Jonathan Groff Q&A: On 'Looking' Season 2, 'Frozen' Musical & His Britney/Broadway Mash-Up
What exactly is it that Jonathan Groff can't do? The Tony Award-nominated actor/singer is currently the star of HBO's critically acclaimed series Looking and played the voice of Kristoff in Walt Disney Pictures' smash hit film Frozen. Indeed, that's him singing "Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People" on the second-biggest selling album of last year: the Frozen soundtrack.
On top of that, he's currently on the big screen in a small role in the Academy Award-nominated American Sniper, had a key part in 2014's Emmy Award-winning TV movie The Normal Heart, and played Jesse St. James on Fox TV's Glee. And let's not forget his breakthrough turn on the Broadway stage as Melchior in Spring Awakening, which garnered him a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical.
Groff called Billboard from Los Angeles -- the actor had recently flown in to town -- to talk about Looking, his role in the upcoming short film Frozen Fever, his thoughts on the upcoming stage musical adaptation of Frozen, the possibility of his own album, and his skill at singing songs by both Britney Spears and Stephen Sondheim… at the same time. Yes, really.
At the moment, Groff's character on Looking -- Patrick Murray -- is knee-deep in a "complicated" relationship with an already-taken man, Kevin Matheson (played by Russell Tovey). Also in the mix: Patrick's former boyfriend Richie and how the two are attempting to rebuild their friendship after their relationship imploded at the end of Looking's first season.
We left the show at a really interesting place last week [with episode 4], where things are getting super messy with the Patrick/Kevin storyline. Is there anything that we can say to tease this next episode on Sunday, without spoiling everything? I mean, things are getting kind of rough.
Yeah. Things are getting more and more complicated. I remember when we were doing our table read -- we would do a table read of each episode before we shot it -- and we finished the table read of episode 4 and everyone kind of looked around and said, "Well, now what? Now what's going to happen?" [Laughs] It seemed like there was as much story in the first four episodes [of season 2] as there was in all eight episodes of the first season.
I feel like from here on out, I'm so excited for people to see episodes 5-10 [of season 2] because I feel like the show really expands, both physically and emotionally, in the next five episodes. The next episode, I guess I can say, you see Kevin… I'm trying to think of what I can say without spoiling anything. You see Kevin with his boyfriend Jon, and you get a little bit more of a perspective of where the character is coming from, outside of the dynamic that Patrick and Kevin have. You get to see a little bit more of Kevin sort of on his own. Simultaneously, Patrick and Richie connect again, and it's the first time that we're really spending some serious time with [them] in the second season, which is very interesting, character-wise, and incredibly emotionally complicated. So it starts up this week, and then I really feel for the next five episodes the show spreads its wings in a way, both physically and emotionally, that it never has previously. I'm really excited for everybody to see these next six episodes.
They jam so much into a half-hour. It feels like it's an hour-long show that's squished into a half-hour. I wish there was more time to expand on things sometimes, you know?
It's interesting. I was just talking to someone yesterday who said that they love binge-watching our show for that very reason. I binge-watched the first two seasons of Lost, and then I caught up with it and started watching it live, and I was like, "Wait, what?! I have to wait a whole week till the next [episode]!?" I feel like, certainly with our show, because it's a half-hour and it goes by so quick, you want more. But I think there's also a value -- and certainly HBO is still living in this reality -- in seeing an episode and letting it live for a week and letting it sort of percolate.
I met a girl in yoga class yesterday morning [who said] that she watches the episodes live, and then she watches them two more times throughout the week before she watches the next episode, and that she really enjoys going back [to watch them again]. Because they're so short, you can go back and watch them again and not feel like it's an epic time-suck. She was talking about how she really enjoys watching the same episode a couple times throughout the week. Because it's a very sort of subtle, and nuanced, and kind of like, quiet show… Andrew Haigh, who is our main director, does a lot with subtlety, and a lot with small, realistic moments. So I think that when you go back and watch them again, you can pick up on a lot that you didn't see the first time around.
That's serious fandom that you randomly walked into, in a yoga class.
She told me, "I'm a straight woman, 37 years old, and I'm obsessed with the show." It's been really interesting with the second season, especially now that we've hit this moment in the second season, I have had more people come up to me -- I mean, at least three times a day -- all different types of people. Straight, gay, women, men, have come up to me this season and started talking to me about the show in a way that didn't happen last year. And so it's been really exciting to feel that vibe in my everyday life, to feel that support, and to feel like people are getting invested. I think too with the second season of the show… I think they are taking the show to some really exciting places that people are really getting into.
She said that to me, and then there was a guy behind me in the exact same class who was like, "Oh my god, I'm obsessed with your show." There was a guy in the plane -- I just flew to L.A. -- and there was a guy who stopped me and said, "I'm in my 60s and I'm gay and I love your show because I'm Lynn [Scott Bakula's character], but when I watch the show I see myself at every phase of my life."
It's been amazing this year to feel that love and response. It's been really great.
I think this is the time where people start to wonder if it's going to come back for a third season. Your co-star Russell Tovey tweeted something the other day -- and I know you're not on Twitter so you probably aren't aware -- that kind of sounded ominous. Have you heard anything about it being picked up for a third season yet?
We're still waiting to find out. We haven't heard anything either way. I think with our show, HBO is going to watch and see how it plays throughout the season. Same thing last year: We didn't get picked up for our second season until towards the very, very end of our run of the first season. So, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I definitely… I know that all of us on the show, working on the show -- actors, writers, directors, crew members in San Francisco -- we all are dying to get back and do not in any way feel done with these characters or with these stories. So hopefully they'll pick us up. We'll see. Time will tell.
