Jonathan Groff: Rock Hudson for the 21st century
Six years ago he was working as a waiter. Now, thanks to breakthrough roles on Broadway and on television, he's about to make his West End debut
Sunday 22 August 2010
Jonathan Groff, the star of Glee, might have swapped the bleachers of William McKinley High School for a West End theatre, but one wouldn't know it to look at him.
His all-American style – tight T-shirt, trainers, blindingly white teeth – perfect for the award-winning TV show, appears at odds with the fusty drapes and swags of the Noël Coward Theatre, where previews of his new play, Deathtrap, begin this week.
As an fan of the hit US import, I half expect Groff – whose name is usually prefixed with the words "hunk" or "heart-throb" – to break into song, or at the very least punctuate his sentences with jazz hands, but he is more muted than the limelight-loving character for which he is best known. While the 25-year-old has been working on Broadway for some time, it was his appearance in the enormously popular TV show about a fictional high-school glee club, New Directions, which has brought him international success, and much controversy.
Groff has the good looks of Hollywood's golden age actors. Although he bears more than a passing resemblance to James Dean, which will do little to hurt his career, it is a comparison to another star, Rock Hudson, that has attracted the most attention. When a Newsweek magazine journalist criticised the performance of Groff, who is gay, as Jesse St James in Glee, in an article that also questioned the ability of gay actors to play straight characters, a furore was ignited.
The journalist wrote: "There's something about his performance that feels off ... he seems more like your average theater queen, a better romantic match for Kurt than for Rachel." This prompted a massive backlash.
While Glee's creator, Ryan Murphy, called for a boycott of the magazine, and guest star Kristin Chenoweth condemned the article as "horrendously homophobic", Groff appears much more relaxed. "It's just one of those things," he says. "You just have to take it like any good or bad review, and try to let it roll off your back. I've played all kinds of characters, with all kinds of sexuality, and I hope to go on doing that."
However, he doesn't believe the article was homophobic, and compares it to a scathing review of an actor's unconvincing accent. "It's all pretty much the same. People will say, 'so-and-so can't play this role because of this or that'," he muses. Sitting in the Royal Retirement room at the theatre, Groff seems positively Zen. "As an actor, it is great if you can leave your personal life at the door, but it is inevitable that the public is going to come to know more about you."
Groff doesn't want to be defined by his sexuality, but all his key roles to date have revolved around sex: from chronicling a young man's sexual development in Spring Awakening, his breakthrough role on Broadway, the controversy over his performance in Glee, to the relationship between his character and that of his co-star, Simon Russell Beale, in Deathtrap.
In the comedy-thriller, he plays Clifford, a talented writer who befriends the bestselling novelist and playwright Sidney Bruhl, played by Russell Beale. When he turns up at Bruhl's home with a thriller better than anything Bruhl has written, a tale of murder, conspiracy and sexual intrigue unfolds.
"I was totally fascinated by the dynamic between the two men, but I don't want to give too much away," he explains. "The character seems to be one thing at one moment, then changes to be another. He seems playful, then innocent, then evil."
The question arises over whether or not Groff can pull off the same trick himself, avoiding being typecast and making the difficult transition from teen star to serious stage and Hollywood roles. Audiences who don't catch his performance in Deathtrap won't have to wait too long to find out. Scheduled for release later this year is The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford, in which Groff appears alongside Robin Wright and James McAvoy. Groff plays Louis Weichmann, a chief prosecution witness in the 1865 trial of eight people accused of conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
As his fame grows, so does the difficulty of separating his personal life from his work. Groff is regularly accosted by fans – known as "Gleeks" – but considers he has escaped lightly.
"For the first time in my life, people recognise me in the street, but it is not like the paparazzi are following me, so it is sort of nice," he says. Groff seems unable to believe his luck. He cheerfully explains that just six years ago he was working as a waiter while getting up at 4am to queue for open auditions: "For every job I did get, there were 100 I didn't. The
rejection is pretty intense, so you have to have faith in yourself."
While he wanted to be an actor from a young age, life in New York was a far cry from his conservative upbringing in rural Pennsylvania. His grandfather was a Mennonite preacher – which Groff describes as "like a watered-down version of the Amish. They wear very plain clothes, and my grandma covered her head, but they drive cars. They are super-conservative" – while his mother is a Methodist.
"I'm from Lancaster County, and it was basically a cornfield, my house, and another cornfield. It was romantic but not especially nice," he says.
His father trained horses for harness-racing and his mother taught PE at a local school. But despite the conservative nature of their community, neither his decision to be an actor nor his homosexuality fazed them, he says. Both are flying to London to see his performance in Deathtrap – the first time his 57-year-old father has left the US.
"When I wanted to be an actor, my dad understood it, as he has his passion for horses," he says. "And the interesting thing about coming out is that everyone in their life – gay or straight – in a way comes out. Like debutantes, they have a coming out, saying, 'Look, this is who I am'."
They were in the audience for his Broadway debut, which he cheerfully describes as "a complete flop".
His uncertainty is acute when talking about Deathtrap, in what will be the first London revival of the show since the original 1978 production. "I'm contracted here until January, touch wood," he says shifting nervously. "Let's hope it goes well."
Written by Ira Levin – who also wrote The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby – the original play also went on to wow Broadway before Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve starred in a film version.
Although Groff is concerned about acting alongside Russell Beale, his Broadway experience will no doubt stand him in good stead. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his role in the hit musical Spring Awakening, an adaptation of the 1891 Frank Wedekind play of the same name set to rock music, while the director Matthew Warchus reportedly described the actor's audition for Deathtrap as "one of the best readings I've heard in my life".
No pressure there, then.
1985: Born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to horse trainer Jim and Julie, a PE teacher.
2003: Graduates from the Conestoga Valley High School and moves to New York.
2006: Stars on Broadway in Spring Awakening. Nominated for a Tony Award, alongside fellow Glee actor Lea Michele.
2008: Plays Claude in a Central Park production of the hit musical Hair. Appears in an Off-Broadway production of Prayer for My Enemy, about the impact of the Iraq war on a US family.
2009: Makes his film debut in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, playing Michael Lang, the creator of the music festival. And, as part of a Shakespeare in the Park series in New York, appears as Dionysus in The Bacchae.
2010: Appears in the TV show Glee as Jesse St James, the lead singer of a rival glee club, Vocal Adrenaline. Stars in Deathtrap, a comedy thriller by Ira Lewin, at the Noël Coward Theatre. Appears in an independent film, Twelve-Thirty, alongside Meryl Streep's daughter, Mamie Gummer. Directed by Robert Redford in The Conspirator, about Abraham Lincoln's assassination, scheduled for release later this year.
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