Jonathan Groff talks HBO’s Looking, his role in Hamilton, and Madonna’s iPhone


By Kevin Sessums

This summer Jonathan Groff has already starred in London at Royal Festival Hall as J. Pierrepont Finch in a concert version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and as Gordon Michael Schwinn in the revival of the musical A New Brain as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center. In July he opens at the Richard Rodgers Theatre as King George in Hamilton in its eagerly awaited Broadway transfer after its sold-out, critically-acclaimed off-Broadway run at the Public Theater. A musical about our founding fathers written in the rhythmic vernacular of today by Lin-Manuel Miranda, choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, and directed by Thomas Kail, Hamilton is being hailed as the most groundbreaking American musical since A Chorus Line, which also got its start at the Public. All that, and there is still the HBO film of Looking to shoot, which will be the final chapter of the series, in which his central role of Patrick has served as the show’s conflicted conscience.

FourTwoNine’s editor in chief had lunch with Groff at Sosa Borella in Tribeca. This is some of what they talked about.

Kevin Sessums: I’ve known you for eight years now, Jon. We met when you were starring as Melchior in the musical Spring Awakening on Broadway. You’re a thirty-year-old man now. A lot has happened to you in those eight years. Looking back at that twenty-two-year-old boy, do you still recognize him?

Jonathan Groff: In a lot of ways, I feel exactly the same. I think I have the same personality. I’m interested in a lot of the same things. But the biggest thing is my being in the closet back then. The difference between being in the closet and out of the closet as a gay man is such a huge shift. I feel so connected still to that twenty-two-year-old, but the idea that I was not open with that part of my life—which I am now so open about—is sort of surreal.

KS: How old were you when you came out?

JG: I was twenty-three. It was a month after I left Spring Awakening. I went to Europe alone. It was the first I was ever out of the country. It was the first time I had ever vacationed alone. I was in Florence, and I was journaling. I’ve always kept a journal. All through Spring Awakening—all through high school and ever since—I’ve kept a journal every day. I’d sit in my dressing room at Spring Awakening each night after a performance, and I’d obsessively journal about each night’s performance. So I was sitting in Florence journaling, and I realized I had never once journaled about my boyfriend, and I had been in a relationship with him for three and half years. I wouldn’t even write about it in my journal because I was afraid somebody might read it. But then in Florence I started one day just journaling about him and realized I never had before, and I started wondering, “What is happening?” I knew in that moment I was going to come out of the closet. I came back home and came out to my family first. And then my friends. Then I broke up with that boyfriend and moved out of the apartment we were sharing as “roommates.”

KS: Was he in the closet?

JG: Yes. We were living in a double closet.

KS: It sounds like more like a walk-in one.

JG: Exactly. Then, when I was twenty-four, I was dating Gavin Creel, and he took me to the march on Washington, and it became more public, even though I was out to all my friends and in my personal life.

KS: You’ve done it all with a lot of grace and ease. It’s nice when those are not only the hallmarks of someone’s talent but also of their character as a person. That’s not always the case. There was also such grace and ease in your performance as Patrick in HBO’s Looking—and I’d even say bravery. I think it is braver in some ways for a gay actor to have gay sex scenes as you and Russell Tovey—who is also out—did in that series than it is for two straight actors to do them. In a professional sense, there might be an unimaginative impulse in the business to ghettoize you into those parts, and yet you two took them on with such commitment.

JG: It’s so funny to me, because doing a gay sex scene and doing a straight sex scene—except for the different equipment—is the same. Although Russell did fuck me in the show, so I guess that’s a little different.

KS: You fucked him too.

JG: And I fucked him too, yeah. But for me, sex scenes are more about intimacy than they are about sexuality. It’s all about the chemistry you have with the other person, whether that person is a man or a woman.

KS: You and Russell seemed to have had it. I got a hard-on watching some of those scenes.

JG: Yeah. You’ve told me that before, Kevin. I love that. I feel like that’s such a compliment. But again, it is about intimacy. For example, when I was with Lea [Michele] in Spring Awakening, we were incredibly intimate in that show. I had to act like I was fingering her and penetrating her and coming inside her—all that technical sexual shit. What really sold it, though, was the energy between us and the trust we had in each other. We really went there emotionally with each other. It had nothing to do with the physical act of a dick in a vagina. We had good chemistry from the minute we met, Lea and I.

KS: Did she know you were in the closet back then?

JG: We never talked about it.

KS: I remember when I’d come backstage and hang a bit with you she’d give me that “Who’s this old gay guy?” glare as if she were protecting you, or maybe she even had a crush on you herself. You and Lea have remained really close friends.

