Jonathan Groff Mixes Reel Life with Real Life & Looks to the Beginning of the Epidemic for Wisdom
by Dann Dulin
[dropcap]J[/dropcap]onathan Groff is aroused.
In the middle of the crosswalk at the bustling intersection of La Cienega and Santa Monica Boulevards in West Hollywood, California, he enthusiastically high-fives me because he discovers that we’re both devoted I Love Lucy nuts!
The singer, dancer, and actor, who early in his career was on the soap One Life to Live, not only has affection for classic television, but he has a surging passion and a spiritual affinity toward the epidemic as well. Moments earlier, on this blinding sunlit day, we met outside Starbucks. He greeted me with a hug then briskly whisked off to order a brew, extending the offer to me, as well. When he returned, we decided that the place was too noisy for a talk. I suggested we walk a few blocks to a friend’s more sedate art studio. An art aficionado, he perked up and inquired about the artist. Toting his coffee and a chocolate graham cracker treat, we set out for the studio.
On the way, we were stopped by a fan of Jonathan’s HBO series Looking, which, regrettably, was not renewed for a third season. (HBO is set to air a Looking special in early 2016.) The guy feverishly asserted, “My husband and I love your show and how honestly it portrays the gay community. I’m not just a fan, I’m also an actor and I compliment you and the show.” Jonathan smiled graciously and we moved on.
Jonathan lamented about the cancellation of Looking, which was in the vein of Girls, Sex and The City, and Queer As Folk. “We were all just becoming familiar and grasping our characters. It’s too bad.” We then discussed how it takes awhile for an actor to find the true character like it did for Lucy Ricardo, Mary Richards, or Rhoda Morgenstern, two more of his favorites. “If you look at early episodes of I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Rhoda, their characters were not fully developed either,” he points out.
Looking was the first TV show in a long while to spotlight HIV and AIDS. In the second season, Jonathan’s character, Patrick, even goes through AIDS anxiety because he had unprotected sex. He was so anxious that during a night out with his friends at a bar, he asks one of them to join him in the bathroom. Once there, he raises his T-shirt and shows him a small patch of redness on his stomach. “Look at those little red bumps, right there,” remarks Patrick. “Is it bed bugs? It wasn’t there this morning. It’s definitely not AIDS…is it?” His friend assures him it’s not. Patrick’s worries continue to haunt him until he gets tested and the results are negative.
“I’m glad we touched on this because it’s a universal thing—gay and straight,” notes Jonathan, now in the art studio and poised on a crimson-red loveseat. “I think AIDS panic is good because it keeps us aware. It’s better to err on the side of AIDS panic than not. Scaring people into having safe sex is not a bad thing.”
“The first time I was tested was when they discovered melanoma on my chest, which was about seven years ago,” he asserts. Fortunately, the cancer was removed with surgery. “I wasn’t freaked out [about the HIV test] like Patrick was. It was rather low-key. I get tested every year now or when a boyfriend turns into a serious relationship, or before I put myself in a potentially dangerous situation.” Jonathan is currently single, though several years ago he had a two-and-a-half year relationship with actor Zachary Quinto.
“I’m not HIV-positive, so I imagine it’s quite stressful to bring the topic up when you’re dating. The more we talk about HIV in every day life the easier it becomes. It doesn’t have to be awkward, taboo, or intense to talk openly about sex. It should be a part of the getting-to-know-you part, before you have sex,” persists Jonathan. He breaks off a bit of the chocolate graham cracker and plunks it in his mouth.
“One of the hang-ups I find with dating is that often times people have decided what they want and what they like before even meeting someone,” observes Jonathan. “There are many labels people use nowadays and it’s limiting. I wish people would get to know someone before deciding. Having HIV is so much more than a label. There’s got to be an organic moment of connection instead of, ‘Hi. I’m so-and-so and I have HIV, just so you know.’ That can possibly freak somebody out and push them away.”
This solidly built guy, who’s been naked on screen several times, is mild-mannered, easygoing, and lively. He looks as though he just stepped off the UCLA campus in his regular fitting jeans, New Balance running shoes, a red t-shirt (his favorite color), a faded dark blue hoodie, and a flag blue baseball cap with its Fog Rugby logo. A few short strands of hair sweep out of his turned-around cap, like thistles of dark hay. There’s a confident calm about him, almost angelic. In fact, during our time together, his cell goes off and the tone is a tranquil strumming harp.
While shooting episodes of Looking, the crew was at times concerned that the audience might think they were making light of the epidemic. “With the AIDS panic scene, we wondered if people who are infected would be upset with that kind of comedic take. But I think the relatability of the moment allowed people to embrace the humor of it,” Jonathan explains, taking a swig of java. “We knew in the back of our minds, though, that with the character of Eddie [played by Daniel Franzese, A&U July 2015], who’s HIV-positive, that he was being shown in a modern sensible way on how someone infected could lead a healthy life. Several of my friends are HIV-positive and Eddie represents them well.”
