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Hustling out the door at a little past noon, en route to a taping of 'The Ellen DeGeneres Show,' Criss looks like any other kid in his young Los Angeles neighborhood. Dressed in a faded grey University of Michigan t-shirt (his alma mater), black cardigan and jeans, he also sports tutti frutti-colored fingernails (a memento from his recent weekend at Coachella, which he attended in support of his brother's band, Freelance Whales).
"I'm like, never here, man," the 24-year-old apologizes, when asked how he likes his nice new house. "I get home, crash, and I'm out the door."
This is his second 'Ellen' appearance in as many months. Immediately following the taping he has to run back home to grab his guitar and gear, then head back out for a friends-and-family solo set at legendary Sunset Strip venue The Roxy's intimate upstairs room, On the Rox.
"Should I invite Ellen tonight?" Criss asks with a dark grin. "Who else is on the show? Gwyneth [Paltrow]? Should I invite Gwyneth?" The response is resoundingly positive from the members of the tinted-out SUV as we speed towards Burbank, Calif.
Though he needs to buy some equipment for tonight's show and still doesn't have his set figured out, he seems calm -- poised even -- as he describes his "bonkers" schedule of late.
"Keep in mind the amount of days that I've been going," he says, recounting his sleepless week. "I'm not bragging, here. This is me admitting that I'm somewhat insane, and I probably should be committed at some point in my life. It was one long day, starting Wednesday of last week. We had like fourteen-hour shoots Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. We got off Friday at 1:30AM and I decided to drive down to Coachella to see my brother. I did Coachella for two days -- just had a blast, went crazy, had a lot of fun. My manager was like 'don't stay Sunday; you gotta be ready for the rest of the week.' Of course I didn't follow his advice. So we kept going and then I got on a plane, and I was ready to go to sleep, but I was sitting next to the Black Eyed Peas, which was like the coolest thing ever. I was like, 'I can't sleep now, I gotta talk to these guys!' I talked to apl.de.ap and Taboo, so that was really cool, and that was yesterday? No ... almost yesterday."
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Criss hustles down a long corridor to the green room, where his 'Glee' cohorts -- the navy blazer-attired Dalton Academy Warblers, sans Criss' Golden Globe-winning love interest Chris Colfer) -- are already causing a scene, milling around in black 'Ellen' v-necks and matching 'Ellen' underwear.
"We got a legitimate-ass crew here; this is cool," Criss remarks, surveying the scene. The Warblers seem to be everywhere and are laughing, mock beat-boxing and generally behaving exactly as you'd expect. "You see them in their underwear and t-shirts? It's crazy!"
He then returns to his own green room, which is intermittently filled with his publicist, label reps, managers, agent, choreographer, voice coach and our film crew. Criss attends to each of them with equal concern, offering water and snacks, before diving into a chopped salad himself, digging in with a boyish appetite.
Like Black Eyed Pea apl.de.ap, Darren Criss' mother is from the Philippines, and he smiles at the thought of how excited his Filipino fan base would be to see the two randomly discussing their shared heritage on an airplane. "The Filipino community would freak out if they knew we had a chitchat on the plane," he says. "Between me and Charice [Pempengco, also a 'Glee' star] and [the boxer Manny] Pacquiao, I mean, they already think we all know each other."
Interrupting his musings, someone calls Criss onto the set to rehearse today's routine. All v-necks and smiles, the Warblers are already crowding the hall and filing onto the set.
The 'Ellen' set is much bigger than expected, and the small crowd is much smaller. The buoyant singer and his beaming boys disappear behind a wall of blue light boxes only to reappear after a quick introduction. They belt out Criss' breakout cover of Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream,' which outsold the original in its first week of digital sales.
Their performance is magnetic, and as their choreographer runs through some quick pointers, Ellen DeGeneres suddenly appears, looking chipper in khakis and a grey sweater.
"You beautiful man, how are you?" she asks Criss with a warm hug. "Where's my underwear?"
She turns and spots a group of high school girls in the small audience. "This is horrible to have to watch, isn't it?" she kids. After a quick powwow with Darren and several others, she invites the girls down to meet the Warblers.
"We'd say you can join our club, but it's boys-only," Darren deadpans, suddenly in character. The girls giggle and take a picture.
Back in the green room, it's now time to get camera-ready, which Darren puts off until the last minute, fielding business calls and going over the guest list for tonight's show a bit more.
Darren has been given a special Warblers blazer to give to Ellen. "Sign the coat under Gwyneth," a label rep instructs. "I'll sign over Gwyneth, how about that?" Darren jokes. The jacket is now enjoying a successful run on Ebay.
Joseph Llanes for AOL
"That was fantastic," Ellen says, looking genuinely impressed. "Aren't they amazing?" he replies, graciously deferring the compliment back to his dancers. "I'm just blessed to be consistently surrounded by sweet and talented people."
"That was good!" We're all safely back in the SUV with the AC on full blast. "I'm always just waiting for someone to cut me off; I'm a chatty guy. There are some things that I didn't really put into the equation of what would happen in my life, so there are some unexpected things that are really great, you know? We did the 'Ellen' show today, which is really cool. I met Ellen again! My second time! What? That's crazy!"
