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

By Christopher Wallenberg
11 Sep 2012

Andrew Rannells
Andrew Rannells

Broadway's Andrew Rannells talks about struggling as an actor, hitting the heights in The Book of Mormon, jumping to TV jobs and what it's like to be out and proud in the post-"Ellen" period.

 

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Andrew Rannells has been on fire these past few years, thanks to his Tony-nominated breakthrough performance as an earnest Mormon missionary in Broadway's mammoth hit The Book of Mormon, a memorable recurring spot as Hannah's deliciously bitchy gay ex-boyfriend on HBO's hipster sensation "Girls," and a starring role on Ryan Murphy's buzzy new two-gay-dads sitcom "The New Normal," which premieres on Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 9:30 PM ET on NBC (the pilot has been seen On Demand in other formats in recent weeks). But Rannells' red-hot career isn't the only thing burning these days.

Centered on a gay male couple trying to start a family through surrogacy, "The New Normal" has already generated an incendiary reaction in some conservative quarters of the country. An NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City has refused to air the show, and several conservative boycotts have been announced. In response, Rannells' outspoken co-star, Twitter maven Ellen Barkin, further fanned the flames by tweeting a message admonishing the Utah station for airing a show like "Law & Order: SVU" (which depicts "rape and child murder," she wrote), while claiming that a series about "a loving gay couple having a baby is inappropriate."



A 34-year-old Nebraska native, Rannells popped up in Lena Dunham's polarizing "Girls" last season as Elijah, delivering pissy retorts like, "It was nice to see you. Your dad is gay," with a smirking bitch-face that would make Sue Sylvester (of Ryan Murphy's "Glee") proud. Rannells, who will return in season two of "Girls" for several episodes, reveals that Elijah will be moving in as Hannah's new roomie.

With "The New Normal," co-created by Murphy, Rannells is poised for an even bigger breakthrough. He plays the campy, image-obsessed Bryan, loosely based on Murphy himself. A producer on a "Glee"-like television series, Bryan convinces his sports-loving partner David (Justin Bartha), a gynecologist, that they should start a family. After an initially disastrous attempt to find a surrogate, the couple encounter Goldie (Georgia King), a single mom who fled Ohio with her eight-year-old daughter after discovering her boyfriend cheating on her. But Goldie's efforts to start a new life are caustically interrupted by her profane grandmother, Nana (Barkin), an acerbic Archie Bunker-esque bigot. Having tracked down Goldie in LA, she is aghast at her granddaughter's plans to carry a baby for two gay men. Matching her zinger-for-zinger is Rocky, Bryan's equally outspoken personal assistant, played by Real Housewife of Atlanta, NeNe Leakes.

We chatted with Rannells over the phone from the set of "The New Normal," where he was on a break from filming the fourth episode.

Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha
photo by Trae Patton/NBC

Gay characters are everywhere on television these days, even at the center of major network series like "Modern Family" and "Glee." But "The New Normal" feels trailblazing in a way because it's a broadcast network show specifically about two gay men trying to start a family. Was that one of the things that attracted you to the role when Ryan Murphy first told you about it?
Andrew Rannells: Oh yes, a hundred percent. I really loved the idea that it was going to be the story of this very committed gay couple and all the work it takes to start a family — and that they were going to show two gay men becoming parents from the very beginning. I thought it would be very exciting to be a part of a show that was telling a new story, particularly one that hasn't really been seen on network television. I mean, certainly there's no lack of gay characters on television these days. But it seemed very exciting that this particular story was going to be the main focus of the series. And I knew that if anybody was going to do it with a lot of heart and a lot of humor and a lot of integrity, it would be Ryan Murphy.

Are you happy about the way that the writers are depicting Bryan and David's relationship on the show — with real intimacy and affection between them?
AR: Absolutely. We get to show the beginning of this relationship; we also get to show the everyday life of this relationship; but most importantly, for me, was to show the start of this family and how much love and how much work and time it takes. Not to mention the finances, particularly for two gay men to start a family, which is something that I don't know if a lot of people understand. It's not a snap decision that a gay couple would make to have a child. As gay men, it's not like you're going to accidentally get pregnant or accidentally have a baby. So the process is a very difficult one. It's a tricky road — and an expensive one, quite frankly. It obviously takes a lot of thought and a lot of love to even begin that process. And I'm eager and happy to show that.

Does it feel like we're living in a watershed time where gay characters on television are front and center, from "Modern Family" and "Glee" to "The New Normal" and the upcoming CBS series "Partners"?
AR: When I was a kid, there were hardly any gay story lines or characters on television that I recall. Then when I was in college, "Will & Grace" started up. So yeah, I think the progression of gay characters on television is very exciting, and I feel honored to be a part of something that could potentially be a big game-changer for gay characters on television … I feel like we get to benefit from the success of "Will & Grace." That show blazed a lot of trails, obviously, and made gay characters comfortable for a lot of Americans who maybe thought they weren't comfortable with it. And now slowly, even since then, I think the tide has begun to turn for us.

As a gay man, have you thought about having kids? Has the show made the idea of starting a family seem more feasible to you? In what ways did you relate to him?
AR: If I was playing a character who was already a parent, I might have felt some more pressure to research what that is. But because Bryan is sort of experiencing all of it for the first time, I feel like I just get to go along for the ride with him, in terms of the development of the character. But as far as having kids myself, I haven't seriously thought about it. I've been pretty career-focused since moving to New York. But I do have seven nieces and nephews who I love very much, so that's good for right now. I'm not ruling out kids. But they are probably not in my immediate future.

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