Andrew Rannells Is Happy to Play Gay Men (As Long As They’re Not Too Relatable)

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Andrew Rannells and I are watching the trailer for Fire Island — the new reality show that follows six gay men as they summer at the Pines — on my phone. He tells me he spent much of his summer on Fire Island last year, so as you might expect, he provides some expert commentary. “Gay people: We get drunk and fight just like straight people!” he jokes. He’s over the idea that gay men should have to present purely positive images in media. “We’re not looking for role models on a Logo show, so I think it’s fine,” he decides. “Let’s have some fun.”

Rannells, 38, whose big break came playing Elder Price in the original production of The Book of Mormon (for which he received a Tony nomination), has played a range of gay men, from the narcissistic Elijah on HBO’s Girls, to Ryan Murphy’s baby-daddy id on the one-season NBC show The New Normal, to a gay man living in AIDS-afflicted New York onstage in Falsettos. Part of what he loved so much about Elijah on Girls — his first TV gig — was that he could play a messy, aimless 20-something without having to worry about whether he was creating a positive representation of a gay man. Still, what’s unique about Rannells is that he isn’t afraid to play a gay man. Unlike some other Hollywood actors, he’s never been coy about his sexuality and doesn’t find the idea of playing gay characters limiting so much as he does the parts that are written for them. (With the end of Girls nearing, he’s been reading a lot of scripts that want him to play a one-dimensional sassy gay bestie.) During a visit to the New York offices, Rannells talks about competition among actors in the industry, the pressures of doing a network show, and teaching the Girls crew the mechanics of anal sex.

Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow told me that you were the one who improvised the “Your dad is gay” line to Hannah in your first episode of Girls. How did that come about?
Judd was on set, and it was my first day speaking on a TV show, so I was very nervous. He kept coming up to me and whispering things in between takes to play around with, things to keep in mind. One of the things was, “Do you know who Peter Scolari is?” and I said, “Of course.” He said, “Peter plays Hannah’s father, so can you work in something about the fact that you think maybe he’s gay?” We started just playing around with this idea, saying he had an earring, saying he went on trips with his friends, we’re just making shit up. And yeah, that was my brilliant contribution: “Your dad is gay.” [Laughs.] Not the subtlest improvisation! But I was like, “I’m just going to walk out of this scene,” and I don’t know why I felt confident enough to do that, because I really had no clue what was going on.

There was something really special about working with Lena Dunham. I immediately felt very comfortable with her, and we spoke the same language. Even though I was nervous about improvising and acting on set with her, we just got each other in an interesting way. I felt like we were on the same page — she’s a great improviser and a very collaborative person to work with. We ended that scene many different ways. She left at one point, we kissed at one point, we did one where we ended up crying and holding each other. We went all over the place. We just felt like we could try anything.

It’s like “Choose Your Own Adventure”!
It was, and I felt that the second we got the “Your dad is gay” one, I went, “I think that’s going to be the one.” But we still played around a lot to see, “Maybe it’s something else!”

Corey Stoll, who plays Dill, said he was nervous shooting your sex scenes last season. What was it like from your vantage point?
Well, you know what’s interesting — and I think this is correct — I believe I was the only gay person on that set.

Jason [Kim, the story editor] wasn’t on set?
I don’t think Jason was there that day. Obviously he’s on set most days, but that ended up being a night shoot, so we shot at like three in the morning. If I’m being honest, when we were blocking it, I had to explain the mechanics of anal sex to this group of people and why missionary was the way to go. Corey was very cool about it. There was very little discussion about who was the top and who was the bottom, and it was decided that it just makes more sense that Corey would be the bossy bottom in that scenario. But I felt like I was doing some sort of gay-sex tutorial to explain the mechanics of how anal missionary works. It was my public service for the season.

