"The thing that I took away most from this was I was a little too hard on that kid."
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Andrew Rannells has the distinction of being one of the few people to have not one, but two columns published in the famed New York Times' "Modern Love" column.

But now he's set himself apart even further — by making his directorial debut with an episode in the second season of the Amazon series based on the column. He also adapted his essay for the screen.

Based on his essay "During a Night of Casual Sex, Urgent Messages Go Unanswered," Rannells' episode features Marquis Rodriguez and Zane Pais as two young men who cross paths and reflect on their different memories of the one night they spent together. They remember not only their varied perspectives from the date itself, but the aftermath of a night of sex and a slew of missed phone calls, ending with the reveal that Rodriguez's character's father has had a medical emergency and is in a coma.

We talked to Rannells about the strange out-of-body experience of directing a memory he lived through, how long he's dreamed of stepping into the director's chair, and what he learned from revisiting his date from an outsider's perspective.

Modern Love, Andrew Rannells
(L-R) Zane Pais and Marquis Rodriguez in 'Modern Love'
| Credit: Christopher Saunders/Amazon; Inset: Bennett Raglin/WireImage

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've written two "Modern Love" columns. How and when did the idea of adapting one of them for the show first come about?

ANDREW RANNELLS: Well, I was such a fan of the first season, and then, when they announced they were going to do a second, I will admit I rather aggressively reminded them of my first essay. I reached out to Dan Jones, who's the editor of the Times who does the "Modern Love" column, and said, "If this is something that might fit into the second season, I would really like it to be considered." They came back and said, "Send a proposal of what that would look like." I had a lot of talks with John Carney, the showrunner and creator, about how to adapt it and what I could open up. He was really receptive to my ideas about exactly how to do it because I didn't want to just tell exactly that version of it. I wanted to have a little more freedom in the way that we presented it. He was very, very supportive about expanding things and coming up with different ways we could possibly get into that story.

What motivated you to go with this essay as opposed to your other?

It was the first one that I had written, and I felt very close to it. For the purposes of that show, it seemed like the better of the two to try to attempt. The second one, which I'm also very proud of, involves a Broadway show, and just from a practical standpoint, I was like, "I don't think they're going to probably want to pay the money to do a full-fledged production of a show that is not running right now on Broadway; I was like I don't know if that's going to fly." So some of it is practical, but it was also the first piece that I wrote and that I shared publicly. So I felt very, very close to it.

Was it always that you would both adapt and direct it? What were those conversations?

I definitely wanted to adapt it. John Carney was the one, after I wrote the script and pitched the script through all of the producers at Amazon, he said, "You should direct this," which I had not thought about. He was like, "It's your story, you wrote it, you're in a very unique position to make sure your vision comes across, so I think you should just direct it," which I was really blown away by and really intimidated because I had never done it. I talked to Ryan Murphy. I was working with Ryan at the time, and he talked me through some logistics and was very supportive and said, "I think you can do this and I think you'll have the right team in place to support you." That was also a real gift that I was able to lean on other directors I had worked with. I certainly thought a lot about Lena Dunham, watching her directing so many episodes of Girls and writing 70 episodes. She was also very supportive and thought I should try, so that was nice to have supportive friends.

Was directing something you'd been wanting to try for a while or did it catch you off guard?

Yeah, it kind of snuck up. It was not something that I ever thought was on the list. I always wanted to write, and I always have written, whether or not I shared it with anybody. There are certainly times you write things that are just for you. And I never anticipated sharing things, but then I was able to publish a book of essays a couple years ago and that, obviously, is a big confidence booster. You're like, "Well, I finished. That was a lot of self-motivated work. I think maybe I could probably tackle something new at this point." But it was not something on my radar. And this is such a unique experience because it's not like jumping into a show that already has a cast in place and the characters in the story. This was like doing a short film. And that's really the way that John approached it with me was it's just an encapsulated episode of this series. It felt like a very unique way to start directing.

Where did the idea come from to turn it into these dual perspectives and make it about the fickleness of memory?

