It’s always nice to see a familiar face. Even if that familiar face is your now-gay-ex-boyfriend-turned-roommate-turned-sworn-enemy.
But when that now-gay-ex-boyfriend-turned-roommate-turned-sworn-enemy is played by that perfectly coiffed walking Ken Doll Andrew Rannells, you can’t help but give him a warm hug. And that’s just what Lena Dunham’s fiercely fickle lead character Hannah Horvath does on Girls when she spots Elijah during Rannells’s return to HBO’s cringe-comedy Sunday night.
It’s a remarkable gesture considering the characters’ tumultuous history. Need “now-gay-ex-boyfriend-turned-roommate-turned-sworn-enemy” be said again? (Give Girls credit, at the very least, for nailing the tangled, complicated ways twentysomethings define relationships these days.)But that Hannah greets Elijah with said warm hug—and that Girls fans cheered when it was announced that Rannells would be returning to the show—is owed to the irresistible sunniness, sprinkled with a dash of sass as spice, that Rannells brings to his portrayal of Elijah.
It’s a demeanor that’s served Rannells well these past few years, first with his Tony-nominated breakout performance in the Broadway blockbuster Book of Mormon and later as a gay dad-to-be on Ryan Murphy’s NBC sitcom The New Normal, which was canceled last year after just one season. Normally when an actor’s sitcom is canceled, as The New Normal was last May, it’s one of the saddest days of his career. For Rannells, sad as he was about a show that he was so proud of, it actually ended up one of the happiest when Lena Dunham immediately called to invite him back to Girls.
“It was literally 45 minutes after the show was canceled,” Rannells tells me. “It’s an embarrassment that this would happen to me. It’s so very lucky.”
Now, he’s back on HBO as everyone’s favorite scene-stealer and has already been booked as a series regular for next year’s fourth season. In other words, things are going pretty well right now for the self-described “gay Catholic from Omaha.” And he can thank Lena Dunham and Girls for a lot of it.
He was cast on the show, his first major recurring role, after Dunham had come to see him in Book of Mormon and thought he was pretty funny. He went in to audition to play her character’s ex-boyfriend who tells her that he’s gay in a season one episode, even though the part, as written, was a bearded, yogi hipster—not exactly the type you’d normally consider someone currently playing Broadway’s spunkiest Mormon missionary for. But Rannells got along so well with Dunham during the audition that the part was retooled to suit his talents.
What followed were some of the most memorable moments in Girls’ run.
There was that time in season one that he got to do what every single person watching the show had been itching to since the day it premiered: slap Marnie. Then there was the time that he drunkenly tried to have sex with her and we all saw his butt. We’ll never forget that. Neither will he.
“It was a small crew and I was so comfortable that at one point wardrobe had to come up and tell me to cover myself,” he says. “I was standing there in my cock sock thing with it all hanging out, because it felt so fine.” Not that it wasn’t awkward. “Allison Williams [who plays Marnie] and I had a fuck-ton of shimmer lotion on. It was called layer cake. We smelled like pastries. I told her, ‘This is the closest my penis has ever been to a vagina. This is the closest I’ve ever come to having sex with a girl.’”
The most memorable Elijah and Hannah scene doubles, actually, as the defining moment of the second season of Girls, in an episode so sharp and entertaining it assured critics and viewers that this Dunham girl and her little HBO series were not just flashes in a pan. It was the episode where Elijah and Hannah go on a coke bender, dancing in a Brooklyn club along to Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” Hannah in her now-infamous yellow mesh tank top.
“We’re not really club people, so it was funny to be ‘at the club,’” he says. “I think we shot it at the same place that the next week Drake and somebody go into a fight. And we had just been there.”
So while there are things about Elijah—his coke habit, for example—that Rannells can’t relate to exactly, he does get where the character is coming from. He isn’t best friends with his ex-girlfriend the way that Hannah and Elijah are, for example. But then again, that might be because there weren’t that many candidates for the unique relationship.
“I grew up in Omaha and did a lot of community theatre,” he says. “So I always felt comfortable. I wouldn’t say that I was out, but I never felt like I needed to hide anything. I had one girlfriend in high school, but it was totally lame. We never did anything—barely made out. I’ve never had sex with a girl, so that’s not a concern. But while I’m not friends with any girl I dated, I get that Elijah and Hannah are seizing on to that non-sexual part of their relationship, that they were best friends.”
There are a lot of parts of Elijah, however, that Rannells, now 35, gets completely. For one, he lived the part, moving to New York from Nebraska to attend Marymount Manhattan College right out of high school. When Girls first premiered, Rannells remembers that his mother called him terrified.
“She was like, ‘Is that what New York was really like for you?’” he says. “I was like, ‘Pretty much, yeah.’ I think what the show captures so well is the flailingness—I don’t even know if that’s a word. The wild desperation you have, where you’re like, ‘I’m kind of an adult. I’m sort of making this work. But it doesn’t feel right yet.”
He remembers, for example, living in Brooklyn Heights and trying to get booze from the “derelict liquor story nearby.” And then there was the con he would regularly pull at the old West Village piano bar, Rose’s Turn. “I would sing ‘Copacabana’ or some bullshit and hope somebody would send a drink over. And once you had one, you were in.”
When Elijah reunites with Hannah in Sunday’s episode, he has a new boyfriend in tow. And just like the one who was such a source of tension between the friends in the show’s first two seasons, this guy (played by Danny Strong) also has a tendency for treating Elijah like dirt. Now, Rannells is happily settled with his long-term boyfriend, but he can certainly relate to Elijah’s plight—the serial dating of douchebags—from way back when.
“I feel like I know I made that mistake in my early twenties,” he says. “You date a guy like that and you feel like you’re doing something wrong. Like, ‘Clearly I’m not up to this person’s standards so let me change myself to make this easier for them.’ When really the answer is that you probably shouldn’t be dating.”
Rannells’s success now both professionally—again, he’s on Girls, not too shabby—and personally should give Elijah and those Girls fans who relate to him some hope: it is possible to work your way through your messy twenties and come out pretty polished on the other side. Not that the road wasn’t bumpy.
There were risks: he dropped out of college to pursue acting fulltime. There were diversions: he nearly sidelined musical theater completely to do voiceover work and direct episodes of animated series based on video games, like Pokémon and Sonic the Hedgehog. There were highs: performing “I Believe” from Book of Mormon on the Tony Awards. (“Growing up in Omaha it was such a huge thing for me every year and it seemed so far away,” he says. “But I didn’t know how I would ever get there.”) And there were lows: The New Normal failing to get picked up for season two.
But he made it there.
As for what to expect now that Elijah is back on Girls, Rannells is a good, tight-lipped HBO employee, revealing only that he shares scenes in one episode with Patti LuPone. (!!!) Yes, he musical theatre nerd-ed out all over her. As you would expect. As you would, too.
“She was really great and patient,” he says, remembering how she graciously humored his questions about The Baker’s Wife and Julliard. “I’m not saying run up to her on the street and shout, ‘Talk to me about ‘Meadowlark!’ But she was great.”
And she gave him a warm hug. After all, with Andrew Rannells, it’s what one is wont to do.