The sex scene definitely felt like an extension of Dill and Elijah’s dynamic. Dill being a demanding bottom made a lot of sense for his character. Were those details written into the script?
This is a tangent, but I feel like there’s a perception of who’s submissive and who’s dominant, and I don’t think that necessarily goes with those roles. I know that as a gay man, that’s not always the case. So I don’t recall in the script that it was specific, but I do remember talking to Jesse Peretz, our director, about it and Corey being cool and flexible with whatever was decided. He was a real champ, man. We shot it pretty quick, and Jesse really knew what he needed and wanted, which is always great — certainly you don’t want to be wasting a lot of time when you’re in that position because it’s awkward anyway. Corey and I didn’t know each other that well at that point; he was literally about to go get married. The next day, I think, he was flying to his wedding, so that was quite a send-off.

Elijah wears a lot of brightly colored underwear.
Yeah, you see more of it this season. I forgot how much I’m in my underwear.

It always feels very right for his character.
Yeah, it’s like cheap stuff that you would find at Filene’s or something. Off-brand Italian underwear is what Jenn Rogien, our costume designer, puts me in. Sometimes it’s like 2(x)ist or Calvin Klein, but oftentimes it’s this weird thing where you’re like, What the hell is this label? But it’s good because it’s within Elijah’s price point. Very rarely did I ever wear anything that was not off-brand or from some sort of consignment or discount store. Jenn really works very well within the world, and it’s hard as a narcissistic actor sometimes to put on things and be like, Well, I wish the fit was different or I wish this material wasn’t so cheap. In the second episode, I go to that cocktail party with Shoshanna, and I wore this hideous, white double-breasted blazer with a white turtleneck. I look like I’m in the fucking Sea Org. I hated it, but when I looked at myself, I was like, This seems correct. So I had to fight my own narcissism.

Do you ever feel shy if your wardrobe is just underwear?
At this point, I am fine with it. This was my first television job, and the first time I was ever naked on the show was in the second season — that I remember being a big deal. I had a sex scene with Allison Williams and I had to be naked, and I was very nervous about that. But as time goes on, you’re like, Well, these people have all seen me in my underwear. There’s something forgiving about the fact that I’m not a Marvel character. I’m not on a CW show where I have to be taking water pills and fasting for a week; I just have to be a normal guy. I didn’t have to look perfect, so I was like, All right, I’m just going to forgive myself if I’m not as lean as I could be. This isn’t Arrow.

How do you think Girls has handled its portrayal of gay men?
Certainly what we get in this season, and where we got with Elijah in the last season, I feel really great about it. I mean, I started as a recurring character, and I think my role was what it was supposed to be as a funny sidekick. It was nice as I got a little more real estate in these episodes to explore him as a human person. I’ve really enjoyed getting to be a flawed person. I didn’t have to be like a likable gay; I could be a hateful gay sometimes and not have to work at representing everyone. I’m just this one jacked-up character. So I didn’t feel like I had to be a poster boy for anything, which was nice. And that’s what I like about all these characters, and sometimes it gets tricky when people are like, Well, what does it say about women? or What does it say about gay people? and it’s like, Well, it’s not about everybody. It’s just about these people, so we don’t have to represent everybody.

Photo: Victoria Stevens/Vulture

And I don’t think that should be the goal.
No. I worked on a show on NBC called The New Normal for a season that I was very proud of, but there was a different expectation on a network. Justin Bartha and I had to be a little more perfect; we had to represent a group, which was challenging.

It now feels like we were just a little too early to do that show, and there were a couple things that were tricky about that: There was a lot of pressure to be a likable, relatable gay couple that wasn’t going to be overly sexual or affectionate and that people were not going to be offended by in some ways. Look, I was coming from HBO, working on a show where anything goes, so I remember filming that episode in season two where Lena and I do coke, snorting lines off a toilet seat, and a month later I’m in L.A. doing an episode about buying baby clothes! It was just a much different feeling to get network notes. At HBO, I never experienced that, so all of a sudden to be receiving notes from the head of the network, I felt immediately, Oh, there’s a different pressure here.

