This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes actor, writer and director Andrew Rannells. Rannells recently wrote and directed an episode for season two of Amazon’s “Modern Love” based on a column he wrote for the series in The New York Times. His acting roles include the original Tony-nominated part of Elder Price in “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway, Elijah on HBO’s “Girls” and Blair on the Showtime series “Black Monday.” Rannells is also the author of a recent memoir “Too Much is Not Enough.” He tells The Treatment that he tries to imbue a sense of optimism in the characters he plays. Rannells says his Midwestern roots gave him a sense of self-sufficiency, but that that could be a double-edged sword. And he explains why acting in a scene with his “Black Monday” co-star Regina Hall is like magic.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. We know my guest from his role on "Girls" or perhaps the Tony winning show "The Book of Mormon" or another Tony nominated show "Falsettos." Currently, he's starring on the series “Black Monday” on Showtime. Some of these characters you play that might be the case of Blair, or certainly the case in "Hedwig" are people who try to figure out the relationship to the truth.
Andrew Rannells: Yeah, I think that's very true, and I feel like I'm on that journey with all of those people. I guess that's why I'm drawn to those characters that are all on that path and trying to figure out what is best for them and what is right for them. And, there's a lot of stumbling along the way, but I'd like to be on that journey with them.
KCRW: We see that being the case for "Book of Mormon" and so many of the things I've seen you do between "Falsettos" and then "Boys in the band" and "Book of Mormon" and certainly, again, Blair [on “Black Monday”]. I just wonder if you find that's something that's come to you, or is it something you bring to these characters.
Rannells: When I was cast in "The Book of Mormon," I had never really related to a character more than Elder Price. The second that I read it, I was like, Oh, I get this, and I understand how to do it. And I might not get cast. I might not get this job. But I know I'm very clear about how I would play this part. I even said that to Trey Parker when I was auditioning: this is just the way that I feel like it needs to happen, but if it's not for you, that's cool, which you rarely have as an actor, when you just have the confidence to walk in and be like, well, this is what I'm doing. I don't know what anyone else is doing. But I think I have a handle on this.
It reminded me of my early days in New York, moving from Omaha at 19. I don't want to say that I was stupid, but maybe I was stupid. I was naive enough to not be scared about the fact that I was moving from Omaha, Nebraska to New York City, and I was not terrified in the least. I was just so excited. And it was as if I was living in my own musical, quite frankly, that I arrived in Manhattan. I was like Peggy Sawyer from "42nd Street," and I was just like, "I'm here for everything!" It's sort of horrifying to look back on, that I was that optimistic, but I really was.
I don't know if you feel like this or if other people who left their childhood homes, and then they moved to cities in search of something. There's a lot of roleplay involved. I decided when I was a teenager that I was going to be a person that lived in New York City, and I didn't know what that meant, but I knew that I was going to try to do it. And there's a lot of pretending until you figure out who you actually are. I tried on a lot of different versions of who the adult me was going to be, and it took a while to find the authentic version. But, you sometimes have to do a little roleplay, I guess, and figure out what works and what's going to serve you best.
KCRW: You mentioned in the book that it's something as simple as no longer being Andy but becoming Andrew.
Rannells: Yeah, I was Andy my whole life, and then I had this realization, when I was auditioning for college scholarships to get into college programs in New York. I realized, when someone asked me what my name was, I realized that I could say anything. I could say “Peter” and no one would question me. So I say, well, I'm Andrew. And it was so liberating to say, I'm just gonna be a slightly different version of myself when I moved here. And nobody questioned that I was Andrew. Everyone back home called me Andy. But, that little change was very empowering. I think that also has to do with it being around the time that I came out. There was a lot of that at play as well.
KCRW: When you were talking about coming on as Blair, in "Black Monday," I feel like by this time where you are now, as much of that character is shaped by you, and you're also a producer on the show, as what the writers are coming up with.
Rannells: You're still an actor. You're still very much at the mercy of the writers and the showrunners, and you're not ultimately even in control of your own performance, because someone else edits it and puts it together. And there are moments and things that I don't recognize. When I watch "Black Monday," I'm like, well, that's not how I did it. Somebody else completely changed that. And I didn't really understand how you're just handing over your performance to somebody else until I moved to Los Angeles to start working on television, with Brian Murphy on "The New Normal."
