Andrew Rannells on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen, and Acting in His Underwear
The Black Monday actor talks going from The Book of Mormon to Girls and beyond.
Whether you know it or not, chances are that you see Andrew Rannells every day. Whether you live in New York City, Los Angeles, or in the middle of nowhere, The Book of Mormon craze has surely hit, and those figures on the poster? That’s Rannells. The actor originated the lead role of Elder Price in 2011 on Broadway, and has since made his move to television, starring most famously as Elijah on Girls and, now, as Blair Pfaff on Black Friday—a role that just so happens to remind him of his Broadway roots. ” It was a character that really reminded me a lot of the character Elder Price that I got to play in The Book of Mormon and I was excited to get to play a version of that guy again,” he says. “I was excited about this idea of being a foil to somebody who was this very larger than life character.” Here, Rannells talks about starting out on Broadway, working with Lena Dunham, and his most memorable birthday.
When did you move to New York?
I moved to New York in 1997. I wanted to move to New York since the third grade, I think is when I decided. I had never been to New York, but I knew basically from television, that that’s where I belonged. There wasn’t a specific show or anything that really made me want to come here, but a lot of those shows that I did watch, I later learned were filmed in Los Angeles, so what was a bit of a mind fuck.
What was the first thing you auditioned for in New York?
My very first audition in New York was for Rent. It was to be a replacement in Rent on Broadway. So, the show had just opened in 1996, I moved her in ’97 and I took some advice from someone. they told me the best way to get a Broadway audition if you did not have an agent, which I did not, was to take your headshot and resume to various Broadway theaters and leave them at the stage door for the stage manager, which is not a thing. That’s actually not how that works, but I did it. I took my headshot and my little resume and I dropped it off and low and behold Rent called and they asked me to come in and audition for Angel. I thought of myself as a Mark or a Roger, but no, they wanted to see me for Angel. I did not get the part. Wilson Cruz got the part.
I went in very unprepared. I’ll tell you the story. It’s not a great one. So, they asked me to sing two songs from the show, and I prepared my songs. I already knew the whole score. I went in and I sang my first song and the casting assistant kept looking at me and then she would look at my head shot and then she was looking at me and she was looking at the head shot. And after I sang, she was like, “You have a great voice” and I said, “Thank you” and she said, “Um, what’s your mix?”. And I thought she meant my vocal mix and I was like, “I don’t know. Like a C?” And she was like, “No no no no, where are your ancestors from?”. And I said, “Poland and Ireland?” and she looked at my head shot and she said, “So, you’re not Asian at all?” and I said, “No.” I thought I looked more like a lesbian realtor in my headshot, but she thought I was Asian. So, that was my last audition for Angel. But then they started calling me in for Marks and Rogers. I was never cast, but they did start calling me in.
Your first big show was Hairspray.
Yes, my first Broadway show was Hairspray. I played the pivotal role of Fender, who is one of the nicest kids in town. He wore glasses, which was his big character trait, and that was about the end of my character. I was the tall one who wore glasses. But, I understudied Link Larkin and Corny Collins and a track called the “male authority figure,” that at that point was being played by Jim J. Bullock, and I actually went on for that track and I played all the character parts. It was a sad night on Broadway, when I would go on for that part, because I was 26 playing the President of the Hairspray company with a bunch of wigs on and stuff. And then I eventually got to replace Link Larkin. So, I played Link Larkin for half of the time that I was there.
And then you took everyone by storm with The Book of Mormon.
Still to this day, that’s me jumping [on the poster]. It was three hours on a trampoline, of me just jumping around doing that.
How did that lead to Girls?
The opening night of the Book of Mormon, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner were in the audience and I did not meet them that night, but they called me in to read for a part that I was not really right for. It was a very different physical type, but I went in and I figured I’ll meet with them and they just sort of let me. They were like, “Well, just do whatever and play around and make it your own.” So I did, because I figured, “Well, there’s no way I’m getting this because I’m not right for it.” He was supposed to be a bearded yoga instructor and I was like, “Well, I can’t do that,” but they cast me anyway, which was very nice. It was supposed to be just one episode, but we really just hit it off.
