About a year ago, Jonathan Groff made a promise to himself. Well, two, actually.
“The first was to stop drinking Diet Coke because, I kid you not, I used to drink five or six a day. I was addicted,” he admits. “And I decided to stop looking at myself on the Internet.”
The actor first caught the public’s eye for his Tony Award–nominated performance in the 2006 Broadway musical Spring Awakening, then quickly became one of TV’s dreamiest tenors when he snagged the role of Jesse St. James on Fox’s smash hit Glee. Still, trolling the web for news about himself wasn’t doing much for his confidence. “Your ego wants to see, of course, but I was looking at myself online — with a Diet Coke in hand, I’m sure — and thought, You know what? This is doing me no good.” He quit both immediately.
It’s safe to assume that Groff has little time for cyber-narcissism these days. He spent this past summer juggling two back-to-back projects, wrapping his role opposite Kelsey Grammer in the sophomore season of the STARZ series Boss in Chicago before jetting to L.A. for a limited engagement in the play Red. In fact, the only free moment he had to chat was while weaving through traffic, en route to rehearsal for the production.
Groff is the newbie on a team that has worked on two previous runs of the acclaimed drama; first on London’s West End in 2009 and then on Broadway in 2010, in a version that starred Eddie Redmayne. “You have reverence and respect for the history that’s there, but also feel free to bring your own thing to it,” he says. The two-person show, which centers on the fictional relationship between artist Mark Rothko and his assistant, has Groff going tête-à-tête with cinema vet Alfred Molina for 90 minutes.
Though he admits the project is exhausting, he’s glad to have returned to his theatrical roots. “It’s incredibly complex and intense,” he says. “We’re painting a huge canvas onstage. But it’s a dream job.”
He’ll have a similar face-off in Boss as Ian Todd, adviser to Grammer’s Chicago mayor, Tom Kane. “He’s this young, super-ambitious, smart guy, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get ahead,” Groff says of his character, before adding that he’s harboring “a gigantic secret.” He likens Ian to Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, a confidant whose intentions are far from pure, or even clear. Groff won’t divulge any spoilers but admits that Todd would “sleep with anyone — men or women — to advance in the political world. His sexuality comes from a place of power.”
Groff, however, has long been transparent about his sexuality. He came out early in his career at a march for gay rights in Washington, D.C., when a reporter asked him why he was there. “I just told her,” he says. “I sort of always knew, in the back of my mind, that when the moment arrived for me to come out, I would. I wasn’t yanked out of the closet.” Groff was singled out, along with Sean Hayes, in a much criticized 2010 Newsweek article questioning the merits of gay actors playing straight, but his nonchalance on the subject points to a grounded, what-of-it mentality.
“When I came out, people said it may have a negative effect on my career, and that’s definitely something I thought about before I did it,” he admits. “But I don’t hold that belief. I just go on my auditions and plug away as I normally would. At the end of my career, I can look back and ask, ‘Well, did it, or didn’t it?’ But at the moment, I just have to move forward and hope that people will follow my actions.”
Mario Van Peebles, who directs Groff in Boss, commends his decision, saying, “Jonathan is part of a new breed of actor who says, ‘I am who I am’ — someone who is smart, talented, sexy, and happens to be out.” Michael Grandage, who directed Groff in Red, agrees. “Most people are defined by their sexuality, so hiding it would be anathema to any sane person who wants to express themselves creatively,” he says. “He’s leading a new generation of actors who approach everything they do with freedom and honesty. I admire his ability to cut through the crap.”
Though he splits his time between New York and Los Angeles, Groff has planted himself firmly on the West Coast for the run of Red. His favorite haunt is not a trendy bar or hip restaurant but a public pool, the name of which he won’t reveal. “It’s such a well-kept secret,” he says. His mother was a gym teacher, and swimming is part of his fitness routine, but Groff bemoans his strict diet while filming Boss. “You’re meant to eat deep-dish pizza in Chicago, and I mostly eat chicken or broccoli or eggs,” he says. But he has a valid excuse for the self-deprivation. “I mean, the show is on STARZ, so I definitely get naked at some point.”
Boss’s second season premieres August 17. Red runs through September 9 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.