After nabbing a Tony nomination for playing chipper Mormon missionary Elder Price in the blockbuster musical The Book of Mormon, Andrew Rannells found himself on the radar for a variety of TV roles. Earlier this year he delivered a hilarious supporting turn on HBO's Girls as Elijah, the (now gay) ex-boyfriend of Hannah (Lena Dunham). Now Rannells is headlining NBC's The New Normal, the latest series from Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy. Rannells stars as Brian, one half of a gay couple who hires a surrogate mother to have their child. During a break from filming, Rannells recently chatted with Broadway.com about working with Murphy, the controversy the show has caused before its premiere and his return to Girls.
Congratulations on The New Normal! So how exactly did you go from becoming a Broadway actor to leading one of the season’s most buzzed about series?
Ryan Murphy had come to see The Book of Mormon, twice actually, and I took a week last October to go out to L.A. and meet some folks before pilot season. I knew a lot of TV and movie folks had seen the show, but I hadn’t gotten to really have face time with them, so my agent and manager set up a lot of meetings. Much to my surprise, Ryan Murphy wanted to meet with me, so I was very excited.
Looks like the meeting went well!
I already had a meeting at NBC, and they told me about the script and said I would be great for it, so I should ask Ryan about the show. I was nervous to bring it up. He was surprised I had heard about it. He told me the story and I got very excited about telling this particular story with him. I’m such a huge fan of his, and felt like if anyone is going to tell this story honestly and with a lot of humor in a smart and current way, it’d be him. I didn’t hear from him for a month, and I was certain I had been too cocky and blew it. Then a month later, I went to see Follies, and as I was walking into the theater I got the call that I got the job. It was very surprising.
What's it like to work with Ryan Murphy? Just about every show he creates becomes an instant hit.
He’s great. He has a very clear vision and a distinct way of expressing what he wants. It feels very collaborative. All the actors get to kind of put our two cents in, but he has these really great ideas and knows how to get what he wants out of us.
Your character, Brian, is loosely based on Ryan. Is that nerve-wrecking?
Ryan and I found out we sort of had similar backgrounds. We both grew up in the Midwest, both set out to achieve goals that seemed unrealistic for kids from the Midwest, and we have a similar sense of humor, so it makes it easy to slip into this part. Brian is a lot of fun to play because he’s very confident. He really comes in and takes over. Ryan and [show co-creator] Ali Adler have written some incredible scripts that makes it very easy to live in this world.
It must be nice to have the handsome Justin Bartha as your TV husband.
We hit it off when we were filming the pilot. We never met when he was doing Lend Me a Tenor, but we have a lot of friends in common, so we kind of ran in the same circles, but never hung out. We slipped into our television couple pretty easily. I think we have a sort of Odd Couple routine going on, and it continues to develop as we go on. He is not gay—I’ll out him as a heterosexual—but he’s not self conscious at all about the gay stuff, which is great. It makes it easy to play those more intimate, relaxed scenes with him because he’s not uncomfortable at all.
You also get to go up against Ellen Barkin as the conservative grandmother of the surrogate mother.
Just wait! We have some great things coming up together. We find out pretty quickly that she and I have more in common than we think. I didn’t get to do a lot with Ellen in the pilot, so I’m glad we’ve been doing a lot together in the next few episodes. We met through the whole Tony process when we were nominated, and she, of course, won for The Normal Heart. Then we appeared on Watch What Happens together, which she really facilitated. They reached out to her and she suggested I join her on the show, which I was very flattered by. It’s going to be fun to play with her. She’s a riot.
The show has already attracted a fair share of controversy. Are you concerned about dealing with the response?
We’re all really excited about that. There are going to be questions about the story we’re telling, and the best way to do it is just hit it head on and address any sort of controversy. That’s where Ellen’s character comes into play. She’ll sort of represent what a lot of people in America still feel. There are a lot of people who disagree with gay marriage and gay parenting, and Ellen’s character is here to voice that. I’m happy we have that opinion shared in the show because it’s going to be out there, and Ryan doesn’t shy away from the controversy of that.
Were you able to film season two of Girls before leaving for Los Angeles?
I got to do a few episodes. I love [series creator and star] Lena Dunham so much. I was sad to have to cut my time short over there. It’s such a cool group of people. They’re so fun and collaborative.
Will Hannah and Elijah be at each other’s throats now that they’re roommates?
He and Hannah are exploring their friendship, but he’s still a little difficult. He hasn’t changed very much since the first season.
The Book of Mormon tour is currently in Los Angeles. Are you going to check out your friend Gavin Creel playing Elder Price?
I'm hoping to attend their opening night. I'm getting reports from Gavin and Jared Gertner that things are off to a great start, so I'm looking forward to seeing it.
You can also be spotted stripping in the movie Bachelorette, which just hit theaters.
It was very strange and really funny. [Writer/director] Leslye Headland is so hilarious. I knew I was going to have to do that scene, but wasn’t really thinking about it. Then all of a sudden I was on the set in a gold Speedo in front of Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, Rebel Wilson and about 20 extras. I just thought, "Well, now we’re doing it." I was doing The Book of Mormon at the time, so I was happy to take off my Mormon underwear for a few days and play a stripper!
The New Normal pilot premieres on NBC on September 10, followed by a new episode on September 11.