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Vulture Interview: Jonathan Groff Dishes on Season 2 of “Looking”

“Vulture” — 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 it’s 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 10th 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 number-one 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.

How come?
Not to say that actors aren’t important, because they are obviously, but on stage, 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 amongst 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!

Jonathan Groff Part of ‘Story of Frozen’ on ABC Tuesday Night

Jonathan Groff Part of ‘Story of Frozen’ on ABC Tuesday Night

An interview with stage, screen and TV actor Jonathan Groff, a Lancaster County native, is part of a television program that will take viewers behind the scenes of a popular Disney movie.

“The Story of Frozen: Making a Disney Animated Classic,” premieres from 8-9 p.m. Tuesday on ABC.

The show looks at the origins and production of the musical film “Frozen,” which won the Oscar in March for best animated feature.

Groff, 29, who grew up in Ronks and graduated from Conestoga Valley High School, voiced the character of Kristoff the mountain man in “Frozen.”

Tuesday’s program is hosted by Josh Gad, who portrayed the comical snowman, Olaf, in the film.

The film also starred Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel as sisters Anna and Elsa. Both actresses will also be interviewed on Tuesday’s show, as will Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer, John Lasseter.

According to Disney Animation Studios, Tuesday’s program will take viewers behind the scenes at the studio, and reveal how the creative team behind the film was inspired by the 1844 Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Snow Queen,” and by landscapes in Norway that served as templates for the land of Arendelle featured in “Frozen.”

Since his work on “Frozen,” Groff has been starring in the HBO series “Looking,” and had a role in the network’s Emmy-winning TV movie, “The Normal Heart.”

He has been featured in such TV shows as “Glee” and “Boss”; received a best-actor Tony nomination for the musical “Spring Awakening” on Broadway; has done stage work in London’s West End and in Los Angeles; won an Obie Award for his off-Broadway work; and has appeared in films including “Taking Woodstock,” “The Conspirator” and “C.O.G.”

Groff introduced fellow “Frozen” star Idina Menzel at this year’s Tony Awards, and was a presenter at last month’s Creative Emmy Awards.

Before heading to Broadway after high school, Groff performed in local theater productions at such venues as the Fulton Opera House and the Ephrata Performing Arts Center.

Tuesday’s “The Story of Frozen” program will also delve into future plans for the “Frozen” story. It will include a preview of an upcoming appearance by “Frozen” characters Anna, Elsa and Kristoff on an episode of the ABC program “Once Upon a Time.”

“Frozen” producer Peter Del Vecho also said last week that a stage musical adaptation of the film is being developed.

The musical will feature a score by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who won the Oscar earlier this year for best song for the film’s power ballad, “Let It Go.”

“The Story of Frozen” is scheduled to air Tuesday at 8 on WHTM, channel 27; WPVI, channel 6; and WMAR, channel 2.

looking russell tovey jonathan groff

TheBacklot Interview: Jonathan Groff & Russell Tovey Talk “Looking” Season 2

“The Backlot” — Looking is back.

And whether you were a fan or not of the HBO series about a group of gay friends in San Francisco, we all were talking about it, weren’t we?

It wasn’t a male Sex and the City. It wasn’t the gay version of Girls. But the good thing was that Looking, created by Michael Lannan and exec produced/directed by Andrew Haigh, was its own creation from the very start. Leisurely pacing and focusing on relationships instead of over-the-top storylines may have hampered some viewers from falling in love with Looking from the outset, but the second season might just turn any naysayers around.

When we last left our gang, Patrick (Jonathan Groff) had slept with his boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) just before Richie (Raul Castillo) told him he was falling in love with him. Dom (Murray Bartlett), with the help of gal pal Doris (Lauren Weedman), had a successful pop up restaurant opening, but it may have been at the cost of a budding relationship with older guy Lynn (Scott Bakula). And Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), clearly the most polarizing character for many, lost his boyfriend and was headed towards a downward spiral.

The show returns to HBO this Sunday at 10pm. To find out where we pick things up, TheBacklot ventured up to the San Francisco set during filming and sat down with Jonathan Groff and Russell Tovey to talk about the first season backlash, Groff’s goals for the second season and also what will learn about Tovey’s character Kevin in the new season.

The Backlot: Where do we pick up in the season premiere?

Jonathan Groff: It’s three months later. The first episode takes place at Russian River. Me and Dom and Agustin go up there to detox and so you don’t quite know what’s happening with Patrick’s relationship status.

