Jonathan Groff stars in the new Netflix serial killer series, "Mindhunter." But long before diving into criminal minds, Groff got his start in a different medium — musical theater.
Groff had the lead role of Melchior Gabor in the original Broadway production of "Spring Awakening," a musical about troubled adolescence, and he played King George III in the Broadway smash, "Hamilton." Groff received Tony nominations for both performances and also appeared in the Grammy Award-winning "Hamilton" cast recording.
Groff's latest musical performance isn't on a stage. It's actually a podcast musical series called "36 Questions," about a married couple trying to mend their broken relationship by asking each other questions designed to get strangers to fall in love.
In "Mindhunter," Groff doesn't sing at all. The drama is set in the late 1970s in the wake of the Charles Manson and Son of Sam murders. He plays agent Holden Ford, who's part of a two-man behavioral sciences team investigating the psychology of criminals and, specifically, serial killers.
When Jonathan Groff spoke with The Frame's John Horn, he talked about moving from musical theater to television in "Mindhunter."
Can you talk about your transition from acting onstage to acting for the screen where there's no live audience?
Even though there's no live audience, I do get that heart flutter and that adrenaline because when you're on a set between the time of "Action!" and "Cut!," there's all these people on the crew. It's completely quiet and we're like, OK, we're rolling and ... action! And everyone is completely focused on what is happening between the scene, so you do get that level of focus and adrenaline, even though this is not a live audience. The biggest difference for me is the intimacy on film and television. You get to be so much more intimate.
My first film that I got right after "Spring Awakening" was called "Taking Woodstock" and Ang Lee was the director. And we had lots of rehearsal before we started and we were working together one-on-one. I'll never forget what he said to me in our rehearsal. He said, Jonathan, you're used to doing theater where you're playing to the back row. But on film, if you feel it, we see it. So that is the way you need to train your brain. That's really stuck with me.
What is the decision-making process for you in being part of a series like "Mindhunter"? Is it, If I'm going to do this I have to be ready to do it for "x" number of years? Or is it, I want to work with David Fincher on the story and the years will kind of take care of themselves?
Well, that was the big question I had when I sat down with him before I'd technically signed on. I was doing "Hamilton" on Broadway and I flew on the day off to meet with David about "Mindhunter." He sat down and said, This could potentially be years, hopefully, if it all goes great. And I asked him, Are you here for the first episode and then you're out? [Then] who is going to be the director? And he made it very clear that this was his baby and something that, if it did go for years, he was going to be very heavily involved with, which was good enough for me to sign on the dotted line.
There are different ways of looking at the production schedule for a series. You could say it's almost like a year-long movie shoot. How did you approach it? Because it's a very long time to be working on a project.
Yeah, it's a marathon. And when I had that first meeting with David he said, Can you not get sick for a year? I said, Yes, David I can not get sick. And I didn't. That to me was one of the biggest challenges because I was working pretty much every day. And so it is running a marathon, taking care of yourself, eating well. I would go running every morning along the Allegheny River to stay in shape. And just pacing yourself — especially when you're working with someone like David and it's an opportunity with such great material and such a great character on Netflix, you want to give it all.
The thing that really strikes me about this series is its calmness.
Yeah, David, said in the very beginning, This is just people in rooms talking. He's having a lot of faith and trust and respect for the audience. He's not pandering to them. There's nothing flashy. He's really depending on them to put down their phones and lean in. Granted, the subject matter is very flashy. We're talking about serial killers and murders and it's a psychological deep-dive into a really interesting fascinating world. But ultimately it is people talking.
A lot of it is based on real cases and real people. So how do you step back from what historically has happened and what the record has shown to create a character that is your own?
John Douglas, who wrote the book "Mindhunter," is the man who we're saying [my character is] inspired by — not based on, because the conceit of the show is that all of the FBI agents and their personal lives would be fictionalized. Whereas the crimes the serial killers and the criminals that we meet throughout the course of that show — all of those details which actually would seem like they're the most fabricated because they're the most insane — every detail of the criminality of this show is completely true and factual and on point. So you have this juxtaposition of this sort of fictionalized world of these FBI agents and then the stark reality of the crimes and the criminals.
Can you talk about your experience in the podcast musical, "36 Questions?"
When they were pitching the podcast, the thing that was so interesting to me was that Broadway shows are so expensive [to see]. It's insane how much. Just really rich people end up seeing shows on Broadway now. And so, the idea that they could make a new original musical for free, that people could listen to, was so exciting for me.
And you don't have to spend months and months rehearsing. You can just put on a show.
