Photo by Danielle Levitt
The actor-singer (but not really dancer) tells us about his hot new gay HBO show, Looking, his role in The Normal Heart, and his childhood dreams.
Out: Tell us about Looking.
Jonathan Groff: It’s about a group of gay guys living in San Francisco. It was created by Michael Lannan and our director and showrunner Andrew Haigh directed a movie called Weekend. I had a pretty incredible experience watching that, and our show feels like a comedic take on it. It’s about modern gay life, all the ins and outs of it—and relationships.
Weekend was very British—and this takes place in San Francisco. Had you lived there, or spent much time there?
No, I’ve been to visit a couple of times but this is my first time living here, and I love it, I love it so much. It’s a beautiful city. We’re shooting on location pretty much entirely in San Francisco. The city is a whole other character in the piece and has been a beautiful backdrop for the story.
My character is a video game designer—so that’s the reason that he moved to San Francsico. I don’t want to give too much away, but they’re all different ages and in different places in their lives and their careers and their romantic lives, so it follows these different paths.
They told us to be prepared for complete insanity, but nothing could prepare us for the day of shooting at Folsom Street Fair. A lot of naked people. This isn’t what necessarily ends up in the show, but just being at the fair—there was just so much nudity and so much leather. I saw a man suspended by hooks in his back, and it was really, really intense.
But what was crazy was the fact that we were shooting something was the most unremarkable thing there. Someone walking around with a camera was not drawing any attention compared to the other things that were happening. I think we ended up getting a lot of really great footage.
You know Folsom is considered the more tame street fair, at least in comparison to Dore Alley.
Yeah, I’ve heard about Dore Alley—people ejaculating out of windows.
Yep, that sounds about right. The show is on HBO. Do you have sex scenes?
I have shot some sex scenes. The sex scenes in Weekend were beautiful and sexy—in addition to, and most importantly, feeling really authentic and real. So I hope that our sex scenes are sexy—and I think that they are—but I think even more than that what we’re trying to display is a reality of gay sex as opposed to the salaciousness of gay sex. We’re trying just to keep it real—which means humor. Some of our sex scenes are very emotional and very beautiful. Some of our sex scenes are awkward. We’re trying to get as close to reality as we possibly can. Hopefully, when people watch it, you’ll think, Oh, I’ve had that exact experience. I know what it feels like to be intimate with someone in that way.
As far as the acting is concerned, I feel connected to it, because it’s coming from a sense of intimacy and a sense of character. Sometimes sex scenes in TV shows feel like they’re thrown in there, and I think ours are pretty character connected and character-driven.
The show’s been getting a lot of buzz already.
They just announced the air dates [in January], and it felt so exciting and so crazy. What we’re making is going to be on TV! It’s felt like summer camp, being here in San Francisco, and it’s totally surreal that it’s going to be out in the world.
The Normal Heart is also coming out in 2014 on HBO.
I’m a huge fan of HBO, and obviously we’re really lucky to be there. The Normal Heart was an amazing experience on so many levels. I’d worked with [director] Ryan [Murphy] before, so that was exciting, to get back together with him. I’m such a fan of that piece and that play. It’s such a gift to get to be in that world for a while.
When did you first see or read the play?
The first time I saw it was off-Broadway at the Public Theater starring Raul Esparza. I hysterically cried. I remember the scene with the milk, where they come home with the groceries. I read it a couple years later and I cried again. It’s such a visceral piece of material, whether you’re seeing it or reading it. It’s very intense. When I was on Glee, Ryan [Murphy] said, “You should read the script, because I want to find a place for you in it.” So I read it again, and I was devastated. I hope that the movie does it justice.
When Ryan said he wanted to find a place for you, did you immediately know which part you wanted to play?
From when he said that, it was about three years until the movie actually came together. The character I ended up playing in the movie is the first guy that died of AIDS, one of the guys in Larry Kramer’s circle of friends. He said that when this person died that it was right at the end of summer, and it happened so quickly that his body was still tan. It took him immediately. It was this huge punch in the stomach. I came in for about a week in total for the movie.
I got to do all the fun scenes at the beginning when we are on Fire Island, and then I die very quickly. It was really intense. It was so exciting to be on set with those actors, all of whom I admire so much. Joe Mantello—I was such a huge fan of his work in the play. And Mark Ruffalo is one of my favorite actors of all time.
Both Looking and the adaptation of David Sedaris’ C.O.G. feel like a new wave of almost post-post-gay characters, where we’re not bending over backwards to say this isn’t relevant to the story, but at the same time, it’s very different from what we saw before.
As we’ve been working on the show, one of the things that keeps coming up among the actors and the writers and directors on set is we’re trying to make this piece that is specific to the gay community. I think when you make something truly specific is when it becomes the most universal. Our [director of photography] is a straight married woman with kids and she said, “I really do feel like I see myself in these characters.” Trying to humanize the gay experience and make it universal while also trying to tell specifically gay stories is an interesting Catch-22, because there is something unique and special about being gay—and, there’s something completely normal and just like everybody else about being gay.
As we’ve been working on Looking, there has been zero direction or anything from the directors, the writers, the other actors—no one has said anything about being or acting “gay.” Like, “You should play this a little more gay,” or, “Maybe if you were a little less gay in this scene…” We’re trying to tell stories about relationships and hopefully we make the people in the gay community feel connected to it, and hopefully the people outside the gay community feel connected to it, too.
We’ve asked everyone in this year's OUT100 about their childhood dreams. What did you think your future self would be? What were you dreaming about?
I always wanted to move to New York and be a Broadway gypsy. I wanted to be in the ensemble of a Broadway show—that was my ultimate dream growing up. In fifth grade, the first Broadway musical I ever saw was Beauty and the Beast. And my teacher leaned over to me and said, “Someday, Jonathan, you’re gonna be in that orchestra pit playing the trumpet”—because I played the trumpet in elementary school. And I thought, No, in my gut. I’d never done a play at this point, I’d never sung publicly, I’d never acted—but in my gut, and in my imagination, I thought, No, no, no, I don’t want to be in the pit. I want to be on stage. I want to be in the ensemble of a Broadway show. That’s what I always dreamt of.
Well, congratulations! You didn’t dream of being a lead or getting a big role, just of being a chorus boy?
I’m not a dancer, but I’m a singer who moves well. That’s what we call ourselves, people who sing and who kind of dance but can’t do splits or anything. So when I moved to New York after high school, I started taking gymnastics lessons, because I thought, if I couldn’t be a really great dancer, I could be the guy that does flips across the front of the stage. I was like, maybe I could do that. I learned how to do a back tuck, and a back handspring, and then I hurt my wrist. And I was like, oh man, I guess I’ll just have to focus on the acting and the singing.