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The fast-rising stage and screen star reflects on entering showbiz as an out gay man, how his Tony-nominated ‘Book of Mormon’ perf led Lena Dunham to hire him for her groundbreaking HBO series and why he’ll always return to Broadway (where he’s also starred in ‘Hamilton’).
“The whole experience, from top to bottom, was very magical,” says Andrew Rannells, the fast-rising star of stage (The Book of Mormon) and screen (Girls), of his involvement with this Broadway season’s revival of the musical Falsettos as we sit down at New York’s Empire Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. The original 1992 version of the show, which focuses on the lives of gay men during the AIDS epidemic, was featured on the 1992 Tony Awards telecast, which caused Rannells, who was 13 then and is 38 now, to fall in love with theater. “I wanted to do Falsettos very badly because of that early exposure to it,” he acknowledged. And now Rannells himself is a Tony nominee, in the category of best featured actor in a musical, for his own performance in the show, which also is nominated for four other Tonys, including best revival of a musical.
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Rannells was born in Omaha and, after his Tonys awakening, began working at a dinner theater at 13. After graduating from high school, he came out to friends and family as a gay man and shortly thereafter moved to New York, enrolling in college for two years before focusing full-time on pursuing a career as a professional actor. He paid the bills doing voiceover work on animated TV shows and performing in regional theater productions, while also regularly auditioning for Broadway productions. One such session that didn’t quite pan out for Rannells was for Rent, but it marked the beginning of a relationship with casting director Bernard Telsey, who later cast him in his Broadway debut, as a replacement in Hairspray!. He later was a replacement in blockbuster Jersey Boys, as well.
But Rannells’ big break was winning the opportunity to originate one of the two leading parts in 2011’s The Book of Mormon, a musical-comedy about Mormon missionaries that was created by South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, featured music by Bobby Lopez and was produced by Scott Rudin. Thanks largely to Rannells’ performance as Elder Price — opposite Josh Gad’s Elder Cunningham — the show became a Broadway phenomenon unmatched until the arrival of Hamilton five years later. The New York Times called it the “best musical of this century,” and among its 16 Tony nominations was one for Rannells, in the category of best actor in a musical.
The actor remained with The Book of Mormon for roughly a year-and-a-half — while simultaneously capitalizing on its success and his raised profile by taking day jobs, most immediately and famously the part of Elijah, the ex-boyfriend of Lena Dunham‘s Hannah, on the HBO comedy series Girls. “Lena and [co-showrunner] Jenni Konner came to opening night of The Book of Mormon,” he recalls. “They had shot the pilot of Girls, they got their pickup and they were just about to start filming the first season. And a couple of weeks later I got a phone call about coming in and reading for this new TV show. They sent me [Dunham’s 2010 feature directorial debut] Tiny Furniture, which was incredible and I immediately loved. I was like, ‘Whatever this is, I want to do it, because this girl seems amazing.'”
Girls helped to bring Rannells to his largest audience yet, and he became a fan favorite on the show, essentially by telling the title characters what the audience was thinking about them — often in the most memorable of ways. But before season one even was released, Rannells began exploring other future options at meetings in Los Angeles, one of which was with Ryan Murphy, to whom he promoted himself for the upcoming sitcom The New Normal. He was offered one of the co-leads in that ABC series (which was about a wealthy gay couple who decide to have a child through a surrogate) just as Girls producer Judd Apatow told him the show wanted to make him a regular starting with season two, which forced a tough decision. He went with The New Normal. It didn’t click, lasting for just the 2012-2013 season. So he returned to Girls as a regular starting in its fourth season.
Girls kept Rannells plenty busy until its run came to an end in April 2017 — his distinguished work in its seventh and final season could bring him his first Emmy nom — but all the while he made time to return to his first love, the theater. In 2014 he replaced Neil Patrick Harris as the title character in one of the most physically challenging parts in musical theater, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and in 2015 he replaced Jonathan Groff, who had replaced Brian d’Arcy James, as King Georges III in Hamilton. Then came Falsettos, which opened in Oct. 2016 and ran through Jan. 2017. In it, Rannells played Wizzer, the gay lover of the married-to-a-woman lead played by Christian Borle who contracts HIV. Those who missed his acclaimed performance at the Walter Kerr Theatre will have another opportunity to see it when it airs on PBS later this year — and even before then when, in a moment of life coming full circle, he performs a number from the show on the Tonys Awards telecast on June 11.