“It’s a real gift,” Andrew Rannells says of his role as Bryan Collins in the eagerly anticipated NBC sitcom The New Normal. “To go from being scrappy and taking what chances are given to you to relaxing and having the opportunity to choose projects is really lovely.”
The busy 33-year-old sounds completely sincere while speaking by phone from his Manhattan apartment. The suddenly in-demand actor is taking a short break from the hectic pace of filming HBO’s hit dramedy Girls during the day, while at night finishing his long run in the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.
There will undoubtedly be many more opportunities to choose from when The New Normal premieres in September. Rannells stars alongside Justin Bartha, who plays David; the two are a well-heeled gay couple preparing to have a child with the help of a sweet surrogate (Georgia King), despite the objections of her comically bigoted grandmother, played with great zest by Ellen Barkin.
The two gay dads scenario of the series not only taps into the cultural zeitgeist, it comes with an impeccable pedigree. It was conceived and developed by Emmy Award–winning hit-maker Ryan Murphy, on a long winning streak after Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story, and Glee writer Allison Adler, and it costars The Real Housewives of Atlanta’s breakout star, NeNe Leakes, as the unrestrained assistant to Rannells’s character.
Surprisingly, though, the comedy was developed as a vehicle for Rannells rather than the better-known Bartha, familiar from his work in hit franchise films The Hangover and National Treasure. In May 2011, Murphy caught a performance of The Book of Mormon, the giddy, potty-mouthed Broadway musical hit from the creators of South Park. Rannells portrayed Elder Price, a golden-boy missionary sent to disease-racked Uganda. It’s an indelible portrayal that earned Rannells a Tony Award nomination as Best Actor in a Musical as well as throngs of adoring fans and backstage hugs from celebrity admirers such as Goldie Hawn. The writer-producer immediately recognized the actor’s potential.
Above: Rannells performs his showstopper “I Believe” in The Book of Mormon.
“My Spidey sense told me that he’s a really big breakout star and I should write something for him,” Murphy recalls. “It’s very rare to find a leading man who’s that funny and good-looking. I knew I’d use him in something.” Murphy called Rannells and made a deal with him. “I pitched him the new show I was working on and he loved it,” Murphy adds.
Murphy wasn’t the only creative wunderkind to take an interest in the Mormon poster boy. Lena Dunham, flush with the success of her acclaimed indie Tiny Furniture, had recently landed a deal with HBO to write and produce Girls, another zeitgeist-y series, described as a recession-era answer to Sex and the City, and was looking to cast Elijah, the gay ex-boyfriend of Dunham’s character Hannah.
“Lena and Jenni [Konner, executive producer for the series] came to opening night and asked me to read,” Rannells says about his casting. “He was originally written as a yoga instructor, I recall. It wasn’t really me. Very graciously, Lena and Jenni let me tweak it to fit me. That, he says, repeating a signature phrase, “was a real gift.”
Above: Rannells anticipates a pregnancy with Bebe Wood, Justin Bartha, and Georgia King in NBC’s The New Normal.
Two buzzy television series and a hit Broadway musical must have seemed like impossible dreams to Rannells as a kid in Omaha, where he was the fourth of five children in a close-knit Catholic family. However, Rannells developed a desire to perform as a young boy, due in no small part to his mother’s love of Broadway cast albums and his father’s fondness for classic films.
“My dad showed me a lot of MGM musicals and a lot of Betty Grable movies,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was also lucky enough to grow up in a town that had a great children’s theater. It was very fun for me.”
Serendipity came when casting directors visited Omaha searching for vocal talent for a Saturday morning animated series. Rannells was hired, launching a lengthy side career in voice work that included the Pokémon series. It gave him a paycheck that would help subsidize his stage aspirations when he moved to New York.
Before he left the Midwest for college and the bright lights of New York, Rannells wanted to begin his new life with a clean slate. Upon graduating from high school, he officially came out to his family, who he says couldn’t have been more supportive.
“I came to New York and had a fresh start with college,” he says, looking back. “I was gay and that’s what I presented to a new group of people as I moved here.” Being open about his sexual orientation didn’t compromise his career opportunities. The actor’s matinee-idol good looks served him well, and within a few years he’d been cast in plum roles in the musicals Hairspray and Jersey Boys.
“I continue to be so fortunate, particularly in the past year,” Rannells says about never having been in the closet professionally and never having to make a big public pronouncement. “It could have been an issue in The Book of Mormon, but it was never brought up. No one cared that I’m gay.”
His openness likely even aided his being cast in his two series.
“To play a really well-thought-out and developed gay character on Girls has been fantastic,” Rannells offers. “Then to have Ryan Murphy come along with this fantastic, really heartfelt, very self-possessed and normal gay man, that’s a real gift.”
Murphy, who helped make household names of out actors such as Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch, predicts equally big things for Rannells.
“I think Andrew is a star,” Murphy says. “I think this show is the next step for him. He’ll be widely seen and then he’ll get movie roles.” When they tune in to The New Normal, viewers won’t see more neutered gay men, as has often been the case with network characterizations. Murphy insists he won’t skimp on the romantic and sexual lives of Bryan and David. He even cast the relatable leading men to make this reality more palatable to mainstream viewers.
“With a show like this you need someone likable like Andrew to take you on this journey,” Murphy says. “I feel like a proud papa and want to show him off and make sure he gets the right material and gets a chance to shine.”
In an election year and with LGBT equality still such a divisive issue, there must be pressure on Rannells to represent as a gay man portraying a gay father-to-be.
“I feel like there’s responsibility with any character you’re playing to flesh them out and make them as realistic as possible,” he admits. “As a gay man I put responsibility on myself to make sure the characters read as real people. That doesn’t mean that Elijah on Girls can’t be an asshole, that he can’t act like a petulant child.”
Rannells hopes viewers will respond not only to the provocative comedy in The New Normal but also to the show’s message.
“Gay or straight, the family dynamic has very much changed based on who’s around to raise the kid,” he says. “Because of divorce or financial reasons there are all sorts of people who have to pitch in to help raise kids.”
Children of his own aren’t in the immediate picture for Rannells, who is in a happy relationship with someone he prefers to keep anonymous.
“I go back and forth,” he says about becoming a father himself. “I haven’t made up my mind. Maybe this show will tip the scales when we start acting with a baby.”
Watch a clip from The New Normal below.