Naked Ambition: Jonathan Groff

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Jonathan Groff, who broke hearts in both Spring Awakening and Hair (the Central Park version), has, for the moment, ditched musicals for plays—specifically those by Craig Lucas, who has cast Groff at the center of two: last fall’s Prayer for My Enemy and the Public Theater’s current production of The Singing Forest. In the latter, Groff plays two characters: Gray, a contemporary young actor, and Walter, a gay man in Vienna just before the Holocaust. Groff, 24, talked to Rebecca Milzoff.

How did you meet Lucas?
I started as a fan: I saw The Light in the Piazza three times. And then I did a one-day reading of Prayer for My Enemy, and we hit it off. His writing is really … hard. I was talking to a cast member about how you have these little veils that are lifted every day, like revelations about what the lines mean. You can’t ever not be present in one single moment because the writing is so unexpected—it jumps from one thing to the next without necessarily a specific train of thought. If you ever hiccup for a moment, it can totally slip out from beneath you, and you’re standing there thinking, I have no idea what I’m doing right now.

I know you were disappointed that you had to keep your clothes on in Hair. With the character of Gray, you get your chance to strip.
I showed my ass in Spring Awakening, but I’ve never taken off all my clothes. It’s liberating! I went out there on a leap of faith that the towel was gonna hold up. The first time didn’t go well, but I’ve found little tricks to keep it up.

So to speak. What’s next?
I play Michael Lang in Ang Lee’s film Taking Woodstock, and I get to wear this insane wig! Lang was the main mover and shaker of Woodstock, and he was 24 years old, which is mind-boggling to me. He’s like a guru to a lot of people and known for having a pleasant smile on his face, no matter how tough the going got.

How did Lee find you?
I rented the documentary and saw Michael smoking and riding a motorcycle and was, like, This guy is way too cool for me to play. But I sent an audition tape anyway. Several days later, I was at home in Lancaster [Pennsylvania], singing songs from The Sound of Music at an old-people’s home or something. My mom was joking with me: “You’ve really hit the big time now—from Broadway to … the medical center in Harrisburg!” And I got in the car, checked my messages, and my agent said, “You just got your first movie, and it’s with Ang Lee.”

The Singing Forest
The Public Theater.
Through May 17

Naked Ambition: Jonathan Groff