“I hate karaoke,” Jonathan Groff tells me while shrugging on a leather jacket. “I love going to see other people do karaoke, but performing karaoke stresses me out. I get nervous that it’s like not in the right key. Or will I be able to hear the band? Is the mix right? Too many things out of my control.” This might come as a surprise, considering Groff, 29, was nominated for a Tony for his first role in a Broadway production, Spring Awakening, at the tender age of 22, before going on to star as Lea Michele’s vocally gifted boyfriend, Jesse St. James, on Glee.
But the baby-faced Groff, currently gearing up to film the second season of HBO’s comedy-drama Looking (oft-called the gay Girls), is more low-key than you’d expect from a guy who can claim Lea Michele as a BFF. (The two were co-stars in Spring Awakening, and Groff has to apologize for cutting our interview short, but he has to go meet Michele at Barnes & Noble to be on hand for a Q&A about her new memoir, Brunette Ambition.)
Groff is everywhere lately—announcing the nominees for the Tonys, making a cameo in Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s epic AIDS drama The Normal Heart, and of course, being part of the whole Frozen juggernaut as Kristoff (a love interest who doesn’t turn out to be a total d-bag)—but he still approaches his fame with a sense of wary wonder.
“I haven’t googled myself in five years,” he brags, smiling. “I stay completely unhooked when it comes to social media.” That’s right … he doesn’t even have a Twitter account.
All these attributes in such a young star might be enough to make Groff emblematic of “New Hollywood”—his laid-back attitude towards stardom, his loyalty to a few choice contacts like Murphy, Michele and Looking’s co-creator Andrew Haigh. But add the fact that Groff began his career in Tinseltown already out of the closet, and the actor becomes much more than a symbol. He’s a sign of the changing times.
“I feel really lucky to be acting in 2014,” says Groff, who didn’t officially come out until after Spring Awakening. “Even 10 years ago, it was a totally different scene.”
Unlike hunks of yesteryear, Groff has spent no time in the closet. “I wasn’t denying it or anything, I knew I would talk about it someday, but I didn’t know how or why or when. But then I fell in love for the first time after the show, and I thought ‘Well, I’d rather be out and be in love with this person than try to hide it for any job I had when I came out,’ so I just said fuck it.”
“Being in love was more powerful than any job I’d had before,” adds Groff, who came out publicly at the National Equality March in D.C. in 2009. “That was the impetus.”
Since then, Groff has had a crash course in what it means to be a gay celebrity in the era of Perez Hilton: he was linked romantically to actor Zachary Quinto when the Star Trek star was still in the closet, though the two have since broken up. Groff’s way of dealing with the drama was by refusing to take part in any of the Internet celebrity culture.
“I heard from friends of friends or whatever that like, ‘This picture was online’ or ‘I saw you and Zach walking down the street.’ So I’d know that things like that existed, but I don’t ever look at it.”
Currently, Groff is single and living in—where else?—Chelsea, biding time until Looking begins its shooting schedule. “I’m obsessed with Westville,” says the actor of his favorite dining spot in the neighborhood. “And if I have time, I’ll definitely try to hit up an Equinox during the day. I go to the pool. I see my friends.” Groff shrugs, embarrassed by his apparent normalcy. “It’s such a boring answer, but it’s true.”
But who says boring has to be bad? After all, many people called the first season of Looking boring—Slate actually described the experience of watching as “profound boredom,” and Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times called it “tame,” “muted” and “muffled.” Yet watching gay men act against type by acting like, well, normal people (as opposed to shrieking harridans or innuendo-laced queens) struck enough of a chord that HBO picked it up for a second season.
“The most surprising reaction I’ve gotten (about Looking) was when I showed it to my brother and his wife,” states Groff. “I thought, being straight and also coming from Pennsylvania, that they would watch it because I was family. But they ended up getting really into the show and really invested in it. It was surprising to meet people who weren’t gay but could get what we were trying to say.”
In Looking, Groff plays Patrick, a shy video game programmer who spends the season hanging out with friends, going on awkward dates, lusting after a coworker and dealing with the anxiety of bringing a date to his sister’s wedding. Far from the raucousness of Girls (which was HBO’s lead-in to the show), Looking was transgressive by not being transgressive; portraying Patrick’s life as a late 20-something with a distinct lack of remarkableness, despite being—gasp—a homosexual.
“I don’t think of sexuality that much when I’m trying to find a part,” says Groff of his recent roles in Looking and The Normal Heart. “I think of the people I’m working with and the project and the piece. And it just so happens that the last two jobs I got have to do with being gay, which is great because I have an added stake in it. So that’s been sort of a nice plus, but it’s not the main reason I took the jobs.”
Groff’s logic behind picking projects has a lot to do with the people behind them. “Most of the time, it’s a case of being drawn to the work of people I admire,” he tells me. Murphy, who directed The Normal Heart, was introduced to his Glee star Michele through Groff, with whom he had filmed a pilot for FX after Spring Awakening. Groff was a fan of Haigh’s breakout film Weekend and considers the cast and crew of Looking to be part of his family. “We’ve evolved socially in a way I’ve never had on the job,” Groff says.
As for the next season of Looking, Groff stands by his “dream cameo,” Odd Future’s Frank Ocean. But if he had to pick someone to do a sex scene with, it’d be his C.O.G. co-star Corey Stoll. (You may remember him as the doomed Russo from the first season of House of Cards.)
“We had a potentially almost romantic scene, but then it turned out to be not romantic,” Groff says of filming C.O.G., a movie based on a David Sedaris short story, with Stoll. “So I would like to fulfill that—the starting of the relationship, and maybe have a love affair with Corey Stoll.”
As for other details—both about the next season of Looking and his own life—Groff is playing it close to the vest. “My favorite thing first and foremost is just getting the chance to act. That’s my favorite thing to do. So the fact that I got to do that this year is great. Then all this other stuff feels like really great extra experiences.”
Not for nothing, one of these extras just happens to be singing a benefit concert with Glenn Close on June 2. Hey, doesn’t sound too boring to us.
Photography by Matthew Scrivens
Styling by Thomas Kikis for SamSpector.com
Grooming by Erin Anderson