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Jonathan Groff Explains His No-Socks Matrix Villain

Jonathan Groff. Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images

A whole bunch of spoilers for the plot of Matrix Resurrections follow.

When Keanu Reeves’s Neo appears back within the world of Matrix Resurrections, he’s living an un-red-pilled life as Thomas Anderson, a famous video-game designer, who happens to work with a very tech-bro business partner played by Jonathan Groff. Groff’s character enjoys finely tailored suits, espressos, and quoting liberally from lines said by Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith in the first Matrix trilogy. He also tells Reeves that their parent company Warner Bros. is interested in getting Reeves to make a sequel to his popular Matrix video-game series. From there, things get even more meta once Neo begins to realize his true identity and Groff’s character is revealed to be another version of Agent Smith. The two characters, who were locked in conflict in the original trilogy, face off again in various fight scenes, all while Groff imitates Weaving’s trademark sneer and never seems to wear socks — that was director Lana Wachowski’s idea.

Groff’s better known for musical theater than action movies. He got the role in Matrix while in rehearsal for an Off Broadway run of Little Shop of Horrors — in fact, he met with Wachowski the day before doing an interview with me for New York about Little Shop, as he revealed to me over the phone in our Matrix interview — and quickly had to get into Agent Smith–level shape and learn how to master fight choreography. With Resurrections now out in the world, Groff talked about bonding with Wachowski over a love of San Francisco, having Keanu make Hamilton jokes at him, and how his niche is quickly becoming mouth horror.

So now that you can talk about the character you’re actually playing, how did you approach doing your version of Agent Smith?
It was a question, every day, how much to pay homage and what was new. Lana made it clear from the very beginning that she didn’t want the whole thing to be an impression of what came before, but that this was new programming and an upgraded version of this program, so we had room to do something new and different from before. At the same time, there are famous quotes that he did. I spent a lot of time watching the trilogy and specifically YouTube clips of every time Hugo Weaving says Mr. Anderson. On the day, we would feel it out with Lana. The character became a combination of pieces of the original with new energy.

Did you also try to fight like Agent Smith?
There were ways that Agent Smith threw a punch, and some iconic things from the original films that we re-created. Chad Stahelski, who did the John Wicks and worked on the original Matrixes, and his company 87eleven did all our fight training. It was like learning a specific type of dance choreography. It started with months of lifting and working out for me with a trainer in New York to get prepared for the fight training. Then it was learning all the basic techniques and moves of punching and kicking, which I’d never done before. With Smith, there’s a kind of brutalistic, strong heavy punch, with the body thrown into it. I would spend days perfecting the right hook or punch into the mat.

Did you talk at all to Hugo Weaving? He’s said that he’d been in talks to come back, but the scheduling and negotiations fell apart.
I didn’t speak to Hugo Weaving. I put all my faith and trust and guidance in Lana. She’s a visionary and this is her world. I was honestly shocked when she asked me to play this part, and felt it was something so outside myself. But I trusted that Lana asked me to do this for a reason, and so all the guidance I took 100 percent from her.

At the beginning of the movie, when you’re just playing Thomas Anderson’s business partner, you get to be this slimey tech guy, which I realized was sort of the worst possible future for Patrick from Looking.
I didn’t think of that, but like if things didn’t work out and he went to the dark side, he would maybe be that way, yes. That’s funny, because when I went to San Francisco to meet Lana, we met at the Fairmont Hotel, and there was a poster of Looking there with my face on it, because we shot the show there. She didn’t acknowledge the poster specifically, but we did talk about how much San Francisco meant to both of us. I talked a lot about how that show helped me own who I was. I was out of the closet at that point, but it helped me feel proud of who I was. We bonded over that and how magical San Francisco is.