TBL: What were your wants for the second season, Jonathan?

Russell Tovey: He wanted to have lots of sex with me.

JG: Lots of sex with Russell. Check and check.

RT: Check, check, check.

JG: What I really wanted and what I was happy happened. I get disappointed when I invest in a television show in a season and then you get to the next season and in the first episode back they press a reset button and suddenly you’re meeting eight new characters and– all the stuff that had built– now it’s a totally different thing. I feel like what the writers have done with the second season of Looking is they took all the stuff that we had built towards by the time we got to episode eight last year– and then got deeper. All of the questions that are hanging in the air, they don’t avoid them. They don’t try and answer them quickly. They don’t try and wrap them up in a bow really quick. Now we’re in season two and it’s just different things.

RT: It’s a continuity, so if you watch the two seasons together the storyline would just flow seamlessly. The payoff is exactly what you want and more.

JG: Exactly. Everything is picked up and then just goes in and in and in and in. It’s sort of like when you’re in a long-term relationship with someone and it’s good. You’re in the second or third year of the long-term relationship and you keep learning new things and discovering new intricacies because you stayed with the same person. That’s for me the experience of reading these scripts. [The writers] really have faith in the complexities and the intricacies of the characters they’ve already created.

They really continue to mine that world, which makes it so much more interesting for us too. We’re not playing the same beat over and over again, which is also I feel the benefit of cable TV. They can take risks because every week people aren’t tuning in for the same safe characters. We’re asking deeper questions and we’re hopefully expanding people’s ideas of who the characters are and widening the world and all of that. That to me is what I wanted and I hope that it feels that way when it’s the final product. Certainly reading the scripts and getting to act it, it’s felt just deeper in a really good way.

TBL: I heard from a lot of people during the first season and whether they loved it or didn’t love it, it was getting people talking.

JG: Totally.

RT: The best art does that. It gets conversations going whether it’s pro or nay at least it’s waking people up. People are very connected to these characters. They want their Patrick to do the right thing. I think everyone sees Patrick as the every man. He’s Doctor Who. He’s the guy that everyone can project onto and see themselves through. He takes them on that journey so everybody is like, ‘no, but if it was me then I’d be doing this…’ and they want their Patrick to be what they might do. Then obviously the human condition is that you never really take the right choice.

TBL: What do you think is the attraction between Patrick and Kevin?

Russell Tovey: I think obviously they share the same sense of humor. They’re just bonded over work and they have the same passions. Their interests are all the same level. Sexually, they want each other so they really find each other attractive. That’s probably the first thing. This love story comes out of desire to f**k. I keep dropping the F-bomb over and over again. [to Jonathan] You say it now and I’ll be alright.

JG: F**k. F**k. F**king.

RT: Very good. That’s where it builds out of. Then we discover that we’re probably the same sort of people growing up wherever we grew up even though one’s in America and one’s in the United Kingdom. We have had the same sort of emotions and feelings and journey into being gay and into our careers and finding someone in the gaming world who you like is probably a rare thing I think. Maybe Kevin’s never really felt so attracted to someone who shares his ambition for games, who’s a gamer.

JG: I think on a TV show you never know. From the moment that we had some scenes together in episode four [of season one] there was chemistry between Kevin and Patrick, but I feel there’s also chemistry between us as actors. I feel a connection with you that I feel is us playing our characters. It’s also how we relate to each other in real life. I think that they started to write to that, so I think that this second season is exploring that.

TBL: It sounds like a friendship on top of everything else.

JG: Yeah. I think for Patrick that’s why he could really show Kevin who he was in the beginning because he was going on bad dates. It was always awkward because he was always trying to be someone he wasn’t, but because this guy had a boyfriend and because he was his boss and because of his work, he could kind of let his guard down thinking that there was no possibility for that. He could just sort of be who he is. And that is when the two sort of got to really know each other.

TBL: What I love about everything you guys are saying is it’s all things that everybody can relate to.

RT: Oh my God. Totally. That’s the thing about the show is that everything is so relate-able. It’s not like this spaceman has come down and everyone’s trying some new drugs. It’s like everything is completely domestic and emotional and whether you are gay or not you’re going to be able to connect to what people are going through.

TBL: What’s Patrick’s relationship like with Agustin and Dom?