It was the first time we had ever spoke dialogue on television. I had one other job on TV which was a headless stripper on Sex and the City in season four, I think? They didn’t show my head, it was just me in speedo grinding with another guy, and you never saw my face. So this was the first time I had ever spoke lines on television, so I was very nervous, but Lena made me very comfortable and we just had a really good time playing around. We improvised half of the scenes. We were just making up stuff and making each other laugh and then they kept asking me to come back.
You’re in your underwear for half the time on Girls. Was that difficult?
It was difficult in the beginning. My first nude scene was in season two, and so by that point I was very comfortable with everybody on the set and I knew everybody, but I had not been naked yet. So they just really sort of tossed me in and I had to be naked. Then after that, I don’t know, I got oddly comfortable with it. The number of times I would show up to work and there would just be a pair of underwear on a hanger, just clipped to a hanger, I was like, “Okay, this is what we’re doing.”
Natasha Lyonne, Michelle Williams, Billy Porter, and More Stars Bringing Television To New Heights
The working title of our show was not Fosse/Verdon—it was just Fosse, but then the producers got smart. They realized that Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse were romantic and creative partners who remained entangled until the end of his life. It was the right time, in 2019, to make a show about a partnership. It was also the first time that I’ve had pay parity with a male costar and equal space to voice my thoughts. I’d never experienced anything like it. Since I felt completely supported, I could jump higher and take more risks.
You started acting as a child. Did you find that people treated you—and continue to treat you—in a diminishing way?
Absolutely. When you’re physically small, when men hug you, they pick you up off the floor. That doesn’t happen anymore.
What’s your favorite Fosse musical?
Cabaret. When I performed the song “Maybe This Time” [on Broadway, in 2014], it never didn’t get to me. I’m sad that I’ll never sing it again. Musicals are deep in me: When I did a tap dance for Fosse/Verdon, I realized it returned me to this very primal love, before anything negative was associated with acting, work, or identity. I felt like I was a little girl. It was a genuine moment of joy.
Williams wears a Louis Vuitton turtleneck, skirt, belt, and boots.
I started out doing stand-up comedy at U.C. Davis and then moved to San Francisco, which has one of the most interesting comedy scenes in the country. In comedy, we’re all mutants and we share these different superpowers. Early on, I learned that humor is a way to break tension. It’s a very powerful tool.
Is it easier for you to be autobiographical or political?
I came from The Daily Show, where you are steeped in politics and the news. It’s your life, day in and day out. But for me, as an Indian-American Muslim, I always felt this insider/outsider relationship with America. And because of my background, at this moment in time, the personal and the political merged.
Do your parents worry when your show takes on Saudi Arabia?
Sure. That episode was banned in Saudi Arabia, and my parents said, “We don’t want you causing international outrage and controversy.” They said, “Please just tell embarrassing stories about your childhood.”
Minhaj wears a Prada jacket, pants, and belt; Jil Sander shirt; Shinola bracelet; Dior Men boots.
I honestly didn’t know much about witchcraft before starting on Sabrina, but now I realize it’s just dudes being scared of women and their power.
You were a child on Mad Men. Have you finally seen the episodes you were too young to watch?
I have now seen Mad Men. I can say I’m a fan, but it’s weird to watch your 6-year-old self. Oftentimes, while I was watching, I’d forget that I was in the show. So many things happened to Sally on Mad Men before they happened in my real life: My first kiss was onscreen; I got my TV period before my real period. I was prepared for everything because on Mad Men Sally was a little ahead of me. She taught me the ways of the world.
Shipka wears a Chloé dress; Isabel Marant belt; Cartier ring.
Tell me about kissing Chris Hemsworth.
I was on the shoot for Bad Times at the El Royale, and I still hadn’t met Chris. He played a cult leader, and I was his devoted follower. I knew he was on set, and I wanted to meet him because we had a kissing scene that day. At the last minute—we still hadn’t met—we were about to make out, and I’m like, “How many kids do you have? Oh, you have three kids,” and then—“Action!” He was really nice, but it was super-awkward, and they ended up dropping the scene from the film.
You cut your hair very short for Devs. Is androgyny part of your character?
Yes. The show has to do with a tech company. Secret stuff. My character is really smart and knows quantum physics, so that’s kind of like a superpower. I was supposed to shave my head for the part, and I was always down for that. I think I’m going to shave it all off anyway: I’m so into being bald.
Spaeny wears a Bottega Veneta sweater; Sophie Buhai earrings; Tiffany & Co. ring (right hand); Cartier ring (left hand); Manolo Blahnik shoes.
My first part was in a film called Complicity. I played a boy who gets raped and then kills his rapist. I was 11 years old. It was baptism by fire.
In your TV projects, you seem to undergo torture or get killed a lot.
I love a good death, and I’ve had a few really good demises in my time. On Game of Thrones, I was killed at the Red Wedding. That was my favorite death: full of arrows and then they cut off my head. I was covered in blood and my limbs were hanging off.
Do you have any surprising secret skills?
No. I went to drama school to learn all those skills, and then I was like, “I ain’t going to sing or dance in films, so I’m not going to singing or dancing class. And I can’t be bothered with the fencing class, because I won’t be fencing.” Cut to: I have been sword fighting for half my life and now I’ve had to sing and dance. This is why you should go to class. Kids: Stay in school.
Madden wears a Givenchy jacket; Calvin Klein Underwear tank top; Dries Van Noten pants; Shinola bracelet; Dior Men shoes.
My agent called me and said, “They’re casting a show about a women’s wrestling television program in the ’80s.” I said, “I want that job!” However, I very quickly learned that the producers didn’t think I was right.
Why? Too petite?
Yes, but I’ve secretly been strength training for years. After four auditions, I wore them down. And yes, I’ve learned how to wrestle and throw women across a ring. It’s incredibly empowering.
Do you ever practice by beating up your husband?
I don’t ever beat up my husband. I’ve been known to wrestle our cat a little bit. He doesn’t love it.
Brie wears a Givenchy sweater and skirt; Balenciaga boots.
When I was 12, I was washing dishes at home and the Tony Awards came on. It was the year Dreamgirls was up for best musical and Jennifer Holliday sang “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” I was in shock: all of these beautiful black people in high fashion with gowns and hair and makeup. At that time, you didn’t see a lot of people of color on television, dripping in style. And Jennifer Holliday sang like I knew how to sing in church, except she was on television! The connection of money, style, and television launched me into this space where I thought, That’s what I’m going to do. I can be that.
How did Pose come about?
They called me in to play the dance teacher. I was like, “Well, this ain’t quite the role I want, but…” I told them at the audition that I felt I’d lived through the world of Pose. I said, “Wouldn’t you need a father figure in the ballroom world?” Because one of the things that’s so powerful about Paris Is Burning [which influenced Pose] is that it’s about a marginalized group of people who had nothing in a world where people were dying of AIDS. And they chose life anyway. I wanted to tell that story.
Porter wears a Thom Browne dress and shoes; Wolford fishnets; his own jewelry.
I moved to California from London because I wanted to be happy. My very first audition was for The Good Place, and it went great: I am now on a show opposite Ted Danson, my hero. As a young girl, I always fancied Ted! Is that creepy? Am I creepy? But, my Lord, he’s still so hot.
Were you on social media before the show began? You currently have 2 million followers on Instagram.
The Good Place asked me to join Instagram, and now I use it to scream at people [laughs]. In all honesty, I think I’ve found a genuine community of people online who are tired of being erased. I understand being challenged: The bravest thing I’ve done in my life was move to Los Angeles, even though I was told I was too old, too fat, and too ethnic. I had no contacts and no friends in L.A. But I got on a plane anyway and flew to California to have an acting career. This had to work: I’m not talented at sex, so I couldn’t be a porn star. And I have no upper body strength, so pole dancing was out.
Jamil wears a Sacai coat; Prada boots.
For my sweet 16 party, my parents knew I loved The Book of Mormon so they had Andrew Rannells, who was one of the leads in the show, come and perform. It was literally the best moment of my life.
You were named after the kooky octogenarian in the film Harold and Maude.
Yes. As a joke, my dad started calling me Maude when my mom was pregnant, and it stuck. I do love that movie.
Do you ever sing any of the Cat Stevens songs from that film when you do karaoke?
No. I sing “The Confrontation” from Les Misérables. I love musical theater. The first album I really listened to was Hairspray, and the first thing I auditioned for was Grease. I was Jan, one of the Pink Ladies. I got to sing in a musical, and I had never been happier.
Apatow wears a Dior jacket, top, and pants; Cartier earrings, necklace, and ring.
