The Early Career of Andrew Rannells: From Stage Star to Gay Best Friend

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

Andrew Rannells

There’s no missing Andrew Rannells. From the instant he strides onstage in the current Broadway revival of Falsettos, you’ll notice that, at 6’1″, he towers over his costars. Put his bearded face on a product, and it would move a mountain of Brawny towels or sell enough cans of Manwich to feed an army. Clean-shaven — as Rannells is onstage tonight — he radiates a post-fratboy glow that still finds him playing parts a decade younger than his 38 years.

Rannells’ evolution from fresh to familiar face has been like watching an languid summer afternoon roll by. He’s gracefully lept from Promise Ring roles like Elder Price, which he originated in the hit musical The Book of Mormon, to more acerbic characters like Elijah, the one-man Greek chorus who appears to pamper (then puncture) the inflated egos of the galpals who populate the beloved HBO series, Girls. It’s not easy, he says, but “I know my skill set and my strengths. I just do what I do.”

Stage vs. Screen

In demand on two coasts, Rannells has a Red Bull-binge awareness that this is his moment, and he’s determined to make the most of it. Much of the time, he ricochets from sitcom sets to the stages of Broadway stage. These days he’s wrapping up Girls‘ sixth and final season. Between that and Falsettos, Rannells briefly stepped in to play King George in Hamilton when Jonathan Groff left to finish the Looking film finale.

One can’t help but wonder how long Rannells thinks it’s possible to maintain this bustling bi-coastal, multi-media lifestyle — and whether one career path must ultimately win out. “Well, theater will always be nearest and dearest,” Rannells muses. “It’s where I feel most comfortable and in control and happiest.” He knows it’s rare to be in such demand that he can pick and choose between theater and TV projects. But his coworkers and representation have long become accustomed to Rannell’s need to alternate between screen and stage: “They understand,” he says with certainty. “I need this to recharge.”

Despite living in a maelstrom of activity, Rannells remains remarkably polite, grateful and calm. Why? “I’m fortunate to be a gay man at a time when there are great roles to play,” he explains. “I’ve been lucky that way, because I have no issue playing gay men — since I am one — as long as there’s a good script. You just have to find the right ones.”

Finding His People

Rannells attributes his breezy optimism to his Irish/Polish origins in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was born fourth of five children. Neither oldest nor youngest, Rannells had to distinguish himself somehow; theater quickly became his ticket out of obscurity.

“I was not initially very outgoing,” he admits, “but through my involvement with theater, I gradually became more comfortabl
“I do remember back in kindergarten I developed a strange little clique that lasted up through eighth grade,” he says, flashing that megawatt smile. “Three guys who eventually came out as gay. Obviously that was a godsend, because they were accepting of me and I of them — even though being gay was never openly spoken about. It was, somehow, something we understood between the three of us. I mean, I remember lip-syncing to Cher in my friend’s basement.”

Rannells attended an all-boys Catholic high school where “it took me a second to find my people. But eventually I made a great group of friends, some of whom I’m still in touch with,” he recalls. “While it was all-male, it was also a Jesuit school, where the teachings are ones of acceptance and there’s a lot of room for interpretation of the scriptures.”

As a teen, Rannells became a familiar fixture on local stages, and by 18 he’d landed a string of voice-over parts and a commercial spoofing Grease opposite a young Amy Adams.

But New York was always tugging at his sleeve, and so — with little more than the zeal to perform — Rannells moved East and began parlaying his voiceover experience into directing cartoons for Fox and Warner Brothers. “I did Sonic the Hedgehog,” he laughs, “along with many others. I directed the voiceover portion. So there I was at 23, trying to get performances out of actors making these Saturday morning cartoons and trying to sync to the originals when we dubbed them over from Japanese.”

At the same time, the sense of treading water gnawed at him, until finally something snapped, he says. “I was going deeper and deeper into debt; so I thought I’d see if could just get anywhere by auditioning.” Rannells quit school and began seeing casting agents.

Allison Williams and Andrew Rannells

Allison Williams and Andrew Rannells—Photo courtesy of “Girls”/HBO

Saying “Hello!” to Broadway

In 2002, Rannells was cast to play the title role in an Austin, Texas production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The show was a runaway hit and quickly ballooned from a four-week to a four-month run. He walked away with the local scene’s award for best actor in a musical. That was heartening, but only a hint of things to come. “My big break,” Rannells always says, “came from Hairspray.”

