In an industry that still periodically reminds openly gay actors that they needn’t apply for a vast swath of leading man parts, hats off to Broadway star and recent OUT cover boy Jonathan Groff for carving out his own “road not taken.” The 28 year-old, who recently voiced rugged mountain man Kristoff in Disney’s animated Frozen and who remains best known for playing the conniving leader of a rival choir on Glee, has leapt at the chance to portray a handful of complex and nuanced gay characters. He played a youthful, only mildly neurotic version of famed satirist David Sedaris in C.O.G., and Glee creator Ryan Murphy tapped him to play Craig, one of the first in a circle of New York activist friends to succumb to AIDS, in his upcoming HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart.
But it’s his starring role as an endearingly naive video game developer looking for love in HBO’s Looking that’s got everyone paying attention. A wistful snapshot of three gay male buddies navigating career and relationship highs and lows in present-day San Francisco, the buzzed-about new dramedy has been championed by most critics for its understated direction and naturalistic performances, but last Sunday’s pilot episode also sharply divided audiences. Not steamy enough? Too racially homogenous? Not enough finger-snapping sassiness? Everyone seemed to come at it with a laundry list of expectations – an apt reminder of Looking’s heavy burden of representation. Given how seldom gay men are the focus of a high-profile scripted cable series (Queer as Folk being the last such occurrence), Looking’s premiere was met with royal baby-levels of anticipation in certain circles. Groff was already well aware of those lofty expectations when we spoke by phone in December.
You recently reunited with your original Spring Awakening cast, and you all seem to have maintained a tight-knit bond. In your experience, has theatre been more conducive to fostering such close ties, as opposed to TV and film work?
Yeah, because everybody shows up at the same time every night to tell the story together from start to finish. And certainly when I was in Spring Awakening, we were all so young, nobody had families or lives outside of what we were doing… It was hitting us in such formative years that it became our college experience. In film, sometimes you’ll never meet some of your fellow actors because they aren’t in a scene with you. But when you’re really in it, for example on Looking, I’ve never felt more connected with a group of people that I’ve worked with on a TV or film set before, because we’re all living on location in San Francisco and everybody is very invested in the project. That bond can happen in film and TV as well, but the environment makes it easier for it to happen in theatre.
With all the preliminary hype about Looking and its focus on a wave of “post-gay” characters, do you feel any pressure or sense of responsibility to portray the gay community in a way that would dispel certain tenacious stereotypes?
I think that we’re all getting ready for a lot of people to have a lot of opinions about the show. Certainly in a season of eight half-hour episodes, it’ll be impossible to capture the entirety of the gay experience. We’re creating a very specific world about a very specific group of people, so we’re not trying to say: “this is what the gay experience is – period.” The sad thing is there aren’t a lot of gay characters on television, so people will look to this show to be everything, and it definitely won’t be everything for everyone. When they were casting, they put up Facebook pictures of Looking creator Michael Lannan’s friends in the casting office, because it’s based on his experiences living in San Francisco. Hopefully, people will connect to that truth: it’s people from Michael’s experience, that’s the group of people we’re telling stories about.
That makes sense. It’s not unlike the criticism Lena Dunham initially faced for Girls’ lack of racial diversity. I imagine Lannan didn’t set out to pen the definitive portrait of thirtysomething gay life in San Francisco, just one that spoke to his reality.
Totally, and it’s interesting that all this criticism is happening before the show even gets to air. I think it’s great these conversations are happening. Hopefully if we’ve done our job right, people will end up invested in the characters and their stories, interested in following their journey, and not put the weight and expectation of representing the entire gay experience on their shoulders.
To many people living abroad, San Francisco remains this mythical city “at the end of the rainbow.” There’s this lasting impression that the city is a queer haven. Do you think there’s still any truth to that?
It definitely held true for me. The first time I was in SF, it was four years ago after a breakup, I was living in L.A. and I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway for the weekend. I wanted to go because SF had always felt like the gay Oz. I had visions of men in handlebar mustaches walking around the Castro. Even beyond the gay thing, there’s the whole late ‘60s culture of Haight-Ashbury and it feels like the kind of place where you can be who you want to be. Having gotten to live there during the shoot, it’s obviously not that anymore – it’s not the Harvey Milk, early ‘70s vibe. But it does still feel like the city where you can be whoever you want to be. There’s an openness and an ease about the people living there, in my experience, that I found so attractive and specific to the area. This is obviously a gross generalization, but the vibe of the city, for me, felt very open and free.
With Glee, C.O.G. and Looking, you’ve signed on to many projects that provide kids with compelling queer storylines. Who were the gay characters you looked up to growing up?
I remember the big one for me was probably Will & Grace. I remember seeing the poster for it – I forget what the exact tagline on the poster was, but it alluded to the fact that they were best friends but weren’t in a romantic relationship. As a young gay kid growing up, you hook into anything that reads as possibly gay – you’re very sensitive to it. When I saw the show, it became the only reference that I had growing up to anything gay. Just the fact that it was on the air was so cool and interesting and just a nice thing to have in the culture growing up.
Next spring, you’ll be seen in the HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, alongside Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer. How familiar were you with the play and Kramer’s longstanding LGBT activism going in?
Certainly as a gay man, getting the opportunity to step into that world, albeit briefly, and engage with that material – I saw the play 10 years ago at The Public [Theater], they did a revival, and I saw it again on Broadway two years ago – and for me, just reading the play, I started crying. Larry Kramer wrote a masterpiece and Ryan Murphy developed it in a really beautiful way so that it didn’t feel like acting; I felt so connected to it. As far as playing the role of Craig, there’s a lot of people and older friends in New York who lived through the AIDS crisis, some of whom are HIV positive and saw their friends die. So I spoke with them about it, which is so important, and I think the great thing about this movie is the passing down of these stories, and keeping the people who died alive, keeping the weight of that time alive.