I had not listened to the Dirty John podcast, but I heard friends talking about it obsessively. Two days later, my agent asked me, “Have you heard of Dirty John?” That was exciting to me: I love things that are creating conversation in the culture.
Your character, Debra, is both intriguing and infuriating.
I never judge my characters. I looked at playing Debra as almost a women’s studies project. She was self-made and had raised a family by herself, but she had this Achilles’ heel: She needed to have a man in her life. As horrible as it got for Debra, she thought she could handle and change that man. As the show goes on, she becomes more and more aware. We reflected that awakening in her clothing: In the beginning, she wears pink and light colors. And as the situation with John becomes more and more extreme, we go darker. By the end, she’s in black.
You were in a happier marriage on Friday Night Lights.
Kyle Chandler [who played Coach Taylor, her character’s husband] and I really fought for that marriage. Right from the beginning, we said to the writers, “Don’t make one of us go and have an affair.” I think the audience really appreciated that.
Growing up, who did you have a crush on?
Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I. The short shorts. The floral shirts. He was a sexual fantasy. I actually auditioned to play his wife in something. I remember thinking, No, Tom Selleck was a grown-up when I was a little girl. So that didn’t happen.
Britton wears a Stella McCartney shirt; Loro Piana skirt; Bulgari earrings; Tiffany & Co. wrap bracelet worn as necklace; Cartier ring; Tom Ford belt; Balenciaga shoes.
In The Loudest Voice, which is about Roger Ailes and Fox News, I play Laurie Luhn, who was a booker for the shows. To play her, we worked with very orange makeup and a look that was curated by Roger Ailes: the tight, the bright, the overly revealing. And legs. Lots of legs. There were no desks at Fox News, because with a desk, I suspect, you could get up to a lot of trouble underneath.
Do you have a secret skill?
I’m good with animals. When I was young, I wanted to live among animals. I liked sloths the best: That’s the animal I aspire to be like. A sloth just owns it. There’s great power in stillness.
Wallis wears an Isabel Marant top; Hermès skirt; Dior belt; Tiffany & Co. bracelet.
I am from Omaha, Nebraska, and I wanted to move to New York since the third grade. I had never been to New York, but I knew all about the city from watching television. I just knew New York was where I belonged. Later, I learned that most of those New York City shows like Friends and Seinfeld were filmed in Los Angeles. That was a bit of a mind fuck.
Was Girls your first part outside of theater?
No. I had another job playing a headless stripper in Sex and the City 2. It was just me in a Speedo grinding with another guy. On Girls, I played the ex-boyfriend who turned out to be gay and then became Hannah’s [Lena Dunham] best friend. My first nude scene was in season two. Suddenly, I would show up to work and there would just be a pair of underwear on a hanger. I was oddly comfortable with it.
Growing up, who did you have a crush on?
Maxwell Caulfield from Grease 2. He played Michael Carrington. He also played Miles Colby on Dynasty. Every day of my life is a hair tribute to Maxwell Caulfield.
Rannells wears a Dior Men coat and pants; Brioni turtleneck; Givenchy boots.
When I first read the script for You, I was not attracted to Joe, my character. I was like, “Oof—I don’t know.” He’s a villain, and yet he’s also an antihero. He’s seductive, but he’s a murderer. It’s fascinating that people—especially women—are drawn to this guy. The greatest challenge I have is not judging him. I don’t ever think of him as a killer. To him, murder is simply a means to an end.
Did you always want to act?
At the age of eight, I was in The Music Man, and I told my parents, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” When I was 12, my mom and I went to L.A. and I started working immediately.
Was your first kiss on camera?
No, but starting out so young, you’re always having to display sexuality before you’ve had those experiences. For You, I was tied up in bondage rope for the first and, so far, only time in my life. Look [shows his wrists], I still have rope burn. First time, and it’s on camera.
Badgley wears an Alexander McQueen coat; Boss T-shirt; Jil Sander pants; Sophie Buhai bracelet.
My big childhood claim to mediocre fame is Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I played Opal on that show when I was around 6 years old. I’d already done a bunch of commercials, and they didn’t all air. You want the ads to get on the air if you want to get your imaginary Lamborghini. Sadly, I didn’t get the Lambo.
You always had a smoky voice.
