ABOVE: ANDREW RANNELLS ON GIRLS. IMAGE COURTESY OF JESSICA MIGLIO
"I can see her rolling her eyes at some of my answers," Andrew Rannells says, of his best friend's reaction to what he says on everything from starring in Broadway smash The Book of Mormon to playing the lead on NBC's new hit, The New Normal, which was recently picked up for a full season and returns tonight. Despite the overwhelming praise for, and success of, his work, Rannells never fails to maintain a self-aware, down-to-earth humor. Rannells was fresh off an appearance on Anderson Live ("fingers crossed it's not humiliating to watch") and tightly crammed into a Towncar with said friend and members of his team as he spoke about taking on two very different characters on two of spring's hottest shows—The New Normal and Girls—and how he feels about his first-ever nude scene.
LI ZHOU: You pitched yourself for the role of Brian in The New Normal to Ryan Murphy and were pretty bold about it—why were you drawn to this role, and why did you think you were the one who should play this character?
ANDREW RANNELLS: I had a sort of general meeting with Ryan—he had seen The Book of Mormon, but I had never gotten to meet him before. So I was out in LA and we got a chance to sit down; it was really, literally just a general meeting, so there wasn't any specific project to talk about. But some folks at NBC had told me that he had just sold a pilot, and they didn't tell me what it was about, but they said, "You should ask him about it, because you would be a really good fit." So I asked, "I hear you have this pilot coming up." He told me the premise, and he said, "Is that something you would be interested in?" And I said, "Yes, it is." And he said, "Why do you think?"
And then, I sort of literally blacked out a little bit, and I can't remember everything I said. But it was a very impassioned pitch as to why I, as a gay man, felt that a gay actor should play this part, and I knew he would tell this story with a lot of integrity and also a lot of humor and heart. And that was exactly the type of story I would like to be a part of telling. At the end of this, he just sort of nodded, and said, "Great. Well, it was great to meet you," and that was the end of the meeting, so I was terrified that I had messed it up. And I didn't hear about it for about a month and I got a phone call saying, "Would you like to star on this television show?"
It was nerve-wracking—I went through many stages of grief, totally blaming myself, thinking I was way out of line asking him about it, and then thinking that it just went away and that's fine, it's okay. And then, to be surprised by that phone call was unbelievable.
ZHOU: You were coming from this amazing background in theater—was this the meeting that catalyzed your desire to move into television?
RANNELLS: Girls was the first television show I got to be a part of, and that was here in New York. I was still doing The Book of Mormon when we shot the first season of Girls, and then partially was still on The Book of Mormon when she shot the second season, so that really solidified my interest in TV as something that I wanted to explore, because I had never done any television before. But getting to work with Lena, and to work with HBO and Judd Apatow, and then being a big fan of Ryan Murphy, I couldn't have asked for a better opportunity than this.
ZHOU: Have you found it very challenging to adapt from a live-audience experience to something where you get a delayed reaction to the work you're putting out there?
RANNELLS: Yeah, it's a big adjustment, because it's like doing it in a bubble. My only goal is to make the crew laugh, basically. It's the only litmus I have to know, is this good or not? With New Normal, at least, the show will air about two weeks after we wrap an episode. With Girls, I wrapped my last episode in July, and I haven't seen any yet, so you have to be much more patient to see what the outcome is.
ZHOU: After playing major roles in theater and on TV, do you see yourself pursuing both in the future? Or even a hybrid of the two, à la Glee or Smash?
RANNELLS: I love doing both theater and television. I definitely foresee more Broadway, but I think I would like to keep the singing and the TV separate.
ZHOU: All these projects you've been part of, from The Book of Mormon to Girls, have touched on sensitive subject matter and been groundbreaking in their own ways. When you look at projects, are you specifically attracted to those that are sending strong messages about all these different topics that are very tough to handle?
RANNELLS: I think I am. I was interested in being part of interesting stories. As an actor, you generally don't get to choose what projects you are part of, so I've been very fortunate that The Book of Mormon was something I got to be part of. I don't want to be lofty, but it was groundbreaking, in many ways, for musical theater, so that was really thrilling to be part of. And Girls felt very much the same way—there was an excitement about it as we were doing it; I knew it was something special.
