Clad in a hoodie and a rainbow-emblazoned shirt that says “SAN FRANCISCO” in huge letters, Jonathan Groff sits opposite me at Starbucks, regarding his cup of coffee skeptically. “To be honest,” he admits, “I had never drank coffee in my life before I came to San Francisco!” But a lot has changed for Groff since he relocated to the Bay Area to start working on HBO’s gay drama Looking, and there are even more firsts to come in season two (debuting tonight), as Groff’s character Patrick finds himself romantically torn between his British boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) and his ex-flame Richie (Raul Castillo). I met up with Groff last November just after he’d shot his final scene of the season; here’s what he had to say about working on season two, the fan reaction when the show first debuted, and how he deals with shooting those intimate sex scenes.
When you read scripts now that you’ve been doing this for two seasons, do you feel like the writers are tailoring your character to specific things they know about you in real life?
Yes, absolutely. It’s dangerous to share too much! But the thing is that since there’s not a lot of gay shows on TV, there’s really an opportunity to try to show something as realistic as possible. When I see the stuff in the script that I’ve said in real life, I cringe slightly, but then I also feel proud of it. I think the show is really personal, and certainly the most personal thing I’ve ever worked on. It was that way at the very first audition: My skin got hot and I started sweating and feeling very nervous, and that was the first time I realized, “Oh wow, this is really close to the bone.” And it continued to be that way, but that’s also what made me want to do it.
And season two still feels like that?
Even more than season one. What I was nervous about coming into the second season was “I hope they don’t do that thing on TV shows where a season builds to something and then the next season, it’s like they push a reset button,” and then you’re like, “What did I invest all of that time for?” And they really didn’t do that. They dug further and deeper into the characters that were already there, and they don’t tie anything up neatly in a bow, and they really engaged with what they set up in the first season.
What did you make of the initial reaction to the first season?
The negativity was surprising. But then the energy about the show kind of shifted as it got toward the end, and if people stuck with it — some people didn’t, which is unfortunate — it put into context what we were trying to say. I think there were a lot of people who thought, “Oh, it’s the gay Sex and the City,” or “It’s the gay Girls,” but it’s its own entity. It isn’t a particularly flashy show. It’s a quiet show, and so I think once people understood the tone of it, then our ratings improved and the negative swell sort of dissipated a little bit, which was nice.
There’s more sex in season two.
The sex scenes have never freaked me out, and that’s because I feel like it’s such an opportunity. I had seen Weekend [directed by Looking executive producer Andrew Haigh], and the sex felt so real to me in that, so I was so ready to jump in. I’ve told Andrew, “I will literally do anything for you.” I just trust him implicitly. He said that he thinks that sometimes directors get a little fearful of intimacy, so they shoot those scenes from afar, and he said, “I think in sex scenes it’s important to go all the way in and really capture what’s happening, to be brave enough to go in on the actors and get up in their faces and their bodies to see what’s actually going on between them, as opposed to stepping back because it’s a little uncomfortable.”
In season one, your most graphic sex scene with Raul played out mostly on your face.
Yeah, you’re right. I didn’t think about that. I remember Andrew was like, “I really want you guys to look at each other. I want there to be eye contact in this. It’s not just him going down on you — it’s a true moment of connection.”
Must have been a rough day at work.
I know, it’s an embarrassment of riches — and Russell Tovey as well! I’m very lucky; they’re both so attractive and so brave and so down to go there.
Do you think Looking tells certain stories that straight shows can’t?
I read the final script of the season and it sort of felt like when you hear a song that you haven’t heard before but you think you have, because you immediately get the emotion of it. There’s something specific between Kevin and Patrick that happens in the final episode, and then there’s something specific between Dom and Doris that happens, two conversations that happen where I thought they were very specific to the gay experience. There are certain conversations that you have the opportunity to tell in the context of a gay show that are very universal that haven’t really been told that often or as in depth.
In the specific, you find the universal.
One of the straight female women in our production office was walking by me one day, and she was like, “Groff, how are you?” And I was like “Man, I’m just kind of like blown away that I lived the tenth episode.” And she was like, “Me, too. Me and my last boyfriend had this exact same fight.” Even though it does feel so specifically gay, she related to it — which is also interesting, and that makes me learn something. I was like, “Oh wow, I didn’t know that this particular conversation happened that often in straight relationships.” But it does, I guess.
What kind of responsibility do you feel when you’re No. 1 on the call sheet?
That’s so funny. It doesn’t even feel like that. There’s this weird hierarchy in film and television where if you’re higher up on the call sheet, you’re somehow more important than the other people. It’s not like when you do theater, where everybody shows up at the theater at the same time, everybody leaves at the same time, everybody gets their own props and does their own makeup.
Groff, you’re not going to pretend to me that you’ve never encountered a diva in theater.
No, of course! Are you kidding me? There are fucking assholes everywhere. But in film and TV, someone walks you to your trailer and walks you to get your breakfast. I feel like the more jobs I do, the smaller I realize the actors are a cog in a bigger wheel. I feel bad saying that.
Not to say that actors aren’t important, because they are obviously, but onstage, you’re in charge of the final cut of your performance. On a film set, you’re so at the mercy of the focus puller, the DP, the editor … our performances get chopped and cut up and you never know how it’s going to go. But on Looking, I happily feel like a piece of the puzzle, and we’re very much in Andrew’s visual world, which is such a gift. When you get to have opportunities like this one where the person who’s in charge of the overall visual landscape is, in my opinion, like a genius, then you can go for it. Like I said earlier, and even beyond just the sex stuff, I would do anything he asked me to do.
I’m starting to think you’d be his hit man.
I would, I totally would. I’ve literally drank the Kool-Aid — we all have. If Andrew asked me to do anything, I would do it. And I also have to say, all joking aside, I feel like for the chemistry of a group it’s so important to have the one person that everybody can defer to at the end of the day.
Looking really seemed to coincide with this boom in facial hair among gay men. You’re the only person on the show without any scruff.
Am I the only one?
Well, not Doris.
Although if you look close enough … [Laughs.]
I was just reading about the “lumbersexual,” the gay man with a beard who wears plaid and can brew his own artisanal beer …
Our show is full of them! Murray Bartlett is like the epitome of lumbersexual.
So is Michael Lannan, your show’s creator!
Michael’s more lumberjack-y because he’s so tall.
Speaks softly, carries a big ax?
I love that! You need to coin that. That’s really good — “speaks softly, carry a big ax.” Let’s make a T-shirt for Michael!