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Andrew Rannells

May 28, 2021

In early performances of Broadway's The Book of Mormon, offended audience members would sometimes get up and walk out of the theater. Andrew Rannells, who originated the role of Elder Price, didn't mind.

"It was pretty exciting," Rannells told NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg. "It didn't happen that often but when it did happen, it did feel like we were a part of something special."

The controversial show — which won the 2011 Tony for Best Musical, and earned Rannells and his co-star Josh Gad Best Actor nominations — was written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

"There were two walkout points," Rannells said. "There was a walkout point after the opening number, people were like, 'they're making fun of Mormons, this is ridiculous.'" The other walkout point was after the rather explicit song, "Hasa Diga Eebowai," which Rannells delicately described as, "a number when the Ugandans kind of explain their theory about life and religion."

Rannells has since appeared in HBO's Girls, Peacock's Girls5Eva, and stars in the Showtime series, Black Monday, which takes place around the 1987 stock market crash.

Rannels said he doesn't remember the crash when it occurred — he was a kid, after all — and was refreshingly honest about how he prepped for his role as an aspiring stock broker. "I'm not going to lie, I didn't do that much research. But I read an article... maybe it was a blurb... but in any event, I did have to learn about the stock market crash."

Rannells' Ask Me Another challenge was inspired by his love of the home improvement channel, HGTV. More specifically, his fascination with Chip and Joanna Gaines of the show Fixer Upper. Rannells uses the opportunity to explain what a "German smear" is and why vessel sinks are overrated.

Interview Highlights

On some of his favorite Tony performances

'93 was a real good one. It was Kiss of the Spider Woman, Blood Brothers, The Who's Tommy. So yeah, I would record those and rewatch those numbers. It was before YouTube, so you couldn't just Google it.

On being approached to voice Matthew MacDell in the animated series 'Big Mouth'

When Nick Kroll, one of the creators of the show, asked me to do it, he was like, "Yes, you are playing the gay character. But you're the gay bully." Which I had never been pitched before - that the gay kid was also the bully and the one who had the most power in middle school. And I thought that was a very interesting way into that character and not just have it be like, "and then there is a gay kid." Because I've certainly done a lot of that.

Heard on Andrew Rannells: The Truth About Cats And Dogs

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONATHAN COULTON, HOST:

This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thanks, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He's an actor who originated the role of Elder Price in "The Book Of Mormon" on Broadway and appeared as Elijah in the HBO series "Girls." He currently stars in Showtime's Wall Street comedy "Black Monday." Andrew Rannells, hello.

ANDREW RANNELLS: Hello.

EISENBERG: So I understand that when you were a kid - like, well, 13 years old, that you would watch the Tony Awards with your mom.

RANNELLS: Yes.

EISENBERG: And you would record them on the VHS and - I assume because you wanted to watch them again.

RANNELLS: Yeah, very much so.

EISENBERG: Were there any particular performances or...

RANNELLS: Yeah. The year "Falsettos" was - I believe that was '92, and then '93 was a real good one - it was "Kiss Of The Spider Woman," "Blood Brothers," "The Who's Tommy." So yeah, so I would record those and rewatch those numbers. This was before the YouTube.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

RANNELLS: So you couldn't just Google it.

EISENBERG: Did anyone ever record over one?

RANNELLS: That did happen. I remember because my family - we recorded "Grease" - the movie "Grease" was, like, the ABC Thursday night movie one year and we recorded it and that - the end of "Grease" got recorded over, and that was a travesty. I know. And probably for, like, a "Knot's Landing," you know what I mean? Like, it didn't, in my child mind - it did not warrant...

COULTON: Right. Like, a Wednesday "Days Of Our Lives" or something like that.

RANNELLS: Yeah. I was like, no, no, no, no.

COULTON: The worst.

RANNELLS: We need to keep "Grease" solid, yeah. We finally got my mother to throw away - she had one of those TV-VCR combos that she kept for the longest time. And my sister Natalie and I were like, ma'am, you must get rid of this.

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: There's - it does not serve a purpose in your life. So she finally got rid of it, much to - yeah - her horror. We made her trash that.

EISENBERG: Yeah. I...

RANNELLS: It's like, what VHS are you watching, lady?

