The actor was simultaneously shooting the fourth season of HBO’s Girls in New York City and the Nancy Meyers film The Intern when director Michael Mayer called to ask if Rannells could take over for Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway.
“I had to go back to both of them and say ‘I really want to do this too,’ ” Rannells tells The Hollywood Reporter sweetly, as though asking for permission. Fortunately, everyone accommodated his “bizarre, bizarre schedule,” and now he’s donning makeup and more than a few wigs as the East Berlin rock-glam goddess, through Oct. 12 at the Belasco Theatre.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Rannells is lounging in his dressing room backstage — if you can even call it lounging, as he’s dressed in a perfectly pressed pink dress shirt and black slacks. (“This is my casual wear!” he insists.) A crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and the royal purple walls are decked out with gold-framed mirrors, all remnants from Harris’ stay. Though, for Rannells, the producers brought in a new dove-gray couch and some West Elm pillows to temper to colorful walls, and Rannells completes the setup with an arrangement of orchids.
While rehearsal time for the Tony-winning musical revival was tight, Rannells is no stranger to the role, having played it in 2002 at ZACH Theatre in Austin, but approaching it for a second time many years later has brought new meaning for him. “At 23, I hadn’t had that much relationship experience, and now I feel like there’s a lot more of that that I can bring to the role,” explains Rannells, who just turned 36, the same age the show’s book writer and original off-Broadway star, John Cameron Mitchell, was when he first did it at the Jane Street Theatre in 1998.
Rannells was in his freshman year at Marymount Manhattan then but “didn’t have my shit together enough to be like, ‘Where’s the Jane Street?’ ” He bought the album while the show was still running downtown and also saw the 2001 film. He relates to Hedwig’s journey of looking for a place to call home, because even though moving to New York from his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, was something he knew he needed to do when he was very young, he still took a while to adjust. “There was a long time in New York where I was like ‘I don’t feel like I fit here yet,’ ” he adds.
His well-mannered Omaha roots also make him nervous during some parts of Hedwig, like when the title character gyrates over a theatergoer’s head in “Sugar Daddy” or spits a mouthful of water onto an unsuspecting audience member. “I’ve been lucky in the past couple of performances that the person hasn’t been looking at me!” says Rannells. “But it’s a risky moment, and one that makes me a little uncomfortable. … I don’t know how I would receive that!” And does he have a game plan for if a cell phone goes off? “No, I feel like it will just be a slew of profanity. Maybe I’ll try to answer.”
Rannells says his rock vocal training comes from “listening to a car stereo,” and he did watch Tina Turner and Iggy Pop to prepare for Hedwig. “When I first started auditioning for a lot of musicals, the feedback I would get is my voice is a little pop sounding. And then, luckily for me, the style of Broadway-musical writing started to swing a little more on the pop side,” says Rannells, who was nominated for a Tony in The Book of Mormon and also starred in Jersey Boys and Hairspray.
To make the transgender character more his own, he both tried to humanize her by considering his own reaction to her situations and also modeled some parts after Faye Dunaway in Network and Chinatown. “There are moments of extreme rage — how do I get into that? Well, how would Faye Dunaway do this?”
He’s also become something of an admirer of wigs, particularly his Girls co-star Allison Williams‘ hairpiece for Peter Pan Live! “That wig is insane!” Rannells says, adding that he can’t wait to see the live broadcast on NBC. “The last time I talked to her about it, she was still very much on the hair-cutting train.” And what’s the secret to getting rid of all that glitter? “Scotch tape — you can’t wipe glitter off.”
After his Hedwig run, he’ll be back on TV as Elijah, Hannah’s gay ex-boyfriend, in Girls. Lena Dunham came to see Rannells’ first night in Hedwig, though Rannells doesn’t remember whether his leading Lenas — Dunham and his Hedwig co-star Lena Hall — met that night. He’s also not quite sure how Hedwig would fit in with the girls.
“I think Hannah and Jessa would really get along with Hedwig,” Rannells posits. “Shoshanna would be very confused by her. And I don’t think Marnie and Hedwig would really get along well.”