Jonathan Groff and the American Dream


Picking apples, Jonathan Groff assures us, is harder than it looks. “It’s dirty, hard, manual labor,” he laughs over the phone. In Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s C.O.G., Groff plays David, a young, fairly insufferable Yale grad who decides to throw himself into the American working class: first as an apple picker, then at an apple factory. Needless to say, the experience doesn’t quite live up to David’s Steinbeck fantasy, nor do the oddball characters (played by Corey Stoll and Denis O’Hare) he meets along the way.

A veteran theater actor—Groff famously starred in the original cast of Spring Awakening opposite his future Glee castmate Lea Michele—C.O.G. is Groff’s first leading film role. It is also the first adaptation of one of David Sedaris’ short stories. “It’s one of his more obscure stories,” explains Groff. “It’s one of the only stories where none of his family members are in it.”

EMMA BROWN: I like that your character only sits in the aisle seats of the bus.

JONATHAN GROFF: [laughs] That’s not true! That’s so not true.

BROWN: It is.

GROFF: In the opening scene, my head is against the window.

BROWN: But from then on, he only sits in the aisle seats. Even when there’s no one next to him.

GROFF: He just likes the aisle. But there’s a whole other scene where I’m trying to fall asleep on the window and trying to fall down, and then there’s the scene where I’m trying to drink NyQuil and I’m sitting in the very back of the bus.

BROWN: Yeah, but when you’re sitting in the very back seat of the bus, you are not sitting next to the window. There is a seat between you and the window.

GROFF: That’s true… Emma, you better watch it again, I’m not an aisle-seater.

BROWN: [laughs] Were you a fan of David Sedaris before you got the part?

GROFF: I read Naked (1997) before and I had seen him do some on David Letterman, when he would come out and read his stories. I wasn’t a superfan, I didn’t have all the books, but I was sort of a general fan of him and his writing. I think he’s so hilarious. When I first was sent the script I read it and called my agent immediately and said, “I think this looks really interesting, and it’s going to be a great movie, but I’m not going to be in it.” I just kept seeing David Sedaris in the role, and I thought, I don’t talk like him, I don’t look like him—I’m not him. And then the director [Kyle Patrick Alvarez] contacted my agent and said that’s the whole point, we want to make this a David Sedaris movie, but we don’t want it to be a direct impression of him. We want to tell the story with an actor that is playing a part as opposed to being David Sedaris.

BROWN: Did you feel closer to David Sedaris by the end of the film?

GROFF: I did not. I could hear his voice in my head as I was preparing, and I was tempted to go online and watch him give performances, but then I just kept myself from doing it. Kyle really wanted to make a movie that could stand on its own that, even if you weren’t a fan of David Sedaris, you could watch it and you could appreciate it as an independent film. So I thought, Okay, let me just approach this character as a brand-new character. Maybe subconsciously have a little David Sedaris in the back of my head as I’m doing it, but really focus on this character as written in the story and try and create him based on the people I liked working with, the sort of environment we were in, and the material we liked working with.

That was my first experience being on set every single day. I’d never had that before. I’d had a couple of movies and TV shows where I’d come in and work for a couple of days and then have a day or two off. That was really awesome and sort of broke me down as an actor; it changed the way I approach film and television work. It was really an amazing experience.

BROWN: Did you ever have moments where you thought, “No, not again, I don’t want to go to work”?

GROFF: No, quite the opposite actually. I think because there’s so much downtime as actors when you’re not working, and there’s nothing happening, so I really seized the opportunity to be there all day every day. It’s honestly what I always dreamt of. And I come from a world of theater originally where you do something eight times a week. I did Spring Awakening on Broadway for about three years, and I did over 500 performances. When you get to really involve yourself with a piece and the other people and you get to feel like it’s a community and you’re all building something together, it helps me to produce better work, I think. And there’s an exhaustion that happens on a film set—an exhaustion that translates into a relaxation and helps me to live in the moment, in the performance I’m giving and what’s happening around me.

BROWN: When you finish such an intense role, does it take a couple of weeks for the character’s thoughts to get out of your system?

GROFF: I sort of have the belief that you work it out while you’re working on it, or that’s been my experience so far. I throw myself into it 100% and try to live in that world, and then when it’s over, just sort of be able to leave it behind. Maybe someday I’ll have a job where it haunts me or it’s hard to move on.

BROWN: What do you think your character hopes to get out of his journey and time among the “working class”?

GROFF: At the end of the day, the end of the movie is sort of ambiguous—it’s whatever you want it to be. Normally the story goes small-town kid goes to the big city and gets his ass kicked, but this time it’s kind of the reverse: well-educated, well-off young man shows up in a small town, and I think they really throw him for a loop. And I think hopefully humble him.

It’s a weird combo because on one hand he’s incredibly naïve, and on the other hand he’s incredibly jaded. He feels like he’s got it all figured out, so there’s unlikeable, know-it-all asshole aspect to him when he starts out. As an audience member, we think he’s naive, but I don’t think he thinks that he’s naive in any way—he thinks he knows exactly what he’s doing. David Sedaris came to Sundance, he was there when we premiered the film, and one of the first things he said after was something along the lines of, “I can’t believe I was such an asshole.”

