Photograph by Jackie Nickerson; Styled by Elin Svahn.
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."
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.