Somehow it's already 5PM and we're returning to Criss' house, which is located in a nice, upper-class neighborhood just a couple blocks from the "cesspool of indie kids" in L.A.; it's a location Criss clearly relishes. "People are always like 'oh, you're moving so fast, you're going from place to place to place, you don't have time to enjoy it.' But I'm like 'no, that's not how it works. I am enjoying it; that's why I'm moving so fast.' My mom always gets on my case 'cause at meals I always eat super fast, and she's like 'you don't take time to enjoy your meal!' and I'm like 'no, I enjoy the crap outta that meal, that's why I ate it so fast!'"
It's 6:15PM and Criss is lying on his living room floor, surrounded by teenybopper magazines, guitar amps, candy canes, unpacked boxes, a 'Calvin and Hobbes' book and the centerpiece of the room: a Boston grand piano.
After a few contemplative seconds, the silence is broken again by a knock at the front door. A tall kid enters and immediately begins sorting through the music gear that's spread out across the floor.
"This is my boy Chris; he's my bass player. He's the man," Criss exclaims, bouncing back up and into high gear again. "Oh, we gotta still buy a keyboard stand on the way. Are we using my keyboard? F---, my keyboard sucks!"
Attempting to plot the night's set list, while simultaneously taking part in a photo shoot, the 24-year-old San Francisco native suddenly remembers that he has an album in stores.
"Let's buy records at Amoeba!" he declares. "I'll buy it, I'll buy my own album." He then drifts off into thoughts of albums he wants to buy, bands he saw at Coachella like the Cold War Kids.
"How's the new record? I think I'll buy that." He sings a line, then says, "It's good stuff."
One of the last big independent music stores, Amoeba Records on Sunset Boulevard is an institution that Criss remembers fondly, having spent days in its sister store in San Francisco as a teen. Though he's painfully close to his call time at The Roxy, Criss steers us to the record store, where he immediately builds a stack of CDs. He floats around the store excitedly, adding new albums as he goes, including, yes, his own.
Joseph Llanes for AOL
His tastes run the gamut, but the majority of his picks are indie rock. "I grew up listening to oldies, early '60s, Brit rock, obviously the Beatles, Chad and Jeremy, guys like that," he explains. "I was also huge on Motown so the Supremes, the Temptations, Otis Redding, Al Green, Stevie Wonder. But I'm also a show tunes guy, 'cause I was really into theater, so I had my basic 'Musical Theater 101' in the same CD rack as I did all my oldies albums. I guess I was kind of a little human iPod. I know every Nirvana album, I know Soundgarden, and I was from the West Coast, so I was really into 2Pac. I've always loved all kinds of music, and that's not me trying to be diplomatic."
The young star goes more or less unnoticed in the large store, despite our small camera crew, which the customers ignore. We move on to the topics of "Gleeks," his fans and the wages of fame.
"The fan world and the fan concept is a far different one than it was 10 years ago," he says authoritatively. "I mean, as much as people make fun of Twitter, if I knew Kurt Cobain had a Twitter when I was 10, are you kidding me? Yeah, I would tweet at him every day, I would follow everything that he said. I would be on that Facebook page, looking up stuff, what he's doing next. I get goosebumps thinking about it. That would be amazing, I never had that."
To that end, Criss is extremely sympathetic to his fans, and says that he has not had any "crazy" fan interactions thus far.
"If a fan is doing something that they think is crazy, I see sincerity," he continues. "I see the genuine feeling behind it, so I don't get creeped out if people send messages or anything, because that is a medium for them to reach out to me, and I can only be appreciative of it."
However, Criss has had his share of critics, and he recognizes that he is always under the magnifying glass.
"It's like completely bonkers and unfair," he says of a situation where he was unknowingly filmed while playing a game of basketball with his castmates. "I'm not here to amuse you when I don't know that someone has a camera. I mean, that's not a huge deal, but it's just so funny they'll find anything on you because they can. You have to start thinking differently about where you go and what you do. Ten years ago, if you tried to explain this concept of awareness, of things being around every corner. People would think you're crazy, that you're suffering from severe paranoia, but it is reality now, so that kind of sucks. Luckily I don't live a very illicit lifestyle, so I'm not too worried."
When we arrive at the venue for his private concert, it's already dark. A crowd's formed outside because Linda Perry is playing downstairs, and Christina Aguilera and Juliette Lewis are both snapped by paparazzi on their way in. Upstairs, the DJ spins indie-dance hits, while Criss disappears into the back, presumably to finally shore up his set list and mentally prepare for the show.
It's all a bit intense for a 24-year-old, and Criss' good-natured humility has not gone unnoticed by fans and critics alike.
"My mother came from the Philippines, she just comes from a simple mentality and a very a appreciative mentality," he says, explaining his ability to stay level-headed while surrounded by Hollywood. "My mom worked really hard to come to this country, and it was something she dreamed of her whole life, and so I think that was really instilled in me as a kid. I try desperately to be as humble as possible at all times, and it's easy, because I'm so humbled by so many people that I get to work with. I'm consistently inspired by people who I think are incredible. That's what keeps me grounded. I don't feel entitled to any of this, I feel like I'm a guest in a very immaculate ball and I'm really trying to look nice and be polite because I should be so lucky to be at this party, and I'm just trying not to make a fool of myself so they don't kick me out."
"It's kind of a weird setup, so if you feel like you wanna talk or chit chat, go for it," Criss offers. "I'm gonna take you through my musical journey. It's been a crazy couple of months."
Judging from the blissful look on his face, it's hard to imagine him doing anything else.