Jonathan Groff plays a hilariously clueless and overprivileged version of David Sedaris in his new comedy C.O.G. — which stands for “Child of God,” based on Sedaris’s essay from 1997’s Naked about the post-college summer he spent migrating by bus to Oregon, working as a rural apple picker and apple-factory worker, and struggling with his sexuality and religion. But it wasn’t until the movie’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January that Groff, who actually grew up on a horse farm in Pennsylvania and is best known for Glee and Broadway’s Spring Awakening, met the famous neurotic. (“It was painful to be reminded of how pretentious and horrible I was,” Sedaris reacted at the time.) The movie, written and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Easier With Practice), not only marks Groff’s first lead movie role, but is also, surprisingly, the first-ever film adaptation of Sedaris’s work. Jada Yuan caught up with Groff on a park bench at Sundance on his way to the airport, and again recently by phone for an update. Below, their conversations about his gigantic suitcase, that time his mom met David Sedaris, and a scene involving him, Corey Stoll, and [spoiler] a whole lot of dildos.
That’s a pretty big suitcase. What do you have in there?
David Sedaris’s body. Can you imagine? I’m smuggling him out of Sundance. He just didn’t want to do any press.
I’m surprised you’re lugging your own bags around. Very unglamorous.
Well, we are so low-budget we had to take the bus everywhere. There were no cars or anything. You’re, like, roughing it. There’s a part of me that really likes that.
What I’ve found about this festival is you can never find time to eat.
Exactly, and because we’re in a condo, it’s not like you can order room service. So you go home at night and you’re like, “I guess I’ll just drink sink water.” I’ve lost like ten pounds in like three days.
Have you been partying hard? Any hot tub action?
There was a hot tub there that I got in. I was the only one in the hot tub, though. Not exciting.
That’s not the purpose of hot tubs.
I know, totally! But yeah, I was just … sore. So I just got in there.
Sore from what?
I started doing Barry’s Bootcamp last week. Do you know what that is?
Please tell me.
You do treadmill and weights, and it’s really dark and they play really loud music. It’s, like, club lighting. I’ve become addicted to it. I did it three times last week. I’m a big runner and I also lift weights three times a week, so it’s my two favorite things combined in one class.
Are you trying to get buff for something?
No! I just love physical exercise. My mom is a gym teacher.
So, you shot this movie in …
Eighteen days. Crazy. So fast.
How did the movie come about for you? Did you know David Sedaris? Are you friends?
No, no, not at all! Kyle [Patrick Alvarez] sent me the script through my agent and said he wanted to meet with me, and when I read it — knowing that it was a David Sedaris story — I called my agent, and I was like, “I don’t think I’m right for this, I don’t look or sound like David Sedaris, why does he want to meet with me? I can’t do a David Sedaris impression. Nobody wants to see me do that.” And then they were like, “Well, just sit down with him.” And Kyle pitched this thing of, like, “Part of the reason [Sedaris] agreed to let me do it is that we’re not casting somebody that looks like him, or sounds like him, or is trying to be him. We’re using the story, and that’s pretty much it.”
You’ve met David, obviously?
I just met him for the first time [here at Sundance], which is probably the highlight of the whole experience.
What was that like?
I was very nervous to meet him, because I just didn’t know what to expect. And we made this whole movie about his life, this whole experience that he had, and he hadn’t even seen it yet, and he doesn’t really do a lot of interviews or do pictures — you know, he’s not a big press person.
So, we met at the party right before the movie, and he was sort of sitting in the back corner, and I went over to him, and he’s a big Glee fan, which I didn’t know. He’s like, “I love Glee, I’ve seen you on Glee. I love that show.” So, we talked briefly about that. He was very easy to talk to, and really nice. And then I order a Diet Coke for my mom, who was also there. And I said, “I’m so sorry to leave, but I’m going to go give this Diet Coke to my mom.” And he said, “Oh, I want to meet your mom.” And I was like, Oh my God, David Sedaris wants to meet my mom! I’d imagined me, like, elbowing my way with my mom, to be like, “David, please, I want you to meet my mom,” but he was like, “I want to meet your mom.” [Laughs.] And then we walked over to my mom, and they met, and then we were all sort of chatting or whatever, and then I got moved away, and then twenty minutes later, I look over, and David Sedaris is still talking to my mom.
I know! He was, like, obsessed with my mom. He just kept talking to her, and then everybody moved from the party to this tent where we do the press, and as we were posing for pictures, I said, “David, thank you so much for being so generous with my mom,” and he was like, “She’s so sweet! And she’s so short, she must be the shortest gym teacher in all of Pennsylvania!” He’s obsessed that she’s a gym teacher in Pennsylvania. He wouldn’t stop talking about it.
The movie opens with your character, Samuel, who’s the Sedaris stand-in, on a bus ride with many crazy people. Have you done a long-distance bus ride before?
The bus thing was easy because I did a bus and truck tour after high school of the Sound of Music, so I’ve spent sixteen-hour days on a bus before.
With crazy random people?
Not with crazy random people.
Oh, theater actors?
Same difference, right? When we were on that bus [in the movie], I could click into every smell and feeling and, like, sense of nausea that you would get. We would sleep on the floor. My busmate and I would swap. He would sleep on the seats some days and I would sleep on the floor. I’ve been on the Greyhound from Pennsylvania to New York where someone’s thrown up and the vomit has gone back and forth, which is so disgusting. So I felt very secure about executing the bus scenes because I thought, I completely get it.
Samuel has a fraught relationship with a female best friend, played by Troian Bellisario from Pretty Little Liars. It reminded me of Hannah and Elijah on Girls, the ex-girlfriend who inadvertently helps you figure out you’re gay.
