Broadway interview

Andrew Rannells: how I stood up to Broadway sexual harassment

The Daily Beast

July 7, 2023

Andrew Rannells on his Broadway #MeToo experiences, step-parenting, his relationship with Tuc Watkins, the joy of theater, anti-LGBTQ politics, Tonys—and closeted Hollywood actors.

In 2006, Andrew Rannells was 26, although his youthful looks made him, as he puts it, “a Broadway 18.” He had been starring in the hit musical Hairspray as Link Larkin for eight months—his first lead role on Broadway. Then one of the producers came to see him. In his just-published book of personal essays, Uncle of the Year & Other Debatable Triumphs, he recalls the producer saying, “We are not going to renew your contract next month. We are bringing in a great young guy from the national tour named Aaron Tveit. You would love him. He’s like you but younger and straight.”

“The politics of any small-town community theater are ultimately the same politics you find on Broadway, and honestly any workplace,” Rannells, now 44, told The Daily Beast. “It’s the same characters everywhere. But I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Holy shit, this is what’s happening to me right now. I’m being let go for a younger, straighter version of me?’ And, by the way, I was 26!” He laughed. “The show business is always very humbling. There are new ways every day to have your feelings hurt if you let it. People are often well-meaning but don’t know how to communicate properly. You figure out how to roll with it.

“If I was faced with the same situation at 44 as I was at 27 I would speak up to that person, and say, ‘Look, I am not going to sue you. But just so you know, what you said was super offensive and probably illegal according to employment laws. So please don’t speak to me like that.’ At that age, I thought that producer was really powerful. Years later, I was working with an amazing actor, Dick Latessa, who sadly passed away in 2016. I told him about a director who had threatened to ruin my career, and that I would never work again. I was very shaken by it. Dick said that the next time I see that person, to look them in the face, and say, ‘Fuck you, there’s a lot of people I can work with.’ And he was right.”

For Rannells, stardom—and his first Tony nomination—would come with playing Elder Price in The Book of Mormon (Rannells was 31 by then, playing 19), and then as Elijah, Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) spiky gay compadre, in Girls. He received his second Tony nomination for playing Whizzer in Falsettos. In 2021, an excellent New York Times “Modern Love” essay he had written, detailing how he learned his father Ronald had died at the same time as a one-night stand lay in his bed, was made into a TV drama.

He also appeared in the NBC comedy The New Normal, and the Broadway revival and movie of Mart Crowley’s landmark gay drama The Boys in the Band, where he met his partner, the actor Tuc Watkins. The couple, he tells The Daily Beast, remain “very happy” together, despite recent online speculation to the contrary. Part of the book sees Rannells interrogating himself on what kind of parent—if any kind of parent—he wishes to be in relation to Watkins’ two children.

Rannells is also “very excited” to be starring alongside his friend and former Book of Mormon co-star Josh Gad in the just-announced Broadway production, Gutenberg! The Musical! playing two musical theater actors pitching a musical about Johannes Gutenberg, famously the inventor of the printing press. The show, which lovingly parodies musical theater, is directed by Alex Timbers who first directed the show off-Broadway in 2006. “The two guys Josh and I play don’t really know much about Gutenberg, so decide the best option is to make most of his life up,” Rannells said. “It’s great fun, and the two of us play all the characters.”

Rannells, originally from Omaha, Nebraska, now 44, and still preternaturally youthful-looking—with a gleaming smile and quick, charming wit to hand—was speaking from his Los Angeles apartment. The stories in Uncle of the Year are as humorously related as you might expect, and sometimes darker and more moving—all peppered with waspish, wise insights. He writes about why Girls co-star Allison Williams is the most calming presence when your plane may be about to crash; Sienna Miller icing him out at an awards show; of consoling Mark Ruffalo when the latter lost out at the same show; of (when much younger) going with a friend to appear on Ricki Lake’s show in a fake revelation scam, which ends in him almost being outed, and threats from the crew; of an affair with a closeted Christian who is already in a relationship; and the time he performed in Miss Saigon in a depressed part of upstate New York.

