There was a time not too long ago when an LGBT character’s sexuality was either tragic or triumphant, the unequivocal focal point of the story. And actor Jonathan Groff doesn’t miss those days.
He is proud to be an out gay man, but he’s less enthused about being defined by that aspect of his identity.
“I guess I think of myself as an actor before I think of myself as a gay actor,” says Groff, who plays gay in his new film C.O.G., now in select theaters and available on VOD. “So when I take work or when I look for work, it’s really based on the projects.”
That’s not to say Groff shies away from LGBT-themed work. He got his big break on Broadway with the musical Spring Awakening, playing Melchior, a straight character, but the show was rife with queer themes and subtext.
In C.O.G., which is based on a short story by David Sedaris, Groff plays a gay man. The same is true of The Normal Heart, the HBO film he just finished shooting, and Looking, the upcoming HBO series he’s currently filming in San Francisco.
But while he’s three-for-three with his recent projects, Groff reiterates that he would never accept a job just because he’d be playing a gay character.
“It’s kind of an added bonus, because obviously it’s issues that I care about, and things that are great to be talked about,” he reflects; but “really the only reason I accept work is based on script, character, cast, and director. It’s those four elements for me. The fact that these last three things that I’ve done have had gay elements in them, that’s great, too.”
In particular, Groff is drawn to characters that are complex and well-rounded. Their sexual identity is important, but it’s not their sole defining characteristic, and they eschew outdated stereotypes — and give Groff something substantial to work with.
While Groff’s David in C.O.G. is based on Sedaris, writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez wanted to make the character his own. As it turned out, his vision for the role appealed to Groff’s aforementioned mentality.
“One of the cool things that Kyle wanted to do that I think he achieved in the movie is that the lead character is gay, but his gayness is not at the forefront of the movie,” he says. “A straight person could be going through this exact same experience, sort of.”
On a larger scale, Alvarez’s script was an attempt to broaden Sedaris’ story from a personal essay to a more relatable experience. That also appealed to Groff, who was initially unsure about the project, concerned that he’d be asked to do an onscreen impression of Sedaris.
“The name was the same, the events of the story were the same, but Kyle wanted to make this a story about anyone,” Groff explains. “And I think a lot of people can relate to feeling like they know everything when they get out of high school. I didn’t go to college, but when I moved to New York when I was 19, I sort of felt like, I got this, in a way that I didn’t at all have it.”
As for the character David being gay, it’s both a major part of the story and somewhat subtextual: His brief fling with co-worker Curly (Corey Stoll) is mostly one-sided and unconsummated; and David alludes to some trouble with his parents, presumably in regards to coming out, but the audience never gets any details. It’s only near the end of the film that David’s sexuality is called out by name.
“I assume that everybody who watches the movie knows that he’s gay,” Groff says. “He knows that he’s gay, but he hasn’t really started to live his life yet.”
Groff’s roles in The Normal Heart, based on Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning autobiographical play of the same name, and Looking are less subtle. But again, he was attracted to subject matter that he considered somewhat universal. It’s not about being mainstream so much as being relatable.
Looking, Groff’s current gig, won’t premiere on HBO until next year at the earliest. Still, some are already calling it “Girls for gay men,” and while it’s not as simple as that, Groff appreciates the reference.
The series was a project Groff sought out due to his interest in director Andrew Haigh, who helmed the 2011 film Weekend.
“I saw it with someone that’s straight and we both were emotional at the end,” Groff recalls. “And I thought, This love story is so specific and yes, it’s gay, but it’s so specific to these two human beings that it becomes universal. When a piece of art gets really specific is usually when anybody can relate to it.”
Groff says that like Weekend, Looking is grounded and honest. It’s also sexually frank in a way that few other series are, which might be what has already earned it the comparison to Girls.
“We’re not showing sex to be sexy, necessarily,” Groff notes. “When is the last time we’ve seen gay sex dealt with in a very frank and realistic way? Normally, it’s very salacious and sexy, which it is, but there are complicated things about having sex as gay men that I think hopefully we’ll address on our show.”
When it hits the air, Looking will be one of very few series to focus so exclusively on the gay male experience. Outside of LGBT network Logo, the last show like it was Showtime’s Queer as Folk, which ended its five-year run in 2005.
“I guess it’s still risky, because why hasn’t it happened in all this time?” Groff says. “I think about Will & Grace and I think about Modern Family, and the way that being gay has become sort of middle America… in the way that they show gay people in their specific way. Hopefully, now we can show a different side of it.”
Groff acknowledges that we still have a ways to go, which is why having different kinds of LGBT representation is important. It’s also why an actor who doesn’t want to be defined by his sexual identity still spends so much time talking about it: Being out and taking part in progressive projects remains, as Groff puts it, “risky.”
But on a personal level, he doesn’t feel boxed in by being gay, instead taking on work that matters to him beyond who his character is sleeping with.
“Once I came out of the closet, it was sort of that thing of, The truth will set you free,” Groff says. “Suddenly, what everybody else thought about what roles you should or shouldn’t be playing, I just didn’t really give a shit. Once you declare who you are, and you’re comfortable in your own skin… for me at least, I feel like I can go through life as anybody else.”
What it comes down to every time is the quality of the work.
“As the role of the actor who is gay in 2013, for me, I just have to keep looking for good work,” Groff continues. “As far as my career, that’s all I want to do, which I feel like — if I was straight or if I was gay is what I would be caring about anyway.”