JG: We’re together more this season. Last season, Frankie moved out in the second episode, so he was doing his own thing. Dom was doing his thing with Lynn, which was totally separate from our group. This year, Agustin has moved back in with me and Dom is trying to get this restaurant situation under control. So, the three characters have been able to spend more time together and have more scenes together, which was also something that I really wanted after season one.

It’s so fun. It’s kind of no acting required because we all enjoy each other so much. That just continues in season two. There are moments of contention between the friends and obviously moments of fighting and pushing each other and whatever but certainly with Dom and Agustin those relationships remain intact and supportive hopefully.

TBL: And Scott Bakula is back?

JG: He’s totally back. The whole first half of our shooting schedule was Tuesday to Saturday so that he could come in on Saturdays and do the scenes. He was shooting three episodes in one day. It was crazy that they did that, but he’s so awesome.

TBL: Russell, when you started on the show what were you hearing from fans?

RT: I loved the whole Team Kevin and Team Richie thing and they get really emotional about it. Some people were really angry with me. They were like ‘Why are you Team Kevin? He is a cheater. He’s horrible. Richie is available. He’s sweet. He’s kind.’ People got really angry with it. I love that. I love being a part of a show that affects people in such a way that they feel drawn to have to voice their views on social media and get angry about it and battle it out with other users. It’s fantastic.

TBL: Do we meet anybody else from Kevin’s world? Like family or anyone else?

RT: All his family is in the U.K. You hear about his life over there. He talks very openly about his experiences growing up, where he’s from in Essex in the U.K., so you see that…he left the U.K. to come here and it’s sort of explored that maybe he did it to escape. He had to get away. He had to do something just to remove him from where he was because he was trapped. Maybe if we go season three I want his mom to turn up and suddenly be like [high voice] ‘Where the bloody hell have you been? Come home.’

JG: Can you’re mom please play your mom?

RT: My own mom?

JG: Yes. She’s the best. His mom is the best.

RT: She would love that. She came out for 10 days and I took her to Folsom Street fair. She loved it.

JG: His mother’s incredible.

TBL: How did UK audiences receive the show, Russell? How did it compare to here in the U.S.?

RT: It was incredible. I wasn’t here for when it was on TV but these guys seemed to have a hard time at the beginning of this because the social media. Bloggers, they were quite down on the show to begin with. Then it kind of grew its audience and then spiked at the end and said ‘this is a fucking brilliant show,’ which is such a great journey for this show.

In the UK, from the start everyone was like this is excellent. ‘Are you watching Looking?’ In the gay community everyone was watching and the reception was brilliant because in the UK there aren’t many gay shows. There’s Queer as Folk, which was a big thing. I think people were just desperate and they suck it up.

And here it’s built as a comedy and it is a comedy but it’s a dramedy whereas in the U.K. they never billed it as a comedy so no one was expecting a Kim Cattrall catchphrase or RuPaul. They weren’t expecting that. They were just like ‘okay, settling down to see gay guys being gay guys.’ There was no kind of buildup for that. Whereas here, I think people had so many expectations about what the show was going to be for them that they wouldn’t let it just ease them in. It had to be instant. If it wasn’t, they were like, ‘Fuck this.’ At least it felt like that from my side of the water. [to Jonathan] Do you agree or disagree?

JG: We had to read all those think pieces because we were being interviewed about the think pieces. Like you said before, it was great that people were talking about it. That was amazing. I feel like the biggest thing that the reception of the show illuminated for me was lack of representation in the gay community across the board in the fact that there’s a lot of people out there who feel like they’re not being seen– and it is important that they be seen completely. One show can’t do all of it, you know? I think the people watched it with a lot of expectation. I think and I hope that once they saw the whole show and they got what we were trying to do then you can say whether or not you like the show. That’s totally fine.

RT: From my experience because you’re not on Twitter or anything but all the negativity, which came from right in the beginning has evaporated now. People who are discovering the show now of their own merit are on board. I don’t hear anything now that isn’t positive and excited about season two. It’s built an audience and it’s definitely got a total buzz about it. I think at the end of the season the show knew exactly what it was and what they were building towards. This team Kevin, team Richie, all seemed at the center of the heart of the piece. I think everyone absolutely wanted to know who Patrick ends up bumming. You can quote me on that.

JG: That’s the perfect way to end.

Looking returns for season 2 on January 11 at 10pm on HBO.