Girl Talk: Chatting Up HBO ‘Looking’ Star Jonathan Groff

Jonathan Groff plays Patrick in the new HBO gay dramedy, "Looking."

Jonathan Groff plays Patrick in the new HBO gay dramedy, “Looking.”

In writing, Jonathan Groff sounds like the celebrity version of your average too-good-to-be-true OkCupid profile: He’s young (28!), nerd-cute, passionate, well-kept, fit (have you seen that Out photo?), a nonstarter on the tabloid front and is, tonally, refreshingly upbeat. He’s the guy you proudly trot around the Christmas-party circuit and smugly show off to the folks while on holiday.

And thankfully, this is one celeb who, in conversation, matches the pristine profile word for word.

Tomorrow, Jonathan Groff (who, fun fact, derives from Lancaster) will make his premium-cable debut in HBO’s San Francisco-set Looking — what has been dubbed by many as the gay version of Girls. (Though, of note, the network made it a point to avoid making it a mere carbon copy of Diva Dunham’s cult-following hit – hence why it’s not called Gays.) I caught up with Jonathan this week to chat a bit about what to expect in the pilot, how Grindr plays into the show (sadly, he wouldn’t tell me if he uses the app), how Looking is of a different breed than the ever-beloved Queer As Folk and – of course – whether he’s got a boyfriend. (Don’t lie: You want to know.)

G Philly: It’s been said that this isn’t supposed to be about 20-somethings, and it’s more about people in their 30s and 40s. What’s the thinking there?

Jonathan Groff: Exactly. It’s not a coming-out story; it’s not people moving to a new city. Like, with Girls, it’s about people who are starting out their lives as young adults, and these are guys who have settled into their lives and are trying to figure out their place in the world, and trying to look at their lives and continue growing and developing as adults.

GP: I’m assuming the name of the show is a nod to Grindr lingo?

JG: What’s interesting, is that the title is partially that — a tongue-in-cheek reference to Grindr. But then it’s also … the great thing about the generic title of Looking, is that you can put whatever you want on it. But the main reason it’s called Looking is that these characters are looking at their lives and relationships and trying to deepen and better them.

GP: Is Grindr represented in the show?

JG: Yes, it is. In the second episode. One of the characters in the second episode, you see it when he’s about to hook up with someone. But what’s interesting about all the sex in the show, even the anonymous sex, is that it’s very … you see the repercussions of it as well. When they were making the show, there was no requirement for sex or any lack of sex — it was all very character- and story-driven.

GP: Well, sex plays into it a little bit, though. Isn’t the very first scene a handjob?

JG: Yes! It’s Patrick running through the woods to try and get a handjob, and it’s a great kind of reflection of where the character is. It’s very obvious this guy has never done it before and he’s stepped out on a limb to be more promiscuous, and I think that conversation is also universal because certainly there are straight men and straight women who have come from a relationship place where, after a certain amount of relationships, start thinking, Well, maybe I should play the field more? Maybe I should put myself out there? Maybe I should investigate what it feels like to have an anonymous hookup? That’s very synonymous with the gay community, but I think straight people can relate to that, too.

GP: Are you sick yet of hearing the Girls and Queer As Folk comparisons?”

JG: [Laughs] Not really. I mean, I love that, it’s like, they’re saying it’s the gay Girls and the gay Sex and the City, and I love those shows, so it’s kind of an honor to be compared to them before anyone’s even seen it. And there might be some audience crossover, so if people like those shows, they might like our show. But it’s very different in style and lighting, and it’s sort of its own thing. So I think when people start watching it and get a couple episodes in, they’ll realize how different it is from those shows and ultimately fall in love with it for what it is.

GP: From what I can tell, it seems like the shtick with Looking is that it’s self-aware, and not forcing one narrative over another. It’s not trying to be too “gay” in the mainstream sense of the word, in how people in general might view the gay community. Fair?

JG: I think that, when we were making this show over the last couple months, there was never any talk of, “Is this gay enough? Should this be gayer? What does this represent in the larger sense of the gay world?” We never had those big conversations. We talked mostly about character development, and relationships and motivations in scenes, and we treated the show as if we were making a story about a group of friends in San Francisco who just happen to be gay. The focus was way more on the storytelling and the characters than it was on any particular “gay” aspect.

GP: Do you think you could plant the storyline for these characters in a city like Philadelphia? Would they still have the same storyline, or is there something particular about San Fran that makes it a necessary setting?

JG: The storyline is in some ways universal, so people who don’t even live in cities can relate to it. But certainly the tone and vibe of the show is very specific to the San Francisco experience; we shot the entire thing on-location, so every time you see a street corner, or a bar, or a park, it’s really the real thing in San Francisco. It’s like another character – if not the main character – in our show. … Visually, it’s very San Francisco specific.

GP: Do you personally relate to these characters? Do you feel like you’re doing much acting with Patrick – maybe it all feels a little too real?

JG: I think the thing I connect most with in Patrick is friendships. … I have really good friends in my life, so that’s the thing with Patrick I relate to the most. Patrick is very, he’s got a huge blindspot in his life, and he hopefully, throughout the first season and even throughout the series, will gain a little more self-awareness. But when you first meet him he’s really just starting to figure out who he is and where he’s at in his life, and I feel like we’ve all been there. And I hope I’m a little more self-aware than Patrick is.

GP: Do you feel like we’re at a point now where maybe America, at large, has reached a comfort zone where the audience for a show like this can stretch beyond LGBT folks? Queer As Folk always felt like a gay show for gay men.

JG: We’ll see. I hope so. Time will tell as people watch the first season. Our pickup for the second season will be based on that, in some ways. And I really hope that we have reached a time where certain people can watch the show and relate to it, and I think personally because the show isn’t about people learning to deal with their sexuality – instead, dealing with their lives — the show instantly becomes relatable for people who aren’t gay. But we’ll see how many people tune in and watch it and connect to it.

GP: Do you feel any pressure to behave one way or another as an openly gay guy who’s more recognizable?

JG: I don’t really think about that. A couple years ago I made a promise to never look at myself on the Internet again, so I don’t really look at myself online or on Twitter or Facebook, partially for that reason. I keep a distance from that as much as I possibly can.

GP: So, what‘s it like working with Lea Michele?

JG: We’re very close. We met during Spring Awakening and then got to be on Glee together, and it’s great. It’s great to be in this sort of world when work is so unreliable you’re always working with a different group in a different location and you don’t know where your next job is coming from, and it’s nice to have some continuity in your everyday life. And Lea and I certainly have that.

GP: Where do you escape to in L.A. or New York?

JG: My favorite form of unwinding or therapy is always going to the gym. My mom is a gym teacher back in Pennsylvania, and so from a very early age, my brother and I became runners, and I worked out every day. It keeps me sane. I love it so much.

GP: Any new boyfriends you wanna tell me about before I go?

JG: [Laughs] No!

Looking premieres Sunday, Jan. 19 at 10:30 p.m. (EST) on HBO.