Earlier in the year, Jonathan was at his doctor’s office in New York for a checkup. The doctor praised Looking and telling Jonathan: “I’ve been treating people for HIV since 1982 and no one has ever come in talking about the disease until now after those [HIV-themed] episodes aired.” His doctor became emotional and continued, “Please send my thank you to the people who do your show. There’s such little gay programming on television. People are watching your show and adhering to it like the Bible.”
The actor who’s the voice of hunky iceman Kristoff in the wildly popular animated Disney film Frozen insists strongly again, “It’s so important to talk about this disease!” He leans forward, hunching with his elbows on his knees. “The episode where Patrick is fucking his boyfriend Kevin, Kevin takes out the condom and sensually tears it open with his mouth then gives it to Patrick. He makes it a part of the sex act. It’s hot….” Jonathan declares in a soft sensual voice. “The fact is you don’t know how many lives you’ve saved by just those few moments. This is really major. Even though it’s 2015, people are still uncomfortable confronting sex.” He clutches his empty coffee cup, holding it securely near his heart. “I think in some way, entertainment has a responsibility to be true-to-form and real as possible.”
Jonathan certainly has lived up to that standard by being a part of the ensemble cast of the film The Normal Heart and of course, Looking. Jonathan was thrilled to be a part of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the story of the early days of the epidemic based on his activism. Jonathan considers Kramer a hero. “His legacy has sustained,” he says thoughtfully. “Larry came to the set when we were shooting the White Party at the beach on Fire Island. He wasn’t there very long when he burst into tears and had to leave. It seems to have brought back too many tragic memories of the loss of his friends,” recounts Jonathan, tugging on both sides of his hoodie to adjust. “When I went to see the premiere of the play on Broadway, he was out in front of the theatre handing out pamphlets. Then at the premiere of the film at the Ziegfeld Theatre [in New York], after the screening, he stood up as people applauded, and he gave a speech. The man is a legend—and he fights hard. Larry Kramer is still the go-to dude.”
To play Craig, his character in The Normal Heart, Jonathan sought out a friend who lived through that devastating era. “We met for dinner one night and I picked his brain. He told me that in the onset of this disease he and fifteen friends were talking about the shock of it all. Then in ten years, there were only three of them left….Fuuuck…,” Jonathan says ruefully in a mesmerized stupor of disbelief. There’s a long interval of silence.
“Even though I didn’t live through the eighties,” he says, “I feel connected to it.” His demeanor changes and his light ice blue glinting eyes dampen. “I can see myself there. I feel a kinship to that generation,” clarifies Jonathan with sincere authenticity, almost ethereal. “I think by working with Broadway Cares I was shrouded in that whole historical experience.” He stops. Jonathan looks about the room filled with dipped-in paints, different sized brushes, and an overhead projector. “I can’t even articulate it. I feel emotionally connected in a deep… guttural…level,” he attests tenderly. “I don’t know what would have happened if I were in my early twenties living back then. It was an intense time. I’m respectful of it and it makes me feel sad. I’m so drawn to that era….”
As a child, it was somewhat different for him. “My first memory of the epidemic was when I was a kid,” he reflects. “I remember associating gay with AIDS and dying. I was about ten and went to King May Beach in Wildwood, New Jersey, a gay community. I walked up to a bookstore and on the door was a rainbow flag. I was gay so I knew about the colored flag. I grabbed the doorknob ready to walk in but just stared at the flag. I quickly wiped my hand on my clothes and ran away. My ten-year-old mind saw the flag that meant gay that meant death. Oh, I was horrified.”
A Pennsylvania boy, Jonathan moved to New York at twenty and soon landed on Broadway, originating the role of Melchior in the rock musical Spring Awakening. He stayed with the company for over two years and received a Tony nomination for his demanding performance. He was twenty-two. When asked what one of his favorite life moments was, he replies, “The last night of Spring Awakening, Lea [Michelle] and I were leaving the show together and the audience bought tickets knowing it was our last performance. It felt like a rock concert. That was a…a Real Moment,” hums Jonathan, brightening a comfortable grin recalling the cathartic memory.
Jonathan and Lea hooked up professionally again a few years later on Glee. He had the reoccurring role of Jesse St. James, a Vocal Adrenaline alum, who was the love interest for Lea’s character, Rachel Berry. In fact, earlier this year, he was in Los Angeles to shoot the last episode. “It was really moving. Everyone cried all day.”
It was during Spring Awakening that he performed in Broadway Backwards, an annual fundraiser that benefits Broadway Cares. This was not his first endeavor with the iconic organization. “When I first moved to New York, I was waiting tables. Tom Viola [executive director of the non-profit] came into the restaurant. He stated, ‘You’re an actor.’ And I replied, ‘Yeh.’ He said, ‘You should volunteer with us because you can see the ends of all the Broadway shows for free by collecting money.’ So I did that for a year.”