The short film Frozen Fever is coming out next month, where you again play Kristoff [as Groff did in the runaway blockbuster film Frozen]. I was talking to Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez [the writers of the songs for both Frozen and Frozen Fever] at the Grammy Awards, and Robert said there's a "jamming track" in the short. Are you singing on that track? Is there anything we can say about the song and your involvement in it?
I do sing on this track. It's so funny because… I think the setup is out in the world, so I can say it's Anna's birthday, and Elsa is trying to organize a celebration for her. And there is a jammin' tune. I feel like Bobby and Kristen are in such a creative high. They have been for the past couple of years. We even made this video for the DVD, I think it was called "The Making of Frozen," that Kristen [Bell, the voice of Frozen's Anna] and Josh [Gad, the voice of Olaf] and I sang on, and it was a silly little joke song about how we were going to tell people about the making of Frozen, and then we don't tell them anything about the making of Frozen. But the song would not leave my mind, and it's the same situation with the song in this short. Most of the short is this original Bobby and Kristen tune. It's catchy in the way you hear those songs and then you cannot get them out of your head. Be warned going into this. It's going to be the same situation.
That's a good and bad thing. It's the worst kind of good thing possible to have something stuck in your head for eight months.
I know that they are working on the musical -- the stage show for Frozen -- which is like years and years away. But would you want to play Kristoff in the Broadway version of Frozen? I'm assuming he would be in the show. Would you like to appear in the show in some fashion?
Yeah, I would totally be open to that. [The story] almost in some ways feels like it was built to be a stage show in my mind, just because of the amazing score and the story, and I just feel like they're gonna nail it. I think it's going to be beautiful. I was talking to some of the folks that have been working on it, and they have some really great ideas. Obviously, it's like years down the line, so who knows who will be in it and whatever. But I think it's going to be an amazing show.
You recently did a cabaret show at the end of January at the Landmark on Main Street in Port Washington, N.Y. …
I did! Back, like, two weeks ago.
The Britney Spears/Stephen Sondheim mash-up you did there was pretty awesome. (The Sondheim-written "Old Friends" blends into Spears' "Oops!… I Did It Again," for example.) Is that something you whipped up just for that particular night, or was that something you had done regularly in a previous show?
I did a concert last year at Lincoln Center as part of their American Songbook series. Mary Mitchell Campbell is an amazing music director in New York and we work together on these concerts. I was telling her about my childhood and [how] my dad trains and races horses for a living, and I used to have to clean the horse stalls. And this was like 1998, 1999… and so Britney Spears was big on the radio at the time. So I was listening to a lot of Britney Spears while I was shoveling the shit out of a horse stall. Then I would also bring cassette tapes of original cast recordings of Stephen Sondheim musicals to the barn as well, and sometimes listen to those. So the [mash-up] was inspired by what I was listening to those years when I was in middle school, which was mostly Britney Spears and Stephen Sondheim.
It's this hilarious blend that clearly the audience really enjoyed too. Would you want to do more shows like this? Would you ever want to do a proper theater tour of some sort?
I love interacting with an audience. I love just being myself in front of a crowd. I always bring up people on stage. I love the you-never-know-what's-going-to-happen aspect of doing concerts. I've missed singing, so that's a great outlet for that. I did a little homage to Looking, and I sang the Erasure song "A Little Respect" that was heavily featured last season in the show. I'd love to do more. They're really fun and it's great because I love singing and it's a nice outlet for that.
Music plays an important role in Looking. Have you discovered artists or music because of the show?
Totally. I've, like, Shazamed every song at the end of our episode. I feel like they do such a good job with the music on our show. Little-known fact: It's actually Andrew Haigh's boyfriend, whose name is Andy Moorwood, who is a crazy, crazy music fan, and he is responsible -- I would say -- for almost every song that plays at the end of our episodes. [Laughs] Isn't that interesting? He doesn't get credit in the credits, but he's just a crazy music aficionado and he's been the sort of source for most of the great music at the end of the episodes.
(On other music featured in the show…) I was never big into Sylvester and we had a big Sylvester song ("I Need Somebody To Love Tonight") at the end of episode 4 of season 1 that ended the fourth episode with Richie and I dancing at The Stud in San Francisco. I fell in love with that song and downloaded a bunch of Sylvester. The Erasure song ("A Little Respect," heard in episode of 2 of season 1), I had to learn all the words for so I could sing along when we were dancing in the club, and then that song ended up being in my cabaret show because I became obsessed with it.
So yeah, Looking definitely has expanded my music tastes, for sure.
(Groff called us back a few hours after our conversation to add that there is a major music moment coming up in episode 8 of season 2, thanks to Jessie Ware. It's a lengthy, "intense" and "epic sequence" that is accompanied by Ware's song "Say You Love Me," from her latest album Tough Love. With lyrics like "Say you love me to my face / I need it more than your embrace" and "I don't want to fall in love / if you don't want to try," the song could quite possibly soundtrack a pivotal moment in the series.)
Have they had you properly sing in the show yet? I don't think you have.
I have not sung on the show. I do in the sixth episode of season 2 have a brush with a karaoke machine, but it's in a more unexpected way than you might imagine. [Laughs] That's all I'll say.
I think everyone would like to hear more of you singing. I'm wondering, would you like to release an album of your own at some point? That would seem like a natural thing for you to do.
[Sighs] I just haven't had the impulse to do that. … I just don't know artistically -- because I don't write my own music -- I don't know artistically what an album would mean for me. I don't know what I would want to say with an album that would be unique to me -- something that hasn't been done before. I'm just not sure what that is. But I'm absolutely open to it.