EISENBERG: ...Know. I know. So in 2011, I was one of the - I would say - lucky ones to see you on Broadway in "The Book Of Mormon," the musical written by the South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. You originated the role of Elder Price, and I saw it in previews.

RANNELLS: Oh, wow. You got in early.

EISENBERG: I did. And that was still when, after the first number, some people were so offended, they got up and walked out.

RANNELLS: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

RANNELLS: Yeah.

EISENBERG: I mean, as an actor in - like, seeing that happen, how did it feel?

RANNELLS: It was pretty exciting.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

RANNELLS: It was pretty exciting that we were - because there was two walkout points. There was the walkout after the opening number that people were like, this is just - they're making fun of Mormons, and this is so ridiculous. And then when Elder Price and Elder Cunningham - Josh Gad and I - get to Uganda and there's a number where the Ugandans sort of explain their theory about...

COULTON: Yes.

RANNELLS: ...Life and religion - that was also a big walkout point. But it didn't happen that often. But yes, it did - when it did happen, it felt like we were a part of something special.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

RANNELLS: Because...

EISENBERG: Yeah, absolutely.

RANNELLS: ...I was - I had never been a part of a show that people - I mean, the other two Broadway shows that I had done were "Hairspray" and "Jersey Boys," and there's not exactly a lot of controversy in either of those.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: There's no - there's not two walkout points in "Jersey Boys."

RANNELLS: No. No.

EISENBERG: There's not two walkout points?

RANNELLS: No, everybody loved "Jersey Boys."

EISENBERG: Yes.

RANNELLS: So that was a very exciting part - to see people that maybe wouldn't generally go to see a musical come and sort of experience it in a different way. And I felt the same way - I popped into "Hamilton" right after they opened, and I did it for about five weeks, just filling in for Jonathan Groff. And I make it sound like I was a temp when I say it like that.

COULTON: No, I...

RANNELLS: But I was a temp. But I was a temp.

COULTON: Yeah, but a rather impressive temp job.

RANNELLS: Yes, I was - it was a temp job at "Hamilton," and that felt the same way - that, like, the audience were - it was a lot of people who were like, I don't like musicals. And you're like, well, but, you know, it can be...

EISENBERG: Right.

RANNELLS: ...It can be a lot of things.

EISENBERG: Right. It can push buttons. It can change the - where the line of comedy crosses.

RANNELLS: Yep. And we crossed that line. We certainly crossed that line.

EISENBERG: Yeah, you crossed that line.

COULTON: Back and forth and back and forth across the line. Yep.

RANNELLS: Yep.

EISENBERG: But you've also done a ton of voice work for cartoons.

RANNELLS: Yes. Yes.

EISENBERG: You did voices for Saturday morning cartoons in the early 2000s.

RANNELLS: Yes.

EISENBERG: You're in "Big Mouth."

RANNELLS: "Big Mouth," which is not a children's show.

EISENBERG: Not a children's show.

RANNELLS: Let's make that very clear.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

RANNELLS: It's not for children.

EISENBERG: Right, so you voice the character of Matthew MacDell, who is a gay middle schooler. And on your Instagram, actually, you shared a fairly recent New York Times opinion piece that was entitled "Big Mouth Is The Queer Childhood I Wish I Had." And the writer talks about how your character has this confidence to be himself and his friends are accepting, which was someone that - the writer said that he wishes he experienced that as a kid. Was that something that you identified with?

RANNELLS: Very much so.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

RANNELLS: And I thought - you know, when Nick Kroll, one of the creators of the show - when he asked me to do it, he was like, yes, you are playing the gay character - he was like, but you're kind of - you're the gay bully, which I've - had never been pitched before. Like, the gay kid was also the bully and the one who had the most power in middle school, and I thought that was a very interesting way into that character and not just have it be like, and then there's a gay kid. Because I've certainly done a lot of that. You know, I hear from younger folks who do watch the show, and I think Matthew does have a level of confidence that I certainly wish that I had in middle school.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

RANNELLS: And yet - and yet - we still - you know, when he - when Matthew came out to his family and Matthew got his first boyfriend, like, it's not without some anxiety and some concern. Like, there is - there - it is - I think they handled the coming out episode really well. And yeah, I think - I'm very proud of that show. And it kind of snuck up on me a little bit because sometimes you do things, you know, that you feel like are probably going to be a one-off or, you know, well, we'll see how this goes. But that - we just finished our fifth season, recording our fifth season. It hasn't come out yet. And it's really - I'm just very proud of it. I'm very proud to be a part of it.