This book of personal essays follows his candid memoir, Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood, in which Rannells described being sexually abused by a priest at his high school. He also revealed how an older man working in local theater in Omaha—a director and performer—had entered into a sexual relationship with him when he was a very young actor. It was the first time Rannells had had gay sex. “I thought I knew what I was doing,” Rannells said. “I thought I could handle myself. It was only until later I realized that wasn’t cool.”

“Luckily for me, it didn’t affect my love of performing, I still really hung on to that,” Rannells told The Daily Beast of the relationship with the theater-maker. “It did cause some problems with coming out and being comfortable in myself doubting my self-worth when it came to relationships. I would wonder, ‘Why are people into me? Are they just interested in me sexually? Do I have anything greater than that to bring to the table?’ When I shared that story I wasn’t surprised to find out a lot of people have that experience, especially gay people. It’s too bad. I hope that’s not still the case. It was certainly a rocky introduction for me.

“When I got to New York I pushed it all behind me. You have to deal with those things at some point, and with the help of many therapists, I did. But my immediate aim back then was to get to New York, change locations, change my name from Andy to Andrew, wear different clothes, and reinvent myself. I found that everyone was trying to reinvent themselves in some way at 18 and 19. We all did it together. I like to think that when I had my first real boyfriend in college I reclaimed my virginity in some ways. I didn’t like losing it that way to that older person, and not feeling right in that relationship, so when I found a very cute age-appropriate boy my age I was like, ‘Great, this is what I wish it could have been, so I am going to go ahead and say this was it.’”

Rannells told The Daily Beast he had been sexually harassed while building his Broadway career. Some Broadway-centered #MeToo stories surfaced around the same time as Hollywood’s post-Harvey Weinstein reckoning, but, Rannells muses, they perhaps commanded less public interest because of the fame and name recognition associated with Hollywood.

“There were names I knew, people I knew,” he told The Daily Beast of Broadway’s abusers and harassers. “I knew some of the stories and could corroborate some of them. It’s certainly something that needs to be dealt with in the Broadway community. It seems like steps are being made or taken to fix that, but again, I’m not starting my career right now. Did I experience a lot of that in my early 20s? Most definitely. And was I approached by people in positions of power to do things for the promise of some work somewhere? Yeah, and it always made me feel like shit, and it always made me feel bad, but no one’s doing that to me in my forties. I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s still happening unfortunately.”

How did Rannells deal with the sexual harassment at the time? “The experience with the priest and the guy from Omaha theater were in my rear-view mirror, but I was also carrying them around with me. By the time those situations happened in New York, I kind of knew how to say ‘Fuck off’ politely. That’s how I dealt with it. I didn’t feel like I had to play along or succumb to any advances made towards me. I was like, ‘You’re not going to give me a fucking job, this is bullshit. And this is not the way I want to get a job. This is not how I am going to do this.’ In a strange way, as painful as it was, those early experiences as a teenager made me more confident to say, ‘Fuck off, I’m not interested in entertaining this, no thank you.’”

Rannells’ youthful looks also led to “some confusion,” when—having played 19 at 31 in Book of Mormon—he traveled to Los Angeles, where initially industry people thought he must be younger than his then-32. “I did have a couple of run-ins with directors who would set up general meetings with me. I’d walk into a room not looking like a Mormon missionary with some scruff (light beard) and a blazer on, and they’d be like, ‘Oh you’re like an adult man, you’re not like a new kid on the block.’ They’d be like, ‘He’s not the twink from Broadway, this is a different situation.’ It was sort of funny, those first couple of years in LA. I was like, ‘No, I’m not your guy for that. That’s not what’s happening.’”


“We’re doing great. I don’t know why that rumor began”

In the book, Rannells writes about an intense loneliness he felt during lockdown that he attempts to assuage by doing Cameo message-videos for fans, and by drinking heavily.

“That continued for a while if I am being honest. It continued into last summer,” Rannells told The Daily Beast. “I was really lucky that I got back to work a lot sooner than a lot of people did. But it wasn’t until I was getting ready to go to London (to perform in the musical Tammy Faye) that I started to feel a little more normal because I was about to do a musical I was really excited about in a town I was really excited to go to. Everything else felt like I was cobbling together what my day might look like.

