HBO’s Next Big Star

01.16.14

‘Looking’ Star Jonathan Groff Talks About His Big Gay TV Show. (And Whether We Should Call It That.)

He’s been on Glee. He voiced a Disney character. Now Jonathan Groff is getting a handjob in a park. The breakout star on HBO's Looking and the obsession over his new ‘gay show.’

Jonathan Groff dressed as Mary Poppins for Halloween when he was three years old. Oh yes. Brace yourself for your next TV crush.

Groff has been steadily building his own group of passionate fans for years. Well passionate is one word. Obsessed is a more accurate one. The 28-year-old star of HBO’s new dramedy Looking first broke out on Broadway for his Tony-nominated performance as a sexually confused teenager in the rock musical Spring Awakening. Since then, he’s been on Glee. He’s voiced a Disney character. Now he’s cruising for a handjob in a San Francisco park. And he’s never been more lovable.

In Looking, he plays Patrick, a San Francisco video-game developer who’s pushing 30 and—as you know if you’ve read a single word about Looking’s apparent status as “Girls for gays”—happens to be gay. And so are all his friends. Groff strikes the Lena Dunham balance of cringeworthy and lovable as the series protagonist, a guy not just looking for love, but looking to find himself. Never has a nervous stammer been so adorable as Groff’s in Looking. You’re going to love him.

Actually, you might already love him and not known it, as Groff voiced Kristoff in the recent smash hit Disney animated film Frozen. Ahead of Sunday night’s Looking premiere, we chatted with Groff about the groundbreaking series, and whether everyone’s obsession over it being “the gay show” is a good or bad thing. Plus, we obviously talked about Frozen. And that one time he dressed as Mary Poppins as a toddler. (You’re really gonna love that.)

This looked like it must have been a really fun shoot. You guys seemed to really get along. Did you shoot in San Francisco?

We did. It was great because they gave us like a week and a half to live in San Francisco to rehearse and do costume fittings and stuff before we actually started shooting. So (co-stars) Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett, and I got to hang out and explore the city before we shot there. Then we shot the pilot there and then we shot the entire series on location in San Francisco as well.

Did you guys have one big intense bonding moment right away?

The very first night we got there—it was March 20 of last year. I remember that because his birthday is the 20th and mine is March 26, so we celebrated both in San Francisco. When we got there, they put us all up in a hotel, but Murray had the forethought of getting an apartment through Airbnb when we were shooting the pilot. So he was staying in the Mission in this incredible apartment with a back garden. So the first night that we got to San Francisco we opened up a bottle of wine and stayed up all night and hung out in the back garden of Murray’s apartment. It was such a moment for the three of us. And doing it in San Francisco in an environment that felt very true to the city was a really special moment. And then nights after that it was bingewatching YouTubes and laughing and watching the “Mariah Carey Needs a Moment” video on repeat. Then we did a night where we watched Tales of the City. Then we shot at The Stud, which is a bar in San Francisco, at the end of the fourth episode. So after we shot there that weekend we out and went dancing at The Stud. So it was good times in San Francisco.

There was no talk of ‘we need more tits and ass!’ Or ‘we need less sex!’ None of those conversations happened.

So with Looking, I feel like there’s the same thing going on that happened with Girls, where because of all the hype everyone expected it to encapsulate the experience of every twentysomething. Then when it didn’t live up to those expectations—because they’re impossible to live up to—there was huge backlash. I feel like I’m already getting a sense of that happening with Looking, where people want it to be every single gay experience.

I think it’s such a dangerous expectation, of any show. I’m sure there will be some people who tune in expecting Looking to be a representation of everything that’s happening in the modern gay world. And that was never the intention of the show. The characters are based on experiences that Michael Lannan had while he was living in San Francisco. They even put up pictures of friends from San Francisco in the room while they were auditioning for actors. Like, “That’s the guy that Augustine is based on, that’s the guy that Dom is based on.”