EISENBERG: And you currently star, as we mentioned at the top, in the Showtime series "Black Monday."

RANNELLS: Yes.

EISENBERG: The show follows the employees of a Wall Street trading firm in the year leading up to the international stock markets crash in 1987. And you play Blair, an aspiring stockbroker. So OK. So this event obviously played a lot in people's lives. But also, knowing that these characters are going to experience a downfall is so fun for the viewer.

RANNELLS: Well, and not only do they experience it, but they cause it...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

RANNELLS: ...Which I thought was a big swing on our writers' part to be like, you know what? What if we figure out a way for this group of people, for me and Don Cheadle and Regina Hall, to actually cause the 1987 stock market crash? And they did it. But it's such a funny group of people to go to work with every day. I tell my younger sister - I will, like, call her and tell her stories from work. She's like, I can't believe that's your job...

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: ...That you just, like, sit in a room and, like, Regina Hall just makes you laugh all day. Like, that seems like such an odd job for you as an adult. So I'm very lucky.

EISENBERG: What's Regina's whole style of comedy? Is she a...

RANNELLS: Oh, my God.

EISENBERG: ...Pratfall person? Is she a word nerd? What is she?

COULTON: (Laughter).

RANNELLS: It's - yeah, not pratfall so much. I will say if you ever have the opportunity to attend an HR seminar, even over Zoom, with Regina Hall, definitely take it.

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: You should do it.

COULTON: Wow.

RANNELLS: Yeah.

COULTON: I would watch this show. This sounds amazing. Yeah.

EISENBERG: By the way, do you remember - I mean, you were just a kid when this stock market crash actually happened. Do you remember any of that or?

RANNELLS: No, not at all. And so I had to do, you know - I mean, I'm not going to lie. I didn't do that much research, but...

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: ...I read an article and...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: That's...

COULTON: That's enough.

EISENBERG: I feel like that's research. Yeah. More than the headline?

RANNELLS: I...

EISENBERG: Research.

RANNELLS: Yeah, I read the article and - maybe it was a blurb. But in any event, yes, I did have to learn about that stock market crash. No, I was - yeah. In '87, I was not aware of that. And I don't think my - I mean, I don't - I didn't ask my mother, like, if that affected their finances at all. I don't think that it did really in Nebraska, but it might have, you know, some level.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

RANNELLS: I should have asked. I should have asked.

EISENBERG: Well, there's time. There's time.

RANNELLS: Damn it.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: All right. Andrew, are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

RANNELLS: I'm very excited about this. I'm very excited.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Oh, excellent. Andrew, before the show, you told us that you love HGTV.

RANNELLS: Oh, sure.

EISENBERG: And what was your first entry into the HGTV world?

RANNELLS: Probably, like a lot of people, was, like, on TLC, actually, which was like "Trading Spaces."

EISENBERG: Yes.

COULTON: Oh, yeah.

RANNELLS: So I was a huge fan of that and made a lot of disastrous design choices to my own homes...

COULTON: (Laughter).

RANNELLS: ...Based on that program - a lot of color-blocking, a lot of feature walls.

COULTON: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.

RANNELLS: So I had the right intention, just not the right skill or taste.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

RANNELLS: But I did try.

EISENBERG: Just by saying color-blocking and accent wall, you've, like, set up what our game is. Because as we...

RANNELLS: Oh, boy.

EISENBERG: ...Were researching this, we found a very helpful glossary of jargon frequently used on the show.

RANNELLS: Amazing. OK.

EISENBERG: So we figured we'd put your home trend vocabulary to the test in a game we call HGTV ABC's.

RANNELLS: Oh.

EISENBERG: So I have - I'm going to ask you what a little bit of jargon. You'll describe what it is. If you're like, I would like multiple choice, I can also give you multiple choice.

RANNELLS: OK, OK.