“That’s why the Cameo requests really hit me. Here were people—strangers to me and I am a stranger to them—who knew me for playing a character asking for advice, or me to comfort them. I was feeling totally untethered myself, and here I was trying to reassure people. I didn’t know if I was doing it correctly. By last summer I felt I had my feet a little more under me, but that took a long time.”

The other day, Rannells said, he had been with Watkins and his 10-year-old twin children, when his daughter said of the pandemic, ‘It kind of like feels like it didn’t really happen. Now, it’s like we’re back and doing everything.’ I knew what she meant. Even though it’s our recent history it does feel far away somehow. In some ways we all sort of rushed back to what were we doing before all that happened, which we can’t do for everything.”

Therapy, friends, and the London show helped temper Rannells’ drinking. “Even though I was far away from home in London, it was really crucial to me feeling more myself. Especially during the pandemic, a huge piece of my life—theater—was missing. It was really hard. Theater has always been the thing that kept me grounded, and so getting back into theater specifically was really helpful.” Rannells recalls participating in the Zoom theater events of that time—”failed readings, horrible time delays, disorganized nonsense. But I was lucky to be able to do something.”

Rannells denied online speculation that he and Watkins had broken up. “We’re doing great,” he told The Daily Beast. “I don’t exactly know why that rumor began, who the fuck knows how the internet works? Tuc was in Los Angeles performing in The Inheritance. I was in London doing another show. For the tens of people looking at my Instagram, the thought was: ‘They haven’t been together for a while.’ The reality was we were just not in the same city. We were both working very far apart. I’m not sure how the rumor we had broken up came about. But, mystery solved: we are together and happy. Very much so.”

Rannells writes honestly in the book about being ambivalent about becoming a step-parent to Watkins’ children. He is fine about being the fun uncle for his own nieces and nephews, but he is less sure about being a full-time parent. “It’s still something Tuc and I still talk about and are still figuring out,” Rannells told The Daily Beast. “Tuc always wanted children, it was always on the list for his life. He did it a little bit later with a surrogate. He is very passionate and enthusiastic about it and good at it. It wasn’t anything I ever wanted to do. The times I kind of thought about it, it never was really serious. I never seriously thought about it. I was never in a relationship where that was talked about. When I started dating Tuc initially it was a slow introduction with the kids. I was working a lot, not around a lot.

“Then the pandemic happened. I was there all the time, helping with home-school. Things got real real, real fast in terms of spending time together. I have a lot of skills, but I don’t know if parenting comes naturally to me. The more I talked about it, especially with people with children, they say most people feel that way—that they could be doing parenting better, that they regret something they said earlier that day, or how they handled something. I feel an extra pressure with Tuc’s kids in a very different way to my nieces and nephews. They can come into town and I can be that fun uncle who lives far away, who at times has an exciting job to them, and at times they don’t care.”

Does he feel more of a full-time parent to Watkins’ kids as time goes on? “I feel we have created a different kind of title or a more relaxed role for me,” Rannells told The Daily Beast. “I realize it was naïve to feel as if I needed to step into the role of immediate step-parent. I was very baffled by things like discipline. I thought, ‘What am I trying to teach these kids? Is it my job to teach them table manners?’ I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. Now, over time, I have figured out what my role is with them.

“Tuc is their father, and in charge of the crucial things. Obviously, if I am with them, I can keep them from running into oncoming traffic, but I am not solely responsible for keeping them alive. I certainly enjoy it more now. They enjoy having me around more when I’m not stressed about ‘What am I supposed to do? Who am I supposed to be?’ Maybe I am not their full-time stepfather, but I hope they respect me. I respect them. I think we have a good time together. He laughed. “I just took them to see The Little Mermaid the other night and bought them all the candy they wanted. What more can you do?”

Rannells and Watkins recently took the children to the Broad Museum to see Keith Haring: Art Is for Everybody, the first museum exhibition in Los Angeles of Haring’s body of work, featuring over 120 artworks and archival materials. “It was a great introduction to museum-going in general. His artwork is super accessible. Yes, we had to explain why he drew so many dicks and the AIDS crisis, but as with explaining any major atrocity to children, they boiled it down to simple levels of understanding. ‘Why didn’t anyone help them? Why didn’t people help the sick people? Why were they scared of sick people? I was like, ‘All very good questions. You nailed it.’”

