PASADENA, Calif. — There was a time, not all that long ago, when no one would imagine HBO making a show like Looking. There also was a time when an out actor would have to be careful about playing gay too often, lest he be pigeon-holed as the gay actor who just plays gay roles.
That was then, as the saying goes, and this is the week before the premiere of the eight-episode series about three gay men in San Francisco featuring out actor Jonathan Groff.
Groff, 28, is one of the busiest young actors in film, TV and theater today. He originated the role of Melchior in the Broadway musical Spring Awakening in 2007 and snagged a Tony nomination in the process, played the smooth and sexy leader of a rival glee club and the love interest for Lea Michele's character on Glee, and killed as a soullessly ambitious political aide in the second season of Boss on Starz.
The Pennsylvania native calls last year his "dream year" because of two projects for HBO: Looking, which premieres Sunday after Girls, and Glee creator Ryan Murphy's long-awaited film of Larry Kramer's historic 1985 play about the early years of the AIDS crisis, The Normal Heart, airing in May.
Groff was in Pasadena last week with other cast members from both HBO projects to talk to the Television Critics Association at the group's winter press tour. Acknowledging how times and attitudes have changed, he also says Looking never could have gotten made if other shows hadn't paved the way.
"I feel like in the history of gay people, you couldn't have had one thing unless you had the thing before it," he said during an interview.
Looking was created by Michael Lannan and directed by Andrew Haigh, who also directed the superb 2011 film Weekend. The series follows the lives and loves of three friends: Patrick (Groff), a video game developer; Dom (Murray Bartlett), cynical and dissatisfied with his job as a waiter; and Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), an artist's assistant to a demanding and pretentious boss.
Sex is part of their lives, but their sexuality isn't what defines them: The show is sometimes about "looking" for hook-ups or love, but as Groff describes what Patrick is looking for, he could just as easily be talking about Dom or Agustín: "For the first time in his life, he's starting to look at himself, going, 'what are these patterns, why do I keep going on bad dates, am I happy at my job?'
"These questions are things that we ask our whole lives, but there's always the first time that we ask them, and sometimes that's when we're 18, but it could be when we're 30 or 40 or even older."
Groff read the script for the show in December 2012, knew it was an HBO project, and began campaigning hard for the role once he found out Haigh was directing.
"He has a way of capturing naturalism and humanity that is, at one time, incredibly specific and completely universal at the same time," he says of the soft-spoken director. Looking "is specifically about the gay community, but partially because the characters aren't having struggles with their sexuality, straight people can watch it and see themselves."
HBO has filmed one season of Looking, but a decision about going forward will depend on how it's received. Groff says he'd be devastated if he didn't get to film a second season.
"The honeymoon wasn't over when we finished filming," he says.
As thoughtful as he is about his characters, Groff is not a Method actor, and he doesn't do a lot of research for a role before he goes onstage or in front of a camera.
Growing up in Amish Country, Groff was in all the school plays and worked in community theater, either as part of the crew or in ensemble scenes. When actors would come into the company from New York, he'd ask them for career advice, how to break into the business. He went directly from high school to New York (where he was a roommate to now-Lexington residents Jeromy and Lyndy Franklin Smith).
"The thing I find most valuable is really investing in what's on the page," he says. "My process is knowing my lines and being present, finding the magic on the set. I like to do it bad and then do it better. Some people like to talk about it a lot before they do it, but I find who I am by doing it."
That said, he does admit to one bit of footwear methodology on a recent project: When he did the voice of Kristoff in Disney's animated film Frozen, he came to work every day wearing boots because Kristoff is a mountain man.