Andrew Rannells is watching four of his greatest friends and colleagues giggle on a bathroom set, rehearsing a pivotal scene for the penultimate episode of Girls.
He’s standing just outside the door taking it all in, thinking it’s nice that, if this is his final moment on set, it’s with all of them. That it feels complete.
Finally, it’s time for him to deliver his last line to this group of women, his big farewell.
“I got the part in White Men Can’t Jump the fucking musical spectacular, you feckless whores,” he shouts. Then, his closing note: “Eat a dick!”
Talking with The Daily Beast the morning after the episode aired, Rannells’s wry sense of humor kicks in. “My last line on Girls is ‘eat a dick,’” he says, chuckling. “It’s not precisely what I thought it was going to be, but I think it’s very correct.”
Rannells’s run as Elijah on Girls, the self-absorbed and deliciously catty twentysomething gay ex-boyfriend-turned-best-friend of Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath, ends with a victory, and, finally, a purpose.
After six seasons of no discernible job beyond being a handsome party boy and dishing out cutting one-liners, Elijah was cast in the Broadway musical production of White Men Can’t Jump. It’s a laughably absurd musical concept that Rannells, a Tony nominee himself for originating the role of Elder Price in The Book of Mormon, sighs is depressingly spot-on: “I’m sure someone’s already tried it.”
Elijah’s audition scene for the musical, in which Rannells belted out the Marilyn Monroe ballad “Let Me Be Your Star” from the cult-favorite NBC series Smash, was a triumphant moment in its own right for the character and the series, setting Gay Twitter ablaze in a chorus of “Yaaas.”
It was Rannells’s idea, actually, for Elijah to audition with the absurdly inappropriate song for a musical about basketball. (“Initially I thought this was probably for like tens of people who would think this was funny,” he laughs.)
It was one last moment of ridiculousness from a character who, over the course of Girls, binged cocaine and danced to Icona Pop, almost had sex with Allison Williams’s Marnie, gave an Iowa undergrad a handjob in a bathroom, donned a full rainbow of tight briefs, pledged to help Hannah raise her baby, and, ultimately, made richer an already hit show.
“I feel like his voice represented, at least in my mind, what the audience might be thinking about these girls,” Rannells says. “I was just happy to get to explore the messy intricacies of the relationships between straight women and gay men.”
And with one last “eat a dick,” it’s all over. (Rannells won’t appear in Sunday night’s series finale, and neither will, at least according to Dunham’s Instagram, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet.)
At least, it’s over for Elijah. The future for Rannells, who moved from his last day on set of Girls directly into previews for his role in the recent Broadway revival of Falsettos, couldn’t be more interesting.
He’s an attractive actor who can sing, dance, make you laugh, and break your heart, who is openly gay but never had to publicly “come out” in any splashy way. On screen, he’s largely played gay characters, which, he rightfully points out, is actually a rare and refreshing gift for a gay actor to be able to do.
And so at 38 years old, he may actually be a fascinating and crucial Hollywood case study.
There are, of course, successful out actors performing in Hollywood: Neil Patrick Harris and Jim Parsons are easy examples. But few have come up in the way that Rannells did, never having to weather the “I’m gay!” moment but still constantly being asked how he feels about always “playing gay.”
The path for an out gay actor entering his forties who has always been out and always played gay isn’t a well-charted one. After a transformative year in his career, not only wrapping Girls but starring in Falsettos—a heart-wrenching story about love and family set against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic—Rannells isn’t just ready, but eager to chart it.
Andrew Rannells arrived in New York City at age 19 as a self-described “gay Catholic from Omaha.” He’s joked before to Vulture about how he knew he was gay once he saw Maxwell Caulfield in Grease 2 at age 4 or 5, and coming out (which he did a few months after graduating high school), while nerve-wracking, wasn’t a dramatic ordeal for him.
He is what is called a “gold-star gay,” meaning he’s never had sex with a woman. When he shot his sex scene with Allison Williams on Girls, he joked to her, “This is the closest my penis has ever been to a vagina.”
He attended Marymount Manhattan, before dropping out to spend days hustling to be a working actor and nights at Rose’s Turn in the West Village, singing “Copacabana” in hopes that someone would send a free drink over. His Broadway debut came in Hairspray in 2003, as a replacement for matinee idol crooner Link Larkin, before his big break in The Book of Mormon.
