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

By Kenneth Jones
20 Aug 2012

Jonathan Groff
Jonathan Groff

Jonathan Groff, a Tony Award nominee for playing the rebellious and experiment-friendly German lad Melchior Gabor in the musical Spring Awakening, talks about past lessons and new challenges.

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Does Jonathan Groff ever repeat himself when he chooses projects? Sure, his turn as Claude in a Shakespeare in the Park concert of Hair echoed the youthful rebellion that he exhibited in Broadway's Spring Awakening, which might have rubbed off on him to play Woodstock concert organizer Michael Lang in the feature "Taking Woodstock," but you can't really pin down what exactly Groff is. Not yet 30, he is somewhere between what used to be called "the juvenile lead" and a leading man, and he has skillfully moved between diverse projects: An alt-rock musical based on a modern expressionist classic (Spring Awakening); a multi-generational family drama spanning decades and continents (Craig Lucas' The Singing Forest); a twisty murder mystery (Ira Levin's Deathtrap in London, with Simon Russell Beale); a family drama with characters in the shadow of the Iraq War (Lucas' Prayer for My Enemy); a dark showbiz comedy of ideas (Jeff Talbott's The Submission); a whimsical musical TV show (playing the recurring bad-boy singer Jesse St. James, tormenter of his Spring Awakening co-star Lea Michele, on "Glee"); a two-actor character study about art and artists, fathers and sons, mentors and students (currently playing Ken, the artist's assistant opposite Alfred Molina's Mark Rothko in John Logan's Tony Award-winning play Red at Mark Taper Forum); and a ripe, profane political TV soap opera (playing a talented young political advisor to Kelsey Grammer's Chicago mayor on the second season of "Boss," which premiered Aug. 17 on cable's STARZ).

We caught up with Groff by telephone from Los Angeles the day after his Aug. 12 opening night of Red, directed by Michael Grandage. (Performances continue to Sept. 9.)



Red is one of my favorite plays ever.
Jonathan Groff: It's so good. When I saw it two years ago, when it was in New York, I was completely blown away by it. Blown away by the play and blown away by the lighting and the set and, obviously, the performances in it. I just loved it. I saw it right after it opened [in spring 2010]. In January or February of this year, I heard that they were doing it at the Taper, and I called my agent about it and said, "I heard that Eddie Redmayne was not able to do it for whatever reason," and I said I really wanted to get involved. He said, "Well, you've got to fly yourself to New York and meet Michael Grandage," because he was rehearsing for Evita. And so I flew myself and met him on a lunch break and did a couple of monologues, and that's sort of how it began.

 

Groff and Alfred Molina in Red at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
photo by Craig Schwartz

Underneath it all, under this character-study of artist Mark Rothko, it's about fathers and sons and about teachers and students and the changing of the cultural guard. What attracted you to it?
JG: One of the things that attracted me to it the most is that I knew it was going to be a recreation of that original production, and I knew it was going to be Michael Grandage directing it, and I knew it was going to be Alfred Molina. Even beyond the excitement of being able to do that play and that role, getting to do it with the people that originally created it was also a huge, exciting draw. [Read Playbill.com's 2010 Brief Encounter interview with director Michael Grandage, on the subject of Red.]

Fred Molina has the advantage of his part being based on a real-life character. There is biographical background available to help inform his creation of the character. Do you find the Ken role to be kind of freeing or did you wish you were anchored to a real character?
JG: That's a good question. I mean, he's sort of loosely based on the assistant that Rothko had during the time of the Seagram murals, which they gave me an in-depth interview about. But certainly all of the stuff about Ken's parents' deaths and everything else is completely made up for the play. I feel like those characters are so well-drawn, and the journey and the arc of each character is so specific in the play — it's so right-there-on-the-page — Ken feels just as real and authentic as Rothko does. So I don't feel any sort of wish that it was based on a real character.

I was talking about this the other day with Fred when we were having dinner between shows: There's almost no acting required in that way. The journey is so clearly mapped out for you in the words of the play, that you sort of have to go out and do it. There's no "I've got to make this work or see how this goes" or "How are we going to sell this moment?" or whatever. It's so specifically out there for you.

 Continued...