In mid-January, Jonathan Groff is singing to me in a Pasadena hotel room. “For the first time in foreverrrrr, there’ll be music there’ll be liiiiiight … ” It’s an impromptu performance of a number he doesn’t sing in Disney’s surprise megahit Frozen; his character, the mountain man Kristoff, gets a mere 51-second lullaby, which I’ve told him is criminal. Those who watched him seduce Rachel as Glee’s diabolical choir boy Jesse St. James (or his Tony Award–nominated performance in Broadway’s Spring Awakening) know his voice is like butter. “I’ll sing the entire score to make it up to you,” Groff offers, only half-joking because he does love to sing. Before our interview, I hear him crooning Stevie Wonder to someone over the phone. He says Frozen’s songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez tried to write Kristoff a full song but the character’s story line kept changing (at one point, Kristoff was a hoarder), and the truth is he’s thrilled to be in a Disney film at all. (“For Halloween, I’ve gone trick-or-treating as Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and Robin Hood,” he says.) So if I’m ready, he’s ready to run through the Frozen soundtrack now. “Of course I know all the songs. Are you kidding?”
And yet he doesn’t quite believe it when I break the news that the album displaced Beyoncé atop the Billboard “200.” (Two weeks later, the soundtrack is still No. 1, and the movie has grossed a staggering $350 million to-date in the U.S.) “What? Seriously?” says Groff, who turns 29 in March. He’s beaming, clearly proud, and not just of Frozen’s commercial success. “When I watched the movie, I really felt like it was this progressive thing,” he says. “I love that little kids are going to grow up hearing, ‘No, you can’t marry a man you just met.’ It’s not, ‘One day my prince will come … ’”
It’s sound advice, coincidentally, for the character Groff plays in his other high-profile project, Looking, a naturalistic, closely observed HBO dramedy about the lives of three gay men in San Francisco. The actor’s easy charm serves him well in the role of Patrick, a video-game developer who wants a “serious boyfriend” but first pops up on the show getting an awkward hand job in a park. Cruising may seem like the kind of overtly provocative “life experience” Girls’ Hannah Horvath might try as fodder for her writing, but as played by Groff, the moment is neither salacious nor poignant. It’s just a funny way to meet a decent guy trying to figure out his life.
“The minute you see Jonathan, he just feels very comfortable yet very interesting. It’s not a combination you see a lot,” says Looking executive producer Andrew Haigh, who wasn’t familiar with Groff’s previous work, which has included supporting roles in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, and the Starz drama Boss. Early on, many pigeonholed Looking as “the gay Girls,” but its observational comedy and romantic fumbles aren’t meant to provoke. It’s actually the opposite. “Jonathan’s playing someone who’s not out to cause a ruckus or make a scene,” Haigh says. “He wants to make his life better. He wants to make the lives of his friends better. I think he’s a good person, which isn’t always fashionable to have at the center of your show, but both [series creator] Michael Lannan and I wanted this show to be about people we recognize.”
According to Groff, his work on Looking feels more like “hanging out” than acting, with its focus on capturing small moments. (This may be why some critics thought the series got off to a slow start, but the rhythms become clear later on.) He auditioned with a short scene from the first episode where a sweet, good-looking Latino named Richie flirts with Patrick on a bus. “I got hot, like, nervous-hot,” Groff recalls. “I was sweating and getting red and right there I knew who Patrick was. I knew that social anxiety. I feel like this show’s actually more universal in a way than anything I’ve ever worked on.” He tells me about going home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania (“Think Amish country,” he says), to show the first four episodes of Looking to his older brother and sister-in-law. He was floored to hear them boo one of Patrick’s friends, Dom, after he turns down an endearing older man played Scott Bakula. “They were like, ‘Oh, come on!’” Groff says, “and I just thought, Wow. Here’s this straight couple living in a small town, and they’re connecting to these two gay men, both over the age of 40, living in San Francisco.”
“I think part of that is because none of these characters are grappling with their sexuality,” he continues. “It’s not a show about coming-out stories. No one’s tortured about being gay. We’re looking at our lives, our jobs, our relationships, our friendships. My brother and his wife are watching two people on a date and one person has the wrong impression, and they can relate to that.” The gang’s sojourn in episode four to the annual Folsom Street Fair, the world’s largest leather event, is potentially less relatable. Half Nelson director Ryan Fleck shot the episode in the middle of the real thing last September. “We were the most uninteresting thing happening there,” Groff says. “People were not like, ‘Oh, cool! HBO is shooting a show here.’ They were like, ‘Look at that man hung by his flesh flying through the air.’” Patrick gently walks us into the circus. He’s coaxed into going with his friends — another opportunity to strike out of his comfort zone — but he doesn’t want to go shirtless, as the other fairgoers do. Groff tried out ten leather vests for the occasion. “I thought, Maybe Patrick would wear one without buttons and then spend the whole time wishing that he had buttons, and that’s what we went with.” He laughs. “It’s so symbolic of where the character’s at. It’s where I’d be at.”