Well, I think that there is a quality of a relationship sometimes between a gay man and his female best friend, where, like, if there was a sexual thing, it would be such an amazing relationship, but that’s the thing obviously that’s missing. It’s what I loved about those scenes, because I felt like there was a lot of truth in that.
When you shot in the apple orchard, there weren’t apples on the trees anymore, right?
Gary, our production designer, who is Kyle’s boyfriend, had to tie, like, hundreds of apples to trees. And every time we pulled them off, they’d be like reset, and they’d have to re-tie all the apples that we just pulled off the trees.
Did you get, like, apple hands? Is it like getting dishpan hands, where you get scratches or calluses from too much apple picking?
No, no. It was more the sack that you wear on your back, when it’s full of apples is very uncomfortable, and bad for your lower back.
Are you sick of apples now?
No, not at all. In fact, seeing an apple in Whole Foods now, I feel like I have a whole new perspective on it, because that was a real apple factory that we were in. All of these things that we buy in the store, I never really think that often about where they’re coming from. To see it was really eye-opening.
Why did David Sedaris do this in real life, go to Oregon, in the first place?
He just went to have that — I sort of relate in that thing where, you’re just like, “I just want to go to Europe” or “I just want to have a real-life experience.” I grew up in Pennsylvania, and I was so excited to move to the city and be in New York.
Because you lived in a farm area?
Yeah, in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, next to the Amish. And so when you, like, come from a small town, or I’m sure even if you grew up in New York, wherever you come from, if you get out of there, you want to have a new experience. You know, like those college kids who go to Europe and grow beards and do the backpacking thing. I feel like this is his version of a backpacking thing.
And what was yours? Moving to New York?
I think mine was moving to New York, but a week after I left Spring Awakening, I spent two weeks in Italy by myself, just going to museums and traveling around in Rome and Florence and Assisi and Siena, and that was my solo travel moment.
But blue-collar labor wasn’t part of your self-discovery?
No, because I was already shoveling shit for my dad at the horse stalls growing up, so I didn’t feel the need to get into that. He would pull us out of bed on the weekends and it was so cold, shoveling the shit. Anytime you want to complain, even when I was waiting tables in New York, I was like, “At least I’m not shoveling horse shit.”
There is a scene in the movie that [spoiler] involves you and Corey Stoll and many, many dildos. Where did they get all of them?
Some guy in California. They looked up, you know, “dildos” on the Internet and he loaned them. They said he was really sweet and not into dildos himself. He said, “I’m not into this, but I provide it because it’s what people want.” But there are some crazy — I mean I took a lot of pictures that day because you couldn’t believe. There was a dildo that looked like a severed leg. There was a dog paw. There was a piece of shit dildo. There was a, what else? Some really crass — a hand. Things that you could never imagine. Some of them were really beautiful. They looked like works of art. I mean, really heavy, large things. A boot —
You were taking pictures of the dildos or of yourself with the dildos?
Corey [Stoll] and I definitely held the dildos and posed. I had worked with Alfred Molina doing Red this past summer, and Corey Stoll worked with him on Law & Order: Los Angeles for a year, so we were holding a bunch of dildos and sent a picture to Alfred Molina, who was amused. We were like “Hey, doing a movie together and having a blast. Hope you’re well!” And it was like us holding a bunch of dildos. [Laughs.]
Do you have David Sedaris’s cell phone number now? Corollary: Does David Sedaris even have a cell phone?
You know, Kyle brought his first movie to David’s book signing, and he brought it with a portable DVD player because there’s a whole rumor about how David Sedaris doesn’t have a computer, he only works on a typewriter, he only uses fax machines, whatever. And so he brought a DVD player with the movie for him to be like, “This is how you could watch it.” And David Sedaris was like, “Or I could just watch it on my MacBook Pro, right?” And Kyle was like, “Yeah, I guess so.”
But is he like Bill Murray, where you have to call an answering machine to get ahold of him?
I have no idea. In my fantasy world, it is that way. That’s kind of who you want David Sedaris to be. But I don’t know.
This is your first lead in a movie. How does it feel?
My first lead in a movie ever! It feels great!
Are you getting tons of movie offers now?
It’s been two days! [Laughs.]
Things have turned out pretty well for Groff. He’s now living in San Francisco, shooting the HBO series Looking; he shot Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart this summer; and he’s got a new animated Disney movie, Frozen, coming out this fall.
When we were in Sundance, we talked about the impact doing your first lead comedy movie role might have on your career. Did you see the effects?
I think it actually played a huge part in getting me this TV show that I’m in San Francisco now working on. We just started our second week of production. Because of the timing of all of it, I was auditioning for this role [right around Sundance], so all the executives at HBO got to see the movie and our director Andrew Haigh got to see the movie, and I think it was definitely a huge part of what got me this job on this HBO show, which is really great.
What can you tell me about the show?
It’s called Looking and we’re doing eight episodes. It takes place now, modern day, and it’s about a bunch of gay guys living their lives in San Francisco and the ins and outs of that. It’s definitely a comedy. Our director, Andrew Haigh, made a really great independent movie called Weekend a couple of years ago. I saw it in New York, actually, in the theater. So the TV show kind of feels like that movie with a little more comedy thrown in.
And what do you play?
I play a video game designer living in San Francisco. He’s on OKCupid trying to date people.
OKCupid, you’ll definitely find some weirdos on that thing.
I don’t want to give too much away, but, yeah, it doesn’t work out well for him. Hopefully in an entertaining way.