Jonathan was already familiar with Broadway Cares, as during his high school years he attended many Broadway and off-Broadway shows, like Angels in America and The Normal Heart (“These plays were mesmerizing and mind-blowing….”), and recalls the red buckets the volunteers would carry to collect money. “At the end of a Spring Awakening performance, when I would make the announcement about Broadway Cares, I remember seeing some of the same volunteers when I first started doing that.”
Jonathan continues his activism this month, serving as an Event Chair for Elton John AIDS Foundation’s 14th Annual New York Benefit Gala. The benefit is called An Enduring Vision, and will be held at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City on November 2. Just last month GLADD and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation launched a gripping PSA in which Jonathan appears.
Having turned thirty this year, Jonathan admits he went through pangs of “Oh-my-gosh-does-that-mean-I-have-to-have-my-shit-together?” Well, it seems he’s evolved quite nicely. In 2010 he made his West End debut in a production of Deathtrap, starring opposite Simon Russell Beale, a critically acclaimed talent. He also appeared in a blazing production at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum in Red, appearing with Alfred Molina in a two-man drama about the artist Mark Rothko. Jonathan played Rothko’s assistant, Ken. (Eddie Redmayne won the Tony award for his Broadway portrayal of Ken). Jonathan’s performance was riveting and searing.
Taking Woodstock was his first film. Directed by Ang Lee, Jonathan played a long frizzy-haired hippie, Michael Lang, who was the organizer of the legendary event. To get into character, Jonathan spent several days with Lang and his family. Several years later he appeared in C.O.G. Co-written by David Sedaris, Jonathan played Sedaris, which is loosely based on the author’s life. In last year’s American Sniper, Jonathan was a Vet playing opposite Bradley Cooper.
Appearing recently on Broadway as King George III in the hip-hop musical Hamilton, about founding father Alexander Hamilton, Jonathan received ravishing reviews for his performance. It can be a hectic schedule doing eight shows a week, but to chill, Groff takes yoga classes. When he’s down, angry, or feels overwhelmed—which is not often he offers—he takes to the street for a run, to the gym to exercise, or reads a book. He’s currently reading Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. One thing Jonathan worries about is responding to people, as with a text, an e-mail, or phone call. That’s a refreshing attribute in this day of fast-paced technology, Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.), and haughty ego-centeredness. “I feel incredible guilt if I don’t respond to someone,” he bridles.
As our time draws to an end, Jonathan rises up and roams about the studio glancing at completed canvases by resident artist, Davidd Batalon, which are stacked up against several of the walls. “I really like this overhead one. I’ve never seen an airplane from that perspective,” he mutters quizzically. Jonathan spies several paintings that display male nudes in sensual positions. Studying one piece, with his back toward me, he slowly turns around, faces me straight on, and pointedly states, “You know, sex is only dangerous when it’s not brought out in the open. I know I’m repeating myself, but that’s the point.” He takes a considerable pause.
Still standing, the afternoon sun streams in through the window and illuminates his features. Jonathan folds his arms, glances into space as if recalling a memory then flashes his trademark gleaming boyish smile. “I’ve learned so much from my friends who lived during the early AIDS days—and it’s important to have people in your life who keep you accountable.”
Thank you to Matthew Hetznecker for his incomparable support.
Dann Dulin interviewed Dr. Rachael Ross for the September cover story.
The actor picks his faves.
Film: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Sitcom: I Love Lucy.
City: New York. But my heart right now is in San Francisco [due to filming Looking there].
Historical figure: Tennessee Williams.
Physical asset above the waist: My hair because it grows fast and it’s thick.
Physical asset below the waist: My feet because I use them a lot and they have not let me down.
Female actor: Cate Blanchett.
Male actor: Mark Ruffalo.
Complete this sentence: The one thing about fame I don’t like is …
Sometimes it gets mistaken for talent.
Who have you been starstruck by?
Sutton Foster. [He’s a serious dedicated fan.]
Have you ever been intimidated by someone you’ve worked with?
John Gallagher Jr., who was one of my co-stars in Spring Awakening, because he was in Rabbit Hole on Broadway with Cynthia Nixon and we were Off-Broadway. When we were in rehearsals he would have to leave them to perform in the matinee performance.
Out of the many people you have met, is there one in particular who stands out the most?
Alfred Molina. He’s a very generous actor and he possesses all good qualities in one.
What celebrity would you like to have wild animal sex with?
[He takes a deep sigh] Mark Ruffalo.
Briefs, boxers, sockjock, thong . . .?
I go back and forth from nothing to briefs.
How many times during the day do you look at yourself in the mirror?
I’d say three. I don’t look too much.
What foreign country are you dying to visit?
How do you deal with nerves before you go on stage or the set?
I look forward to feeling nervous. In Spring Awakening I was so nervous to walk out on stage for the first preview that I was nearly crippled with nerves. I felt the same way the following night. I even asked a cast mate if this was normal. Six months later, I felt nothing! I was excited to do the show but any extra adrenalin was absolutely gone. So now when I start to feel nervous I think, “This is good . . .” It makes me feel alive, which means I care.
Who are you dying to work with?
I really want to work with Cate Blanchett!