Broadway and "Glee" Star Jonathan Groff Chats About Normal Heart Film, HBO Series and More

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20 Jul 2013

Jonathan Groff
Jonathan Groff
Joseph Marzullo
Jonathan Groff, the Tony-nominated Spring Awakening actor who has gone on to TV and film success in "Glee," "Boss" and "Taking Woodstock," is poised to become one of HBO's newest stars in 2014.

The gifted young actor, who has also impressed in New York productions of The Singing Forest, The Submission and the outdoor Public Theater staging of Hair, has landed roles in both the made-for-HBO film version of Larry Kramer's landmark AIDS drama The Normal Heart and an untitled comedy series about four gay friends, also for the award-winning cable network.

Filming for HBO's "The Normal Heart," which features direction by Emmy winner Ryan Murphy ("Glee") and a screenplay adapted by playwright Kramer, began last month in Fire Island. Groff plays Craig, who is the first in a group of friends to die from the then-unnamed disease at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. Groff, who spoke with Playbill.com towards the end of June, said the first week of filming was "kind of amazing. The play is so sad and intense, but the beginning of [the film] takes place on Fire Island, just as the disease is starting to hit, and so we got to shoot all of the fun stuff this week, like the Fire Island party time. It was a moment of levity, and it was a blast. I've never been on Fire Island before. ... It was so beautiful. We were in the Pines, and they're shooting in places that have never been shot at before."

The made-for-TV film boasts a starry cast led by Academy Award winner Julia Roberts as Dr. Emma Brookner, Mark Ruffalo as the protagonist Ned Weeks, Matt Bomer as Felix Turner, Taylor Kitsch as AIDS activist Bruce Niles, Emmy winner Jim Parsons as Tommy Boatwright (reprising the role he played on Broadway) and Tony winner Joe Mantello, who played Weeks on Broadway, as Mickey Marcus.

Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening.
photo by Joan Marcus

"It's an incredible cast," Groff enthused. "I'm just so proud to be a part of that piece. I saw the play at the Public when it was there like ten years ago with Raul Esparza and was blown away by that. And, I saw it again this last time around when it was on Broadway and just cried through the whole thing — so powerful. I hope that the movie turns out great, but I think that it certainly has all of the right ingredients. And, everybody working on it is very passionate.

"People are just so excited that this movie is being made," he continued. "I think people really want this story to be told for the masses because theatre people know about it, and obviously everyone in New York saw the revival two years ago, but being on TV and being on HBO, it's hopefully going to reach a whole new audience — a wider audience and a whole, hopefully, new audience of people my age and younger… I was born in 1985, and so there's a whole generation growing up that has heard tell of it, but didn't really live through it the way the generation before us did. I think, historically and in terms of the gay community, it's amazing that this movie is going to be all over TV and the story is going to be out there, and people are going to be talking about it. I think it's incredible."

Jonathan Groff in "Glee."
photo by FOX

Groff also has high hopes for his new HBO series, which is set in San Francisco, and will also debut sometime in 2014. Co-starring Frankie J. Alvarez and Murray Bartlett, the series is based on an idea from the screenplay "Lorimer," which was penned by Michael Lannan, who is also writing the new series.

"I'm so excited for this," Groff said about the series, which features direction by Andrew Haigh, whose directorial credits include "Five Miles Out," "Greek Peet" and "Weekend." The latter, Groff explained, "was the first gay movie that I've seen in the theatre where I felt, 'Woah, this feels really specific to the gay community and somehow really universal.' I saw it with my friend, who is straight, and we were both weeping at the end of it. It's very powerful and beautiful.…Andrew's going to direct a bunch of the episodes throughout the course of the first season, and I think he has a really special creative voice."

The HBO series, he added, "takes place in modern day [and concerns] a bunch of gay guys … It's sort of a slice-of-life kind of TV show that hopefully will be breaking some ground potentially in that there hasn't been a show like this on TV in a long while, about gay men just living their lives in today's world. I think the goal of the show and the purpose of this show is to illustrate the complexities and realities of the modern-day gay experience, which is a lot of things."

Groff plays a video-game designer, who spends a good deal of time on the dating website OkCupid trying to find love. "My best friend [in the series] is about to move in with his roommate," he explained. "My other best friend is a 42-year-old career waiter, who is going through a mid-life crisis, so it's a bunch of different stories. Hopefully, it's funny. Hopefully, people fall in love with the characters. But I think, most importantly, people see that being gay is many different things and not just one specific kind of lifestyle and one specific kind of way of living — but all ages, many different aspects, many different stories to tell."

Groff said he recently had the chance to view the pilot, "and I'm really excited about it. Now we go back to San Francisco in September and start shooting it for a couple months. We do eight episodes for the first season."

Jonathan Groff
Photo by Mark A. Lee of Great Exposures

Prior to the airing of his various HBO projects, the multitalented artist will have the chance to demonstrate the vocal prowess he has impressed both Broadway and TV audiences with when he makes his debut at the Ravinia Festival's intimate Bennett Gordon Hall Dec. 7. The Pennsylvania native said that concert and cabaret work is a relatively new venture for him, one that began with an offer to perform at The Cabaret at the Columbia Club in Indianapolis in fall 2012.

"It was incredible," Groff said of his Indianapolis debut. "It was so fun. I fell in love with the medium. I did a concert at Joe's Pub with pop songs a year before that, but I hadn't done a 'cabaret,' and so that was the first time I'd done that in that kind of venue, and I loved it. I loved the interaction with the audience, I loved the intimacy, and [musical director] Mary-Mitchell [Campbell] and I learned a lot, and there's some songs that we want to do again, and there's a bunch of songs that we never want to do again," he laughed. "We put together a great band and were like, 'Wow. This is something we really should do more of,' but then I got busy with work, and she got busy with work… and then [Ravinia Festival President and CEO] Welz Kauffman contacted me and said, 'Hey, let's put something together.' I love Ravinia. I think that they're amazing. I love the work that they do, so I'm going to do a concert for them in their smaller venue in December, and I'm really excited."

Although Groff is still working on his repertoire for the one-night-only concert, he said one song that will definitely be on the bill is the classic Irving Berlin ballad "I Got Lost in His Arms" from the musical comedy Annie Get Your Gun.  The singing actor credits that 1946 musical, which he saw as an elementary school student at his hometown high school, with igniting his passion for the theatre. "At the end of Act I, I couldn't believe that I got to come back in 15 minutes and see a second act because I was like, 'Oh my God, this is so great!'" he said with a laugh. "So I was telling that story to Mary-Mitchell, and I said, 'I love that score. That score is so amazing, but it's mostly [Annie Oakley's] songs, which is such a bummer. I'd love to sing something from that show, but I'm not going to sing "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun."' And, she said, 'What about, "I Got Lost in His Arms"?' I was like, 'Right!'

"And, we started singing the song, and I immediately burst into tears, and suddenly that song hit me, obviously, in a different way at 28 than it did when I was seven. It suddenly gave me a whole new perspective singing it with where I am in my life now… I just think that song is so beautiful and incredibly meaningful — to have a man at 28 sing it with a different perspective. Hopefully, we'll discover more stuff like that…some pop tunes and some show tunes that we can turn on their head a little bit and make it surprising and interesting for us as well for the crowd."

*Tickets for the Ravinia concert are not yet on sale.