If Jonathan Groff has been hovering around stardom for a while now, Looking could be his big break. Though the HBO show debuting Sunday, inaptly deemed the "gay Girls," follows the friendship of three gay men in San Francisco, it puts Groff front and center as the sweet, if misguided Patrick.
Groff—who is probably best known to musical theater junkies for his turns in Spring Awakening on Broadway and on Glee—gives a lovely, understated performance as Patrick, who is well meaning, but at times painfully awkward. Take, for instance, his date with a cute Mexican bouncer, which goes horribly awry when Patrick says out loud almost everything he really should keep to himself. You never get the sense that Patrick is not self-aware, though; in fact, he's maybe overly self-aware.
"I think this character, for the first time in his life at 29 years old in San Francisco, is saying okay, wait a second, I want more out of life, I’m ready to go deeper, I’m ready to grow, I’m ready to have relationships, I’m ready to put myself out there. And in that, he sort of makes a lot of mistakes a long the way," Groff explained in an interview last week. "It’s great as an actor, because there’s a lot of emotional and dramatic vulnerability there as somebody starts to strike out and try new things and figure out who they are. There’s also a lot of comedy there because [for] anyone who is trying anything new, in order to learn you have to fall on your face a couple of times. "
We got a chance to talk to Groff—who also provides a voice in Disney's massive animated hit Frozen—about Looking, video games, and his mother's cat.
Jonathan Groff: It's so funny, Esther is the name of my mom’s cat. Esther Sherman. [...] I can’t wait to tell my mom that I had an interview with an Esther. She’ll be so excited.
The Wire: Esther’s not that common a name for people, I’m shocked that there’s a cat named Esther.
Well, it’s named after—I did a regional production of Fame in Beverly, Massachusetts, and the teacher of the kids was named Esther Sherman and my mom got a cat and named it that.
Moving on from the cat named Esther: How did you get involved in Looking? Was it something you pursued? Had you seen director Andrew Haigh's Weekend before signing on?
Yeah, I’d seen Weekend a couple of years before in New York City. I was such a huge fan of that movie. It was incredible. HBO and San Francisco were all amazing elements, and I read the script and loved the script, but it was really Andrew Haigh that made me most excited going into that room, because I was so blown away by that movie.
In the media, the show has been given the designation “gay Girls,” which I think is kind of a misnomer. "Girls" is kind of a code [in the media] for anything about young people living in a city struggling with love. I was wondering what you think about that designation and those parallels and Girls being used as a sort of shorthand.
Totally. I think that the most positive thing that could come from those comparisons is I think there might be a cross-over audience there. I think it’s no mistake that they’ve paired our show with Girls, that Girls comes on at 10 and we come on at 10:30. Because I think if you’re a fan of Sex and the City and you’re a fan of Girls, chances are you might be a fan of Looking. It’s kind of great that people have that to hook into, to say, "Well, I like those shows, so maybe I’ll like this show. I think once they see it, they’ll know that obviously the style and tone and writing is very different from those shows. This show will speak for itself, when you actually watch it. But the comparison excites me because it might be draw people to this show that would end up really enjoying it.
I was wondering if Looking is at all trying to be a pushback or corrective to other portrayals of gay men on TV that may have been overblown. The tagline “find something real” seems significant.
I think one of the cool things about the show that makes it unique, especially in a show where all the central characters are gay, is nobody’s having a like, coming out story. Nobody’s self conscious about their sexuality. The great troubles in their lives or the problems that they’re dealing with don’t have to deal with the fact that they are gay. They’ve gone through that period of their life. Most of the characters are in their 30s and 40s so now their problems have to do with their jobs, and their friendships, and their relationships. I think because of that it hopefully makes the show more relatable to people who aren’t gay watching it. You’re not watching people come to terms with their sexuality, you’re watching someone having a hard time at work or someone going on a really awkward first date, which is universal.
There’s been great advancement in representation of gay people on TV, but you still see some rather stock characters. I’m thinking about the reaction to elements of The New Normal, or way back when with Jack on Will & Grace, and I’m wondering if some of the "real"ness [on Looking] is trying to be a pushback against that.
I don’t think that there is, because I feel like the story that we’re telling is very specific to the characters in San Francisco. There are certainly gay men [for whom] their authentic way of being is like Jack from Will & Grace, that’s truly who they are. For example, when I went to the march on Washington in D.C. for marriage equality, most of the people were dressed in t-shirts and jeans, but then some men dressed in like wedding gowns, and a lot of times in the press that’s what the lead title was—a big picture of a guy in a wedding dress—which didn’t necessarily speak for the majority of the gay community, but it was the flashiest so it was the easiest to look at. I think maybe because of that, those flash, gay personality types have come to the forefront simply because they are the loudest and most interesting to look at. But I think it’s also a reflection of how comfortable we’re getting, and how society is progressing that now we are watching a TV show about gay characters where the gay element isn’t a defining part of their selves.
On HBO, or really any cable, there can be an element of shock to the sex, but in Looking that's not the case at all. Was that something that you guys talked about, in terms of how you were going to approach that element of the show?
Judging from Andrew’s movie Weekend, I had an idea of how the sex was going to be portrayed in the TV show, because he dealt with it in a very sort of naturalistic, real, low-key sort of way. I knew that would be the sensibility going into the show. Then I was pleasantly surprised when the scripts started coming out. All of the scenes that are intimate or sex scenes are very connected to character. Even in the scene where I’m with Richie [his date] in the second episode, and I’m drunk and taking him into my room, you’re not watching and thinking, these are two men taking their clothes off. It’s like, Patrick why are you being such a crazy person? It shows an element of Patrick’s character at that time. On the flip side, you also see an element of Richie’s character coming through when he stops and he says, "You know what, I think we’re looking for different things." So I think the sex on the show is part of the storytelling, and the characters leave each sexual experience in a different way. Even Murray [Bartlett, who plays friend Dom], who does the Grindr hookup in episode two, you see the aftermath of that when he’s sitting with Doris and he says, "Oh man, I thought that would make me feel better, why do I feel worse?" Even something that’s him pounding [guest star Andrew Keenan Bolger] against the mirror, it’s completely sexual, it’s [also] a reflection of where his character is at and how lonely and desperate he is.
