Clean-scrubbed Andrew Rannells, known to Girls fans as Hannah’s delightfully abrasive gay ex-boyfriend, has now stepped into the bedazzled platforms of Neil Patrick Harris to play the endearing transgender train wreck at the core of Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. A musical-theater vet, the Omaha, Neb., native had polished his song-and-dance chops with stints in Jersey Boys and Hairspray, and earned a Tony nod for his sly turn in the comic juggernaut The Book of Mormon (watch him slay that show’s standout song “I Believe” here).
The complex character of Hedwig, an East German songwriter who gave up being a man in her quest for freedom, brings Rannells a whole new set of challenges—not the least of which was logistical. While rehearsing Hedwig, the star was shooting the fourth season of Girls and filming The Intern with Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro. “It was a crazy summer,” he says, “but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
You’ve been described as a triple threat. If you could add yet another threat to your arsenal, what would it be?
Teleportation. That sounds so nerdy. But life these days would be so much easier if I could just be like, “And now I’m there!”
What was most scary about taking on Hedwig?
Well, let me just say, I packed the house on the first night with friends—Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet came, and my best friend and boyfriend came. Which was a nice introduction to this terrifying show.
Hedwig spits a mouthful of water into the audience—does doing that give you anxiety?
It does. I’ve never done drag before. Getting into my Hedwig costume is a little like putting on armor—once I have it on I can basically get away with anything on that stage. I would normally not be allowed to yell or spit at people but once that hair and heels are on people seem very willing take abuse from me.
[Laughs] I blame my family. My parents raised us all with a slightly dark sense of humor, very sarcastic, at times very cutting—in a good way! We were raised to always have a comeback. If you could come up with a good one-liner you got praised.
How long does your makeup take to apply?
About an hour. My make up artists Nicole and Josh do so much weird shit to my face. They put Elmer’s glue stick on my eyebrows and comb it through to flatten them down, and then they put makeup over it. I try to relax and pretend like it’s some sort of spa treatment. For opening night a lot of women I know gave me different eye makeup removers.
What works best?
It’s a combination. Lancome Effacil ($28; lancome-usa.com) and Almay Longwear & Waterproof Eye Makeup Remover Pads ($7; ulta.com) have been working very well. And Albolene Cleansing Concentrate Moisturizing Skin Cleanser ($8; drugstore.com), a really old-timey petroleum-based makeup remover, is great, too. Wow—I never thought I would be speaking knowledgably about something like this.
Ralph Lauren on Twitter after they suited you up for a recent Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon appearance. How would you describe your style?
I do love a suit. It’s a preppie situation. Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren are my big go-tos. They work with my shape. I’m lucky to be tall and lean, and I can walk right into their suits without alterations, so that’s perfect.
Let’s talk about Girls. How do you manage to make Elijah so likable, even when he does things that should be hate-able?
Oh God. It’s the Midwestern-ness. For whatever reason, one of my innate talents is being able to say something horrifying but make it seem—well, fun! I can’t explain how that happens. Sometimes I watch those episodes and see some of the stuff I’ve said to people and it’s really horrifying. And this fourth season that we just finished filming is no exception. I think it’s in the second episode where I tear into a new character and I’m scared to watch it. Even as I was saying the lines I was going, “Lena this does not seem right!”
What’s new for him in the upcoming season?
All the characters are in a little bit of flux right now. Elijah’s kind of growing up, but not really growing up—sort of making the same mistakes but showing a little bit of maturity. I mean, if all of a sudden he had his shit together, that’d be weird. So he’s still a bit of a mess at times. Which is great.
In real life, which of the characters on Girls do you most identify with?
I’m a total Marnie. The sort of flail-y, white-knuckle uptightness that she has really hits home with me occasionally. I’ll be watching her and think, That doesn’t seem so crazy. That’s fine with me. I’ve definitely made some of those choices!