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

By Alison Willmore | /Bent January 21, 2014 at 8:59PM

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 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.
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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.

Looking 6

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.

Looking 3

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 interview originally appeared on Indiewire.

This article is related to: Looking, Interviews, Television