It came up after the article came out. I have never seen that man again that I was with that night. I had one sort of crossing of paths with him, much like is shown in the episode. When the article came out, I just started looking back and thinking, "What was his experience like?" I know obviously what I was feeling when I was in the throes of getting some really bad news, and 22 years old and not quite sure how to handle it. But he had his whole own experience that I hadn't, I'll be honest, really considered, because I was 22, and obviously, upset to get the news that my father was in a coma. It took some distance to then go back and be like, "What the hell was he thinking? What was that experience like for him?" Because that couldn't have been easy either.

And I've always enjoyed movies or TV shows that do that with the dual perspectives because I think it's an interesting way to tell the story. Everyone gets to be complete. There was a part of me that didn't want to cast my "character" as the lead. I wanted it to very much feel like a two-hander where both people felt like they had equal space to talk about that night. So that's where I started. And then the idea of running into each other on the street, that's a very New York [thing]. Just the dread of approaching somebody that you don't want to see walking down 9th Avenue but knowing that it's going to happen, that feels like a very, very New York story to tell. When I started to talk about it in the pitch, all the people from New York were like, "Oh yeah, that's the worst. That's a bad feeling when that starts to happen."

Was it strange being on set and watching events that actually happened to you be dramatized?

It was weird. What was really helpful was casting. There are these two great actors, Zane Pais and Marquis Rodriguez, that we found. I was really blown away by both of them, and they made it their own. So it was very easy to remove myself in some ways because it didn't feel like exactly my story. I was handing it over to these guys to tell. There was no need for Marquis to try to do a version of Andrew Rannells; he took it over. That was really helpful in separating myself from the story. The only hard thing was when we filmed that phone call where he gets the news that his dad is sick, and he has been ignoring all these phone calls all night; that was a tough moment personally to remember and to go back to that moment. But for the rest of it, I really just handed it over to that cast. We filmed the episode up in Schenectady, New York, and we were all quarantined there. We were all staying in the same hotel, and there was an element of it that really felt like summer stock or theater camp. It turned into this very communal experience of creating the show, so that was another really special part. We had this opportunity to really dive into it and work on it and focus on the story, and everybody got to know each other in ways that were really helpful.

When you were directing, was it helpful to be able to give your actors the actual interior perspective of having lived it, or did you try to keep some distance with that?

I really wanted them to have their own experience with it, whatever their instincts were when they read it. There were only a couple moments where Marquis and I talked about, "What was my relationship with my dad? What was my relationship with my sister who was calling me?" That was helpful. Also, as a first-time director, but having been on so many sets and having worked a fair amount on camera, I did find that there was a different shorthand I had with all of them. I don't want to say it was easy, but it was easy. A lot of these people were my friends too. Nikki James and I did Book of Mormon together. Zuzanna Szadkowski has been my best friend since I was 18. I can just look at them and say like, "Can you do that thing with your face?" And they're like, "Yeah, got it." That was also very helpful. My big directing secret was just cast very talented actors and they'll basically finish the work for you. I have to specifically mention that I had a really incredible director of photography, and he just made everything so so seamless and so easy and was so patient. We had a lot of time to make sure that I knew what I was doing and we knew what we were doing on the day because it was a pretty tight schedule.

Did you get bit by the directing bug? Are you eager to do more?

Zuzanna and I, we just finished a script, our story of our friendship, and the sort of unique dynamic of the gay man and straight girl best-friend coupling. That has its unique challenges but also benefits. We just finished writing the script, which I'm very excited about and we are taking that out currently. That is something that I will also direct.

Did writing and directing this give you new insight into that night or just yourself more broadly?

Yeah, it did. I was really hard on myself about who I was in my 20s at that time. A lot of eye-rolling and a lot of cringing about things that I've done or even like in that essay, I talk about getting bad highlights in my hair. This is 2001, so people were doing that. But just looking back and being like, "What an idiot." Through this process, especially looking at Marquis doing it, I realized I should be nicer to that kid. I should not be so hard on remembering back because I was trying my best, and everyone was trying their best. You obviously learn a lot with age, but the thing that I took away the most from this was that I was a little too hard on that kid because he didn't know what to do, and he was trying his best.

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