Jonathan Groff on the ‘Looking’ Backlash, the State of Gay TV, and Anal Bleaching
The Looking star knows you had big expectations for HBO’s Big Gay TV Show. And he’s glad the show doesn’t have to live up to them anymore.
It wasn’t the gay Sex and the City. It wasn’t a gay version of Girls. It wasn’t so many things that people wanted it to be. Looking, as it turned out, was just a hyper-specific, almost diarist look at a group of gay men in San Francisco dealing with their friendships, love lives, and sex lives.
Looking was just Looking.
Now that we’re all done looking for our own hopes and dreams of what HBO’s first “gay show” would or should be, Looking is allowed to return for its second season as itself—with its own warm, surprisingly intimate identity and without the impossible-to-please expectations of what we all wanted it to be.
There are no sassy gay one-liners. There are no holier-than-thou depictions of the perfect gay man and his perfect gay boyfriend. There is just sweet, adorable Patrick (Jonathan Groff); the other two points of his messy love triangle, Richie (Raúl Castillo) and Kevin (Russell Tovey); and his two hapless and horny best friends Dom (Murray Bartlett) and Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez). There are their mistakes. There is their sex. There is their story.
For Jonathan Groff, who shows off his winsome charm, his manically cute acting chops, and, occasionally, his ass as Patrick, that’s a relief.
“It’s nice this year because everybody knows what the show is,” he says on a break from the press tour a few days before Season 2 premieres on HBO.
When Looking returns Sunday, three months have passed since the Season 1 finale. Patrick is still sleeping with his boss, Kevin, who is still in another relationship. Their affair heats up during an outing to the woods that frames the Season 2 premiere. Patrick is there for a friends’ weekend with Dom and Agustín, to recalibrate their friendship and, Patrick hopes, look at some old trees. As it happens, though, Patrick gets wasted, calls Kevin, and instead gets banged against one of the said old trees.
In fact, any Looking viewer upset that there wasn’t enough sex or nudity or raunch in the first season will have their concerns starkly addressed in the premiere, which features a 15-minute drug-fueled bacchanal in the woods, complete with drag queens dressed as fairies, skinny dipping, blow jobs, and the aforementioned sex against the tree.
A few days before the bacchanal kicked off, we had a provocative conversation with the refreshingly candid Groff about his experience with the show: how frustrating the expectations were for Season 1, how the response to the show has changed, what the show means to him as a gay person, and why he’s now perfectly comfortable talking about getting banged against trees, ass-eating, and anal bleaching with complete strangers.
How is this press tour different from when you were doing it for the first season? Have you noticed a change in the tone of the questions and in what kinds of things people want to talk about?
Yeah, it has changed. It’s nice this year because everybody knows what the show is. So we don’t have to try to articulate that. Last year we got a lot of “Is it the gay Sex and the City?” and “Is it the gay Girls?” There was a lot of that. This year we can actually talk about the characters and storylines and what’s in store for the season. And people have opinions about me and Richie or me and Kevin, and it feels nice. It feels more engaging, because people know more of what they’re in for.
It must be nice to be able to let the show breathe and be what it is now. Last year we talked about how everyone wanted the show to be so many different things for the gay community, but now it actually is something. So you don’t have to deal with those expectations.
Exactly. What was frustrating was that people would form opinions based on a commercial or having just watched the first episode. I feel like now the whole first season is out and people know where the show went to and what we were building from the beginning. There’s just a better sense of the stories that we’re telling, so there’s less of a mystery of what this is. It makes you feel more confident coming into this press stuff, because you don’t have to defend the show for people who didn’t even know what it really was yet.
I thought it was really frustrating—and certainly you must have felt that too—that people were prejudging the show before it even aired and had such strong opinions of what they wanted the show to be. But at the same time I always have a lot of opinions about what I want “gay shows” and gay characters to be on TV. So I sort of understood it. It’s an interesting tension. How did you feel about that?
Totally. And I really loved all of the discussion about “Does it represent the gay community? What are we saying about the gay community? What is it doing right? What is it doing wrong?” I loved that. Those discussions I was really interested in and loved engaging in them and having them. The thing that was frustrating was the discussions about the show with people who didn’t watch it, or who only watched one episode. Those I didn’t tolerate. I didn’t have time for those discussions. The people you could tell who watched the show and had an opinion about why they liked it or didn’t like it, that I felt like was really interesting or engaging.
Right. That’s actually productive and provocative, unlike the people making baseless judgments.
Yes. We did a Q&A at Outfest, and this guy who was a sort of bearish man was like, “I watched the show and this is what I think and I’m enjoying this aspect of it.” And then he got really emotional and was like, “I feel like I’m not seeing myself on screen. This is a show about gay people, so why don’t I see myself?” I feel like there’s such validity in that concern. It’s impossible for this show to tick all of the boxes in what everybody would want to see. But the great thing about doing a gay television show is that the more it stays on the air, the more stories you can tell.
That’s why I think that it’s so good that the show got a second season. It’s an opportunity to tell more of those stories.
It’s lucky for us that there’s not a lot of gay shows on TV, because there’s an endless amount of material for a gay television show right now. Because there’s an endless amount of things that haven’t been talked about that are a huge part of gay life that we haven’t really seen yet. So the potential to do more seasons and jump into all of those different conversations is an exciting prospect.