Rannells has never been closeted professionally. “When I started working in television in my thirties, I’d jokingly say that I’d slept with way too many people to go back into the closet. That ship had sailed.” But, he told The Daily Beast, the cast of Boys in the Band had discussed with each other those issues, and the dilemma of playing a gay role or not playing a gay role. “Tuc told me about the time he had turned down one of the roles on Queer as Folk. His agents at the time said, ‘Oh, I don’t know if that’s the best move for you.’ That wouldn’t be a conversation now with an agent, but it’s also less than 20 years ago.”

There’s still no out gay action star or A-list romantic lead. Does Rannells think the Hollywood actor-closeting machine is still in ruthless operation? “Yes, I think so,” Rannells told The Daily Beast. “I think it depends on what your introduction to the public was. If your introduction to most of the world was playing someone in an action film, then yeah, it’s probably a little tricky for you to come out.” He smiled. “I am not speaking with any authority. Marvel are not exactly calling me.

“But yeah, here in LA you hear stories about people who are gay that make you think, ‘That would make a real difference if that person came out.’ I don’t know if they will. You hear certain names, and think, ‘Well, that’s a real twist. I wonder what Middle America would do with that information?’ The good news is that there are a lot more opportunities—whether those opportunities will extend to the mainstream action movie genre I don’t know. But any time I see moves in diversity in terms of any mainstream projects I’m all for it. Best of luck, to everyone doing it, including me! Keep tryin’!”

The 500-plus anti-LGBTQ bills in Republican-led legislatures, many focused on discriminating against trans youth, as well as the rise in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric—as practiced so proudly by the likes of Ron DeSantis and right-wing media figures—makes Rannells “very fearful, but also very sad for young people right now, particularly young people who are realizing they might be queer, who are already feeling maybe different or other than other kids. To have these statements in the news and floating in the world—I can’t imagine what it must be like for an on the verge of coming out and feeling like, ‘Is this the world I am walking into?’

“It was scary enough when I did it. The ’90s were not exactly a walk in the park either, but this feels very targeted because of the way we digest and receive news. It’s everywhere, it is a lot easier to hear things. Reading about the bathroom bills aimed at trans people, who do you think you are protecting? A lot of states are hiding behind ‘This is for women’s protection,’ or ‘This is for children’s protection.’ That is simply not the case. It is targeting trans and queer people. I feel so upset about it. What do we do now as a queer community? There are a lot of people who support us. This is just a small group of angry, loud people making a lot of noise. But I’m not sure how we move forward and protect queer young people, and our community.”

With roles such as those he played in Girls and The Boys in the Band, Rannells feels he has been part of a wave of diversifying representation on screen and stage. “Representation is hugely important. I was fortunate to be in these roles that were simply not available 20 years ago. So many different voices are now being given a chance to be heard. This is an exciting time artistically, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it happens to coincide with a conservative time politically. Historically speaking that’s often the case. Some of the best art comes out of these times. I was lucky Elijah wasn’t a typical ‘gay friend’ character, and (showrunners) Lena (Dunham) and Jenni (Konner) wrote him that way and allowed me input in what his life looked like.

“He was not a side character, he kind of cared about Hannah, but didn’t like the rest of those girls. Normally on TV, gay guys are willing to be doormats for the ladies. That’s not how friendships should work. Today, queer characters are very different to who they were 15 years ago. They’re still gay, but more well-thought-out and realistic versions of humans who happen to be gay—multifaceted, flawed, all those things humans are. In the past, a character breakdown would read ‘Adam. Gay,’ as if that summed someone up. You don’t see that anymore.”


‘That was pretty wild for a kid from Omaha’

In his first book, Rannells told the story of meeting some professional actors when he first arrived in New York. “One said to me that I should take my headshot to the stage door of every theater, with a resumé and cover letter. It’s really not how it works, but it did work for me. I traipsed around New York with my headshot and dropped it at all the stage doors, and lo and behold Bernie Talsey’s (casting) office called me in to audition for Rent.

