Jonathan Groff likes his men "scrappy and adventurous"—at least the animated ones anyway. “I loved Aladdin," Groff explains. "Aladdin came at the right time for me; when I was a little boy, and you had this scrappy, leading man that was funny and adventurous.”
When Groff spoke to Out about his role as Kristoff, the reclusive, working class mountain man in the new Disney animated movie Frozen, he was quick to clarify the most significant difference between Kristoff and his predecessors. “He’s not like your typical, skinny-legged jeans, Disney prince. He’s a little thicker, he’s got my thighs, and that was before they knew I was cast already,” he says, and laughs. “Maybe that’s how I got cast?”
With credits that include his Tony-nominated role as Melchior in Spring Awakening, as well as the television shows Glee and Boss, Groff will also star in the highly anticipated HBO show Looking—which showcases the lives of gay men living in modern-day San Francisco—that premieres in January 2014. “You can’t get more opposite than working on a Disney film and then doing this HBO show, and in weird ways, they inform each other," Groff explains. "We improv-ed a lot on Frozen, trying to keep things alive and keep things real, and we certainly try to do that every day on [the Looking] set. Trying to keep things alive, keep things real.”
For Groff, this Disney voiceover role has been a fantasy since he was young. “Growing up, I used to be alone in my bedroom acting out Disney characters and doing the job is the same thing, except this time, it’s actually for a Disney movie.”
He admits he emulated popular Disney characters like Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and finally Robin Hood—“I got progressively more masculine”—until he now finds himself portraying the manliest of Disney men to date. Kristoff, an ice deliveryman, is a silent type who spends all of his time alone with a reindeer named Sven.
Boys (or girls) fantasizing about cartoon princes shouldn’t expect the otter-cub of their dreams just yet, since Kristoff is lacking the one signature feature of any mountain man worthy of his Mukluks—a beard. It turns out the animators thought the facial hair was too much when paired with plucky protagonist Anna, voiced by Veronica Mars’ Kristen Bell.
“I think they did a test with him with a beard early on," Groff explains, "But a beard felt too old. Suddenly he felt like her father, as opposed to her potential love interest.”
Groff is joined by Broadway stars Idina Menzel (Wicked, Rent), Santino Fontana (Cinderella, Billy Elliot), Josh Gad (Avenue Q, Book of Mormon), as well as Bell (who got her start on the stage in 2001’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), which makes it appear to be a shift back towards theatrically trained actors after movie stars reigned in animated features since the mid-'90s. “I wonder if that’s a conscious choice, or it's just whoever’s voice they like better?” Groff ponders. “I know I got cast in this after Idina and Kristen and a lot of the casting process for me was how my voice fit with Kristen, to see if it was a good combo.”
Whatever the reasoning, Groff agrees that stage actors are well-suited for the process of animated filmmaking. “I feel like coming from the theater, you do all those weird acting exercises in classes where you’re alone rolling around on the ground and pretending to be whatever you’re imagining and I think that that sort of supports this experience of vocally trying to find those characters.” And after two years of recording, a process of constant revision that he compares to being in previews in a Broadway show, and without ever even meeting his fellow castmates, he saw the movie come together. “It all crystallized," he says. "Seeing them come at me every time with something better than what I thought was good before was really inspiring, and it was like, ‘Oh, wow! This is why these movies are so widely loved.' ”
Frozen opens in cinemas November 27. Watch the trailer below: