STAGE TO SCREENS: Andrew Rannells, From The Book of Mormon to TV's "The New Normal"

By Christopher Wallenberg
11 Sep 2012

Rannells on "Girls."

Can you talk about the challenges that a Ryan Murphy series presents in terms of balancing biting, pop-culture-heavy humor and acerbic one-liners but also finding a real heart and soul to the story and characters?
AR: First of all, I think that he has a really good sense of who his audience is. Also, he's just a brilliant storyteller. So he knows when to make a joke and when to not go for the joke. Which is really impressive and really exciting. With our show, I think he's focusing on telling a very specific story. But in the specifics of that, it becomes a more universal one. So it's a story about this couple, and it's also a story about parenting and the fears of parenting and the fears of: "Are we doing the right thing?" Then within that, there's the story of our surrogate mother, her daughter, and her grandmother starting their lives over again. So people who wouldn't think that they could relate to these two gay men, Bryan and David, will be surprised that the challenges they face and what they go through as expectant parents is universal — even though maybe the genders or faces are not what you would expect. In the specificity of these stories, it becomes universal. Ryan also tells everything with a lot of heart. And I remember that from "Nip/Tuck" even. As crazy as some of those stories would become, he could reign it all back in to something very basic about family or about trust or about jealousy.

You had a recurring role on HBO's new series "Girls" last spring, and you'll be in the second season as well. I thought "Girls" was really compelling because it truthfully taps into the post-college years of one's early-to-mid-20s, when you're still fumbling around in the dark, trying to figure stuff out, and just screwing things up left and right. Your character got to New York and came screaming out of the closet. He's lurching from one extreme to the next and is in and out of intense relationships with different guys. In what ways did you identify with what the character is going through at that specific time in his life?

Rannells on "The New Normal."
photo by Jordin Althaus/NBC

AR: Well, I spent that period of my life in New York. So I very much related to the show. I mean, I'm almost 10 years older than most of those characters on the show. I turned 34 this week, and Elijah is meant to be 23 or 24. But I completely related to it — just the messiness of it all. I mean, maybe not the specifics of the activities. But certainly in the sort of flailing-ness of being that age — post-college or in college. You're trying to figure yourself out and what you need. And the whole time you're thinking that you're very self-actualized but you're really just fucking it all up. I definitely related to that experience. But it was nice to have a little distance from it — to get to play that role at the age I am now. It's good not to still be in the middle of it. But I have to say, Lena [Dunham] is the least flailing person I've ever met. And she is the age that she's playing on the show. But she's so, so wise and so together and so self-possessed and driven.

After the massive success of The Book of Mormon, were you looking to try your hand at TV and film projects? Was that a transition you were aiming to make, or did it happen organically?
AR: It just sort of happened. Although if I'm being honest, I think it's something that I was certainly hoping would happen. I was hoping it would be in the cards for me. But it's sometimes very difficult for musical theatre actors to make that transition. I had a hard time for years in New York even getting auditions for television shows, because everything on my resume was a musical. And I think that people perceived that as, "Oh, he's going to be too big and too broad for this. He's going to be too theatrical." I couldn't get seen for "Law & Order" to save my life. I think I'm still probably one of the only working actors in New York to have never been on any of the "Law & Order" shows. So with The Book of Mormon, that definitely opened up a lot of doors for me, because it brought a lot of eyes from L.A. to Broadway. Though I think Ryan Murphy has been the exception in that regard. I think he has always kept his eye on Broadway, and I think that his shows are evidence of that, with the cast of "Glee" — Matt [Morrison] and Lea [Michele] and then Jonathan Groff and Kristin Chenoweth. He pulled those folks from Broadway.