I had left "The Book of Mormon," and, you know, as a theatre actor, really, you can kind of do whatever you want to do on stage. No one's gonna stop you. No one's gonna yell cut because you've got two and a half hours in front of a live audience where you're in total control of what you're doing. And it's very hard to then pivot to a platform where you can do certain things of what you're going for, and what you're trying, but then somebody else controls the outcome. It was quite an adjustment. But I would like to think that I do affect these characters. And I do inform these characters in terms of hopefulness or optimism. I certainly look for that when I'm looking for characters to play. But it doesn't always turn out the way you think it might.
KCRW: There's an aspect, especially in Blair, of we're almost backstage with him, especially in your scenes with Regina Hall, where we get to see that he's kind of two different people. It's such a great piece of writing in your book and just so direct, and also, interestingly, is observational and performative at the same time. And I just think about that schism in this character.
Rannells: No, it's very true. Like, he wants to be successful, but he doesn't know what that means for him to be successful. So he's just chasing whatever looks like success or whatever looks like wealth, and he's trying his best to look like that and be like that. That's a lot of certainly what Elder Price was, and in some ways, that's a lot of what Hedwig was. It's this chasing an idea rather than just being yourself.
KCRW: So many stage actors I know talk about that moment between stepping from the wings and stepping on the stage, and taking in the crowd and, you know, 30 seconds on stage, what the performance is going to be like, based on what the crowd reaction is. And I wonder if you find some way to fill that in, in a way that you wouldn't, had you not been trained as a stage actor, because some of the people that you work with on the show don't have the same kind of stage background as you.
Rannells: I just grew up doing theater. And when I moved to New York, the only thing that I wanted to do was theater. And it's a very specific work ethic. On "Black Monday," most of this cast has done extensive theater work at some point. So everybody sort of has the same work ethic. But when you come up against people that maybe are not theater trained and are not folks who know what is the discipline of doing eight shows a week and showing up like that, and performing on command like that. It is a little adjustment because I took for granted that everybody did the same thing that I did. And then you quickly learn, oh, no, not everybody did it that way. Not everybody came up obsessively listening to "Sweeney Todd," or "Into the Woods." Not everybody knows those lyrics. That doesn't play so well in Los Angeles, sometimes: the musical theater references.
KCRW: Well, you know, I'm one of those people who can actually name the original cast of "Into the Woods" because I actually saw it. That's how old I am. Watching you there is this sardonic take on being what people perceive to be an all American type. You talk about in the book when people ask you about being from the Midwest, you go, I never saw a cow, and yes, we did have a ton of gang violence.
Rannells: I remember when I was auditioning for "The Book of Mormon," and I don't remember who exactly asked, but we were in rehearsals and someone said, I don't think this show would ever play well in the Midwest. And Trey Parker was like, Well, I'm from the Midwest, and Rannells is from the Midwest, and we're both sick as f--k. So I think it's gonna be fine. Some of the most sardonic and the darkest humor people I know are from the middle of the country. They're not necessarily from the coast. So he was right.
KCRW: What we're talking about here is a humor that is maybe world weary. but not cynical.
Rannells: Yeah. I come from very stoic, Midwestern staunch folks that I think didn't have a lot of time to feel a lot of feelings, and they just sort of plow ahead. And I think that's where that humor comes from. You do have to laugh at even the darkest, saddest things that happened because what else can you do? You don't have time to wallow in anything; you just have to move ahead. And I think that's where that comes from, in my family, certainly.
KCRW: In the book, you're bringing a sense of humor or having a sense of humor about moments that could be really incredibly disturbing. The take that your grandmother gave you on life: that is something that has served you well.
Rannells: It has, and I think that my grandmother specifically taught me to move forward, to always stay in motion, and to not wallow, not dwell on negativity for too long, and that is a skill that has served may very well in a lot of ways and then in other ways has bitten me in the ass. It took a long time for me to understand that it is okay to ask for help. It is okay to maybe be vulnerable and to not always have the answers. What I saw as a kid was just to plow ahead as quickly as possible and just move forward and don't be a problem. And, some of that is great; some of those skills are very helpful, but it did take a while to untrain myself to not try to be so self-sufficient and to understand that it is okay to occasionally not have all the answers and to not know what's coming next.
KCRW: We should talk a little bit more about "Black Monday." You had a scene recently that was one of my favorite things that you’ve done, where you're standing with Regina Hall on a street. You're both pretending to be on payphones, but at a certain point, you just turn and talk to her, where you're addressing her directly and she almost never really breaks. It's like you're playing this thing with two points of view. I thought it was a really interesting way to play that scene.