“Within less than a month of being in New York, I was at my first Broadway audition. That was pretty wild for a kid from Omaha, Nebraska, with no contacts, nothing. I didn’t get the role, but it put me on the path with that casting director for many years. Some roles I booked, some I didn’t.” One of his first roles was in Hairspray, in the ensemble understudying the leads. “I was very happy in my role, but within a couple of months I knew I wanted more.”

Rannells thinks if he had gotten that first audition he would have been “ill-prepared” to handle what it meant. “I wouldn’t have been ready to do it. Having some years, many years, of struggle was good for me. I came to know it was possible to get a Broadway audition, possible to buy a copy of Backstage to look up if there were open calls and auditions, to feel like you’re doing something to participate in your own career. I was rarely booking anything, but I always had something to do every day, whether it was going to an audition, or sending a headshot in. It kept me focused even though I got knocked around a lot in those early years I always felt as if I was in it. That was helpful.”

The Book of Mormon set a professional template for Rannells that he still cherishes—crafting original musicals “from the ground up.” As well as Gutenberg!, last year in London he starred in Tammy Faye, a new musical about the late televangelist by Elton John, Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, and award-winning writer James Graham that ran at the Almeida Theatre in London last year. “I hadn’t done an original musical from the ground up since The Book of Mormon. It was really exciting to get back into that process—of daily changes to scripts, new songs from Elton John, new scenes from James Graham.

“I started my career on Broadway as a replacement in Hairspray and Jersey Boys. While there was some leeway you’re using the language and everything that already exists. You are put into a moving machine that is already very successful, and you are dropped into the middle of it. You try to make it as personal as possible, but you’re coloring in between pretty set lines. With Book of Mormon and Tammy Faye, the book writers are there, so you’re able to say ‘What would help me get to this point?’ You see that reflected in the pages. It’s amazing to have Elton John get to know your voice a little bit, so he can say, ‘This song may be better for him in this key.’ It’s really thrilling to be part of. You think, ‘Oh, I helped create something no one has seen before.’ It’s an amazing feeling.”

The Boys in the Band was exciting for Rannells as the first play he had performed in on Broadway, but also as a production featuring a cast of nine out gay men, “which very rarely happens,” he said. “All of us were connected in some way—either as friends or having friends in common. To then make it into a movie was wild. It was also the moment where I stepped into playing my age more. For so many years I was playing a teenager in productions long since I had been a teenager. Even in Girls, I was in my thirties playing someone in their early twenties, so there was a little bit of delayed maturity going on.

“As much as I used to think it didn’t affect me, it did in a lot of ways. I was spending a lot of time playing people much younger than I was. I sort of fell into a prolonged adolescence, a lot of it about every aspect of my life in New York City at the time—not being married, not having children, traveling a lot for work, not having a lot of anchors for my life.

“It was great in a lot of ways, but it does make you feel more youthful. You think, ‘I can take that job on the other side of the country.’ ‘I can go to London to do that musical for four months.’ There is a freedom to it, but it also stunted my emotional development. Part of writing this book is about me thinking about what the markers of time are for me as an adult. I turn 45 in August. What does that mean? When did I become an adult? Should I feel more of an adult?”

Rannells thinks he has “a much clearer perspective” on awards than he once had, “and what they mean and don’t mean. Is recognition nice? Of course it is. It is recognition by your peers, but I think I used to imagine it would bring greater fulfillment. Now, I say this and I have never won a Tony Award, so I don’t know it for a fact. A Tony might bring me ultimate joy, I am not sure. But what I have come to understand having gone through the process twice is really, as Ellen Burstyn once said, that at the end of the day, it comes down to the work you’re doing and are you proud of the work? Sometimes awards line up with you, sometimes it’s someone else’s moment. Whether I have a trophy or not certainly doesn’t take away from being proud of what we did in that show, or lessen the performance or memory of it.”

