Anthony Rapp was in his early 20s when he realized he wanted to become a father — but was convinced it would never happen.
“I thought it’d pass me by,” he tells PEOPLE.
But nearly 30 years later, the Star Trek: Discovery actor is at ease sitting beside his partner, leadership and life coach Ken Ithiphol, and their 3-month-old son Rai Larson Ithiphol, at their home in downtown New York City.
“He’s making more noise lately, just cooing and chatting,” Rapp says, noting that looking into his son’s eyes feels like staring into the ocean. “You just get lost, right? That’s what I feel.”
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Rai’s birth in December came at a “profound” time for the actor. Less than two months earlier, Rapp, who rose to fame in the mid-1990s starring in the Broadway blockbuster Rent, lost his civil lawsuit against Kevin Spacey, whom he accused of making an unwanted sexual advance toward him when Rapp was 14. (Spacey claimed he did not remember the encounter.)
“To really close the chapter on that and to do so knowing that Rai was coming — to say this was a light at the end of the tunnel is an understatement,” says Rapp, 51.
Now he’s keeping his focus on the future, including his new one-man musical Without You and the upcoming final season of Star Trek: Discovery: “It’s this era of light — and [the lawsuit] is a closed room.”
The door for baby Rai’s arrival began to open in December 2015, when Ithiphol, 37, saw Rapp in a touring production of the musical If/Then and messaged him on Facebook about the show.
“It started off as a very friendly, casual conversation,” recalls Ithiphol. “Then once we met, it got a bit more flirtatious.” They started dating that January and were engaged in November 2019. In early 2021 they began the surrogacy process.
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The pandemic, Ithiphol says, “really launched us into taking that first step, which really helped us tap into that deeper longing to figure out how to make it happen.”
When Rapp and Ithiphol found Nikki Nicolaisen, a nurse and married mother of three in New Hampshire, they “had a very strong response,” says Ithiphol. (Nicolaisen says she developed a “lasting bond” with the couple, explaining that she was happy to give them a “one-of-a-kind gift that can’t be replaced.”)
Adds Rapp, whose mom, Mary Lee Baird, died in 1997: “Both of our late mothers were nurses. Like them, [Nicolaisen] has a kind of quiet strength.”
Baird’s death came roughly a year after the death of Rent creator Jonathan Larson, Rapp’s close friend and the inspiration behind Rai’s middle name.
Rapp honors both Larson and his mother in his one-man Off-Broadway show Without You — which is based on his 2006 memoir — and says that spending time with the memory of his mom has had an impact on his parenting.
“I’m very mindful that she’s not going to get to meet him,” Rapp says. “At the same time, I’m also channeling her. Her spirit is super present. Bittersweet is not quite a strong enough word.”
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Baby Rai will call Ithiphol Dad or Daddy, the couple explain, and Rapp will be called Papa. (“We practiced that with our pets first — seriously — just to get used to the vernacular of it,” Rapp says.)
The couple have not ruled out expanding their family again, but for now they are savoring the sweet early days with their newborn.
Rapp is especially reveling in reading to his son. “I don’t know how much he’s processing yet, but I’m really looking forward to hearing from him about what he gets from books,” says Rapp.
Adds Ithiphol with an adoring smile: “I hope he’ll enjoy singing too.”
For more on Anthony Rapp and his baby joy, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.