JG: We have. I never went to college, but I imagine it’s what it’s like when you bond with someone in college. We were on a very wild ride together during those Spring Awakening days. Plus, we weren’t who we were yet. We were still figuring out who we were, like you do in college. We were having such a deep and intense experience doing that show together. So we developed—and continue to have—a very intimate friendship that can only happen when you’re that age and you’re not who you are. But we never talked about my personal life. It is amazing to me, now that I made that part of myself so off-limits that even Lea didn’t ask me about it.

KS: You must know other actors who aren’t out of the closet for whatever reasons.

JG: Uh-huh.

KS: Does it ever get tiring since you are out that you have to talk about it—like in this interview—as if you’re the spokesman for gay actors or even gay people in general? You brought it up, not me. But do you ever have any regrets for being so public about who you are?

JG: When I came out, I understood that maybe I wouldn’t be the male romantic lead in a Nicholas Sparks movie. And I’m okay with that. I love theater. I came to New York to be a theater actor. There are a lot of out gay theater actors. When I came out, I made peace with the fact that maybe I wouldn’t be a huge movie star or a huge TV star. But I’d rather be a working actor and not hiding anything in my personal life. Weirdly, after I came out, I began to get a lot more film and television work. That’s all a way of saying that the reason I don’t mind talking about it over and over is because that is the way acceptance happens, and that’s the way you break down those walls. It’s what Harvey Milk said about coming out to all your friends. It’s important. And the more we talk about it, then the less we’ll finally have to talk about it. And for me personally, it feels liberating. I enjoy talking about it because I felt I couldn’t talk about it for so long.

KS: Do your parents ever tell you to stop talking about it?

JG: They’ve never said that. But they’ve never watched Looking. They didn’t watch the first season. After I shot the second season and before it aired, I was home for the holidays, and I said to them that the project meant so much to me, that I felt like they should watch. They said they just didn’t want to watch me having sex. So then I go back to New York, and the second season is airing, and I get a call from my dad. He tells me that he was flipping through the channels and sees that Looking is on, and he remembered our conversation about how much it would mean to me if he watched. “So I started watching,” he says. “And there you are in bed with some guy, and he reaches over to get a condom, and I just couldn’t watch it.” My dad literally tuned in to Looking to the most graphic scene I did in the whole series, in which I’m fucking Russell’s character in episode 3 of season 2.

KS: Your mother’s family is Methodist. Your father’s family is Mennonite. Are they religious?

JG: It’s not that. They just come from a conservative community in Pennsylvania. After my father saw that movie The Blind Side, he even called me up to tell me he had trouble watching Sandra Bullock in bed with Tim McGraw because he was married to Faith Hill.

KS: But they are okay with your being gay?

JG: No. They were shocked when I told them. It took them a while. They just couldn’t understand it. They didn’t shun me or anything like that. They’ve met my boyfriends. I took one of my boyfriends home for Christmas a couple of years ago, and they bought him a present. My dad did tell me that he started to feel really bad because he used to make fun of guys in high school for being sissies, and now he has a son who’s gay

KS: And your mother is a P.E. teacher, which sounds kind of dykey.

JG: Totally. She does work with lesbian P.E. teachers. It’s one thing when it’s your coworkers, and it’s another thing when it’s your son.

KS: And you have an older brother. What was his reaction?

JG: He was cool. But also surprised.

KS: Two of the people we know you’ve dated are Gavin, as you mentioned, and Zachary Quinto. Is it easier to date other actors or us civilians?

JG: I don’t think one is easier than the other. I feel like in dating actors the nice thing about it is they understand the schedules involved or having to leave for three months to shoot something and all of that. But when I was dating Gavin and dating Zach, it was more about the people they were instead of the actors they were, which is the same about the people who aren’t actors that I’ve dated. It’s about them as people and not about any careers or jobs they have.

KS: I’d think that if you’re dating another actor, that you’d feel competitive with each other.

JG: That is the weird thing. You’d think that about just two guys being together as well. That it’s a guy thing. But I’ve never felt competitive with the guys I’ve dated.

KS: Didn’t you and Gavin play the same role in Hair? You played Claude in the production in Central Park, and he played the role when it moved to Broadway.

JG: Not only that, but he played Melchior in the original workshop of Spring Awakening

KS: That’s all a little incestuous and odd and narcissistic.

JG: It is weird. It is.

KS: You’ve attained success in your public life. Do you feel to be successful in your private life as a gay man these days that you have to be married and have children?

JG: No.

KS: Not only have so many of us begun to codify our happiness in a heteronormative context as gay men, but I just heard myself ask a “sexist” question of you as a gay man: Will you be fulfilled without having a husband and children? Is that something you even want?

JG: I love kids, and my brother just had a baby. I think you start thinking about having a family of your own when your brother or your sister starts having them or your friends do. I have a lot of gay friends who are couples or are single, and they don’t have kids, and they don’t seem any less successful or happy to me. But for myself, I don’t know.

KS: You once told me that you were a serial monogamist. Is that okay for me to say on the record?

