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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.

Jonathan Groff and Raúl Castillo in 'Looking'
John P. Johnson/HBO Jonathan Groff and Raúl Castillo in 'Looking'

The show is set in San Francisco, and I like that it brings up, particularly in Patrick's relationship with Richie (Raúl Castillo), issues of class and race, given the city's once again dealing with issues of gentrification.

I love that. Michael Lannan -- all the characters are loosely based on his experience living in San Francisco, and he as a person lives a very diverse life with all different types of people, and so that is thankfully for us reflected in his work. But I love the cultural and class difference between Richie and Patrick -- it's really interesting and I think also a universal issue of people finding themselves in relationships, gay or straight, where people are either at different points in their lives, or come from a different family or a different culture. 

As the episodes progress, Richie and Agustín meet each other, and there's a Mexican-Cuban dynamic that happens, which is really interesting in the reflection of the Latino community. I personally wasn't aware about it until it was written into the show. I'm really proud of the fact that the show has that kind of diversity, that it's gonna go there and explore that a bit.

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The first time Patrick takes Richie home, they have this half hook-up that turns into another of those cover-your-eyes moments because of what Patrick says. Tell me about shooting the sex scenes in the show -- they're not these highly choreographed things -- they're realistic, sometimes they're funny and sometimes they're a little awkward.

That scene is such a testament to the fact that, when you're watching, it's not "Oh look, it's two men in bed taking their clothes off," you're like, "Oh, god, Patrick, what are you doing? This is so awkward!" That, I feel, is the case for all of the sex scenes in the show -- you're really connected to what's happening emotionally and what's happening to the characters, and the characters are showing you different sides of themselves and their personalities. Even Richie in that scene, you learn about him, because when he's faced with that thing that Patrick brings up, he's says "You know what, I think we're not looking for the same thing." It's really a turning point in their relationship.

All of the sex scenes serve a very specific emotional purpose, which I feel is way more interesting for an audience to watch and definitely way more interesting and comforting to play as an actor, cause you're not so focused on your body, you're focused on what's happening. Also, Andrew, from watching "Weekend," the way he dealt with sexuality, being so frank and real and honest -- I knew I would feel comfortable doing scenes for him just because I know the way he sets things up. The actors happened to be all really comfortable with each other and great, and then Reed Morano, who's our cinematographer, we all felt like she had our back, so we knew that she was really gonna make it look as real and pretty and authentic as possible -- she'd take care of us and also try to make us look good.

"The word 'improv' always makes me feel a little anxious"

For people who know your work on "Glee," this show has a very different kind of style to it -- very dialed down and naturalistic. What was it like working in that mode?

I've never worked this way before. Andrew has a very specific way of creating naturalism on set -- he's not precious about the writing of scenes. If something doesn't feel right or doesn't seem like it's the right line, he's like "Just cut it or change it or whatever." He's very laid back, and so when he says "we're gonna do a little improv"... The word "improv" always makes me feel a little anxious, because I always feel like we'll have to pull props out of a bag and find 800 different ways to talk about a stick, the way you do in theater school. But his version of improv is however you make it feel real to you.

So he would encourage to improv into the scene, maybe a little in the middle and cut that one line that didn't sound right and improv at the end, and it ends up becoming really in the moment. So the work, you can't really prepare for, which is really exciting and taught me a lot as an actor, because when you show up on set for "Looking" in the morning, hopefully you know your lines, but you never really know what's gonna happen. We shot almost everything on location in San Francisco -- we just had to roll with it, and that all completely started with Andrew and definitely challenged all of us on the show to push ourselves and trust each other and trust that we could be real and not have to push the acting, just talk to each other. Which can be really scary, because you want to feel like you can prepare and hold onto things. He forced us all to let it go, which was great.

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Being one of the first shows to portray a community or a lifestyle that doesn't get a lot of screen time can come with a burden of being expected to represent everyone in it. Have you already run into or are you expecting any of that when it comes to this show?

I feel like certainly there are people expecting "Looking" to be representative of everyone that's gay, the entire gay community. And it's a dangerous expectation to come in watching the show expecting that. Expecting that out of any show... Michael Lannan created these characters based on his friends and life in San Francisco, and that's this very specific story that we're telling. Hopefully, once people start watching that show they'll get connected to the specific characters, and then hopefully they'll release those expectations of having it be representative of the gay community right now in every way shape and form.

Also, if we get to go for more seasons, we'll be able to show more facets and more of the different experiences of the different people in the gay community. But yeah, it's just dangerous to have that expectation and I'm sure some people will, and then they'll be disappointed, but hopefully they'll get connected to the characters in the show at the end of the day.

We're going to be seeing you on HBO again in the spring in "The Normal Heart," Ryan Murphy's film adaptation of Larry Kramer's play. What was it like to reunite with Ryan Murphy in this different mode and context?

It was incredible, I would have worked as part of the crew of that movie, I was such a fan of the play. It's such a powerful piece of writing, such a historic piece of theater, and to be back with Ryan Murphy -- this is our third project that we've worked on. Loyalty is so rare in this world, and he is that way with his crew and his actors and his directors, so I felt really lucky that he asked me to be a part of that. I can't wait to see it. 

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