Were the notes about toning things down or making things “more relatable”?
I think it was “more relatable.” Ryan Murphy is obviously a very powerful producer and creator, and we had [TV executives] Jennifer Salke and Dana Walden, who were huge champions of that show and very generous to us in terms of what we could do. But when it started airing, there was a need to make us more … I don’t know. I guess it’s relatable.

“Brought to you by the Human Rights Campaign.”
But that’s not what Ryan does. The pilot was very different from where we ended up because I was playing a version of him: a very over-the-top showrunner who’s wealthy and throwing money around. Ryan and his husband were going through the process as we were doing it. They got the surrogate, and all that was happening during the filming, so he was able to talk about those conversations. It’s a funny idea that that guy’s going to have a baby, but really, people, that’s not the most relatable character.

You’ve said before that coming out wasn’t a big deal for you. What was it like understanding your sexuality?
Uneventful, I have to say. I know a lot of people have a really hard time with it, and I don’t know why I didn’t, but I recognized from a very young age, like, 4 or 5, that I was in love with Maxwell Caulfield from Grease 2, and I wanted him to be my boyfriend. I never felt conflicted by it — that was the truth. I was going to be in love with a man, and there was really no hesitation of, “Maybe I’m bi.” I was just like, “Nope. I’m gay. That’s it.” I got nervous before I told my parents on the off chance that it did not go well, so I did not tell them — I mean, this was in the ’90s — until after graduating from high school. I think I graduated in May, came out to them in July, and then promptly moved to New York — just in case! And, of course, they were fine and they didn’t care and that was all. My whole family is very supportive. In the ’90s, the fear/assumption was AIDS — that coming out meant I was going to be vulnerable to getting this disease. I think my parents’ concern was, “Is this a thing that now you have to grapple with?” It was also because I came out the same year Matthew Shepard was killed. My mom had a hard time not with the gay part but with everyone else’s reaction around it. I remember my mom calling me after Matthew Shepard’s story came out, the day he was murdered. Here she is with a son the same age living in NYC, and I imagine that was very hard for her, having to worry about that.

Do you think that being out has affected the opportunities you get?
I will say I’ve been given an amazing set of opportunities that have not been affected by my sexuality at all — or that have helped me. I remember sitting with Ryan Murphy in a meeting when I was still in The Book of Mormon. I knew he’d sold a show about two gay dads having a baby, because somebody at NBC told me, but that was all I knew about it. I was being interviewed for a job on Glee, and I just flipped the conversation and said, “I hear you got this other show,” and I really pitched myself hard, saying, “You should hire a gay person to do this, not a straight person, and here’s why I should get the job.” I had a moment of real ballsiness because I felt that way, and I still feel that way: If you’re going to tell that story, hire a gay guy.

Something I like is that you play gay guys!
I do, too! It’s funny when people ask, “Is this limiting to you?” and I’m like, “It’s just the person’s sexuality. Why would that limit me?” There are all different kinds of gay people, so I get to play a lot of different gay folks, and that’s great. You don’t have to all be the same. No one ever asks Ryan Reynolds, “Hey, is it limiting that you always play straight people and have to fuck girls?” No, no one asks that! There are all sorts of different gay people, and I like playing them.

You’ve been with Elijah for six seasons now, and especially this last season, we see a lot of you. How do you think about the evolution of your character?
It’s been hard. Coming from the theater, you know what your given circumstances are every night and who your character is. You’re reenacting this one moment of their lives over and over, so you get really good at figuring out how to navigate it. TV was a huge adjustment for me because the script changes every episode and you have a different set of circumstances. You’re constantly having to figure out, “Who is this person in this moment, and how does he react to this now?” It’s definitely fun, but it’s a different challenge than I had been used to. For Elijah, it’s been really great that Lena and Jenni have given him more space to be human, because I think they didn’t initially expect me to be around as much as I have been. It was nice to be able to see, “Who is he, actually, apart from the one-liners and being a dick at times. Who is this guy and how does he feel about things?” Fleshing out the rest of that character took some time, but it’s been nice, particularly the fifth-season arc with Corey Stoll. That was a really great gift they gave me.

