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After Andrew Rannells pitched himself for a starring role in NBC's The New Normal, the show's creator didn't call for a month.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, I've completely overstepped — I've over-Oprah-ed this,' " Rannells tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I've ruined my chances of working with this man because I was too bold."
Luckily for Rannells, he was wrong. The 34-year-old actor plays The New Normal's Bryan Buckley, a successful TV-show producer and writer in Los Angeles. The comedy, which premiers Sept. 10, follows Buckley and his partner, David, who want a child so badly that they hire a surrogate.
"It's a rather serious and loving subject matter, so I didn't want to dumb it down with stereotypical over-the-top gay flash and sass," Rannells says.
Rannells' character is loosely based on the show's creator, director and producer Ryan Murphy, who is best known for creating Nip/Tuck and co-creating Glee and American Horror Story.
Rannells says he hopes the show will convince more people that gay people can make great parents. He also says he hopes that it will change the minds of those who are on the fence about gay people — or, as Rannells says his sister calls them, "swing straights."
"She was like, 'I think this will potentially sway some folks who don't think they have anything in common with gay people, or they don't know any gay people,'" Rannells says.
This will be the first major leading TV role for Rannells, who plays Elijah in the HBO series Girls. He also starred in Broadway productions of Jersey Boys, Hairspray and The Book of Mormon. For his role in The Book of Mormon, Rannells was nominated for a Tony Award for best leading actor in a musical.
On playing a gay character
"I certainly didn't want to be gay clown on this, you know, because the subject matter is actually a very sweet one, and I think a very lovely one about these people who are so in love and so committed to each other that they realize that what's missing in their life is to share that love with a child. ...
"So luckily, the writing — coming from Ryan Murphy and [Allison] Adler and all of our writers — really allows me to play a little bit of that, but I think the more straightforward you play all those jokes, particularly the flamboyant ones, the more it become a character trait and not a joke, if that makes any sense. It just becomes something ingrained in this guy and not a put-on idea to get a laugh. And I've been really lucky, particularly moving forward with these scripts, that there's just been more and more of that. And I feel like the characters get richer and more human as we go along."
On dropping out of college to make it on Broadway
"At a certain point, I realized I'm going into great debt to get a [bachelor of fine arts] in acting. And I was like, 'What is that? What is that even going to be when I'm finished?' So I just started auditioning and I got a couple jobs and got an equity card and joined the union and dropped out of school. And I thought, 'Well, let's just do it.' Like if I had been really passionate about studying anything else, I completely would have stayed in college and I would have gotten that degree.
"But the fact that my passion was acting, and I was paying for college myself, I was just like, 'I can't justify going this deep into debt for something that might not mean anything. So I want to just try it. I want to try and see if I'm good enough to do this before I invest anymore financially in this.' Luckily I was given the proper encouragement via jobs that I kept going. But my career, definitely, the early years were a little scattershot, in terms of — it was a little regional theater, it was a lot of voiceovers, it was a lot of random day jobs. I mean, it was hard. It was hard to scrap around, and once Hairspray happened, then it all kind of clicked into place."
On figuring out he was gay and coming out to his family
"The earliest memory I have of that, honestly, is watching maybe Clash of the Titans or Grease 2 — watching that and really having strange feelings about Harry Hamlin and Maxwell Caulfield. And I was 4 or 5 at the time, and just like having a crush and understanding what that was, and verbalizing that crush, which I've never really [spoken] to my family about specifically, but they were aware of the fact that at 4, I had a crush on Maxwell Caulfield — like, that was a thing, and not like I wanted to be him, [but] like I wanted to date him. So when I came out when I was 18, and I graduated from high school and I felt like that was the time to officially say it, I surprised zero people in my family. ...
"And I realize how incredibly lucky I am that I come from a family where it was a nonissue. And particularly because you might think, so Nebraska Catholic, like, that probably didn't go so well for you. But they were so great, and continue to be so great. ...
"I remember my dad saying he believed it was a choice, but that he also loved me, and that he would support me no matter what I chose to do. And then about six months later, he said, 'I've been thinking about this a lot, and it clearly is not a choice. This is clearly the way you were born, because as I replay your childhood in my head, I know that you've been telling us this since you were born. So no, this is not a choice and I love you and I will always love you.' So I'm so lucky to come from a family where that was the response."
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