And also daunting, too. Because there are so many conversations to choose from.
Exactly. In the 10th episode of Season 2, two big conversations happen that when I was reading it I felt like, “Of course this conversation is in this show!” But I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen it yet, because they’re conversations that I have so often in my life as a gay man but hadn’t seen because there’s not a lot of gay programming on a platform like HBO.
Well that’s why people expect so much from Looking, because there’s not a lot of gay programming. It’s why they call it “important,” even. How much does that get in your head when you’re making this? That you’re making something that’s “important"?
I never think about that stuff while I’m making it. I don’t even have to try to not think about it, because I’m so invested in the character and the story and the specificity of what we’re doing up in San Francisco. But then you do the press and you get to then talk about it in the context of the gay community and television and all of that. I love having those conversations. As an actor in a show like this you’re kind of forced, in a good way, to articulate what you’re trying to say with this show and what your point of view. It’s kind of a gift that we have the opportunity to do that, too.
Well the cool thing about you and the rest of the cast is that you seem game to talk about these issues and be mouthpieces for what the show is trying to say. Not every actor is comfortable to take on that role. Was there ever a hesitance on your part to step up and talk about these things that are hot-button and “important” issues?
It’s so funny you say that. The other night we were at the premiere and they were all like, “So brave. So brave. So brave. To be an out actor and getting fucked against a tree and doing anal bleaching and all of that stuff.” And I was like, OK. It doesn’t feel brave to me! I think it’s a couple of things. Raul was calling it an occupational hazard, that all of us are really comfortable talking about graphic elements on the show because we experience them on the show and they become comfortable things.
So when interviews start talking about ass-eating and stuff, it doesn’t feel weird to us because it’s just part of the storytelling. But also I think it’s just that the younger generation is just more comfortable talking about sex and being gay. That’s one of the wonderful things about being youngish in 2015 and being gay. There’s not so much of a taboo on all of that stuff. I love it. It’s such a part of my life. It’s what I talk about with my friends all of the time, so it feels natural to be discussing all of it.
The stuff that Patrick and the characters on the show talk about so specific to the gay community, it’s so cool to see on TV. There’s a scene where Patrick and Dom are talking about AIDS and “irrational AIDS panic.” It’s this complicated mix of joking about it tinged with real anxiety that is so specific to the gay community and so hard to describe that you guys nail.
I’m so happy to hear you say that. When we were doing that scene we were talking about just that. That specific scene between Dom and Patrick, it is. It’s so specific to a gay conversation. You are slightly panicked and you are slightly irrational and you are joking about it but it’s also horrifying. It’s such a specific conversation between gay men. It felt so relatable to me, that when we were doing it we were talking about how we hoped that it came off in the way that it meant. That gay people, in particular were like, “Yes, I’ve had that moment with my friends.” Like, “Hey, remember when I was with that guy a couple of weeks ago and this happened?” And you’re sort of giggling about it but you’re also being serious. It’s a great opportunity for this show to capture moments like that.
And now there’s the introduction of Daniel Franzese’s character, who is HIV positive. It seems like this season is going to tackle those issues in a way that won’t be so After School Special-y, like you might see on a broadcast TV show, but in a more complicated and real way.
I think the goal of the show was always for it to feel very now and very present. In the second season, we’ll look at how being HIV positive feels now. Someone who is HIV positive and having sex and living his life and dealing with it in a human, honest way. Hopefully it feels like it’s true to life and not, “Now on a Very Special Episode of Looking…”
One thing that’s been bothering me about the response to Looking is the way people describe Patrick as “naive” or “sheltered” or “inexperienced.” Like, yes, he’s on a trip to the woods with his friends and he’s talking about wanting to go tour old trees while they’re talking about wanting to go to a naked rave party. But he’s also having an affair with his boss and getting fucked against that old tree. He’s not so innocent.
I think Patrick, because of what you’re saying, he’s surprising. He’s sort of the good boy, in a lot of ways. When you met his family in Episode 7 and you got to see the WASP-y whiteness that he comes from, that do-the-right-thing environment. I think that really informs his outer shell. But to what you said, I think the engaging thing and interesting thing about Patrick is that deep down there’s a lot of questions, there’s some darkness, there’s a lot of complications. But they’re all under the surface of this well-mannered, sweet, possibly naive white dude. It’s sneaky how complex Patrick is.
I think it’s also a product of comparing him to the company he keeps on the show. Like Dom and Agustin are raunchy and graphic and jaded. But it’s the same thing as Sex and the City, where everyone kept calling Charlotte the conservative prude and if you’re “the Charlotte” of your friend group that meant that you’re the virginal one. But if you watch Sex and the City. Charlotte had a hell of a lot of sex on that show! Way more than most people I know. I think Patrick is a little bit like that, too.
[Laughs] Oh my god, she did. That’s too funny! She had so much sex. You’re so right. That’s a really good point. The funny thing, too, is if you watch the first episode of the new season. It’s such a great portrait of Patrick as a character and the way he’s so multifaceted. Because he’s like, “Everything’s great! Let’s go on hikes!” It’s his go-to to avoid the darker, more complex feelings that he’s having underneath the surface. He leans into that in the beginning of the episode. But when you pull that away you see what he’s avoiding, which is this pretty explicit, fucked up messy relationship he’s having with his boss.