Andrew Rannells' face is about to be a lot more recognizable.
Since starring in the wildly popular Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” last year the Omaha native has gone from near-anonymity to being nominated for a best-actor Tony, to snagging a lead role in “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy's new NBC sitcom “The New Normal,” which premieres Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. CDT.
Rannells, who just turned 34, plays half of a gay Los Angeles couple (Justin Bartha is the other half) that decides to have a child via a surrogate mother. The surrougate, Goldie (Georgia King), had her own daughter (Bebe Wood) at age 15 and now wants to pay for law school. Goldie's bigoted grandmother (Ellen Barkin) strenuously objects to the plan.
Rannells also has a prominent role in the HBO series “Girls,” which he finished shooting in July. On that show, about single women in New York City, he's an ex-boyfriend who has just come out of the closet. “Girls” returns for its second season in January.
We caught up with Rannells by phone at his new Hollywood home just as filming on “The New Normal” was about to begin.
Q. Your life has changed pretty radically over the past year and a half. You've gone from virtual unknown to household name, from living in New York to Los Angeles and from acting on Broadway to television. How's your head space?
A. It's good. It's been a very eventful two years. I feel like I've sort of taken every moment as it comes. I feel excited about all the changes.
Q. What upsides and downsides have you discovered come with your newfound fame?
A. There's certainly a bit of a change in privacy. I'm not recognized a lot. But being stopped at all in unexpected places, you're aware people are looking at you differently. I'm obviously looking to reach large groups of people, but it's an adjustment to be more in the public eye and have people be curious about your private life. It's a new experience.
Q. When did you first hear about “The New Normal,” and how did the role come to you?
A. It was last October. I had just taken a vacation from “Book of Mormon,” and I was meeting with people in Los Angeles. I had my fingers crossed to get a meeting with Ryan Murphy, and I did. He had this project he had just sold to NBC to make a pilot. There wasn't a script or cast yet, but I got instantly excited when he told me about it. We talked about the specifics, why I'd like to be a part of it.
When the meeting ended, I wasn't sure how it all landed. A month later, I got a phone call saying he'd offered me a lead role in this pilot. It was exciting. I was the first person cast. He was very generous, asked me to read with some other actors. He was so generous through the whole process.
Q. Ryan Murphy has a strong TV track record as a writer-producer with hits like “Nip/Tuck” and “Glee.” What's it like to work with this guy?
A. I was very intimidated to meet him. I'm a big fan of both those shows. Last year “American Horror Story” (another Murphy series) had just started when I met with him. I completely fell in love with that show. It's exciting television.
Everything feels very collaborative with him. It's so much fun. The pace in which he works is very exciting. He has a clear vision of what he wants.
Q. What adjustments did you make in acting for a TV show, as opposed to acting in a big Broadway musical?
A. It's very different. The first thing I did TV-wise was “Girls” on HBO. I sort of noticed that first day on the set how close the camera is to your face. You realize you don't have to do as much. Surprisingly, it was a much easier adjustment than you might think. The mike is right above your head. You can just relax and not push so hard. A nice change.
I certainly will always love theater, but this is a great shift and a great break from that type of performing. My experience on “Girls” really set me up in a great way to do this series. They were really generous and patient, allowing me to figure out how to adjust.
Q. Musicals are obviously something you love to do. Was it difficult signing on to a television series that could last for years and keep you away from the Broadway stage?
A. It was certainly sad to know I was leaving theater for a bit, but a lot of colleagues have shown me Broadway's not going anywhere. I hope there's an opportunity for me to go back and do more. This show is the perfect opportunity to explore a new adventure. It's something I haven't been a part of, and it seemed like the perfect time to try it. When Ryan Murphy asks, you should say yes.
Q. You're part of a trend of Broadway stars taking starring roles on television. What do you make of the trend?
A. I think it's cyclical. If you look back, every 10 years it sort of happens. Broadway gets mined for new talent, then it falls out of fashion. I feel fortunate to be part of this new wave coming to Los Angeles, and to be here with so many friends from New York. Ryan has kept his eye on Broadway, in a way other producers don't, and “Glee” is a great example of that.
Q. Describe your character on “The New Normal.”
A. Bryan Buckley is sort of loosely based on Ryan Murphy. He's a TV show creator and writer. He lives a very wealthy life with his partner, who's a gynecologist. We meet them at the moment they have the conversation about whether it's time to start a family.
There are other gay parents on TV, but I'm excited this series will explore what steps have to be taken for homosexual couples to start a family. It's not easy. It takes a lot of patience and time, and often money, and an incredible amount of love to even want to begin that journey. Maybe for a lot of people, for the first time, we get to show that side of that story, what it takes to start a family.
Q. One Million Moms protested the show as “harmful to our society.” Care to respond?
A. I think Ryan has already responded. No one had seen the show when they protested. They're boycotting something when they don't know what it is yet. We represent a gay couple starting a family, but its also about a single mother trying to get her life on track. Ellen Barkin's character is trying to reinvent herself as well, and she has a very different viewpoint from Justin's and my characters.
There's no gay agenda being pushed here. It's a well-rounded, well-crafted story we're telling. For anybody to make a judgment before seeing it seems a little odd to me. ... They might like it.
Q. Your private life, including your sexuality, has suddenly become a lot more public. Was your decision to be out as a gay man a difficult one?
A. I never really considered myself in. It had never come up. I said that in an interview with New York magazine. I never considered having to come out. I certainly feel very fortunate that I get to live in a time that I, as an out gay man, have not been penalized or punished. I have a nice career. This opportunity to play two gay characters in the same year is a real gift.
Q. Was the subject matter of the show a major factor in your wanting this role?
A. Absolutely. It's a great story to introduce people who maybe don't know a lot of gay people, or think they don't. I knew Ryan would tell it with dignity and heart, and it would be hilarious.
Q. Anything you want to say about co-stars Ellen Barkin and Justin Bartha?
A. Ellen and I got to be friendly through the Tony Awards. She won for “The Normal Heart.” All the nominees go to a lot of lunches, cocktail parties, press events, and it was great to get to know her. I'm a huge fan of her work.
Justin and I had a lot of friends in common but had never met until his screen test. He was fantastic, and it's so much fun to get to work with him. It's a great group. Georgia King is super as the surrogate, and a great little girl from Kansas City, Bebe Wood, plays her daughter. We've hit it off.
Q. Anything you want to say to your home state and hometown fans?
A. My family is all still in Omaha, and I don't get there quite as often as I'd like. But I'm proud to be from Nebraska. I hope this is a show people there will watch. Justin is from the Midwest too (Michigan), and we hope we find a strong audience there.
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