Rannells: Oh, well, thank you. I love [Regina Hall] so much. I'm just obsessed with her, and I love working with her. And I feel so lucky that's my job, that I get to do scenes with her. And I was really disappointed with the writers that we hadn't come together sooner in this season. That was, I think, the third episode and I didn't have a single scene with her. And I was like: what is happening? Our characters need to be together, I don't understand why you're keeping us apart like that, and so they reluctantly wrote that scene into the show.
I do feel like it's one of my favorite scenes that I've gotten to do on that series just because it's fun to see them be flawed and human and vulnerable. And it's not like any crazy information is being shared in that conversation. It's just them wanting to be together. And I think that comes from the fact that Regina and I really did just want a scene together. We just wanted to be together. So I'm glad that it stuck out for you because certainly it's one of my favorites that I've gotten to do.
KCRW: As you said, not a lot of information is being exchanged there, but I just thought there's so much in there about being performative versus being observational, being bigger than life and being small in life and all these things that I feel like Blair is and wants to be and also the fact that he's fundamentally honest about himself when he's with her. And he's not trying to get anything from her. As we learned, he's really bad at calculating or trying to be calculating. And he doesn't have to be calculating with her.
Rannells: Well, I feel like that's true of my relationship with Regina off camera. There is no calculation. It's very easy. Everything is very easy when you're acting, and you do something with somebody that everyone is just on the same page and you just get it. There was very little conversation even with the director of blocking that scene and figuring it out. Regina and I just read it and we understood what we were going to do. And that's always what it's like to work with her. You just get each other in a way that it makes it so easy. I'm stopping myself from using the word magic. But, there's like magic to it, there's an ease to it that just makes it so fun to do.
KCRW: I wanted to ask you about getting to play a role in a revival versus getting to invent something for yourself. You've done this a couple of times. That astonishing revival of "Boys in the Band." It's a play that has that sort of dance between weariness and cynicism. I was just fascinated by that production, because it felt like it was not informed by any previous version of it, and it must have been interesting to have so many actors who weren't playing gay but were actually gay in the production.
Rannells: I remember years before we did the Broadway production, we did a couple of exploratory readings of the script, just to see like, is this relevant? Should we do this? And I think you're right. I think when that "I'm playing gay" goes away, when you don't have to go through that filter, it's a little more just natural and authentic. And I think that when we went into the production of the Broadway show, those weren't even conversations that we were having in rehearsal: what is it to be gay? We all just understood. We understood what the process was, and that let us all, I think, dive into different aspects of those characters.
It was a hit initially when it opened Off Broadway in 1968. But very quickly after Stonewall became, I don't want to say vilified, but I think a lot of gay people didn't like how transparent It was about how flawed those characters were. But Mart [Crowley] wasn't trying to write for every gay person. He was just trying to write a story about these particular men on this particular night. It was not meant to be a representation of all gay people. So to get to do it 50 years later, and have people perceive it in that way that this is not a gay play. It's just a play. It's just a story.
KCRW: Do you wonder if that thing is happening now with "The Book of Mormon?" People are starting to reevaluate in a similar way?
Rannells: Yeah, I think there's a lot of very, I would say, understandable criticism of "The Book of Mormon" and how exactly the Ugandans are portrayed in that show. Ultimately, the Ugandans are much smarter than the Mormons that are there, but the reveal takes a long time to come to light. So I understand that it's not a great representation or portrayal, and it's a long joke. I understand why people would have a problem with that.
KCRW: So much of what you've done as an actor is ask yourself about the difference between archetype and stereotype. Someone like Blair: you could play him in a way that would be almost like a stereotype. But I think, even when he's trying to be calculating as we’ve seen in that episode we're talking about, but also that honesty as he has with Dawn, he wants to be the right person, often in the wrong circumstance. And that's been the case with a lot of the characters you played.
Rannells: Yeah, that's true. I think there is a helpfulness to a lot of them. And even if they lose their way, and even if they are a bit misguided or get overwhelmed by power or by ambition, there's still a hopefulness to them. I think they're still hoping for the best, I guess. You know, that's something that I definitely seek out in characters and try to infuse into characters as some humanity and some searching because I feel like that's a relatable feeling for most people.