Jonathan Groff on Coming Out, "Looking," "The Normal Heart," Larry Kramer, Lea Michele and More

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26 Jun 2014

Groff at the San Francisco premiere of "Looking."

What excited you when you first read the script for "Looking"? We get a slice of life of young gay guys — struggling with dating, looking for dates on OkCupid, the pitfalls of Grindr… It shines  a great light on real human experience and what it's like as a gay man in 2014.
JG: Yeah, I feel like the whole element of the show that I was interested in is that the characters are gay, but none of them are struggling with their sexuality. It's definitely 2013-14 on this TV show. Like you said, there's online dating. I just went to a wedding last week of a friend of mine, who met her husband on the Internet. It's online dating, it's Grindr, it's all of that — and it's a group of men whose biggest problems in their life are not them grappling with the fact that they're gay, which is very specific to our generation… I grew up in world that had "Will & Grace," and that was a huge deal, and I remember in eighth grade seeing the poster for that show and being like, "Huh! Okay… Interesting." It's become more normalized, and we're growing up in a world where gay men and women can get married. ["Looking"] wasn't a bunch of coming-out stories, it wasn't people who were devastated by the fact that they were gay. Certainly, it's a huge part of the show, and it's hopefully truthful and specific to the gay experience, but it's people dealing with relationships and work and love and friendship and all this stuff that anybody goes through as we get more comfortable — as the world gets more comfortable — with the gay experience.

Last night I was with a friend, and she was saying you were teaching a class in the city not too long ago. And, what really inspired me was that she told me a child came up to you to ask you questions about being an out actor. There are children who look to you as a role model — you've been in movies such as "Frozen" and done roles such as Melchoir, but also gay-themed work. What makes you proud to know that up-and-coming artists look up to you like this?
JG: I remember that moment. It was really moving and makes me emotional just hearing you say that story back to me. It was so sweet and moving when that little boy came up to me. It means a lot, for sure, to have a kid like that or other kids that want to do these workshops or classes say that it means something to them… I remember the few actors who were out [when I was younger] and looking into them and thinking, "Okay…" Coming from Lancaster, PA, I didn't have a lot of gay role models because it's a very conservative community, and the people who were gay when I was growing up were pretty closeted, but one of the great things that I still value and really valued back then was that I met a lot of gay people working in the theatre, and it was just so comforting to know that you could be gay and have a life… So the fact that if I'm an out actor, and kids can have that same sort of release and experience, it's incredibly meaningful.

I read Lea Michele's "Brunette Ambition" to recap for our website, and I loved her section to you in the book. I admired when she said, "When I first met Jonathan, I thought that he was gay, but I wanted him to tell me on his own terms." Do you think that being in theatre and a show like Spring Awakening helped you personally grow?
JG: Well, it's interesting because when I was in Spring Awakening, I wasn't out to anyone in my life. I was completely 100-percent closeted, except for my roommate at the time, who was my "roommate" in quotations — my boyfriend-roommate… We lived together for years, and when I was in Spring Awakening, I never, ever talked about it, and everybody was so sweet. All of my castmates were so respectful and must have just intuited that I didn't want to talk about it because no one ever grilled me or asked me. They just knew I wasn't ready, which was so generous, and I appreciate them for that — letting me come to it on my own and have my own journey with that. And, it's interesting… When I was closeted, I never realized how shut down I was until I came out.

It's so interesting! Doing Spring Awakening was such an incredible, expressive, wonderful experience, and in the show, I played this character who — my motto for him that I put on my dressing room mirror was, "Don't let the world define you." That was my quote that I felt was very Melchior — I would always hold [it] with me… I told this to Michael Mayer a year after I left the show, once I came out — I came out right when I left the show: I'd been playing Melchior, and Melchior was a character that I really didn't relate to in my real life. He felt very far for me, but getting to do that role eight times a week really cultivated this aspect of my personality that was this idea of, "Don't let the world define you." I was getting to express that quality and work on that quality and live in that quality every night in the play, and then when I left the show, I couldn't put it in the play anymore, and I had to put it in my life. I had this whole side of myself that I discovered — that I was sort of channeling in the character — and when I didn't have the character to channel that energy into anymore, I was like, "Okay, I have to include this in my life now and take this on as me," and a month after I left the show, I came out to Lea and to my friends and my family, and in retrospect, when I look back now and I think about what it was like to be closeted, I think, "The release and relief and just the way that life gets better after you stop living a compartmentalized existence is major and is something you can't really understand until you finally take that leap." So, yeah, I feel like Spring Awakening, in retrospect, helped me get there. I didn't realize how closed off [I was], and I was not living my fullest life until I finally came out.


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