Exactly. And we do a lot of workshops. Musicals are in development for years before they end up on Broadway. And so I also loved the idea that perhaps the podcast musical could be a place where people go to develop their material. And you could get maybe like a Lin-Manuel Miranda or a Stephen Sondheim or somebody to let people into their process and have people hearing things, and having opinions about things to help things develop.
"Spring Awakening" was, to me, one of the great shows I've ever seen. I wonder if when you're an actor and you're early in your career, do you recognize while you're doing a show that it means something?
Yes and no. We started at the Atlantic Theater off-Broadway and there was this sort of summer camp energy about the show. And Michael Mayer, the incredible director of "Spring Awakening," kept us all in our place. When we were off-Broadway he said, We're never moving to Broadway. He just kept our noses to the grindstone and kept us working. And so, in some ways, we were very protected, in sort of our own bubble. It wasn't until after that we realized what waves that show created. But, at the same time, it completely transformed me as an actor because I'd never gone to college and I never studied acting.
It's always been on-the-job training. And up until "Spring Awakening" it had always been just about getting a job and working. You take anything. But the material of "Spring Awakening" was so challenging and so transformative to perform eight times a week. And I did it for about two years in total, including off-Broadway and Broadway. It completely changed who I was as an actor and who I was as an artist. I learned through that experience that material ends up defining you, particularly in the theater, because you repeat it night after night and it has the power on a cellular level to change you as a person. And so after "Spring Awakening," moving forward I would think, Okay, what is the material? Who is the director? What is the next challenge? How is the next opportunity going to make me grow? Because "Spring Awakening" taught me what it meant to be an artist.
So at what point do you say to yourself, I'm going to turn that down ... because it doesn't fit where I need to go and need to be? Because that's a very hard decision for a young actor to make.
It is and it's very personal and it's very specific to what's happening in your life at the time. For example, I did "Hair" in Central Park right after doing "Spring Awakening," and "Hair" was moving to Broadway. And I said no to doing "Hair" on Broadway because I wanted to try and find something different. As a kid growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, all I wanted to do was be on Broadway in a musical. "Spring Awakening" kind of answered all of my questions and fulfilled all of my dreams — beyond my wildest dreams. And when "Hair" happened and it was moving to Broadway, I decided not to because I wanted to do something different and flex a different muscle. I ended up doing three very complicated off-Broadway plays that, in certain ways, were not successes in that they were received in a complicated way. But for me they were successes because they forced me to act without singing, which I'd never done before. I'd always done musicals and so living in the world of straight plays and working with off-Broadway actors and living in that community was a completely life-changing experience.
And then another musical comes along, "Hamilton." How did you get into that show? Was it immediately clear that even if you didn't want to continue with "Hair" on Broadway that this absolutely had to be a part of your life?
Lin texted me and said, Hey, Brian d'Arcy James has to leave the show right after we open off-Broadway. Do you want to come in for the run of "Hamilton," basically for two months? And I said, Sure. Without having read it or seen it or anything. And I went to see it at the Public Theater on a Friday night and I thought, Oh my god, I won the lottery. I can't believe I get to be a part of the show and play the part of King George.
I had one day of rehearsal and then went into the show and then ended up doing it on Broadway with them. And so I ended up working on the show for about a year. And because King George is only on stage for nine minutes, I would go into the audience and watch the show when I was not on stage.
Would people see you?
No, I would hide behind them.
What was that like?
It was the opportunity of a lifetime. I mean, to quote the show, I just kind of wanted to be in the room where it was happening.
I thought it was interesting too that your character in "Mindhunter" is a straight man who has a really passionate sex life with his girlfriend. And I think it represents a time in Hollywood where it doesn't matter what the actor's orientation is, that anybody straight or gay can play anybody straight or gay. Was that important to you?
Yes. I feel really lucky to be a gay actor living in 2017 because ... when you start rehearsing for a show, inevitably, you start talking about your personal life and you are in rehearsal with the actors and the directors talking about sex, especially when sex is such a huge part of the character's evolution and journey. You do bring your own stories and experience to it. And I did this show called "Looking" on HBO, where it was about a group of gay friends living in San Francisco. And I played a gay character and I had lovers in this show. The actors playing my lovers were both straight and gay. And so it was the inverse. And so that was a revelation to me because some of the straight actors playing gay were more believable than the gay actors playing gay. And it ends up becoming about intimacy and chemistry between two people regardless of their sexuality.
To listen to John Horn's interview with Jonathan Groff, click on the player above.