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“I was an understudy for nine months — then to get to be a lead on Broadway was something amazing.” By then, Hairspray was already in its third year; so although he could finally call himself a Broadway song-and-dance man, Rannells wasn’t exactly hot on the radar of industry professionals who could put him in bigger parts. His whole universe shifted again when the actor learned about a hush-hush project being assembled by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park.

Rannells says he landed the lead in The Book Of Mormon the old fashioned way: by auditioning. “The people behind the show were very secretive, and all we really knew was: that it was about the Mormon church, it was a musical, and that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were doing it.” He heard that the producers were replacing the actor who’d played the role of Elder Price at early readings. “It was really fast,” he says. “It was three auditions: … Something clicked, and I was cast.”

Soon after opening, the show became the hottest ticket in town. “I had no idea that it would become what it has,” Rannells admits, “but it was so funny and so smart, I knew we were going to have a very solid audience. It was a surprise that it’s as universal a hit as it has become, that it’s still running and traveled to Salt Lake City.”

The Book of Dunham

Book of Mormon also allowed Rannells to look for TV roles filmed in NYC. So he took an initially-peripheral role in Girls as Elijah, ex-boyfriend to Hannah (played by series star and creator Lena Dunham). Elijah comes out to her as gay in the show’s third episode.

Then, two years into the run of Mormon, Rannells took a vacation during TV pilot season and dashed to LA, where he threw himself into a series of meetings. One of them was with Ryan Murphy, the maestro behind Glee and American Horror Story. “I learned he was working on a show about gay parents [based on Murphy’s own life], and I asked him about it. I had this strange moment of confidence. I thought, ‘I don’t know much about this, but I want to be a part of it.'” A month later, he got the offer to play Murphy’s alter-ego in The New Normal.

Rannells had two seasons under his belt playing bestie to the ladies of Girls; so he was understandably itchy to play a lead. He met with Dunham and series producer Judd Apatow. “They said of course I had to try this.”

Despite the magic of the Murphy name, The New Normal struggled to find its audience. The challenge was evident: Shows like Modern Family and Will & Grace proved that America could embrace gay characters, but were network audiences ready for a show where gay people were central rather than showcased for spice or comic relief?

Normal was cancelled at the end of its first season. When asked if the show was ahead of its time, Rannells is quick to respond: “That’s exactly what I think. Modern Family was very successful and Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet were hugely popular; so it seemed like a good time for a show like ours. But New Normal was principally about gay people trying to have a baby, and Justin Bartha and I were the focus. We had a great cast with Ellen Barkin, Bebe Wood and the rest, but — at its heart — it was the gay couple’s story. Maybe it was too soon for that.”


Rannells and Zosia Mamet — Photo courtesy of “Girls”/HBO

The show ended, but Rannells didn’t miss a beat. In no time, he says, “Lena offered me my job back on the third season of Girls and it’s been great to be back and see Elijah grow and evolve.”

In fact, Elijah has since gone on to become one of the most multi-layered gay characters ever put on a television screen. He’s dealt with issues of sexual fluidity — sleeping with Allison Williams’ character Marnie, and when Hannah’s Dad came out as gay late in life, he turned to Elijah for comfort and counsel. Most recently, Elijah grappled with his desire for monogamy while dating a decidedly non-monagamous TV personality (played by House of Cards alum Corey Stoll). In a show that relies on irresponsible antics for its humor, Elijah often ends up the only adult in the room.

“This season, I’m looking forward to showing even more different parts of Elijah. He’s no longer the messy friend, you know?” Rannells offers. “And there’s the storyline with Cory Stoll, where I get to continue to try to be more grown up and proud. Of course, Elijah still observes the girls just as the audience does, and I still get to call them out on their B.S. and being narcissistic.”

Getting Bigger Dreams

Rannells is now weighing his options for the future, since Girls will soon say goodbye and the lights of Falsettos won’t stay lit forever. “It’s like Oprah says, once you’ve achieved a dream, you’ve got to get bigger dreams,” he reasons. “That’s sort of been my approach. You get where you wanted to go, and move the line several steps.”

It’s worth noting that Rannells’ star has risem parallel to the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the beginning of marriage equality. Unlike generations before him, he was not as seriously faced with the possibility that being openly gay and playing gay characters could threaten his career. But he’s wary that the incoming Trump administration may yet prove a danger to that kind of freedom. “What to do? “My plan is to stay vigilant,” he says.

Now when he’s asked if playing gay characters has limited him, Rannells sets the doubters straight: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone ask straight guys if it’s limiting playing a straight guy. I know a lot of gay roles are played by straight people, and if they’re the best people for the job — well, fine. But playing gay? I have a little insight into that.”

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Last modified: March 18, 2019