I think what [Looking director] Andrew Haigh did so well in Weekend is he told a gay story with a lot of specificity, which then became universal. That’s what we’re trying to do in this world as well, trying to tell a really specific story about these guys living in San Francisco and how they relate to each other. How they fall in and out of love and hopefully that will become a universal story for people. But you’re certainly not going to see every single aspect of the gay community represented in the show. The gay community of San Francisco is also so multifaceted that it’s impossible to encapsulate all of it into eight episodes of the show. Hopefully as the show continues to go on, we’ll include more things and characters and people, all that. But the expectation of representing everything is just impossible to meet.

I feel like whenever there’s a TV show that has gay characters it’s put on a timeline from like Soap to Will and Grace to Glee, where “progress” is measured based on how those characters are portrayed. Were you guys cognizant about the fact that Looking was going to be placed on that timeline?

I don’t think that when we were making it that ever crossed my mind. It’s interesting now, in retrospect, to look back. Even on set and in the development of the pilot and then the development of the first season as we all were rehearsing and getting to know our characters, no one ever said anything about the “gay experience,” in quotes, as a whole. No one ever said to be “more gay” here. Nothing like that ever entered the vocabulary. We were just trying to create a story with interesting characters. But now to sit back and watch the show, it’s interesting to see how all the characters—no one has a coming out story on the show. Everyone is really comfortable in their sexuality. Problems they’re facing have to do with their work or their friendships or their romantic relationships. Maybe that’s a reflection of where we are today, or at least where we’re headed, where your sexuality is a major part of who you are but it’s not the definitive element of who you are.

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John P. Johnson/HBO

I think that when they announced the show and that it was going to be on HBO, without the sort of handwringing any time a gay arc is on a broadcast network, people were thinking, “Finally. It’s about time.” Why do you think it’s now that this is happening?

I think that’s sort of a reflection on the culture and how people who are gay are getting more comfortable now, as time goes on. There are kids in my high school who are out of the closet, which in my mind would’ve been unheard of when I was graduating from high school in 2003. So I think in some ways—we don’t know yet because we haven’t seen how many people are actually going to watch the show—but people are hopefully ready to watch a show where the main characters are all gay.

What do you think of Patrick as a character that teenagers struggling to come out look up to and thinking that’s what life can be like?

Yeah I think it’s great because they all have jobs, they all pay their rent, they all have great friendships. If you’re a young kid watching the show you can think that, oh yeah, they’re just living their lives and not completely defined by their sexuality, and maybe I can have that experience too when I get older. I think with Patrick, specifically, that young people might relate to is that it’s apparent in the very first scene in the series where Patrick is in the woods trying to get a handjob and it’s so out of character for himself—sometimes that happens for people when they’re 16. Sometimes it happens when they’re 30 or 50, where you—obviously the show is called Looking—and I feel like at 29-years-old in San Francisco, Patrick is really starting to look at himself and say why do I go on so many bad dates? Why am I falling into so many of these patterns? How can I change? How can I grow? How can I get better? That’s a great outlook on life, to be able to look at your relationships and the patterns you’re falling in and say, “How can I do better?”

Were there TV characters that you looked up to when you were growing up?

I remember driving by the billboard of Will and Grace. It was on when I was in like middle school. I was not out of the closet yet, but I knew I was gay. Even though when I watched the show I didn’t feel like I’m Jack or I’m Will. I didn’t feel like that was me on screen. But just that there was a show where people were gay and they were interacting with each other, I breathed a little sigh of relief. You don’t feel as alone, like you’re the only person.

You mentioned the park scene that opens the series. It’s just one of a number of scenes that I’d imagine would be uncomfortable to shoot. Was there one that was the most uncomfortable?

It’s interesting. I had no trouble signing the nudity rider because I knew that Andrew Haigh was helming the show. I loved the way he dealt with all the sex in Weekend in such a sort of natural and real way. The thing that made me the most anxious, weirdly, was the interaction that Patrick had socially, where he had that blind spot on. Where you’re like, how? Why? How are you saying this? What’s wrong with you?