EISENBERG: OK. So let's start easy. What is subway tile?

RANNELLS: Subway tile is a very classic - it's usually white rectangular tile that is quite literally used in the subway. But yeah, it's just a very classic, traditional tile.

EISENBERG: That's it, yeah. It's 3-inch-by-6-inch tiles found in New York City subway stations ever since the early 1900s. And it was supposed to evoke, like, a sort of cleanliness and help reflect light in those underground stations.

RANNELLS: And that turned out well for the New York City subway system. Nailed it, guys. Nailed it.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: The perfect place for my Sharpie.

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: Yup.

COULTON: All right. Here's another one. What is a...

RANNELLS: OK.

COULTON: ...Dutch door?

RANNELLS: Is a Dutch door - it's the two - it's like the swinging door. It's like a farm sort of house door where you have the option of just opening the top or opening the bottom of it, I guess.

COULTON: That's exactly right.

RANNELLS: All right.

COULTON: It's split horizontally into two halves, and they open independently. And it's - the original purpose was to let fresh air in and keep the animals out, which (laughter)...

RANNELLS: Oh, perfect.

COULTON: ...Sounds like a good plan.

RANNELLS: Awful - often featured on "Hee Haw."

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: (Laughter) Yes, indeed.

RANNELLS: Yes. You might know it from "Hee Haw."

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: You're only supposed to open it to say a joke. That's really the purpose of it.

RANNELLS: Yeah. You just swing in and then swing out.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: And that's it. OK, what is a vessel sink?

RANNELLS: Oh, a vessel sink - I personally don't care for them, but it's like a bowl on top of the vanity that's, like - you see them a lot in restaurants.

EISENBERG: Yes.

RANNELLS: You know, they have, like, a - it's usually like a - yeah.

EISENBERG: So I'm not a fan of them either. Why are you not a fan of them?

RANNELLS: It just is messy. It just splashes out.

EISENBERG: The water splashes everywhere (laughter).

RANNELLS: Yeah. No, I don't want that.

EISENBERG: Yeah, like a salad bowl of dirty soap and water.

RANNELLS: Yes. I feel like they're in Key West a lot. Does that make sense?

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: Makes perfect sense, yes.

EISENBERG: Oh, what an insult.

COULTON: (Laughter).

RANNELLS: No. No. It's just an idea.

EISENBERG: I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding.

RANNELLS: It's just an idea.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Yeah, we're just saying ideas here. We're just asking questions.

RANNELLS: This is a safe space.

COULTON: This is a safe space, yeah. All right, what is a German smear?

RANNELLS: Oh, is that - a German smear is like it's - I guess you would do it - well, you could do it on a wall, but I think it's mostly on the exterior of houses. It's like a - not putty. It's like a - you know, you're, like, spackling. You're doing sort of a broad-strokes, kind of messy kind of spackle on a wall.

COULTON: Yeah, it's...

RANNELLS: I think it's mostly on exteriors, but yeah.

COULTON: Yeah, it's a brick whitewashing technique. So yeah...

RANNELLS: Oh.

COULTON: ...And you use mortar and water and you create a white wall with the brick kind of poking through - German smear.

EISENBERG: Exposed brick that doesn't want to be so exposed - modest brick.

RANNELLS: Yes.

EISENBERG: It's modest brick.

RANNELLS: It's - you're making something look like it's a little dilapidated in a way that...

COULTON: Right.

EISENBERG: Yes.

RANNELLS: ...It's supposed to be cool, I guess. I don't know.

EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

COULTON: It's brick that's exposing itself but remaining a little bit coy.

RANNELLS: Oh. Well done, Jonathan.

COULTON: Oh, thank you.

EISENBERG: It's the ripped jeans of walls.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Yeah, ripped jeans of brick walls - that's right.

RANNELLS: That's correct.

EISENBERG: OK, got it. All right, what is object art?

RANNELLS: Is that like when you just have, like, a whimsical typewriter on a...

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: ...Just, like, a sickle for no reason...

EISENBERG: Yes.

RANNELLS: ...That's just lying on a shelf?

EISENBERG: Totally. Totally.

RANNELLS: OK.

EISENBERG: I love a whimsical typewriter.

COULTON: A whimsical typewriter, yeah.

RANNELLS: You know, just toss that up there.

EISENBERG: He's so smart. Look at his whimsical typewriter.

COULTON: (Laughter).

RANNELLS: I love the - HGTV has all of these home staging shows now, like when you're trying to sell your house or, you know - and inevitably there's always a typewriter. Why?

COULTON: Right. Right.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah.

RANNELLS: Why? Like, an old-timey telephone - let's slap that on.

COULTON: Right. Right. It's like the buyers are going to say, oh, look, this is where we could keep our riding crop...

RANNELLS: This is where...

COULTON: ...And Ben Franklin glasses, yeah.

EISENBERG: Right.

RANNELLS: Oh, just lay it on a book, on an open book.

COULTON: (Laughter) On an open book.

EISENBERG: Yes, you are right, just to be clear.

RANNELLS: Yes.

EISENBERG: Object art is just literally hanging objects on the wall.

COULTON: All right, this is the last one. What is...

RANNELLS: Oh, boy. Oh, boy.

COULTON: ...A cased opening?

RANNELLS: A cased opening.

COULTON: I can give you multiple choice if you feel as though you need it.

RANNELLS: I mean, is that just, like, well - like, an entryway that is - has a crown moulding on it?

COULTON: (Laughter) Yeah, I mean, basically.

EISENBERG: I mean, yeah.

RANNELLS: (Laughter).

COULTON: It's essentially - it's an opening in a wall with trim on it that looks like there should be a door there, but there's no door there.

RANNELLS: But there's not.

COULTON: It's a doorless doorway.

RANNELLS: Like an archway or a - OK.

COULTON: Like an archway or a - yeah, exactly right. Yeah.

RANNELLS: OK. OK. See, you guys, I didn't lie.

COULTON: No, you've really - I mean, we had all these multiple choices ready for you, but you didn't need a single one because you had it all called.

RANNELLS: Well, I've spent way too much time watching these shows. I've, you know...

EISENBERG: Or just enough time - or just enough time.

RANNELLS: Or just enough - thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: Thank you. Thank you for enabling me. I will continue. I will continue to watch.

EISENBERG: I think everybody right now who has a cased opening in their homes is like, you know what we need there? A door (laughter).

RANNELLS: Yeah, let's build a door. It's coming back.

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: That's what's going to happen with all of these houses that, you know - open concept. Everybody...

COULTON: That's right.

RANNELLS: ...Wants an open concept. People are going to start building walls again and be like, you know what? I don't want to see my kitchen, and I don't really need to see my kids play.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: (Laughter).

RANNELLS: So let's - yeah. I actually would prefer to hide. I love when people, like - well, we really want open concept because I want to keep an eye on the kids. No. The kids don't want you to keep an eye on them.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Yeah, they'll find another space. Trust me. They'll find another space.

RANNELLS: Yeah, just - they'll find a door. No.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah, my main thing in a house I'm looking for is boundaries.

RANNELLS: Yes, clear boundaries.

COULTON: Yeah, I need physical walls so I don't erect emotional ones in front of my family.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EISENBERG: Thank you so much. You totally - you aced that. You aced that.

RANNELLS: Oh, well, thank you. I feel like you really set me up to succeed, so I appreciate it.

EISENBERG: It was fun.

COULTON: That's what we do here, yeah.

EISENBERG: Andrew Rannells stars in the Showtime series "Black Monday." Thank you so much for joining us.

RANNELLS: Thanks for having me. This is so much fun. They're not...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

RANNELLS: They don't always go that way. Sometimes shows are terrible. And this was not one of them.

(LAUGHTER)

RANNELLS: So thank you.

COULTON: I take that as a huge compliment.

EISENBERG: You know, that's a pull quote. That's a pull quote.

RANNELLS: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: That's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Hey, my name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.

EISENBERG: Today's puzzles were written by our staff, along with Mary Tobler, Jonathan Zeller (ph) and senior writer Karen Lurie, with additional material by Cara Weinberger. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Nancy Saechao, James Sparber and Rommel Wood, with Gianna Capadona. Our senior producer is Travis Larchuk. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel. And our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner, WNYC.

I'm her ripe begonias.

COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.

EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.