Matt Stewart | June 8, 2021 | Television
With a decade of success behind him and three shows hitting the airwaves right now, Andrew Rannells is on top of the world...and the world is saying thank you.
Whether you’re loving him as Kev on Peacock’s new Meredith Scardino/Tina Fey comedy, Girls5eva, are catching up with his latest hijinks as the hilarious Blair Pfaff in season three of Showtime's Black Monday or breathlessly awaiting his directorial debut during the upcoming second season of Amazon’s Modern Love, everyone can agree that Andrew Rannells is a must-watch man.
Since his breakout role as the original Elder Price in The Book of Mormon, Rannells has had a meteoric rise that includes an impressive array of stage, film and television credits; a touted “Modern Love” essay in The New York Times; the publication of his hilarious and heartwarming coming-of-age memoir entitled Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood; and a gig co-hosting ABC’s Oscars: After Dark following this year’s Academy Awards broadcast.
Rannells’ passion for performing began with his filmloving parents. “My dad was a big MGM musical fan,” he shares. “From a young age I fell in love with those movies.” Like so many kids who catch the acting bug, Rannells gravitated to school plays and regional theater, while plotting his move to Manhattan. “As my mother tells it, I announced that I was moving to New York when I was in fourth grade, and when I got out of high school, that’s what I did... and it’s their fault.”
His first Broadway successes were playing Link Larkin in Hairspray (2005) and Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys (2009). And then came The Book of Mormon.“In the middle of doing a regional production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, I got a call from my agent telling me that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were putting together this musical,” Rannells recalls. “It was one of the easiest audition processes I’ve ever been through because they knew what they wanted, and a month and a half later we were in rehearsals.”
Elder Price turned out to be a watershed role for Rannells that earned him a Tony nomination and a Grammy Award, and caught the attention of Lena Dunham, who cast him as Elijah on Girls.“I was suddenly that guy from Girls, or that other guy from girls. … I was not Adam Driver,” he jokes. “It was a huge game changer because Lena and Jenni [Konner] not only wrote to my strengths, but included me in the development of that character. It’s not lost on me how lucky I was to play that part for six years.”
Rannells’ career was now in high gear as he replaced Neil Patrick Harris in the Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch; did a stint as King George III in Hamilton; played Whizzer Brown in the 2016 revival of Falsettos (earning him a second Tony nomination); and took on the role of Larry in the 50th anniversary revival of The Boys in the Band, where he not only got to work with Ryan Murphy, Joe Mantello, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and Jim Parsons (both on Broadway and for Netflix), but also met his partner, Tuc Watkins. “I was really struck by Larry and how he and his partner, Hank [played by Watkins], were struggling with questions like, What is a relationship?” he shares. “Are we striving for a heteronormative experience or can we open it up into something else? It was odd because Tuc and I had to have a very contentious relationship onstage, while offstage, I was falling in love with him.”
Later that year, Rannells joined Regina Hall, Don Cheadle and the cast of Black Monday. To bring his character, Blair, to life, he tapped into his stage experience. “When I read the pilot I thought he was a lot like Elder Price, a guy entering this world with the best intentions, only to have them blow up in his face,” Rannells says. “Most of the first season I embraced that wide-eyed feeling of being in New York for the first time and thinking that if you work hard and show up prepared it will all work out, but when that doesn’t go as planned you have to find a different way. In Blair’s case that involves criminal activity.”
With Black Monday taking off, Rannells took on the role of Trent Oliver in Netflix’s 2020 adaptation of The Prom. Not only did this production give him the opportunity to work with Murphy again, but it teamed him up with two of his icons, Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. “Obviously I was nervous,” Rannells admits, “but seeing how hard Meryl and Nicole worked and learning how warm and wonderful they are made the movie star part go away. It was a blast.”
In early 2020, his “Modern Love” piece came full circle when Amazon asked him to adapt and direct it for its second season. “They allowed me to open it up in ways that were not just a retelling of that essay, but a broader version,” Rannells says. “I also got to cast two wonderful young actors, Marquis Rodriguez and Zane Pais, in the lead roles. It was the first thing I had done during quarantine, so when filming began in September, everybody was a little nervous, but once we got on set and through all of the COVID protocols and testing, it was work as usual and a nice reentry after a tough year, and brought more exciting news,” he continues. “I was busy editing ‘Modern Love’ when I got an email from my manager saying that Tina Fey wanted to offer me a job on Girls5eva. As far as I’m concerned, any sentence that starts with ‘Tina Fey wants…’ has me saying, ‘Yes! I am ready! If it’s a yard sale, I will work it.’ It was so much fun and that cast is insanely talented.”
With Pride Month here and the dark year of the pandemic receding, Rannells shares his thoughts on what playing so many gay characters has meant to him. “When I was on Girls and was asked if I felt pigeonholed as a gay man playing a gay character, my response was that that implies there is only one type of gay person and that you can only play gay characters one way. That is not the case,” he explains. “There are a lot of different stories to tell and I am excited that we are in a time where there is more opportunity for those voices.”
Photography by: Leigh Keily/Getty Images