Were there things you wanted that you asked for, for your character?
I did. I asked for a romantic story line. I didn’t specifically ask for this last one, the auditioning thing, but once they established that, they were very nice about having me in to talk about my own personal audition experiences and taking what we could from my past and working that into Elijah.

Would you have sex with Elijah?
[Pause.] No. [Laughs.] I’d have a drink with him! I’d want to hang out with him! But I wouldn’t want to get too close. He’d be a little messy.

Was it your idea to sing “Let Me Be Your Star” at Elijah’s audition?
Yes, it was my idea. We had kicked around a bunch of different song ideas, and they asked me what I had sung at auditions and what would be realistic. You get 16 bars in those open calls, which is a pretty short amount of a song to sing, so you generally pick something that’s the showiest thing you could do. Jenni and I both really loved Smash, and it just occurred to me one day, “I should sing ‘Let Me Be Your Star.’ That’s the perfect audition song!”

It is.
Because it’s so thirsty! [Laughs.] I asked Jenni, and she said, “Absolutely.” We quickly figured out who had the rights and if we could even sing it because it’s HBO and Smash was an NBCUniversal show. But luckily we were able to get the rights to it, and [Smash composer] Marc Shaiman and his partner Scott Wittman wrote the music. Marc came to the set that day and watched me do it live, which was very sweet. He gave me my first job in Hairspray on Broadway, and [former Hairspray star] Marissa Jaret Winokur was in the scene playing the casting director. It was a very special and weirdly emotional morning because it was the culmination of a lot of work for me that all came together in that moment. We had never married my Broadway experience with the TV show, so to get to do it all at once and have Marc there was very special.

Do you have any horrifying audition stories?
So many horrifying ones! I was doing a production of Grease at the Westchester Broadway Dinner Theatre — don’t be jealous — and there were auditions for the non-Equity tour of Grease. I was brought in to audition for Doody, who sings “Those Magic Changes,” the part I was playing at the dinner theater, and I thought, Oh, I’m going to get this. I was 21. It was a Saturday morning. I was going to do two shows that day and then I had to run into this audition before going to the theater. I was so cocky about the fact that I was going to walk off with this job that I didn’t warm up, and I remember thinking when I started to sing, Oh fuck. This is not going to happen. I went for the big high note in that song, and I made the bold choice to just scream. So I did this weird like [screaming], and I thought it would be cute to pull it off, but I remember the casting director had her hands over her mouth, like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening.” It was really humiliating. Good lesson to learn at 21 that you always have to warm up and come to play!

That’s good to learn early on in your career!
Yeah! That was a bad one. After I was in Hairspray and Jersey Boys, the auditions got a little bit better. I remember auditioning for a Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie to be Conrad. It was me and Ben Walker at the callback together, so we just assumed it was going to be one of us. We did our dance, sang our stuff, and I didn’t really know Ben, but he was very nice. Then somebody else got it!

Does a certain camaraderie develop or is there a rivalry?
Both. There are certainly actors who I felt rivalries with, but then as time goes on, you realize that you have to keep your eyes on your own paper because everybody’s doing their own work. And eventually — hopefully — everybody’s working. Aaron Tveit and I both played the same part in Hairspray, so I felt, Oh, that’s my type, that’s who I’m going to be competing with. But when he was doing Catch Me If You Can and I was in Mormon, I was like, Oh, everybody wins. Everybody gets a chance to do their thing. That was a big moment for me to realize that I’m only competing with myself. And Aaron’s a nice guy.