Like when he was disappointed about the date not having an uncut penis…

Right! And he’s like, “Wait, why are you leaving? What’s wrong?” Like oh, god! Or even right before where he gets wasted and is dancing like crazy. Those as an actor, those scenes of unabashed innocence and, like, lack of self-awareness, those were the ones that made the most—they were ultimately the most fun to do, in a lot of ways, but they gave me the most anxiety when reading the script. Like, oh god. Drunk and jumping up and down and singing the song on the date? So embarrassing!

Was there a storyline of Patrick’s that hit a little too close to home for you?

No! It’s interesting. I’ve never been one of those actors who thinks about their dog dying in order to cry. Using personal things in my work has never been my style.  I use my imagination and get the stories from the text and the actors. So if there’s any sort of me that leaks through in Patrick, it’s all subconscious and came up out of the inspiration of what was written on the page or what a director or actor made feel at the moment.

One of the best things about Looking is that its characters actually have sex and live life like people really do—something that gay characters on TV shows don’t typically get to do. Was there any anxiety over whether the characters were too slutty or not slutty enough or having too much sex or not enough sex? I feel like so much of the coverage of the show is going to focus on the sex element, and how it’s portrayed.

Yeah. I think that the reason, part of the reason, that HBO hired Andrew Haigh is because of his movie. Where the sex felt just like real life. I think they knew what they were getting into when they hired him for the show. They knew the nature of the show. At least in my experience there was no talk of “we need more tits and ass!” Or “we need less sex!” None of those conversations happened. Which I feel like is a credit to HBO. Part of their work is that they let their creatives do their thing. Andrew and Michael and the writers were interested in creating a story about characters. If there’s right for there to be a sexual moment, then yes. In the first four episodes, except for that scene with Richie where he leaves, I don’t have any sex in the episodes. I do later on in the season. But it was all very story based.

Well to switch topics completely, I can’t let you go without talking like a little schoolgirl about Frozen. Because it is so freaking good. I loved it so much.

Oh good! Yayyyy!

I feel like voicing a Disney character, for people our age, must be some sort of dream that you could never imagine fulfilling. But you got to do it!

Totally. I mean I was Mary Poppins when I was three.

Stop! Really?

I was! I have the video footage to prove it. I was Peter Pan when I was four. And then I was Disney’s Robin Hood when I was five. I mean I was obsessed with Cinderella when I was four. It goes very, very deep, my obsession with Disney as a kid. When I told my mom I got this part, she was like, “Oh my god! This is like your life when you were little! You love this more than anyone!” Like when I was three I cried when the credits rolled on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the movie theater. So to be in any part of Frozen is totally a dream come true.

I’m sorry. I still haven’t moved on from the fact that you were Mary Poppins when you were three. You should surface that photo. Buzzfeed would have a field day with it.

I had a full carpetbag and everything. Really.

But with Frozen, there are plenty of people who are confused, upset, dismayed that you were cast in such a big part, you have such an amazing Broadway voice, and then the only song you were given was that silly one where half the time you were a reindeer.

I know! It’s so funny. Bobby and Kristin, who wrote the score, were like, “We’re so sorry! We’re trying to finish a song for you.” They kept talking about it. The whole time. And I was just like, “Look, guys. I’m a voice in a Disney movie. I think I’m good. I’m so thrilled to just be in this—it’s awesome that you want to write a song, but I’m just happy to be here.”

Have you seen that “Let It Go” parody where they sing along to the “Let It Go” tune…

And she’s like, (starts singing) “Fuck it all! Fuck it all! Can’t take this anymore…”

That’s the one!

Oh no. They’re telling me to wrap it up now. I think they just got nervous that I screamed “fuck” at you. But yeah, that’s amazing.

Well, then that’s the perfect note for me to end on.

I’d say so.