Dunham cast Rannells on Girls as Hannah’s now-gay ex-boyfriend after seeing him in the show, retooling the character—originally a bearded yogi hipster—for him. The two became so close that when Rannells moved to L.A. that summer to take meetings he stayed with Dunham in the house she was renting while she edited the first season of Girls.
A meeting he took with Ryan Murphy that summer about a new sitcom, The New Normal, loosely based on the producer wunderkind’s own journey with his partner to having their first child, led to Rannells eventually scoring the role. The groundbreaking series—Gay dads as comedy leads! On NBC!—never found its creative footing or its audience, and was canceled after one season.
The next day, Dunham called Rannells to invite him back to Girls. By season four, he was a series regular.
A love interest is one of the only creative requests Rannells made of showrunners Dunham and Jenni Konner over the course of his time on the series, and the romantic arc they had written for him earned the series some of its biggest accolades.
House of Cards star Corey Stoll was cast as Dill Harcourt, a playboy TV personality who sweeps Elijah offs his feet but ultimately causes him to realize what he’s worth and really desires romantically, finally coloring the character’s narcissism with some vulnerability. For their sex scene, Rannells found himself the only gay man on set that day and thus giving a tutorial to the crew on the, ahem, ins and outs of anal sex.
In interviews, Konner called the arc one of the things she’s the most proud of with Girls.
In the same way that the series had taken clichés associated with twentysomething Brooklyn girls and exploded them into fully realized, complicated women, the show, in a bit of a watershed moment, did the same to the gay best friend stereotype with Elijah.
The more he was fleshed out and included in the core group of girls, the more complex he became, but, more importantly, also never lost the bitchiness and sassiness that made him—and real gays like him—such a delight.
“I think that was nice, to not sort of mute him too much or make him too bland and generic or likable,” Rannells says. “It was nice to get to be in the same episode bitchy about something and then also really show the excitement of falling in love with this person moments later. Because it felt like in those moments we were getting to see a fully real person.”
The idea of what makes a fully real person, whether it’s someone he’s playing or who he actually is, has preoccupied Rannells a lot this past year—particularly after his experience starring in Falsettos.
Rannells’s own lifetime obsession with the show began when, as a young boy in Omaha, he watched his first-ever Tony Awards telecast—and it happened to be the one the original cast of Falsettos performed on.
Decades later, he would play Whizzer, the boyfriend of Marvin (played by Tony-winner Christian Borle), who has an ex-wife (Stephanie J. Block) and a son (Anthony Rosenthal).
The first act of the 1980s-set show depicts (much more entertainingly than a plot description may convey), the anxieties and neuroses of this alternative family unit after Marvin’s divorce. The second act, in which the majority of audience members wept through entirely, finds the family coming together when Rannells’s character, Whizzer, begins dying of AIDS.
“It sounds flip to say ‘it’s an important story,’” Rannells says. “But it is an important story, and it’s an important reminder of what that time in our very recent history was like not just for gay men, but a lot of people.”
In the weeks leading up to this year’s Tony Award nominations, with nearly a dozen splashy razzle-dazzle musicals with big budgets, huge sets, and popular movie source material, an emotionally driven tuner about the AIDS crisis that played its last performance in January might get lost in the shuffle. That would be a shame.
For Rannells, the show impacted him in ways you might expect—seeing older gay men who survived that time attend and cry through the show is an experience that won’t soon leave him—but also changed the direction of his life.
“This was the first job I ever had where I felt like a man,” he says. “Like, right, I’m a grown-ass man who is working hard and getting this wonderful opportunity to tell this story.”
In ways that few people get to experience, the role felt like a culmination of all of his life experience.
“Up to that point, even with Girls, I’m playing 10 years younger,” he says. “Inhabiting a character that’s a little dizzy in terms of his lack of direction, it’s fun to do, certainly. But it didn’t feel like my personal experience.”
He continues: “It just hit me on a very personal level that that’s where I am. I’m an adult and I should remember that.”
After playing Elijah, you can imagine the characters currently being sent Rannells’s way. As he told Vulture, “I’ve been offered a lot of gay besties recently, and they’re not all created equal.”
So as he charts life after Girls, he hopes to channel Dunham and start creating his own opportunities, following her example of telling universal stories through his own specific life experience: “I would like to tell stories through the lens of the gay person, but not just for gay people.”
He’s ready. Now let him be your star.