can only hear about. But obviously, or maybe not obviously, I'm sorry that I misspoke, and I regret it. Of course, I know that there's a large and unfortunate stigma to having HIV, still, in so many ways.

Smith: One of the reasons we wanted to do this [show] is to attack the stigma. This stigma is so wrong, and it's so corrosive. It still exists today; we're not just talking about something that is historic. We talk [on the show] about the idea that you could build a company that's worth billions of dollars, be a fashion icon, and that it could be reduced to having no value simply by the factor of an HIV diagnosis. That isn't an exaggeration. It seems to me to be a real injustice.

Yet, when you look at Gianni Versace's words, you know, to me it was code. I can't declare for sure what he was saying, but when he says in the '90s after he recovers from the most severe symptoms, "I'm not going to live my life filled with regret and shame anymore," to me, that's him saying: "I've recovered, and I'm not just recovered physically. I'm not going to walk around feeling terrible anymore. I'm going to live; I'm going to love." And I found that very powerful, and I really wanted to capture that.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace premiered on January 17, 2018. New episodes continue through March 21, 2018. Catch up on episodes on the FX channel, OnDemand, or on the FX Website. Check local listings for details.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.