Was there a role you remember losing out to someone for?
I was in Hairspray when they started casting Catch Me If You Can, and they wouldn’t even see me for it. They wouldn’t even audition me and then Aaron Tveit got it. I was like, “How is it possible they wouldn’t even see me, and you’re playing Link Larkin and you’re the same type, and they won’t see me?” That was a weird one. But Mormon was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It really put a lot into perspective and gave me great opportunities. That was the one I really wanted and that I got.

Was that was your big break?
Absolutely. There are different versions of breaks that happen along the way, but that one was obviously the thing that changed my whole life. It’s interesting to me that I had been kicking around on Broadway for a while and nobody was really giving me the opportunity. You know, I was unconventional. I remember directors going, “Well, he’s funny, but he’s not leading-man funny. There’s something off about it.” But Trey Parker recognized that and was like, “Let’s give it a shot.”

That’s what’s so great. You have a classic corn-fed look —
But there’s a darkness. [Laughs.] And that’s what Trey and I really bonded over. I think there’s this idea that people from the Midwest have a blandness to them, but they’re really the most fucked-up people, particularly if you come to a larger city from the Midwest. There’s just something damaged about you! He really enjoyed that, and we both bonded over the fact that there was something else there.

Now that Girls is wrapping up, what’s next on your horizon in terms of what you want to do?
It’s interesting, reading what’s getting made. This is a great time to be working in TV because a lot of different stories are being told, and there are a couple of things that I’m excited about and hopeful that they will come together in the way they’re supposed to. I’ve been so lucky with Lena and Jenni that I guess I’m looking for, or hoping for, a collaboration on the level I had with them. I had a great deal of input and felt ownership of that character, getting to tell stories that are real, flawed, and complicated. I guess I’m looking for that.

Are there people you want to work with?
Definitely. I’ve always been a huge fan of Tina Fey’s. She’s a very unique storyteller and has such a great voice and sense of character and comedy, and manages to do things that are oftentimes very broad, but still have a lot of heart to them. Her shows really remind me of the TV I watched as a kid, that classic half-hour comedy.

What kinds of characters have you been offered? Do you think the roles are better?
There are good scripts and scripts that are a little simplistic. I’ve been offered a lot of gay besties recently, and they’re not all created equal, so that’s tricky. But there are a lot of really great scripts out there, too, and there are a lot of fantastic writers telling very unique and personal stories. But yes, on top of that, there are also a lot of one- and two-dimensional gay friends, just being drunk and sassy. And I’ve done that for a while.

There’s so much pressure on a show about gay men to be “great” in this way that feels impossible, like there was on Looking.
Too much pressure. I experienced that with Lena too — that Lena is somehow supposed to represent every young woman, and that’s not what she set out to do. She never claimed that. I remember the clip of her in the pilot that’s so funny, when she says “I may be the voice of my generation,” there was a confusion that she was saying that about herself, and she wasn’t — her character just had that very stoned realization talking with her parents. I think Looking had some of that, too. These guys are just telling a story about these people! They’re not supposed to represent every gay man in America! It’s just this group of friends, that’s all.

Lena often explains her thought process around controversial decisions or comments she’s made. Is that something you’ve learned from her?
I’ve learned so much from watching how she deals with criticism — of excusing yourself from the conversation. She never claimed to be a spokesperson for all young women. That’s Taylor Swift’s job.

I know you’re friends with Zachary Quinto. Is there a gay group text among actors?
Yeah! [Laughs.] Recently, I was out with Zach and Matt Bomer and Jim Parsons and Jonathan Groff. Like, you see these people who have all moved to the same city — Tituss Burgess is another one — we’ve all known each other for a long time. It goes back to the thing we talked about earlier, Who are you competing with? It’s really great to see your friends succeed, particularly since we’re gay men and none of us are being held back. It’s nice to be able to look around and say, “Oh yeah, all these people have been my friends for a long time, and they’re having a great moment now.” So yes, there’s a secret society of gay men.

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Andrew Rannells Is Happy to Play Gay Men