Jonathan Groff On Skimpy Swimsuits And ‘Really Intense’ Shooting Of ‘The Normal Heart’

by | May 21, 2014 at 12:19 PM | HBO, LGBT, Looking

At 'The Normal Heart' premiere in NYC, 'Looking' co-stars Frankie J Alvarez (l) and Murray Bartlett (r) flank Jonathan Groff (Ben Gabbe/Getty)

From “Frozen” to “Looking” to “The Normal Heart,” the past year has been damn good for Jonathan Groff.

Both the Disney film and the HBO series were hits and this Sunday is the premiere of the Larry Kramer adaptation, directed by Ryan Murphy. Groff is only in the early part of the film as Craig Donner, who is one of the first to succomb to what is known early on as ‘the gay cancer’ but quickly becomes much bigger. The film documents the struggles of the community to come together and fight for help from an ignoring government. The film also stars Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer (who I talked to earlier this week), Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons and Julia Roberts.

I talked to Groff last week about his part in the film as well as how he’s feeling about this point in his career and what his hopes are for the second season of “Looking,” which starts filming later this summer in San Francisco.

Having seen ‘The Normal Heart’ already, it’s still sitting with me. I’m sure it’s still sitting with all of you.

Jonathan Groff: Totally. I would have worked crew in this movie. I was so blown away by the story, and I was so blown away by the play and I’ve seen it a couple of times, I’ve read it, and such a huge fan of Larry Kramer and of this play and even though I die in the first 5 minutes I’m just thrilled to be in it at all.

The opening of the film starts out with everybody so carefree and everybody is young and healthy and beautiful, and then that change comes in really fast and you’re kind of that first example.

JG: Right.

Taylor Kitsch holds an ailing Groff in 'The Normal Heart' (HBO)

But a very important question, was there pressure in the bathing suit you had to wear? That was a skimpy little bathing suit!

JG: Oh my gosh. [laughs] When we were in the costume fitting there were all these different bathing suits like hanging there on the rack to try and I remember looking at this little red bathing suit and I was like, ‘there’s no way I’m even putting that one on. There is no possible way.’ And that’s the one it ended up being. And so I like, squeeze myself and…I come from a long line of dairy farmers in Pennsylvania so when I told my dad that I was wearing this bathing suit he was like, ‘Oh man. We’re not built to wear that. We’re not built for those bathing suits.’ I was like, ‘I know!’

Outside of the bathing suit, going into the project did anything scare you about it? Were you scared?

JG: I was, I mean, you feel a lot of pressure, too, because the play is so important and I think turning it into a movie is so important and so you definitely want to get it right. Also, too, we’re making a movie for a group of people who all lived through this experience. It’s a period piece in that it’s like, the ‘80s, but it’s not so far away. People have memories of their friends and what it looked like and what it felt like. So you want to honor them as best you can.

You’re young so I’m guessing you were born after the AIDS crisis happened.

JG: I was born, yeah, in 1985.

When did you first kind of hear about this big thing that happened that really affected a lot of people?

JG: That’s such a great question. I feel like I remember seeing something on the news about the AIDS quilt. I remember seeing something about that when I was a kid but I didn’t really learn about the epidemic until…I remember that ‘Angels in America’ was on HBO when I first moved to New York. I remember watching that was very educational for me.

I think that’s also such a great reason to make this movie. I feel like in the gay community a lot of people suffered through a lot of things and people fought for a lot of things that the younger generation, of which I am included, just didn’t grow up with. And it’s so important for the story about our culture and for the respect for the older people in the gay community for us to continue to share these stories and tell these stories.

Did you guys really shoot on Fire Island?

JG: We did. That was my first time I’ve ever been on Fire Island.  It was so fun. It was so cool. It is so beautiful there.

So you’re shooting and you’re seeing Taylor Kitsch run around…Matt Bomer’s in the movie, too.

JG: I know. It’s crazy. It’s, like, an insanely hot group of guys. But what else is new, I guess.

Groff, Hugh Jackman and Lucy Liu announcing the Tony nominations in April (CBS)

Like you said, you are in the early part of the film but I will tell you I did not like seeing you get sick and die! It was hard to watch! How was it shooting those scenes?

