Before he scored roles in red-hot projects like the Book of Mormon and Girls, Andrew Rannells was green with envy. Here’s how he got over it.

By Andrew Rannells
Updated: Feb 11, 2019 @ 5:47 pm
Joshua Jordan/Trunk Archive

Lance Polokov. That was his name. He was the boy who was cast as Oliver in Oliver! at the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater in Omaha, Neb. Not me. By the way, I was never going to be cast as Oliver. I didn’t even come close. But as soon as I discovered who had gotten the role, I developed my first professional vendetta. The envy that rose in my 9-year-old body was unlike anything else I had ever felt before. It was upsetting to dislike someone I didn’t even know, but it was also motivating. I had a mission now; I had a goal. I was going to prove to myself and to Lance Polokov that I belonged on that stage, that I was just as good as he was. 

As I continued to pursue this hobby of acting that was now becoming a career, my competitiveness grew. When I got to New York in 1997, I very much felt as if I were behind the eight ball. I had moved there with no contacts, no real knowledge of the business, and a terrible head shot taken by a local wedding photographer in Omaha. Everything I thought I knew seemed wrong. I started comparing myself with everyone around me to see what they had that I didn’t. It was part aspirational, part self-destructive. But I couldn’t stop myself. 

The list of people I was out for got longer and longer. I found myself being jealous of everybody: a friend who just booked a Broadway show, a guy I went to school with who popped up on a TV commercial, a barista at Starbucks because he had nicer arms than I did. Even when I finally started working on Broadway, I still managed to find a way to make myself feel less than. I wasn’t in the right show. I wasn’t in the newest show. I didn’t have the biggest part, the best role. I didn’t allow myself to celebrate my successes.  

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In 2008 I was in Toronto with Jersey Boys playing Bob Gaudio. It was a role I had fought hard to play and auditioned for time after time. Finally, I booked it. Not on Broadway as I had hoped, but on tour and then opening the Toronto company. It was the happiest I had ever been professionally. I loved the role, I loved the show, I loved the people I worked with every day. But there was still this nagging voice telling me I should be unhappy. I was aiming for Broadway but landed in Canada. Nothing against Canada, but I was a long way off.

Then something inevitable but still shocking happened: I turned 30 on our opening-night performance. I don’t know if it was the mark of a new decade or the clean Canadian air, but I had a moment of insane clarity while onstage singing and dancing to “Oh, What a Night.” This is where I was. There was no place else I wanted to be in that moment. I still had dreams and goals, and I wanted to do so much in my life and career, but I was incredibly happy to be exactly where I was in that moment. It seems simple now, but I guess what I realized that night was that my career, my happiness—or at least what my idea of that was—was not a destination. It wasn’t something I was going to feel because of a job or a trophy or a boyfriend. It was happening right now. I was living it, and I should enjoy the journey. 

This realization freed me up professionally to do what I do without trying to be what I thought a director was looking for. I had my bag of tricks as an actor, and if that worked for a particular role, great. If not? Then it wasn’t meant to be my job. On to the next audition. I was still sad not to get certain roles, but I knew in my gut that the right one would come along. And then it did, in the form of a Mormon missionary in The Book of Mormon. When that opportunity presented itself, I felt oddly calm about the whole process. I had a very clear idea of how I was going to play that part, and I had to trust it was the same way that [show creators] Trey Parker and Matt Stone wanted it played. Luckily for me, it was.

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I’m not going to lie and say I’ve never been jealous of anyone since then. It’s a hard habit to break, but it’s gotten so much easier to let that feeling go. As I have stuck around this business for close to 20 years now, I see that everyone gets a turn, everyone gets a moment (maybe several), but none of this makes yours less shiny, less important. Eyes on your own paper,
folks! Everyone is going to get where they are going.

Rannells’s book, Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthoodis available March 12. And for more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 15.