TheBacklot Interview: Jonathan Groff on “Looking”, Nude Scenes and Diet Coke

JOnathan Groff TheBacklot InterviewWhen you sit down with Jonathan Groff, it may be to talk about his new HBO series, Looking, but the conversation expands to cover all sorts of topics. Sure, we touched on Groff’s starring role in the new HBO series and his on set bonding with fellow cast members Frankie J. Alvarez and Murray Bartlett. We even covered how much nudity viewers can expect on Looking.  But those essentials out of the way, the conversation naturally opened up to include Groff’s love for Beyoncé and Diet Coke, whether he pays attention to gossip about himself and what being in the upcoming HBO film, The Normal Heart means to him.

Looking premieres this Sunday on HBO and while there are many reasons to tune in (we recently gave you 11, to be exact), know that Groff himself will be at the top of the list.

TheBacklot: I saw you in Spring Awakening years ago so my question is, back in that time, is this where you wanted things to go?

Jonathan Groff:  I would’ve never imagined. No. When I moved to New York all I wanted was to do theater. I never honestly, not even a little bit, imagined that I would want to do film or television. It didn’t seem like an option. It just didn’t even seem like that existed for me coming from Pennsylvania, and doing community theater. When I would see it on Broadway I could understand like ‘that’s the band’ and ‘I know what that is. I can relate to that.’ So moving to New York, I was like, ‘I know what it feels like to be on a stage and act in a play’ but I’d never been on a film set or like television set. I didn’t even know what that was. So, no. I never imagined that.

Do you think it’s selling this show short by calling it a ‘gay show?’

I think it’s cool. I mean, part of the reason we’re calling it the gay show or people end up calling it the gay show is because of the unfortunate fact that there isn’t a lot of TV shows on where most of the central characters are gay. So the fact that this one is out is great. And that it’s the gay show, then cool. Some people are calling it the gay Girls or the gay Sex in the City. I love Sex in the City and Girls. I’ve seen like every episode at least once in both of those shows. So, to be compared to that before we’re even on air is kind of an amazing honor. And I think there might be a crossover audience there. Like, if you like those shows, maybe you’ll like our show.

Jonathan Groff(Photo: HBO)

Do you think we’re past a time where we have to ask the question of whether a straight audience will connect with the show?

If that’s the question that we should be asking, then let’s talk about it. It’s better than not talking about it. And I think that one of the cool things about the show is it’s people mostly in their thirties and forties [and] there’s no coming out stories. Nobody’s self-conscious or devastated by the fact that they’re gay. And you think about maybe the most famous gay movie is Brokeback Mountain where it’s a story of two men who are devastated by the fact that they have feelings for each other. This is a show where being gay is not something that is torturing these guys. That’s a part of who they are, but it doesn’t define who they are.

In fact, the problems in their life have to do with their love relationships and their friendships and their work. Which I think, hopefully, is either a reflection of where we are now or maybe where we’re headed to. But I think it also is great because it makes the show more universal because it’s not about people grappling with their sexuality. It’s about problems at work and relationships.

Because the show is so much about the friendship of the three guys, what did you and Murray and Frankie do to bond? You didn’t know each other before, right?

We didn’t. Never met each other. It was so weird. I feel like part of what got us all cast is that we really hit it off at the screen test, and I think that read in the audition. It must’ve. And it’s partially probably why they cast the three of us. And then I think it reads in the series, too. Because we genuinely, like yesterday we did a full day of press after, you know, with all the international [journalists]. And then we went out to dinner to talk about it. It’s lucky, you don’t always get it where you have genuine friendships…there’ll be days on set where we would, whenever it was a scene with either me and Murray or me and Frankie or the three of us, inevitably the end of the day we would call each other and say, ‘Did we act today? Because it kind of felt like we were just fucking around with each other.’

(l to r) Murray Bartlett, Frankie J. Alvarex and Groff
(Photo: Getty)

Let’s talk about [your character] Patrick a little bit. Is he somebody you’d be friends with?

That’s a really good question. I think I would be. I think Patrick has all the best intentions. I think he’s a good person. The show is called Looking and I feel Patrick is in a place in his life where some people are at this place when they’re sixteen, some people at twenty-one, some people at thirty, some people at fifty where you say, ‘I’m about to look at my life and say, what are my social patterns? How can I change? How can I get better? How can I get out of this rut that I’m in?’ He’s in this rut of online dating. His roommate moves out. He’s now living alone. And it’s this big shift in his life. And suddenly, he starting to look at his friendships in a new way and looking at his love relationships in a new way. And looking at his work in a new way. As an actor it’s dramatically interesting to play someone that’s ready for change and ready to try new things. And then comedically, it’s also great because inevitably things are going to be hysterical at some point when you’re trying on different sides of yourself.

