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Jonathan Groff Talks 'Looking,' Awkward Sex Scenes and Telling Stories About Gay Characters That Aren't Just About Coming Out

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire January 16, 2014 at 10:30AM

"Glee" alum and Tony-nominee Jonathan Groff is about to be seen in his most ambitious role yet, as one of the leads of "Looking," HBO's hotly anticipated new series about a trio of gay men in San Francisco that was created by Michael Lannan and is executive produced by "Weekend" filmmaker Andrew Haigh.
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Jonathan Groff in 'Looking'
John P. Johnson/HBO Jonathan Groff in 'Looking'

Jonathan Groff received a Tony nomination for his performance as Melchior Gabor in the Broadway musical "Spring Awakening," a role he originated, but if you don't know him from his continuing work on the stage, you might from his playing of fan favorite Jesse St. James on "Glee," his starring turn in David Sedaris adaptation "C.O.G." or his recent voice work on Disney's "Frozen." The hard-working 28-year-old actor is about to be seen in his most ambitious role yet, as one of the leads of "Looking," HBO's hotly anticipated new series about a trio of gay men in San Francisco that was created by Michael Lannan and is executive produced by "Weekend" filmmaker Andrew Haigh, who directed the first three episodes.

The series, which premieres this Sunday, January 19th at 10:30pm, presents a warm, naturalistic and very contemporary look at gay life as it really hasn't before been put on the small screen. Groff stars alongside Frankie J. Alvarez (who plays Agustín) and Murray Bartlett (who plays Dom) as Patrick, a 29-year-old video game designer whose search for a boyfriend is poignant, funny and a window into the dating scene. Indiewire caught up with Groff by phone to discuss the series, San Francisco and shooting awkward sex scenes. [Note for the spoiler-phobic -- this interview contains a discussion of a scene in episode two of the series.]

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How did you get involved with "Looking" -- had you seen "Weekend"?

It's funny you say that, because that was the thing -- Andrew Haigh was really the main magnet that drew me to this project, because I'd seen "Weekend" in a movie theater in New York when it came out and was completely blown away by it. I actually saw it with a friend of mine who's straight, and we were both devastated by the end of the movie.

When I found out that Andrew was directing this gay-themed TV show for HBO, I thought, "wow, if we could have that sensibility that he had in 'Weekend' on a television show, that would be amazing.'" It's great to have the chance to be working with him.

I'm curious as to your overall thoughts about how representations of gay characters have changed on TV. We're getting past the sassy best friend being the main figure, but "Looking" is one of the few shows I can think of that doesn't just focus on gay characters but doesn't shy away from sex as well. 

One of the cool things about the show is that no one's having a "coming out" story. My character is 29, and that's the youngest of the main ensemble on the show. Most characters are in their 30s and 40s. It's a show with gay characters, but nobody's grappling with their sexuality. One of the most successful gay movies ever is "Brokeback Mountain," where the story is basically two gay men who are both devastated by the fact that they're gay and they're in love with each other.

"It's a show with gay characters, but nobody's grappling with their sexuality."

In this show, everybody's completely fine with the fact that they're gay, and so the issues become about their relationships and friendships and work. Hopefully it becomes even more relatable to people who aren't gay, and hopefully it's a reflection of whatever we are now, or at least where we're headed -- where sexuality is a huge part of who you are, but it doesn't define who you are.

Your character, Patrick, doesn't necessarily easily take to or fit in with certain aspects of gay life. The first scene of the series has him experimenting with trying to cruise people in the park with an awkwardness that's very funny. 

He's at a place in his life where he's ready to step outside his comfort zone and try new things. I think some people go through that when they're 16, some people go through that when they're 22, or 30, or 50, and it's that big life change that is happening to Patrick at 29 in San Francisco. That first scene, it's such a reflection of where his character is at, because you meet him going cruising in the woods, which is something completely out of his comfort zone and out of his normal personality, and you're immediately introduced to this character who's stepping outside of his comfort zone and trying new things.

I think that Patrick is looking for his place in the world, as far as the gay community is concerned, and also his place in the world in general -- what kind of relationships he wants to have, and does he want to have a boyfriend. Those questions are weighing on and affecting him and set the course of this first season.

He's never had a relationship that's lasted more than a few months -- what do you see as his difficulty?

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Part of it is that he doesn't know how you go about finding that. His inexperience is part of it, but I also think that he keeps saying "I want a boyfriend, I want a boyfriend, why don't I have a boyfriend?" and we've certainly all either said or heard our best friends say that.

While Patrick thinks what he needs is a boyfriend and that's it, I think that what he needs in a deeper way is to really grow and develop and change and learn about himself. In the relationships we end up seeing him in that he gets into romantically, it's great. I think Patrick needs a boyfriend because he needs learn a lot about himself and to be challenged in order to grow up and mature.

Patrick says, more than once, that he thinks someone has the wrong impression of him -- and there are definitely a fair share of those cover-your-eyes moments where he blurts out something terrible that makes you understand why he believes that. What is it like to play those scenes, and what do you think Patrick thinks of himself that people are not getting?

Without fail, there was at least one moment of every script where I would grab my hair and be like, "Oh, god, I can't believe I have to do that!" Most of it is social anxiety and awkwardness. I think, again, in a deeper way, it's like a human being ready to take the next step and go deeper, and there's a lot to play with that as an actor, because there's also a lot comedically in those moments too.

Patrick -- there's a naive quality to him. He's going to learn a lot about himself through these relationships, and he obviously needs to. He just has a blind spot from his inexperience, and as he grows up and continues to meet people and go on dates he's hopefully going to gain some sort of self-awareness. He's always gonna be off-beat, because that's naturally who he is, but hopefully somewhere down the line he's going to gain a better sense of self.

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This show is going to be airing after "Girls," and it seems natural for people to compare the two -- they're about groups of friends and city life, and about types of characters who don't get put on screen that often or in this way. Does the comparison seem fair to you?

Yeah -- it's like the gay "Girls" or the gay "Sex in the City," people are saying. I am such a huge fan of both of those shows -- I've seen every episode of "Sex in the City" and every episode of "Girls" at least once, some multiple times. The fact that it's being compared to that for me personally is cool, because I love those shows so much. As far as the trajectory and the life of the show, one of the great things that can come from the comparison is that if you like "Sex and the City" and you like "Girls," chances are you might also like "Looking," because it's also about relationships and finding love and complexities of the way people relate to each other, so there's an audience crossover there, hopefully.

It is airing right after "Girls" -- I think that's no mistake in that programming. I think once people actually see the show itself, they'll know that the writing and the tone and the style are very different, and hopefully they'll treat it as its own thing. But the comparisons make me very excited. 

Do you see any similarities between Patrick and Lena Dunham's character Hannah? They both have a tendency to put their feet in their mouths.

Haha, that's so true! I hadn't even thought of that but that's a really good point. "Girls" is about girls in their early 20s, defining and figuring out their identity and who they are. Our show is more 30s and 40s, so it's a different group of people. But we are all trying to figure out how we relate to one another, to find love and to figure out our place in the world, so there's definitely similarities. I've never met Lena Dunham but I'm such a huge fan -- I think she's a crazy genius.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Jonathan Groff, Looking, Interviews, HBO, Andrew Haigh, Michael Lannan, The Normal Heart, Reed Morano