And then, again, luckily Ryan Murphy has a great track record of really having his finger on the pulse of pop culture in a way that very few people do. And he is able to work things into stories in a ridiculously timely way—sometimes, before anybody else thinks it's going to be a thing, he is able to create these moments on television. I was thrilled to get to work with him, and I knew he would be able to tell that story with that same energy.
ZHOU: As he says on The Glee Project, Ryan often writes characters that interweave elements of the actor's own personality and presence—is this the case with Brian on The New Normal?
RANNELLS: Yeah, absolutely. When I talk to Ryan or Ali Adler about my past or things in my personal life, occasionally pieces of that will end up in the script, and I think that's true of everybody. It's true of that entire writer's room, certainly of Ryan and Ali. I think that he writes really well for actors, for his actors, and he writes to their strengths. I always feel very well taken care of with him.
ZHOU: Regarding many of the issues you've tackled in shows including religion and acting, how have you addressed these subjects through your acting, especially through humor?
RANNELLS: Probably one of the ways to make it most accessible to people is to make it humorous, and if it starts any kind of dialogue, then that's great. I figure, oftentimes the best way in is through humor, and you can deal with serious situations a lot easier, or at least bring up the conversation. I feel like I really trust Ryan and Ali and the way they prepare these stories, and it comes from a really honest place. So that's where we all have to sit, in the most honest places possible, and make sure we're telling stories as simply and honestly as we can. They give us those scripts and they give us those opportunities, and it makes our job a lot easier.
ZHOU: Since the characters you play are these really real, fleshed-out, and well-written characters, how do you see gay characters growing and changing based on what's on television today?
RANNELLS: It's nice that I can play two gay characters in one season that are very different. Yes, they're both gay, but one is obviously in a very secure place in his life with his relationship and looking to start a family. And the other one is a complete fuck-up, does not have his shit together, and in this weird relationship where his boyfriend pays his rent and he's running around getting drugs. They could not be more different in that way. So, I don't really think of them as gay characters. I just think of them as two really interesting characters.
ZHOU: Given the nature of HBO shows, are you dealing with any nudity?
RANNELLS: Sure. I got to do my first nude scene. Very exciting.
ZHOU: How did that go?
RANNELLS: It went very well, I think. I've gotten some positive early reports back. I don't know, I will see it tomorrow night for the first time at the premiere—I'm a little anxious, but it was surprisingly fun to do. I was very nervous about it, but it ended up being a lot of fun.
ZHOU: That's great to hear.
RANNELLS: [laughs] Yes, I didn't want to die inside, so that's good.
ZHOU: Since you also came to the city relatively young, did you see similarities to what is happening with characters on the show to your own experiences?
RANNELLS: It was similar in a lot of ways, and that's why I think Girls is so great, because versions of it are close to my own experience of moving to New York. It's a fun—I'm 10 years older than Elijah actually is, I'm 34, and it's nice to be able to go back and live in that time, but also leave it. You know—get to be messy and silly and irresponsible, but also wrap that up at the end of the day and be an adult. [laughs] It's a fun time, but not necessarily one you want to stay in for too long.
ZHOU: What have been some of the most interesting responses you've received from viewers, both positive and negative, on all the projects you've done? What has that dialogue been like with the audience?
RANNELLS: I'm happy to say I haven't received that much negative feedback. I'm always thrilled when I get feedback from young people, particularly from The New Normal, young gay people—when they say they want that when they grow up, that means a lot to me. As a kid growing up, I didn't really have a lot of gay role models on television, so it's nice to be part of a movement that gives some more of those.
Probably the funniest thing, I was in a coffee shop, kind of hung over, at like 7:30 in the morning, doing something in New York, and this guy came up to me and said "Hey, hey, your dad is gay"—which at first I didn't understand, but then realized he was repeating a line to me from the first season of Girls, which I found very funny. I took it as a compliment. [laughs]
GIRLS AIRS SUNDAYS AT 9 PM ON HBO. THE NEW NORMAL AIRS TUESDAYS AT 9:30 PM ON NBC.