Yes, but thanks to a lifetime of smoking cigarettes—which they recently discovered are actually good for you—my voice has become thicker and deeper over the years.
In Russian Doll, you are asking existential questions.
I am curious about what it means to have a life. I imagined being at death’s door, looking back and asking, “What happened here?” I also recognize that it’s a nice thing to move from a disconnected life to a more connected one.
Who is your cinematic crush?
Recently, I watched Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, and Mamma mia! My boyfriend, Fred Armisen, was there. I took screen grabs of Viggo’s nude fight scene and told Fred the stills were for research. Usually, when I play this game, I think it’s best to pick dead people—to say, like, “Isn’t Peter Falk a babe on Columbo?” I’m also very disappointed to discover that Idris Elba and I did not get married. I think many women felt the same way.
Lyonne wears a Marni dress; Tiffany & Co. wrap bracelet worn as necklace, and bracelet.
Did your parents back home in Omaha have any reaction to this?
No. Thankfully, my father is dead, so he didn’t see that. He was spared watching his son do an awkward sex scene, so I’m grateful for that. My mother, we didn’t talk about it. I know that she watched it, but we never discussed it. She wanted me to be on the Big Bang Theory. If I could have been Jim Parsons, I think she would have been thrilled.
How did Black Monday come to you?
Initially, the script came to me through the shows creators, Jordan Cahan and David Caspe. They sent me the script, and I had never read anything quite like it before. It was in my final season of Girls and I was hoping to find another job on television. It was just such an original idea and it was also a character that really reminded me a lot of the character Elder Price that I got to play in The Book of Mormon and I was excited to get to play a version of that guy again. I was excited about this idea of being a foil to somebody who was this very larger than life character. So I agreed very quickly to be a part of it and it took a little while to get going, for all the pieces to sort of fall into place, but it was well worth the wait. I’m very happy and proud to be a part of it.
The glasses are a really nice touch for the character.
I love the glasses. I really pushed for the glasses. I was sort of going for a Michael J. Fox in the Secret of My Success idea or James Spader in Baby Boom was the other sort of look that I was chasing. It seemed very ’80s to me, to have these awkward glasses on, so that was a contribution of mine. They were asking me questions about the character and I was like, “Glasses, that’s what he needs!”
What is your karaoke song?
My general go-to karaoke song is “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. It’s one of my favorite songs. It was what I sang for most of my musical theater auditions. Whether it was appropriate or not, I sang that song.
Who was your childhood crush growing up?
Maxwell Caulfield, from Grease 2. He played Michael Carrington. Every day is still a hair tribute to Maxwell Caulfield.
Were you ever blonde?
Oh yeah. My mother used to when I was kid, she would buy us Sun In, my sister Natalie and I, she would buy us Sun In. And she also encouraged us to lay out in the sun, which if you don’t know what laying out is, it’s a very Midwestern to put baby oil on and then lay in your backyard until you’re tanned. My mother very much encouraged this, so I was blond for a long time. I went through a really terrible period in my early 20’s where I was getting highlights. I think sanity kicked in. I really got a good glimpse of myself in the mirror and I was like, “Wow, you look like an asshole. You can’t do that”.
What was your favorite birthday?
What was my favorite birthday? I can say my 40th was pretty great last year. I was on Fire Island. I was with my friend Cameron Adams and my friend Matt Risch and at midnight we were watching Showgirls. It was literally the gayest birthday ever, aside from just like sucking a dick at midnight.
What was your favorite Halloween costume?
I dressed up as the Pope in fourth grade. It was my grandmother’s idea, I believe? John Paul II was Polish, my grandmother was very Polish. She thought it was a great idea, so I dressed up as the Pope. That was my favorite, and then weirdly my favorite adult Halloween costume because it was so simple and I could not have foreseen that I would ever be playing this professionally, but I would dress up as a Mormon missionary. It’s a short sleeve dress shirt and a tie and you slick your hair down and you’re a Mormon missionary. It was the easiest costume ever. People weirdly fetishized the missionary, so I was very popular. I did it a couple times and then cut to, I was playing a Mormon on Broadway for a year and a half. I can’t bring myself to wear a short sleeved dress shirt anymore. I probably will at some point will be wandering 9th Avenue in a short sleeve dress shirt, begging people to recognize me, but I can’t do it right now.