THE LEADING MEN: Jonathan Groff, the Spring Awakening Kid, Takes on Red and TV's "Boss"

By Kenneth Jones
20 Aug 2012

Groff as artist's assistant "Ken" in Red.
Photo by Craig Schwartz

In general, do you try to dip into the period — do you do research? For example, did you read about Germany in the 19th century for Spring Awakening — ?
JG: [Laughs.] Yeah, we did read about that…! When we were at Baruch College doing the workshop [for Spring Awakening], [director] Michael Mayer gave us homework assignments about Germany in the 1890s and all of that.

And did you read about the 1950s and '60s art scene for Red?
JG: I got a bunch of books on Rothko, and then I got to see [the art of the period]. I was in Chicago right before rehearsals for Red, shooting "Boss," and they just happened to be doing a Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, so I got to check that out. I was so pumped and inspired by the art, I wanted to see as much art as I could. It's one thing to talk about art and see it in books, but then seeing it in person is a totally different thing. We took a little field trip to MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art, in Los Angeles]. We actually had our opening night party last night at MOCA. People got to walk through and look at the Rothkos. They have a huge, pretty significant collection of Rothko paintings there.

In July, when we were rehearsing, I flew to Houston on our day off. This was our third week of rehearsal. I flew to Houston to go see the Rothko Chapel, which was really interesting because it's the last series [of paintings] that he did before he committed suicide. All the paintings are really close to black and dark purple. And, it's set up as a meditation room with little cushions, and people sit and sit there for hours. I spent three hours in there just looking at the paintings and watching them move. It was really kind of depressing, actually. That room made me feel kind of sad. But, yeah, I love [research]. Even throughout the run of the play — a couple of days ago, I was at MOCA again. I go back between shows and before, sometimes, just to sort of get inspired. I bought a book about pop art that I'm reading. Love that. Sometimes it doesn't inform what you're doing at all — but sometimes it does. You never know what's going to stick.

Some of that must simply seep into you on a cellular level.
JG: Exactly. Knowing what it feels like to look at something — a piece of art — for a long time. We talk a lot about Jackson Pollock in the play, and I started reading about Jackson Pollock a little bit, and suddenly the ideas made more sense and deepened a little bit. My sort of general theory on research is that you just do it because, "Why not?" You do it as much as you can. If it helps the play, great. If not, then… I just enjoy doing it to begin with, so I don't mind doing it.


Jonathan Groff and Zachary Booth in Prayer for My Enemy.
Photo by Joan Marcus

I suppose it depends on the play itself: I assume there was less research for Prayer for My Enemy, a contemporary-set play, and less for The Submission, a play about theatre people, which is closer to your experience as an actor.
JG: Yeah… Although, for Prayer for My Enemy I learned a lot about the war in Iraq, which was really upsetting. [Laughs.] There was a DVD — I can't remember what the DVD was that Craig Lucas gave me — it's based on a book. It was devastating. Yeah, The Submission was close to my life, so I did a little research about the Humana Festival [a setting in the play] and stuff, but other than that, that was pretty much very close to the world that I live in.

Did Red director Michael Grandage and his collaborators introduce you to paints and the physical world of an artist, in terms of you just grabbing onto canvases and paints and brushes?
JG: Yeah. That was sort of trial-by-fire. Grandage doesn't do table work. You just jump right into it. We both came into the rehearsals off-book. That was part of the requirement for this production because we had a short amount of time, and they'd all done it before, so they asked me to come in off-book. The play is, like you said, so physical with the painting and the moving and the putting-up-and-down canvases. When I walked in on the first day of rehearsal, the rehearsal room was the studio. The entire set was set up in the rehearsal room, and I was like, "Oh my God." I got this huge pit in my stomach. "Oh, wow. We're really doing this on day one, here we go!" [Laughs.] Jumping right in. Usually, it's a bare rehearsal room, and slowly costume pieces get involved — you figure out as you go. It was sort of intense. The only painting technique that I learned was how to [prime] that canvas — getting the right amount of paint on your paintbrush and making sure you don't leave streaks and keeping things even and making sure you're in sync with each other. It's like a dance, it's like a choreographed dance. And then building, stapling and hammering of the canvas — putting that together. It's very physical. It's really satisfying in that way — hammering and painting and getting to do all of that. It's really fun.

You're literally using muscles you haven't used before.
JG: Exactly. My wrist is really sore from painting! [Laughs.] I never used it that way before.

There's a kind of unnatural amount of bending and reaching. I assume that you were sore for the first couple of weeks.
JG: Yeah, it's true. Fred started working out with a trainer a couple of weeks ago just to get back into it, and he told his trainer what he does in the play, so they worked out his leg muscles and his reaching… Yeah, it's very physical. I feel physically exhausted after the play is over because it's a lot of movement, and you're on stage non-stop. It's just the two of you. It's so fun, though.