It’s interesting the way they depict San Francisco in the simulation, where it’s kind of utopian, but it’s also soaking in tech money and caught up in a lot of our own media-business trends. For instance, you say to Neo that your parent company, Warner Bros., wants you to go back to the Matrix again. Did you talk about the intentions of that line?
I honestly thought that line would get cut! Because it seems like such a savage joke, and Warner Bros. would be removing it. But they kept it, so kudos to them for that. Lana herself talked a lot about life and her artistic impulses, but she never talked about the grand theories of The Matrix and what it all means. But yeah, there’s this idea of this utopian environment that has a lot of sinister agents, which is represented a lot in the character of the business partner before I switch into full-on Smith. That I’m feeding Thomas everything I think Thomas wants to hear is more chilling than just being evil on the surface. It’s this disgusting douchebag.

Once you do go full Smith, the movie gets into this sort of elemental connection that Neo and Smith have, where they can’t escape each other. What was it like to have to play that across from Keanu?
The process of training for the fight scenes is that you learn your choreography with a team, and then, after you’ve learned it well enough, you’re put with your actual scene partner. In the weeks of training leading up to fighting Keanu, I would still feel like, This is not really going to happen. Then the day finally came, and he was so sweet and so committed, and making Hamilton jokes while we were fighting. The process of figuring out how your bodies fit together is quite intimate and takes a level of trust and faith that you’re not going to hurt each other. We shot our big fight scene in the bathroom for about a week. It felt like we had done so much preparation, and then there we were in that scene, it was full of adrenaline and passion, and even though it was a fight scene, incredibly joyful and fun.

Wait, what kind of Hamilton jokes does Keanu make?
I was very serious and trying hard to be on my A game. And we started fighting and he started singing my song “You’ll Be Back,” from Hamilton. I think to loosen me up and be like, it’s okay, kid, you got this.

There’s a lot of subtextually queer metaphors, especially about gender, in the original Matrix trilogy. Watching this one, it felt like maybe after publicly transitioning, Lana got to make more of that explicit. Was that something she talked about at all on set?
She never talks about what she, in so many ways, is exactly doing or philosophically putting into the work. It’s very pragmatic and practical. But I do agree with you, and you can feel her energy and evolution from the first film to this film. There are so many things that are similar, but it feels expansive and open and more queer.

For your character, it all leads up to this final fight scene with Neil Patrick Harris …
And I fucking punch him! And he flies across the room! And then I shoot him in the face! I mean, it was the best job ever. And then, this I do know because I asked her about it, but there’s a reference in that last scene to the final lines of Bound. It’s a little Easter egg.

Well, I need to rewatch Bound.
You must! It’s so fucking good. I watched it while I was rehearsing. It really holds up.

You’re somewhat infamous onstage for spitting a lot when you sing, which is something that came up when Hamilton came out Disney+, and in this movie you have to spit “Mr. Anderson!” and your mouth gets glued shut. How do you feel about your niche being your mouth being creepy on-camera?
I’m okay with that. [Laughs] I feel good about that, about … mouth … stuff? I’m totally okay with that.

In this movie, your character’s kind of a dandy, always wearing loafers and never wearing socks. Was that an intentional choice?
The first scene I shot, two weeks into shooting, I actually came to set that day wearing socks, and Lana was like, “Hmmm, take off your socks. I think you’re gonna be a no-socks guy. I’ve just decided this guy is a no-socks guy.” Then for the rest of the movie, I’m not wearing any socks. The fight scene and everything. It’s this ongoing joke. When I came down the stairs in my entrance to that fight scene in the bathroom, I felt like the opening lines of that Carly Simon song. [Starts singing “You’re So Vain”] “You walked into the party, like you were walking onto a yacht.” There was a vanity to the character that I lived for.

More on The Matrix Resurrections

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In Bound, Gina Gershon says, “You know what the difference is between you and me, Violet?” Jennifer Tilly responds, “No.” And Gershon says, “Me neither.” In Resurrections, Smith asks Neo the same question, and then answers that Neo could be anybody, and he can be everybody.
Jonathan Groff Explains His No-Socks Matrix Villain