Not many actors can say that they’ve voiced a character in the most successful animated Disney film of all time and then had sex against a tree on TV. But for Jonathan Groff that’s exactly where his career has gone, from voicing Kristoff in 2013’s Frozen to the gay world of San Francisco on HBO’s Looking.
The show, currently three episodes into a sex-filled second season, follows three gay men as they navigate friendships, love and lust. As Patrick, Groff acts as the show’s center, trying to keep his love life in order while supporting his friends, Agustin and Dom, along the way.
In an interview with ETonline, Groff looks back on his early days on Broadway, reflects on the controversy surrounding his guest role on Glee, and chats candidly about Looking’s sex scenes.
ETonline: It’s been six years since you appeared in Spring Awakening and you have done a lot between that and Looking. Is it starting to feel like a footnote in your career?
Jonathan Groff: Oh gosh no, not at all. It still feels like my big break and one of the most important projects I’ve ever done. I’m also still really connected to that group of actors and I love them. It was sort of like the college experience I never had. In some ways it feels like a lifetime ago because we were all so young and sort of starting out together and we’ve all had plenty of experiences since then.
I would say Looking and Spring Awakening are the most important and personal projects I’ve ever been apart of.
The show has turned out to be a nexus of young talent, especially when you consider you, Lea Michele, John Gallagher, Jr., and Skylar Astin. All of you have had a couple of big years recently.
Yeah, it’s amazing because you never know—when you’re so young and starting out and doing a show as specific as Spring Awakening where you’re singing rock music and acting classical text—where you’ll go from there. And how we were all going to develop, grow, and change. But across the board, everyone’s gone on to do amazing things. We’ve all seen each other on projects. It continues to be a really special connection.
Of course you and Lea reunited on Glee. Your character, Jesse St. James, sparked a huge controversy when it became the center of the Newsweek article saying gay actors can’t play straight. How did you react to that?
I just ignored it. That’s like getting a bad review—you know, you just read what people say, let it roll off, and move on. It’s so funny with Looking we have the inverse of that where we have straight people playing gay characters. It just further hits home the point that somebody’s personal sexuality has nothing to do with their ability to play or not play a role.
Raul Castillo plays Richie [Patrick’s love interest] with such a beautiful energy specific to Raul himself. It would have been a shame if he wouldn’t been able to be cast because he was straight. I think that would be such a tragedy and vice versa. So I ignored it back then and working on Looking has solidified, for me, that article has no real validity.
With Glee coming to an end, is there any love lost over not being able to ever play Jesse St. James again?
Oh gosh. I don’t, I mean there’s still time. Jesse St. James might still pop up. You never know. [Laughs] It’s not over yet!
Between Glee and The Normal Heart, you have done two Ryan Murphy projects and are now in his world of recurring actors. Would you ever consider doing another project with him?
Absolutely. I love him. I feel like loyalty is such a rare quality in this world, particularly the entertainment world. And he is. When you look at all of the stuff that he’s done, he continually supports the same actors that he gets along with and that he respects. I feel so lucky to know him, work with him, and be a part of that group. I would absolutely work with him again in a heartbeat.
Let’s talk about Looking. We’re three episodes into season 2. How’s the response to this season compared to the last one?
The second season response has been really enjoyable because people aren’t trying to figure out the show anymore and aren’t trying to fit it into the lexicon of other shows but seeing it for itself. Whether it’s with the press or other people, talking about the show is really fun because we get to talk about the actual show, storylines, and where the characters are headed, the tone of the show, the style of the show as opposed to trying to decipher what it is.
Do you feel more or less pressure when it comes to the success of season 2?
I feel like with a television show you’re always biting your nails hoping you’re going to get that next season. That is always looming—hoping people watch the show, that we can build enough of an audience so that HBO picks us up for a third season. We’re always a little nervous and wanting people to love the show and wanting to continue building our audience.
The nice thing about season 1 was that it took the time to develop all the characters and now, in season 2, we’re jumping right in with all these decisions. And, as an audience, it feels like we completely understand why each person is doing what he’s doing.
I totally agree with you. I think that’s part of the joy of watching season 2—certainly working on it—is that we didn’t have to do any setup. We just had to jump right back in. The writers smartly didn’t do a reset at the beginning of the season. It’s just six weeks after the first season so we’re sort of right back where we left off. Continuing to go deeper and making it more complex was really the joy of getting to do season 2. We were sort of shocked how quickly the show developed. We got to episode 4 and so much had come to a head in the story that we were like, “Oh my god, where is the story going to go from here in the fourth script? There’s still six [episodes] left to go.” I’m really pleased where the writers took the storylines and developed each characters’ evolution. It’s really, really interesting all they way up to the tenth episode of season 2.
I feel like it might be easy for fans to confuse the cast with their characters. I was curious about your relationship with Patrick. Is there anything that he does that frustrates you or is so far off base from your own real-life experiences?
I feel so connected to Patrick that it’s hard to judge him. Some people describe him as naïve but I really relate to the idea—because I’m the same age as Patrick, I’m 29—and certainly in my life when I was in my early 20s, I felt like I knew everything. I had an idea of what relationships were. I had an idea about where I wanted my career to be and what I wanted to do. I felt like life was very black and white. As the years have gone on, I feel like I know less and less about relationships and what I want. I really connect to that side of Patrick that is sort of figuring out what he’s doing and what he wants in relationships. I hope that I’m not quite as socially awkward as him or neurotic as him. But I’ve certainly had moments in my life where I’m like, “Oh god, I’m blushing because it was such a Patrick moment.”
Gay sex is having a big moment on TV. Between Looking and ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, audiences are seeing a lot more than what they’re used to.
I think it’s great. I had a bunch of people say to me last year that they didn’t know gay people could have sex while facing each other until they saw the show, which was shocking to me. So that’s interesting in some ways that people are getting some kind of education. But I feel really proud about how we’re illuminating gay sex on our show. I feel that often times it’s expressed in a very salacious ways, or it’s a lot of quick cuts, or it’s super sexy. With our show, and [executive producer] Andrew Haigh’s sensibility he used in Weekend, it’s about intimacy and about connection. I think that’s one important aspect to shine a light on.
Watching you douche in the latest episode was not something I expected to see on TV. Has there been a scene that has shocked you or made you think, “I can’t believe I’m doing this”?
[Laughs] Totally. There has been absolutely has been at least one moment in every script where I go, “Oh my god, I’m going to do that.” There’s a huge moment for my character at the end of episode 6—and probably the biggest one of the season—where Patrick has an epic meltdown. I read that and thought—which is interesting because has nothing to do with sex or anything salacious or nudity but it’s more of an insane Patrick moment—“OOOOOOOOK. I’m going to do that. We’re going there. Let’s do it! Let’s do it!” That was the biggest sort of “gulp, here we go” moment for me.
When you look back on your career, there’s Spring Awakening, seducing Rachel on Glee, getting naked in Twelve Thirty, C.O.G., and now Looking. One could argue that your career has been largely about sex.
[Laughs] Wow, what about Frozen? [Laughs] Yeah it’s so interesting. It’s not something I’m seeking out but you’re right, it’s definitely a pattern much to my parents’ chagrin.
Looking airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.