I think one element of linking the show with Girls that will carry through is the way it'll be discussed in the culture. Is there something that you would like to see the show bring up in discussion?
My ultimate hope for the show is that people end up really connecting to the character. People are going to come with all sorts of expectations about the gay experience or whatever, but I think at the end of the day, Michael Lannan—who is our creator, wrote the pilot and is an executive producer and still writes on the show—he wrote these stories based on friends from his real life in San Francisco, and I think all of them—across the board, every character on the show—has a big heart, whether it’s visible or not. As we all got working on the show, and as we spent the whole season getting to know the characters and developing them and helping them grow we all really fell in love with them, we really fell in love with this group of people, and we really really care so much about them. So I hope that that care and love transfers to an audience and that they end up connecting outside of it being a gay show and talking about the sex on the show or talking about what it's like to be in the modern gay experience. Which are all great conversations that I am so glad are happening, and they should, and that’s also an amazing thing about the show. But at the end of the day, I hope that people really connect to the stories and the characters.
You’re in [HBO's upcoming production of] The Normal Heart, too. These projects that deal with the past and present of gay life. I was wondering if you looked at each from the perspective of the other. In Looking, Scott Bakula plays a character from an older generation...
When we were shooting The Normal Heart, it was interesting to be on the beach shooting the White Party scene, which is the very beginning of the movie, where everyone is dressed in their outfits and in their 20s and having a party, and we genuinely were dancing around on the beach and having a blast and Larry Kramer showed up and said, "When I was 20 years old and dancing on the beach most of those people then died within five years." It was really powerful in the moment of all of us standing there in our 20s being like, whoa, this is a part of gay history, a part of gay culture, and it’s such an important story to pass along. It wasn’t a conscious thing on my part to say, "I would love to be a part of the conversation of the contemporary gay experience," but it is cool to have a hand in both of those worlds, where with The Normal Heart it’s reminding this new generation what happened before and the lives that were lost and the tragedy that happened because it’s such a huge part of the fabric of gay life. But then also getting the chance to be on this show where it’s a completely different world.
On the subject of San Francisco—obviously a major part of the show is the city itself—were you familiar at all with the city coming into it?
I had read Tales of the City and I had seen the movie, and I had gone on a weekend trip, alone. I took a drive up the coast and spent a weekend in San Francisco and went to Dolores Park and the Castro Theatre and Fisherman’s Wharf. This was the most time I ever spent there. I had this preconceived notion about San Francisco that it was like the Summer of Love, '60s—that’s what I think of when I think of San Francisco. Like, free love and you go to San Francisco with flowers in your hair, whatever that song is. So I had this sort of romantic notion of San Francisco and obviously that’s not completely the sensibility anymore, the aesthetic is different, but it really is unlike any other city I’ve been. [There's] a deep, deep, deep, deep, deep, level of acceptance, and you do really feel when you live there and you’re there for a period of time—or even just for a visit—that you can be whoever you want to be, and anything is allowed, and everybody’s very laid back and very accepting, and it’s very specific to the city. So it was cool to live there and know that that spirit still exists.
The show also, in a way, touches on the modern conception of San Francisco as a tech city. Patrick is a video game designer.
Yeah, exactly, they had the national gamers convention there when we were shooting the pilot so we got to go and walk around. I walked around with Michael Lannan to talk to the different game designers and see all the different types of games. The reason they have it there is because San Francisco is like the mecca for all things tech. So it was really cool to see that side of it all.
Do you play video games at all?
Yeah, in life.
No. I don’t. I was obsessed with Nintendo. I beat Super Mario Bros 1, 2, and 3. FYI. I beat all those games when I was a kid growing up, but then I stopped I never got into the XBox or anything like that. So I had to have a tutorial before I went to San Francisco.
I know we have to wrap up but I have two really musical theater nerdy questions. I was a huge Spring Awakening fan. It seems that the cast is just doing so crazy well. What was it like growing up with all these people who have done so well. Do you and John Gallagher Jr. [who is on The Newsroom] have some killer HBO-party karaoke moves that can be revealed?
Oh gosh! I don’t know about that. You just put an idea in my head, that can end up being really fun. It’s crazy, and it’s not crazy because when we were working on that show I looked around at that ensemble every night on stage—because as you know the cast sat on stage for every show—I would look around every night and Lea Michele would get on that chair and sing “Mama Who Bore Me,” and it was like "This girl is insanely talented." And the whole cast from top to bottom, I was night-to-night never tired of watching it because I just felt like I was surrounded by the most talented people who were all having a moment. We were all being discovered. We are so lucky and blessed, and it’s a bond that all of us will share for the rest of our lives. I saw John Gallagher in New York and had dinner with him and Lea. Skylar [Astin’s] TV show that he’s doing on TBS, they don’t shoot in San Francisco, but it takes place there so he came to San Francisco for press and I saw him then. We just had a big Spring Awakening reunion in New York. I think we’re all really inspired by the work that everybody else is doing.
Last really quick. It’s more of a request than a question. I loved Frozen, and I was sad you didn’t get to sing more in it, and with all these versions of “Let It Go” on the internet, I think you should definitely record your cover.
Oh my God. Yes. I will do that for you. Do you want like a jazz version?
If I have time today I’ll do that for you.