Jonathan Groff Raoul Castillo Looking
Can love be found on public transportation?
Patrick and Richie (Raul Castillo) give it a shot.
(Photo: HBO)

Tell me about working with Russell [Tovey], who we meet in episode three.

Russell was great. Same thing. Russell and Raul [Castillo], who plays Richie in the show, all three of us have a theater background. Russell has done a bunch of shows in London and was on Broadway in The History Boys and Raul is a member of a theater company in New York and is also a playwright. And so, we have, we just have this language that we all understand. There’s a sense of audience that a theater actor has, that we all share. So, the scene work with them, which is so specific and so interesting and those dynamics are very interesting, was even more fun to play with because we could really play with each other. Like you do in the theater. And I love both of them so much.

I’m just glad Russell got to keep his accent.

I know. Totally. It’s very sexy.

Michael Lannan, Andrew Haigh, Jonathan GroffGroff with creator Michael Lannan (far l) and director Andrew Haigh (center).

Are we going to meet the guys’ families at all in this first season?

You’re going meet my family. My sister gets married and that brings up a lot for Patrick as far as family dynamics are concerned. Just in relationships, which is, I think, universal whether you’re gay or straight, your dynamic with your family is always complicated. And then specific to the gay experience, we talk about it in episode five. It’s like, ‘Now that we can get married and my sister’s getting married and my parents are so thrilled my sister’s getting married does that mean I should get married and my parents will be more accepting of me if I get married?’ Is that what you’re supposed to do now? Or is the great thing about being gay is that you don’t have to be monogamous in certain circles and you can fuck around and it doesn’t matter? That’s another place where Patrick finds himself straddling a line of, “Where do I go? What do I want?”

If you’re having like a low day, what’s the thing you kind of go for? Whatever it might be. I already heard you like the new Beyoncé CD…

I watch four videos before I go to bed and four videos when…Beyoncé’s what takes me to bed and wakes me up in the morning right now. That album is like, ‘this is my person.’ I’m not diagnosed but I feel like I’m a little OCD about repetitive watching. My friends will tell you. If I get a good YouTube, I watch it a lot. Right now this Beyoncé album is really satisfying my OCD. And the fact that there’s so many videos that I can just go through and they’re all so amazing. And I just think she’s the, yes. Thank you for handing me the answer to that question.

Outside of binge watching Beyoncé videos, what is a vice of yours?

Diet Coke. [gestures to the open bottle on the table in front of us] I went off Diet Coke for a year and then I fell back into it. Diet Coke is definitely my vice. I’m looking at it now with like great love and disdain at the same time. That’s my second one already. When I cut it out, it was a little too much to cut it out. I’m trying to find, like Patrick, a little bit of a balance as opposed to like such extremes.

With Spring Awakening, I know that nudity was part of that production.

You saw my butt.

I did. And we were in maybe the third row. I was like, ‘Oh. There we go. Nice butt.’

“There it is.”

John Gallagher Jr., Jonathan Groff, Lea MicheleFrom 2006-08, Groff starred in Spring Awakening with John Gallagher Jr (l) and Lea Michele.

I haven’t seen if there’s any nudity for you in Looking. You do get in a leather vest…

You’ll definitely see nudity. I had no trouble signing the nudity waiver on this show before we even started working on it. Because I had seen Weekend, Andrew Haigh’s movie, and I love the way that he dealt with the sex in that movie in such a real and human and authentic way. And so, before even meeting anyone, I was like, ‘Yeah. It’s that guy. I trust him.’ But then when we got on set, it got better because he was great. And he’s always said before any of the naked stuff, he said, ‘The minute you start to feel uncomfortable, let me know and we’ll figure it out.’ Our cinematographer, Reed, was like, ‘I promise. I’m going to make you look good. I’m here. I got your back. It’s all good.’ The actors that I get naked with I got along really well with. And so, that was a non-issue.

