“I love telling queer stories, I love playing queer people and there’s still a lot of queer stories to tell,” says Andrew Rannells. “I feel very fortunate that people like Ryan Murphy are in a position to tell those stories and to make sure they’re shared.” The actor, who recently starred in Netflix’s adaptation of The Boys in the Band, has teamed up with the aforementioned filmmaker once again for the long-awaited queer bash of the year, The Prom.
Based on the critically-acclaimed musical of the same name, the film follows four struggling actors – played by Rannells, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and James Corden – who travel to a conservative town in Indiana to help a lesbian student (Jo Ellen Pellman), who has been banned from bringing her girlfriend (Ariana DeBose) to prom. As we wrote in our four-star review, The Prom is the LGBTQ+ celebration we needed this year. It’s a relentlessly queer ride from start to finish, and the message of self-love is more vital than ever.
“It’s truly a gay Fantasia, it looks so beautiful. Ryan does such a miraculous job, just visually, making all of it so colourful and so happy and whether you’re gay or not, I think everyone will find some joy,” Andrew tells GAY TIMES over Zoom. “Particularly right now, as we’re all locked in our homes. I think that people will hopefully find a little bit of happiness watching it.”
Here, Andrew delves into his role as Juilliard-actor-turned-bartender Trent Oliver in the film – which premieres 11 December on Netflix – his own personal prom experience, and why he doesn’t feel “pigeonholed” by only playing gay characters.
Before we dive into The Prom, how was your experience adapting The Boys in the Band into a film?
That’s what was so unique about it, is that we arrived the first day on set and everybody knew all of their lines for the entire movie, which never happens! There was no waffling or people with pages in their hands, everybody knew what they needed to do. But that said, Joe Mantello, our director, and Bill Pope, our cinematographer, really let us play for a couple days on that set, because the set was very different than the one we had on Broadway. The one on Broadway was very stylised and there wasn’t a tonne on it, but this set that we had for the film was a very realistic New York apartment from 1968. We got to play around for a couple days before we started filming. Because we all knew it so well, we got to explore other options for what we didn’t get to do on Broadway. It was just fun to watch everybody dig into those characters and find other aspects to those people.
I can imagine it was strange for you as well, because you must be used to the audience reaction when you’re on stage?
The lack of feedback when filming is always a little tricky, especially as I started my career in the theatre, so you’re used to figuring out. This gets a laugh, this gets a reaction, and when you’re filming, you’re like, ‘Is this gonna work? Is this funny?’ Sometimes your cast-mates or the crew will tell you after the fact that it was really good, or it was really funny, but you’re used to getting that immediate feedback. It’s always a little tricky that you have to be patient about that to figure out how this is going to land, or how people are going to receive this.
It’s incredible how a play written in 1968 still resonates today.
The first time we did a reading of it, I was just so blown away, particularly by my character, Larry. The argument he’s making about monogamy is still something that a lot of people still speak about, especially queer people. Should we be trying to subscribe to the more heteronormative template of getting married and having kids, or are we allowed to figure out a new way to do it? The fact that Mark wrote that in 1968 just shows you how far we’ve come, but we’re still basically the same.
Even for people who feel comfortable in their sexuality, there’s someone to relate to.
Absolutely, it’s a testament! I get asked a lot, ‘Don’t you feel pigeonholed by only playing gay characters?’ because I mostly play gay characters. And my response to that is always that it implies there’s only one type of gay person, that there’s only one way to do it, and that play is a very clear depiction of the fact that there are eight out gay men who are all wildly different from one another. It shows that there’s not one type of person you can play, there’s lots of different ways to be gay.
Imagine that coming out of your mouth, and then thinking that was a good question?
I think they thought they were being sympathetic or something like, ‘Oh, this gay guy must really want to do something else.’ But I love telling queer stories, I love playing queer people and there’s still a lot of queer stories to tell. I feel very fortunate that people like Ryan Murphy are in a position to tell those stories and to make sure they’re shared. There’s many more people who are doing that now, but Ryan’s been doing it for his whole career. He’s always made it possible to share those stories. The fact that I’ve gotten to work with him twice this year, on The Boys in the Band, and then on The Prom, was a real gift. The Prom is such a sweet, uplifting story. If it existed when I was in high school, some 20 years ago, I would have felt so seen and so happy that it existed. That’s what I’m most excited about when it comes out on December 11 is for young people to get to see it, particularly from the middle of America. I think a lot of kids probably feel very isolated and the fact that maybe this movie might alleviate a tiny bit of stress for those kids, to just tell the story that we do see you, we do support you, there are people out there who love you whether you can see it right now or not. It’s a really beautiful story, the first time I saw it – and I was in it so I knew how it was going to end – I legitimately cried when those girls go to prom together because it’s really moving. It’s really moving as a queer person to get to see that depicted on screen.