The specific difference with the Tonys, Rannells said, is that you may still be performing in a show that is nominated; movies and TV shows are long in the can and broadcast by the time of those awards. You may have Broadway buddies in other shows, and so while eight shows a week means you may not have an opportunity to see each other perform, the lunches and junkets for Tony nominees mean plenty of time for hanging out and catching up.

Signing up to do a show like Gutenberg! isn’t done with awards in mind, Rannells insisted. “If you’re taking jobs thinking they might get you a trophy, it’s a very dangerous game to play. This came about organically. Josh and I had been thinking about what we could do together for years. We had both been pursuing Alex Timbers about different things. Then he came to us with this show. He was right, it’s a great fit. We’ve done a couple of reads, and every time we do it I get more excited about it. It was written many years ago not for us, but it fits our individual skill sets and skill set as a team very well.”


‘Do I love the idea of getting a colonoscopy?’

Rannells’ father died, aged 61, in 2001, when the actor was 22. “I think it’s not anything you get over or recover from,” Rannells told The Daily Beast. “It becomes a huge part of your identity. “This last Father’s Day I woke up aware of the fact it was Father’s Day. Part of me was sad, part of me was, ‘Fuck everyone who has a father.’ I was super sad about it, then just got on with the rest of my day. Grief comes at really unexpected times.”

For the last couple of years, Rannells’ mother Charlotte has been receiving treatment for leukemia. “She’s been doing different phases of chemotherapy,” he said. “I have tried to just be there and do whatever I could do to be around and be present. She’s doing really well. They have adjusted her treatment schedule to something less, which is a good thing.”

Rannells and his mother have become closer in the years since his father’s death; he has made more of an effort to spend time with her. Her illness has made that time spent together more urgent and precious—including her first holiday outside of America with Rannells in Rome when he was filming his new movie, in which he and Nick Kroll play a gay couple. There were many other productions filming in the city at the same time. In the swanky store La Labo, the salesperson looked at him and sniffily inquired whether he was working with Connie Britton (no), Zosia Mamet (his former co-star on Girls, again no), to which the salesperson balefully exclaimed, “There’s another American production here?”

Rannells is “open to all possibilities” when it comes to his own future—proud of what he has accomplished thus far, keen to embrace new challenges, and possibly “moving into a slightly different phase of my career, which may be me caring less what people think, or what I used to think I should have to be happy. I’m going to find things that I think are interesting, and work with people I admire and respect. It may not change my bank account in big ways, but in the long run, I’ll be happier.”

“You always have to fight for something as an actor; there is always something to be proven,” Rannells writes in the book.

“It can sound a little bleak, can’t it?” Rannells said as this reporter read it back to him. “The flipside of not resting on your laurels is you’re only as good as your last job, which can be a daunting thing to accept. This is not specific to acting, or a career in the arts. You’re always asked what you’ve got coming up, instead of what you’re doing right now: ‘I’m standing here, that’s what I’m working on, working on this sandwich.’ You always need to be working on your craft.

“I saw it with Meryl Streep on The Prom. She was never not trying to craft a better version of what she was playing. She was not coasting. Nicole Kidman was the same. She was working on multiple things, including an accent for The Northman. It was really inspiring to see them both. I certainly don’t have their pedigree, reputation, and history, but to see people at their level, working hard, thinking how they could make this bit funnier, how to make this work, was really amazing.”

Rannells turns 45 on August 23. “I would like to say aging is not a big deal, but there are moments,” he told The Daily Beast, smiling, then laughing. “This week, I had a physical with my doctor, and they said, ‘At 45 you’re eligible for a colonoscopy, and your cholesterol is a little high, so we’re going to put you on a daily statin to lower that.’ I was like, ‘Sweet! So fun! That sounds great, thank you so much!’ I guess it’s just part of the deal, right?

“It’s hard not to think about my dad, who died at 61, to know I am getting closer to that. It does make me think about my health differently—exercising and eating right. There is no reason he should have died of a heart attack at 61, were it not for a poor diet, or not exercising enough, or not going to the doctor enough. Do I love the idea of getting a colonoscopy? Not particularly. Will I do it?” Rannells lightly rolled his eyes, then flashed the smile of the show-must-go-on. “Sure, I’ll do it.”