And then I feel like in the show, in the writing of the show, for people watching it like in the second episode when Richie and I, when I bring him home and we get in bed together, you’re not watching that being like, ‘Oh, look. It’s two people taking off each other’s clothes.’ You’re like, ‘What are you doing, Patrick? Like, pull yourself together.’ And so, I think that that’s a testament to the writing. And it made it easier to act because it’s very clear what’s happening in all the sex scenes emotionally. And so, then it doesn’t feel porn-y. Also, with the years of doing Spring Awakening, I don’t get freaked out with that stuff to begin with.

It’s funny, I didn’t know Frankie was straight until I was talking to him. Was there a learning curve that you guys helped him out with?

With Frankie, it was interesting because he went to Julliard…and this was his first big job and he really wanted to do a good job. He kept saying to us, “What should I be thinking about? What should I do?’ And I kept saying to him, “No. You got hired for you. And Andrew Haigh and HBO and Michael cast us in this show because of our energies and how they match with the character. It has nothing to do with your sexuality. He didn’t cast you because you are or aren’t straight or gay. He cast you because he loved the way you played the scenes because he loves you, as a person. You don’t have to do anything to appear to be gay because you can just be you and that’s what this show is about.’ We don’t have to act a certain way or be a certain, do a stereotypical thing that suddenly makes you gay. It’s about people living and who are totally comfortable with their sexuality.

Frankie J. Alvarez (l) and a clean shaven Groff
(Photo: Getty)

Beard envy. You’re the clean shaven one of the trip but did you kind of have that envy a little bit?

I do. I mean, part of the reason I’m the clean shaven one is because I can’t really grow a beard. It like comes in, in patches. Actually, that’s a great story line for Patrick trying to grow a beard and he can’t do it because that’s the case of my face.  It’s interesting because I feel like it’s a weird coincidence because the reason that the beards are in the show is because everything is true to San Francisco. The way we dress. They didn’t want it to be a gay costume parade. It’s very authentic to the way people dress in San Francisco. Down to the body hair and facial hair. It’s like what you’re seeing in San Francisco.

But it’s kind of a coincidence because I feel like in the world or at least in our country that beards and body hair and facial hair is slightly coming back into fashion. And slightly coming back, it’s not all just completely shaved gym bodies. It’s like the hairiness is becoming sexy again to like the culture. So, it’s, again, it’s like a funny coincidence that our show is featuring the, even on the billboard, it’s like me with my clean shaven white boy face and then you’ve got Murray’s ’stache and Frankie’s beard.

JOnathan Groff TheBacklot InterviewAnything else you have going on outside the show?

I’m doing The Normal Heart for HBO. That happened. So, it’s coming. I play Taylor Kitsch’s current boyfriend, Mark Ruffalo’s ex-boyfriend at the top of the show.

Kitsch. Ruffalo. Not too shabby.

Not too shabby at all. And I’m the first one who dies of AIDS.

What does it mean to you to be involved with a project like that? It comes with such gravitas.

The cool thing about theater is it comes and goes and it vanishes and it lives on in people’s minds. But this piece and this story is so important to live on forever. And we were shooting the White Party scene on Fire Island, which is the very beginning. And it’s the summer before it really started hitting and looking around at all of us in our twenties dressed up in our white outfits, having a party, having a great time… Larry Kramer [The Normal Heart playwright] was there that day and him saying, ‘Most of these people died.’ And for my generation and younger to be reminded of that part of gay history and gay culture, it just feels so meaningful.

When in your life were you kind of aware of that time in history?

That’s a great question. I always knew growing up, I knew about AIDS. I knew that it affected the gay community but it wasn’t until I saw The Normal Heart at the Public Theatre in 2004 when I moved to New York. They did a revival of it with Raul Esparza playing Ned and I remember it so vividly. I was hysterically crying. It’s so emotional. And then the HBO movie, Angels in America, was another big one for me where it’s like you really get in there.

At this point in your career, you’ve had to deal with paparazzi and gossip a little bit. How have you handled that?

I don’t. I made a deal with myself three or four years ago. One morning I was eating breakfast, Googling my name. And I just was like, ‘You know what? I am never going to do this again because nothing good is coming of it.’ And when you’re reading reviews and people’s opinions, the good is never good enough and the bad is the thing that always stays in your head. And so, I just made a promise to myself. It was maybe five years ago, actually, to never look at myself online. I’ll get e-mails from people being like, ‘Hey, I’m so sorry’ or ‘Hey, congratulations’ based on things they’ve read about my personal life in the press. So I’m aware that it exists but I just do not engage with it at all. And I’m not on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. Part of the reason is because I don’t want to invite that energy in.

Looking airs Sundays at 9:30pm on HBO.