JG: It was so intense. It was sort of one of those that you can’t prepare for, but you can go over your lines and you can like, practice what you’re going to say or think about how you want to block something but you can’t really practice dying. You just kind of show up on set and just go for it. And it was very bizarre and really intense. It was really intense.

Safe to assume there was a nice bonding with all of you guys just because of the project itself?

JG: Totally. I was only there for I guess a total of a week because I died so quickly, but even in that there was such a sense of camaraderie on the set and I think also too because the material was so serious there was a lot of laughing outside of the scene work because to carry around the seriousness of the scene would have just killed everyone. So there was a lot of, whenever there could be there was a lot of levity.

In general, how do you feel about where your career is right now? You’ve done a lot since “Spring Awakening” on Broadway!

JG: I feel so grateful to be working and working. Not only just working, but I feel like the thing that I learned from ‘Spring Awakening’ was, for me, I do my best work when I’m working on something that I really believe in and can get behind and the message of the piece or show and to have continued to work and also to work on projects that I feel really passionately about and really care about has been, for me, like living the dream. I feel really blessed to be working on things that I care about.

I’m still so happy that “Looking” got another season.

JG: I know. I know. If we did not get picked up for a second season I would have been really heartbroken.

Did the experience give you a different perspective of the TV business as it is right now?

JG: Yeah, it executes like anything. The more you work in a field the smaller it seems and I had that experience when I moved to New York. My dream was to be on a Broadway show and then you sort of learn how wonderfully small the community is. It’s always as impressive but less intimidating and that’s certainly with TV as well where, at least in my experience, the more work I’ve been able to do the more tangible it seems, the more I feel comfortable to stretch and try new things. So yeah, I guess I feel a little bit more comfortable in that arena now.

I know you guys don’t start shooting until August so I guess my question would be what’s your hope for Patrick in season two?

JG: I feel like he still has a lot to learn. I feel like from episode one to episode eight of season one , I felt some real developments in him, some real growth and he really started to put himself out there and take chances and all of that. I hope that he will continue to do that. I don’t know in regards to like, Russell [Tovey, who plays Kevin] or Raul [Castillo, Augustin]. I have no…the writers’ room for the show starts on Monday. So I was talking about this with Murray [Bartlett, Dom] last night. I was saying like, ‘I have no idea where it would go. I just have no idea.’ It’s a credit to the writing and a credit to the actors, who are so appealing, that it’s hard to know which one Patrick will end up with, if either of them.

I know I would love to see Julia Duffy come back as your mom on the show. The scene between the two of you at the wedding was one of my favorites. A great mother/son moment.

JG: Yeah. She’s so awesome. I would love for her to come back and do more scenes with her. She’s such a great actress. I’ve seen every episode of ‘Newhart’ and she was just the coolest and totally rolled her sleeves up and we just dropped in immediately and I love that scene, the writing of that scene as well because it wasn’t like, ‘I’m gay and my mom doesn’t understand me.’ It was way more complicated than that. And I think most parent relationships – gay and straight – where there’s a level of resentment from both ends and there’s a level of neglect from both ends and there’s just as much misfiring behavior and projection of each other’s problems on one another.

Okay. Well I remember when I saw you back in January, all the Beyoncé videos had just dropped and you were obsessed. What’s your obsession right now?

JG: The obsession continues. I was running last week on the West Side Highway and I was listening to the album and I was like, ‘this has almost been six months and I’m still listening to this Beyoncé album! Holy shit. I can’t believe it.’ So that’s still continuing. My new obsession of late night watching is…have you seen ‘Violet’ yet on Broadway?

No. Not yet.

JG: So Sutton Foster has always been obsession for me since ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ when I was in high school, and I saw twice in one week and that’s been my latest…and there’s not even that many clips of it online because it’s a Broadway show, but I keep watching and keep watching the clips of it. That’s the latest thing.

When you love a Broadway show like that do you picture yourself in that show or is it just about being a fan, it’s not about wanting to be a part of it?

JG: It’s just about being a fan, yeah. It’s genuinely just about being a fan.

“The Normal Heart” airs Sunday at 9pm on HBO. The second season of “Looking” will air in early 2015.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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