Andrew Rannells Was Having Bad Sex When His Dad Died
The “Black Monday” star on learning that his father was dying while a one-night stand was naked in his bed, the inspiration for his new episode of Amazon’s “Modern Love.”
When Andrew Rannells was 22, he was on a second date with a guy named Brad. Brad had blue eyes, which seemed hot. Even better, he lived in Astoria just like Rannells, who was still years away from scoring his Broadway big break and then starring in TV series and films like Girls, Black Monday, and The Boys in the Band.
Twenty years ago, convincing anyone to make the trek to the end of the yellow subway line for a date in the Queens neighborhood was impossible. As he put it, “Getting people to go there at the end of the night is like asking a stranger for a ride to the airport.” Blue-eyed Brad’s proximity was positively convenient.
Their dull dinner conversation was interrupted by a call on Rannells’ Nokia flip phone. (Twenty years ago, remember.) It was his sister. He silenced the ring.
There was something about Brad—the blue eyes?—or maybe just the intoxicating thrill of being a gay man on a date in New York City in your early twenties. Either way, Rannells excused the hardly electric dinner and went with him to a second location, a crowded gay bar. A few Cosmos later (again, it was 2001), they started kissing.
Rannells’ phone rang another time. It was his other sister, and he silenced it. Sufficiently committed to the idea of Brad for the night, he got a cab for the two of them to go back to his apartment. They had sex. It was… fine? At least that’s what he remembers, or maybe what he wanted to believe at the time.
When he excused himself to go to the bathroom, he checked his phone and immediately knew something was wrong. There were six more missed calls from his family.
While Rannells was having mediocre sex with a guy whose last name he couldn’t even remember, his family in Nebraska was desperately trying to reach him as they dealt with the trauma of his father collapsing at his niece’s birthday. He would die a few days later.
Rannells first wrote about the experience in a 2017 essay for The New York Times’ weekly “Modern Love” column, titled, “During a Night of Casual Sex, Urgent Messages Go Unanswered.”
The column would eventually serve as the cornerstone for his 2019 book Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood, which chronicles his experience moving to New York from Nebraska and floundering as he tried to find his way in the theater community and come to terms with his own sexuality.
“It’s been a long process with this essay,” Rannells tells The Daily Beast in a recent Zoom interview. “I never could have imagined that it would have turned into all of this.”
“This” would be an episode of Amazon’s Modern Love anthology series based on the Times’ column, which Rannells himself wrote and directed. It premieres along with season 2 of the series on Aug. 13.
While certainly hitting all the can’t-make-this-up bullet points from Rannells’ experience, fictionalizing the night in an episode of the series allowed him to crack it open a bit. Parsing out a chance encounter he and Brad had two years after that night—walking past each other on Ninth Avenue, nodding in acknowledgement and moving on—the Modern Love episode, titled “How Do You Remember Me?,” switches back and forth between perspectives.
The result is a touching rumination on how two different people experienced one of the most consequential nights in a person’s life. “I wanted to give this other character, the guy that I was on a date with that night, more of a voice in the story, and I didn’t feel like I could do that with the essay,” Rannells says. “It was a first-person essay about a specific event. I couldn’t really imagine… I would just be guessing what he was feeling.”
The character based on Rannells is annoyed by his date’s insistence on trying to help him book a flight home and be a shoulder to cry on: They barely know each other. Why would he need or want his support? It was just a one-night stand after a date and some sex he didn’t particularly enjoy.
The date, however, was having a great time and felt that, especially after hooking up, they had a connection that was meaningful. Of course he would want to be an emotional lifeline for a person he just shared the night with, who was spiraling after hearing such awful news.
Writing and directing this episode was a way to revisit everything that happened that night, at a time in his life when he was trying to figure out who he was and “sort of messily role-playing my way through New York,” but also do it with the emotional space and safety of time. “I don’t want to say it didn’t feel as personal,” he says. “It’s still very personal. But I didn’t, you know, weep on set every day because I was thinking about the events of that night.”
Rannells’ relationship with the “Modern Love” column started when his friend Bill Clegg, who was also a literary agent, had written a memoir called Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. The two of them had corresponded frequently over email, and Clegg felt that, based on that writing, Rannells might have a memoir in him as well. Rannells had written a few essays at that point, and sent them to Clegg. They decided that this one in particular could be a fit for “Modern Love,” so they sent it to Dan Jones, who edits the section for the Times. By the end of the day, Jones greenlit the piece.
At that point, Rannells had never told his family what he was doing that night when he was ignoring all of their phone calls. When he got the word that the Times was going to publish his piece recounting everything—including his frank description of the sex he and Brad had—he happened to be on a family vacation with the entire Rannells clan. It was going to come out the day everyone left to go home, and he opted, again, not to say something.