JG: Sure. I was.

KS: You’re not anymore?

JG: No. For a decade, I just went from relationship to relationship to relationship. But for the last two years, I’ve dated but haven’t been in a serious relationship.

KS: Do you have to be careful about whom you date or even just hook up with in case they go on social media, let’s say, and talk about it? I know you’re not on social media, but lots of other people are. Are you worried about your sex life being public knowledge, which is separate from your being out? Those are two totally different things. Being out is who you are. But your sex life is about privacy.

JG: I guess apart from taking a naked picture of myself or making a naked video or making a sex video—those are things I’m not ever going to do—I don’t care. But people also lie. I’ve met people who’ve said they’ve met people who I was intimate with, and it wasn’t true. So I kind of feel like whatever. I don’t really care.

KS: You just have to own what you do, and then if it is talked about, so what?

JG: Exactly. If I sleep with someone and they talk about it with their friends, that’s just life. That’s what anybody has to deal with.

KS: But are you hit on a lot? I’d think you would be. You’re hot, and you’re famous. You’d be a notch on somebody’s belt.

JG: I’m not hit on a lot. No. I’m not. I’m not really hit on.

KS: Well, after this comes out, you will be. Speaking of relationships, though, have you gotten over the initial shock and heartbreak of Looking being over, because when something like that happens it is like a breakup? You feel a bit jilted and rejected.

JG: Totally. But it was less about the rejection, because as an actor you deal with rejection on a daily basis, and I’ve grown to have a handle on that kind of powerlessness of wanting something to happen that you can’t control. For me, the sadness was more based on our having found our stride in the second season and expanded our world. There were so many more stories to tell. San Francisco, where the series was set, is full of so many stories because it is so diverse and fascinating, and there were so many places yet to go.

KS: And yet there will be a special HBO movie to wrap things up, so there is a kind of codependent thing going on in which it’s over, but it’s not over. So you really can’t let it go completely. You’re still in some emotional, codependent netherworld in this relationship you have with it.

JG: And I don’t want to let it go yet. I’m not ready to. I am grateful that we at least get to come back and put a little closure on the experience. Because I didn’t get to say goodbye to the experience when I heard the news.

KS: Has being in Hamilton helped in this transition? It’s the hottest ticket in New York, and you’re in it in a showy part as King George.

JG: Oh my God, it has softened the blow in a major way. If I had not had this experience in Hamilton when Looking got canceled, I would have been really blue.

KS: But the rest of the Looking cast doesn’t have the experience of Hamilton to help them in their transition. Do you feel guilty that you have Hamilton and they don’t?

JG: No. Sarah Condon, our producer on Looking, took us all out to dinner three days after it happened, when we got canceled. Murray [Bartlett] and I went out and had lunch the next day and burst into tears. We’re all experiencing this together as a group. They’ve all got shit going on outside Looking. They’ve all got their own versions of Hamilton.

KS: How would you describe your number as King George in the show? Would “foppish” be a word you would use to describe it?

JG: I’d say it’s more deadpan. I wear the most ridiculous costume you’ve ever seen. You were comparing Looking being canceled to a breakup. They’ve sort of written a breakup song for King George in the show. It’s like a ’60s Beatles pop British song in the midst of this score that is mostly R&B and rap. Then King George pops out and sings a kind of fuck-you-for-leaving-me “breakup” number. It’s so fucking fun. When they asked me to do it, I just said sure because I love those guys—Lin and Andy and Thomas. I hadn’t even seen it, so I wasn’t even sure what I was saying yes to. But then I saw it for the first time and wept. I saw it five times in a row and wept every time. It’s basically a cameo. I’m only in it for nine minutes. But the moment pops because of the costume, and I’m white, and no one else is in the cast.

KS: It was certainly the hottest ticket in town when it was at the Public and will be again on Broadway. Were you disappointed the night Madonna was there but was barred from coming back afterward by Lin-Manuel?

JG: No. Because that bitch was on her phone. You couldn’t miss it from the stage. It was a black void of the audience in front of us and her face there perfectly lit by the light of her iPhone through three-quarters of the show. What was funny about it was that she was there that Saturday night, but at that Saturday matinee Michelle Obama was there. We were collecting for Broadway Cares after the show, and Mrs. Obama stayed in the audience while the Broadway Cares speech happened, and Lin called her out and the audience applauded for her. Then she came backstage and hugged every crew member—the wig girl, all the costume people, every cast member. She said to us—and this is a direct quote—“This is the greatest piece of art I’ve ever seen.” It’s crazy. I’ve never been a part of a theatrical experience in which you have in the audience Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama and Bernadette Peters and Busta Rhymes and Black Thought and Jimmy Fallon and Dick Cheney . . .

KS: Wait. Dick Cheney? Did he come backstage?

JG: He didn’t come back.

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