I remember when the trailer came out, I was tearing up in the office because of how wonderful and gay it is.
It’s truly a gay Fantasia, it looks so beautiful. Ryan does such a miraculous job, just visually, making all of it so colourful and so happy and whether you’re gay or not, I think everyone will find some joy. Particularly right now as we’re all locked in our homes. I think that people will hopefully find a little bit of happiness watching it.
How did you get involved with The Prom?
I’d worked with Ryan before and he called me out of the blue. I was walking back to my apartment after seeing a Broadway show and he said, ‘I would like you to do this movie.’ He asked if I had seen The Prom and I had just seen it on Broadway. He said, ‘I would like to make the movie and I want you to play Trent. We have Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman.’ It seemed like a prank call. As an actor, anytime you’re offered a job – and I think a lot of actors feel this way – you don’t really believe it until you’re on set. But I really believe Ryan, because Ryan is definitely a man of his word and if he says he’s going to do something, he makes it happen. Several months went by before we were actually on set, but I knew about it for almost a year. It’s very exciting and hard to keep a secret, it was hard not to talk about it.
Ryan Murphy’s collaborators return to work with him time and time again, including you – what is it about the culture he creates on set?
He’s very collaborative, so you feel safe to play around and try things. But he’s also very direct in his direction. It’s very clear what he wants. I always feel like when I work with Ryan, I know what the goal is. Sometimes when you work on something you’re like, ‘What is it going to turn out to be?’ but every day on The Prom, I knew what the thesis statement was and what we were going for. I had a little bit of an idea of what it was going to look like and how it’s going to be cut together. He’s just very communicative about that. He’ll say, ‘This is this shot, it’s gonna turn into this shot,’ which directors don’t always do. He explains what is going to happen and it makes for better performances, because you know where you’re going in the scene. So, I trust him a lot, which is why I like working with him. I’ll do whatever he asks.
What if he asks you to join American Horror Story?
I would love to do that. I would love to do that. If only I wasn’t on another television show, I would jump on it. We have rules about that!
You play Trent and he is a Juilliard alumni. Is it safe to say that he’s not where he wants to be in his career?
That is very correct. He went to Juilliard, he’s classically trained, but his only big success was being on this very cheesy family show, called Talk to the Hand, which he was the star of. That’s what he’s known for, and that really bothers him, that he’s known as being a trite TV actor. But, he wants everyone to know that he’s actually classically trained, and everyone’s very annoyed when he brings up the fact that he went to Juilliard!
Was there any part of your career that you kind of tapped into to embody the role of Trent?
I had an ex-boyfriend that went to Juilliard and he used to talk about Juilliard a lot. I tried to infuse some of that in there. Actors love to talk about themselves and that’s sort of a big chunk of this movie, these four actors are so self-involved, that they think they can swoop into this town in Indiana and save this girl and she doesn’t really need saving. She’s actually doing pretty well on her own. But we decide that we know best and we’re going to go in there and save this kid. And she ended up saving us in a lot of ways.
What was your personal prom experience like?
I went to an all-boys Catholic school, and I took my best friend at the time. Her name was Randy Newton, she was three years older than me, so it was a big scandal! I took her junior and senior year and she was just a knockout. She was so beautiful and the difference between 17 and 20 is like a real big one. So, the fact that this woman came to prom with me and she was in a black cocktail dress, she did not wear a prom dress… All these other girls were in princess things with tiaras and all that shit. Randy wore a black cocktail dress, had a smoky eye and was so chic. Everyone, even the priests at my school were like, ‘Who’s that woman?’ and that was my prom date. I took her junior and senior year, so I became very popular. I wasn’t out in high school but everyone thought I was really cool, that I had this woman that I brought to the prom with me. Obviously nothing happened, I wasn’t having sex with her that’s for sure!
This is the second Broadway film to hit Netflix within a few months. Are there any other Broadway productions that you would see get like to see get the Netflix treatment?
I would love to do Falsettos. I did Falsettos on Broadway in 2016 and it’s my favourite show. It’s probably my favourite thing that I’ve ever gotten to do. I would love to see that happen. It’s a very specific story and the concept of the show is very theatrical, so I don’t know exactly how we would do it. But, I’d love to figure it out.
On the other hand, what Netflix film could receive the Broadway treatment?
It’s not for me, but I think that The Queen’s Gambit could easily be musicalised. I think they could do it. I don’t really have a horse in that race, but I feel like that could be musicalised easily.
The Prom premieres 11 December on Netflix – watch the trailer here or below.