The truth is, he says, there never seemed to be a reason to tell them. It was 2001. It was before texting was a thing. People just didn’t have as intense and invasive a relationship with their cellphones. While it might seem strange now, it wasn’t outrageous to spend a day not paying attention to who was calling. And then, of course, once he flew home to Nebraska, there was the funeral to worry about.
“No one asked, ‘Where were you?’ Nor did I offer up, ‘I was having a one-night stand when I got the call.’ It just didn’t seem like the time,” he says. “So instead, Kevin, I felt like it would be more appropriate to just put it in print in The New York Times and let them read it.”
He laughs. “It was a much more sensitive way to tell my mother.”
Of course, they were surprised when they read the piece. It helped that about 15 years had passed at that point, so the pain and drama of that night wasn’t as fresh as if he had told them right away. Still, “Some of them were a little shocked. I mean nobody really wants to hear about their brother’s sex life, certainly,” Rannells says.
It’s an uncomfortable situation that also arose when he published Too Much Is Not Enough, which contained stories with similar candor about sex and dating. “I basically told them, if you get to a chapter and there’s too many dicks on a page just skip ahead.”
But it is the honesty about the sex part of that night that makes the story so poignant. A little delicate and embarrassing, sure. But those are the inescapable truths of that event. Everything felt the way it did—awful, awkward, intense, confusing—because of those facts.
There’s a section of Rannells’ original essay that describes this. After he had finally gotten in touch with his brother-in-law and found out what happened, he imagined how horrible the scene must have been: his entire family gathered for his niece’s birthday, about to grill hamburgers and eat cake when his dad collapsed on his deck. Everyone scared and crying. He got overwhelmed and started to cry, too.
“Brad came out to see what was wrong,” he wrote. “His hair was mussed and he was completely nude. He stood in front of me, his semi-erect penis at eye level, while I tried to get more information from Doug: What hospital? Should I get on a plane? I gestured for Brad to sit down. He started rubbing my back, which felt like torture. I was embarrassed about crying in front of him but didn’t care enough to stop.”
It was tricky to figure out how to depict that in the Modern Love episode. Showing a semi-erect penis might have been too jarring, Rannells worried. Instead, Zane Pais, the actor playing the character inspired by Brad (who is named Robbie in the episode) is shown walking up to the couch naked from behind while Marquis Rodriguez, who plays the Rannells character named Ben, has a breakdown on the phone.
The juxtaposition of Ben’s trauma and Robbie’s post-coital unawareness ends up being cringe-inducing, sure, but also kind of touching, especially as Robbie immediately springs into crisis-management mode.
Before that scene, however, the episode shows the characters in bed having sex. There’s a version of this story in which the camera fades to black instead of actually showing the act. But it was important for Rannells that you see it.
“Something that I learned while I was doing Girls—and it was a lot of sex in that show—was that it always moved the story forward,” he says. “For this, we didn’t have to show a bunch or you know it didn’t have to be very long. But the awkwardness of it and the hesitancy of it is important to the story. It’s not just that they had sex. It’s that they had sex, both with like very different feelings about it.”
More than that, he knew he had an opportunity to portray sex between two men in a way that, in 2021, is still almost unheard of. “I think that type of of gay sex you don’t see a lot on TV. There’s just not a lot of that, and if there are it sometimes can be kind of salacious or it can be sort of just gratuitous. This was more sort of a vulnerable, awkward depiction of that. I felt like that was important to include in a queer story.”
The characters are having sex in the missionary position, and it’s sort of fumbling, sort of tender, sort of hot, and, still, sort of renegade to show on TV. “Modern” love, indeed.
Jonathan Groff once told The Daily Beast that when he played Patrick, a single gay man living in San Francisco, on the HBO series Looking, some of his straight friends didn’t realize that men could have sex in that position until they saw him in a sex scene on the show. And in an episode of Girls in which Rannells and Corey Stoll are doing it missionary-style, Rannells ended up having to choreograph the scene because none of the straight people on set understood the mechanics of it when two men are involved.
“I looked around the room and I realized that I was the only gay person, and that it was up to me to block it and to make sure it was honest,” he says. “Without getting too graphic, I think there were just some very basic things people thought that they understood about gay sex and I was like, ‘Hold on. Jesus Christ, you guys…’ And then I had to sort of do an anal sex education about, you know, what’s possible. Jonathan and I have compared notes on that.”
He smirks into the Zoom camera: “I don’t know. We’re just doing our part.”