BROWN: [laughs]

GROFF: “It was such a reminder of what an asshole I was.” I can relate to it from when I first moved to New York when I was 19—I didn’t go to college, but I moved to New York pretty much right after high school and was like “I got this,” such confidence in youth. And then you have experiences and then reality kicks in and it ends up being sort of different.

BROWN: It must have been very nerve-wracking having David Sedaris watching you play a version of David Sedaris.

GROFF: Oh my gosh, the whole experience of Sundance was incredible. I had never really been there before, and I was so proud and excited and it was a wonderful time. Doing the press was fun, and I’m obsessed with the director Kyle Michael Alvarez and the other members of the cast. But the experience of watching the movie, knowing David Sedaris was one row away, was horrifying. I was almost having a panic attack in the audience, it was so painful. You want him to like it, and you want everybody to like it. In a play, you can adjust your performance to audience reaction, but in a film it’s like you’re trapped in a bad dream watching yourself act and you’re in the audience. It was a very stressful situation. But I made it through and I felt proud of it at the end of the day.

BROWN: Did you have someone check that David Sedaris liked the film before you went up to him afterward the premiere so that you could run and hide if he didn’t?

GROFF: No, it was a weird thing because the movie ended, and everyone was brought onstage for a Q & A. So before I could talk to him, it was like, “Everyone come up here!” So we all walked to the front of the theater and he told the audience what he thought of the movie before any of us had talked to him personally. It was really bizarre. But he was really sweet and supportive and great. I gained even more respect for him, if that’s possible, after that experience. He let Kyle develop the movie and he really had nothing to do with it. I mean occasionally we would send him a picture and he would ask how it was going, but he was not onset or anything; it was completely Kyle’s creation. So he didn’t have to show up to Sundance and take pictures and do interviews and see the movie, and it was all out of the kindness of his heart. And not only did he show up but he was incredibly generous and easy to talk to and really funny—he was obsessed with talking to my mom. She’s a teacher from Pennsylvania, so I think he got a kick out of her.

BROWN: I want to talk more about David’s naïveté. In the scene at the house of Curley, Corey Stoll’s character, Curley says, “I have a surprise for you, it’s in my bedroom.” You’d think that someone who comes from Connecticut or New York wouldn’t go into a stranger’s bedroom when they say they have a surprise for you…

GROFF: [laughs] We rewrote that scene as we were shooting it—the scene with Curley. Not the dildo scene, but the scene right before that. There was sort of a chemistry between Corey Stoll and I, and we were talking about that—why would somebody go into their back room if this person was weird? If this person seems crazy, if this person seemed unsafe? It was hard to imagine why David would go back there with him, so we rewrote that scene before to be a little more flirtatious and be a little more sexy, and I think that David thinks that the surprise is going to be, you know, it could be him with his pants down, it could be suddenly he’s totally naked, it could be a million different things, I think, a lot more innocent than a giant room full of dildos.

BROWN: Yeah. That’s quite frightening for anyone.

GROFF: [laughs] Frightening it is. I took so many pictures of them, and lots of pictures of me and Corey posing next to the dildos, because we thought they were so hilarious.

BROWN: Corey’s really having a moment—he’s so great in House of Cards, but that hadn’t come out when you were filming. Did you know anything about him?

GROFF: I had seen him in Midnight in Paris, and we’re both sort of from the New York theater community, so I had known of him but I had never worked with him before. I think he’s such a wonderful actor, and my love and adoration for him deepened once we got to work together on set. He’s just really fun and someone you want to be in the trenches with. Shooting an independent film, and one that’s very low-budget, there were no trailers but there was one sort of half trailer, and we all had to be in it together. It’s like guerilla film. We’ve stayed friends since making the movie and we had a really, really good time together.

BROWN: Denis O’Hare is also a big presence in the New York theater world.

GROFF: Yeah, Denis O’Hare, man. I’ve seen him onstage so many times in New York. We’d done a day on The Good Wife together—he recurs as a judge on The Good Wife—and I met him doing that, and there’s such reverence for him on set. He’s such a living legend in New York. During the first week of shooting, we had started shooting already and his role still wasn’t cast. Kyle started to cry when he found out that Denis O’Hare was going to do it, because he’s just like the ultimate person. We were so excited that he was going to do it. Denis is maybe the best actor I’ve ever worked with. I’ve never had an experience with anyone on set like I have with him. He does something different on every take. Kyle had to pick from a million different versions of John, the character that Denis plays. Also—I feel like I’m a broken record—a great guy. I just want to be Denis when I grow up, as a person and a performer.

BROWN: What was the best advice he gave you?

GROFF: One of the great things he’s said that I’ve taken with me is, in theater, you’re in charge of your performance, and at the end of the day you’re the one who gets credit because you’re in front of the audience doing it, and in film and TV it’s the director who gets to decide when to cut to you on a line, which take he uses. Denis was just so free on set doing so many different things. And I said, “Don’t you want to control what you’re putting out there?” And he said, “Well, Jonathan, we really have no control. So it’s better just to follow your impulses and give them a bunch of choices and sort of let the director take you there.”