Andrew Rannells on The Prom and James Corden's divisive gay character

Exclusive: The screen star defends Ryan Murphy's approach to casting as he discusses one of the year's most joyous LGBTQ films.


Words: Will Stroude

Following a limited theatrical release earlier this month, The Prom finally arrives on Netflix this Friday (11 December), giving millions more the opportunity to bring the eternal hell-cycle that has been 2020 to a joyously musical - and upliftingly gay - close.

Ryan Murphy's film adaptation of the acclaimed 2018 Broadway musical about a group of washed-up stage stars who descend on an Indiana town to revive their flagging careers by supporting a lesbian high school student banned from attending prom with her girlfriend may be dividing the critics, but for sheer 'zazz' and flair alone, it's more than worth two hours of your time this festive season.

Despite The Prom's witty, big-hearted approach to issues of prejudice and equality, the film has already found itself as the centre of the dreaded 'online discourse' over James Corden's casting as campy gay male lead Barry Glickman, making it easy to forget that the film also sees Andrew Rannells, one of Hollywood's most prominent gay stars, also play against type as the piece's straight supporting man, Trent Oliver.

Having also starred in Murphy's all-gay remake of The Boys in the Band this year, and with his own upbringing as a small-town gay kid in Nebraska, Rannells is well-placed to comment on some of the issues raised by The Prom, from the 'tale of two countries' experienced by gay youth in the US to the issue of Hollywood casting diversity.

Shortly after he joined his The Boys in the Band co-stars to accept the Film Award at the 2020 Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards, powered by Jaguar, we caught up with Andrew, 42, to talk all things The Prom, and find out how the production helped him fulfill a personal dream held by every gay man: namely, getting Nicole Kidman's number saved on your phone...

After the year we’ve had, it feels like the perfect time for a film like The Prom, which is two hours of just unmitigated joy and happiness.

I will have a hard time I think ever working on something where I will laugh as much as I did on that set. I think Ryan’s created a really beautiful, safe space for us all to feel free to try things and be silly, and I hope it comes across because we really did have a fantastic time getting to do it. I know a lot of actors say that about things but not every job is that fun! But this one was really fun.

Had you seen the Broadway production before you were approached about the film?

I had already seen it when Ryan offered me the job – and I didn’t know he was doing this – but I had seen it and had friends who were in it, so I was just excited as a fan, and then after I was cast I went back and saw it again. And that cast is just spectacular, and obviously we would not be here [without them], so thanks to that original cast.

You’ve previously worked with Ryan Murphy on The New Normal and on The Boys in the Band – is it the case that when he comes to you with a project, it’s like ‘sign me up’?

Oh, I’m a big fan. And he always picks really interesting and exciting projects. The Boys in the Band, when that was presented to me as an idea, we all read the script and I was very excited about doing it and was proud to revive it after the original. I can’t think of any another producer who could have pulled that off other than Ryan: It’s one of the things that makes him so interesting – he has a great eye and has his finger on the pulse of all these zeitgeist-y moments before anyone knows we needed it. I think the timing of The Prom coming out right now, it’s something families can watch together and will bring some joy for the holidays.

You’re starring alongside some absolute legends in the form of Meryl [Streep] and Nicole [Kidman] – what was it like to work with such esteemed screen stars?

Obviously, when Ryan said it’s James Corden and Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, it’s like, that’s a no-brainer as an actor to be like ‘Well yes, obviously I want to do that!’ What was so great [was that] I remember going to the premiere of Big Little Lies with my friend and I saw Nicole Kidman and was like ‘Can I talk to her?!’ and my friend was like ‘Yeah, just go do it!’ I was so nervous, I was profusely sweating, and walked up to Nicole Kidman. She saw me and was like ‘We’re gonna work together!’ She was so nice and we ended up having just a really fun chat about everything and nothing. But I was so nervous: first of all, she’s gorgeous, but also she’s so incredibly talented. She’s the best. Meryl as well. I mean, James is James so that’s not a big deal [laughs] No, but they were all so great. I saved Nicole Kidman’s number in my phone as ‘Nicole Kidman’, which is probably not the best idea. I get a real jolt when I see ‘Nicole calling’ or get a text from Nicole, it’s very exciting.

You mentioned James – I think one of the things which might wrong-foot a people is that he’s playing the gay lead male role and you’re playing the straight lead male role. What do you anticipate the reaction to that will be? Because it will go against a lot of people’s expectations.

You know, I kinda I go back and forth about this. Obviously, representation is very important, but what I feel that Ryan does so well is, you know, it’s the best person for the job, quite frankly. In the same way that James can play the gay character, he’s also given me an opportunity to play a straight character, which is not something I do all the time. As much as he takes [an actor’s sexuality] into consideration, I think ultimately he’s looking for talent and parts, and he’s given me the opportunity to play this part which maybe another director wouldn’t have cast me in, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity.

I think the great thing about a film like The Prom is that because it does have such a diverse cast you can do those things without having to worry so much about those structural issues.

Yeah, and I remember talking with James a little bit before we started. I don’t know what his anxiety level was - if there was any, quite frankly - about doing it, but I know he was very meticulous about getting it right and being honest. And he’s such an amazing actor anyway, I think it was kind of a no-brainer. And he’s also from the theatre, he grew up doing musicals, he knows that world so well.

Did you have any conversations with him relating to your own experience? Because you grew up in a small town in Nebraska that’s not dissimilar to the one in the film. Did the story hit close to home?

Absolutely. I was very lucky, my family was incredibly supportive. I came out after high school before I moved to New York for school, but I’m grateful to say I had a very easy coming out. But certainly, his character did not, and unfortunately, that experience is probably a little more realistic than the one I had. I came out to my mother, I told her ‘Mom, I’m gay’, and she was like ‘Yuh-huh’. When I was a kid I wanted to be a Solid Gold dancer, which was like a dance show in the US in the ‘80s. That was my dream job, so I’m pretty sure my parents had a sneaking suspicion there was something special about Andy…

The Prom was inspired by a real incident that took place a decade ago, and while so much progress has been made since, it does still seem to be a tale of two countries in the States when it comes to the experiences of LGBTQ people. Do you think people often fail to appreciate how little has changed for young people in places like the conservative mid-West?

Well I don’t know if you feel this way living in London, but sometimes I feel like in New York and Los Angeles I live in a little bit of a bubble – or a big bubble, quite frankly – or just being around a lot of like-minded folks who are supportive, and I don’t really think about my sexuality anymore, you know? But that’s the tricky thing, which I think a lot of straight people don’t necessarily understand, is that when you do come out, you don’t just come out one time, you have to keep doing it. Any new job you start, any new friends you make, it’s an ongoing conversation you have to have. I think what’s so great about this film is that Emma – the character Jo Ellen Pellman plays – she doesn’t necessarily see where her allies are, but they’re waiting in the wings to be supportive of her. I hope that for kids who are maybe struggling with coming out will keep that in mind: that even if it doesn’t seem like there are supportive people around you, they are out there, and you will find those people who will love you and support you, whoever you are.

The Prom is in selected cinemas now and will be available to stream on Netflix from Friday 11 December.