Andrew Rannells isn’t just a triple threat, he can now be crowned a quintuple one. The Broadway veteran — who is not only an actor, singer and dancer, but also an author — has recently added directing to his resume, coming a long way from his first major role in New York, a Radio City production of “Pokemon Live!.” “If you don’t count Westchester Broadway Dinner Theatre,” he quipped.
We sat down with Rannells over Zoom just before the premiere of Season 2 of “Modern Love,” one of the first productions filmed in New York post-COVID lockdown, where he made his directorial debut. For the Amazon original series based on the personal essays published in that section of the “New York Times,” he worked on the episode inspired by his own poignant piece, “During a Night of Casual Sex, Urgent Messages Go Unanswered,” featured in the column in 2017. In the story, Rannells, who was 22 and living in Astoria at the time, is on a second date and neglects to answer his Nokia flip phone multiple times, and when he finally does, learns that his sisters were trying to get in touch because his father collapsed and was in a coma in the hospital.
The Omaha, Nebraska native got his breakthrough role in “The Book of Mormon,” where he originated the role of Elder Price, earning a Tony nod for his work. His diversified Broadway repertoire includes “Hamilton,” “Jersey Boys,” “Hairspray” and “Falsettos,” for which he earned his second Tony nomination. It came as no surprise when he successfully made the leap from stage to screen, with parts in TV series such as “Girls,” and “The New Normal,” and films like “The Prom” and “The Boys in the Band,” where he began a lasting love story with his costar-turned boyfriend Tuc Watkins. “But it is odd — the first time that we ever kissed was for work. So that’s weird,” he explained. “That’s the life of an actor though, I suppose.”
What surprised you about being on the other side of the camera?
I was pleasantly surprised about things that I hadn’t really expected as either a director or a writer of this episode — what the actors brought to the table, which was really great. I was very lucky that I was able to cast a handful of my friends in roles in this episode, because I knew I was going to be very nervous and they’re very talented actors and very successful in their own right. And it was great to have them there. But the two leads on the episode, Zane [Pais] and Marquis [Rodriguez], I did not know, and I loved their auditions and we met on Zoom and did a little bit of a chemistry read. And they were both so great. But they brought things to this episode that I couldn’t even imagine — just depth and warmth and humor. I was just so blow away by both of them; they were the greatest surprise of this whole process.
I was working at the Amazon bookstore when the book “Modern Love” came out. I finally read it during the pandemic and your story resonated, because I’m dating in New York and it’s always that question of “Do I answer my phone?” What was it like revisiting that for the show?
It was a little hard to go back and sort of relive some of the mistakes that I made at 22. That was tricky. But there was also some distance between, not only time, but I was able to expand this episode and create characters rather than it be strictly a version of events from that night, so I felt a little more removed as a storyteller from it, which was good.
When this happened, this was in 2001, I think I had, as most people did, a very different relationship with their phone. I think now everybody has their phones on them all the time and in front of them and we can do so much more with our phones. I had a very basic flip phone at this time that did not get text messages because no one was texting at this time. So it really was just a phone, which, sometimes, I miss. I miss just having a phone. And not all of the stuff that comes with it. I did debate at one point about, “Well, does this have to take place in 2001?” Because if this happened today, I would read a text message that says, “Hey, it’s urgent, call me back right now.”
So you were living in Astoria at that time. Was that your first apartment in New York?
My first apartment in New York was in Brooklyn Heights. And then I was on 125th and Broadway. I lived there for a while. And then this was my first apartment alone. It was a sublet, so it wasn’t really my apartment and it wasn’t my furniture, it wasn’t my stuff. It was in Astoria, on 30th Ave. and 35th Street. I loved it and at that time, there were a lot of young actors living there. Now it’s significantly gone up in rent, but at the time, it was more affordable. So I was surrounded by a lot of young people my age who also were pursuing acting.
When did you find out you landed the role in “The Book of Mormon?” How old were you?
I was 31. And I was cast in a workshop. It was a really quick audition process. The only thing that was very different and then I knew it was going to be a unique experience was that they flew me to Los Angeles to read with Josh Gad [who originated the role of Elder Cunningham] and meet with Trey Parker and Matt Stone [the musical’s writers and composers]. And that’s when I was like, “Well, Broadway doesn’t normally fly people anywhere. This is a big deal.”
Shifting to “The Prom,” I went to a Catholic high school in Queens; you went to a Catholic high school in Nebraska. So did you go to your prom?
I sure did. I went to a lot of proms. Starting freshman year, I started getting asked to proms. Because I went to an all-boys’ school, but there were four all-girls’ schools in Omaha and all those girls needed dates, and I guess they felt like they could only take Catholics. And I liked to dance and I wasn’t gonna feel you up, so I was like a slam-dunk prom date — so respectful, looked good in a tux, got a good corsage, didn’t try to do anything with you. So I was very popular; I went to a lot of proms.
In “The Boys in the Band” you worked alongside Jim Parsons. What was he like to work with? I’m a huge “The Big Bang Theory” fan, so I’m just curious.
So is my mother, and my mother was so excited about that. And I was excited — I had met Jim before and we had hung out, but I couldn’t really say that I knew him really well. But then, we just really hit it off when we were in rehearsals and became very close. And then when we got to Broadway, our dressing rooms were next to each other, so Jim and I would come to work obscenely early sometimes just to hang out. And usually what would happen is he would come into my dressing room and we would read the newspaper together and have our coffee ... and just be like, “Oh, did you see that? There’s a fire in the subway.” And just like talk to each other like some old couple, which was so much fun.
To read Andrew’s Modern Love piece that the episode is based on, visit: www.nytimes.com/2017/07/28/style/modern-love-a-night-of-casual-sex-and-urgent-messages.html
All eight half-hour episodes of Modern Love are available on Prime Video on August 13
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