Actor Jonathan Groff has already enjoyed a huge degree of respect and recognition for his previous roles in theatre (Hamilton and Spring Awakening), on TV (Looking and Glee) and also in film with the hugely successful Frozen. Lately however he has found a whole new audience, who are singing his praises for his outstanding performance as Holden Ford on Mindhunter. In my extended interview with Jonathan we talk about his early years, his first roles, working on Mindhunter, his thoughts on David Fincher’s directing technique and so much more.
PC: So how are you?
JG: I’m doing well. I’m in Pittsburgh.
PC: I’m in Edinburgh: have you been?
JG: I’ve never been.
PC: Well you must put right that wrong.
JG: I know and there’s that famous theatre festival there.
PC: Yes and it starts in about a month; actually it’s the worst time to come to the city: it’s jam-packed then.
JG: I have friends that have been over there during that time and they loved it there.
PC: It is really good because it opens the city up much more. We are getting a lot more cosmopolitan, in that the cafés and venues are open much later.
JG: And are you liking that or is it taking away its charm?
PC: I like it because it’s similar to when you visit other parts of Europe where you can be sitting outside at a cafe at 10 p.m. – guaranteed we don’t always get the weather. Especially on a Sunday, I don’t know about America but Sundays could be quite boring when I was a kid: there was nothing open, nothing to do. So yeah, I like it where it’s going.
PC: What about yourself: what kind of town is Pittsburgh?
JG: Well Pittsburgh is interesting, kind of like what you are saying about Edinburgh: where it has been becoming more cosmopolitan, probably in the last decade or so; it’s sort of like Hipster Land now. It was a kind of big, industrial town and then it crashed and now there’s cool coffee shops and bike stores. There are actually really incredible restaurants! My friend actually has a place in New York called Caselulla, it’s on 52nd and 10th, (it opened when I was doing Spring Awakening back in 2007) and they opened a sister location in Pittsburgh. So there are people from all over the culinary world coming and taking up space there, which is interesting.
PC: In the past British food was slated for being bad but it’s turning around nowadays, which is great. Having said that some food in these fancy places I’m like, ‘What even was that?’ (Both laugh)
I always like to begin an interview talking about the person’s name. I’ve read your middle is Drew: does that have any special reasons as to why your parents chose that or did they just like it?
JG: My mom wanted my first name to be Drew after her older brother. He just passed away a couple of years ago but yes, his name was Drew. My brother’s name is David; he’s my older brother. I think there’s Jonathan and David in the Bible, who were very close friends, and I think my mom and dad liked the name Jonathan and they associated it with the name David because of that.
PC: You were born in Pennsylvania: what was it like growing up at the time you were aged around 8 -10 years old? What kind of boy were you at that age?
JG: Life was good. My dad trains horses for a living in Lancaster PA. We didn’t live on a horse farm – our house was separate from the horse farm – but in the summer I spent a lot of time with my brother and our friends running around this kind of giant, grassy field on our farm. There was a corn crib there – a giant structure you put corn cobs in after you get them out of the field – that was always empty over the summer and we would climb and play in that. There were lots of little barns we would play in and horse stalls. The first play I ever did was when I was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in my dad’s barn: we sold tickets to our parents; we have video footage of people coming to the show. It was very kind of creative and ‘country’.
PC: Is that because you had to make your own fun, because you didn’t have access to museums, art galleries etc?
JG: Yes definitely. I mean, once we got a Nintendo in the late ‘80s that definitely took up a lot of time as well. For better or for worse my brother and I spent a lot of time on the Nintendo, but my mom and dad were very athletic and cool, and they really liked the outdoors, so my mom was always trying to get us out of the house and get us playing outside – took us on bike rides. We were outside a lot: for which I’m really grateful. I feel grateful that there really was a nice situation for us growing up because there was this horse farm, but there were fences all around it, so it wasn’t like we were just in the middle of nowhere. Our parents were always up on the top of the hill and we would go acres away and play: so it was a great balance of having independence, but not really. We could go off on our own but our parents were always aware of where we were, they didn’t always have their eye on us but it was a nice balance.
My mom grew up in a small town called Strasburg in Pennsylvania where she’d climb out of her back window and run through the streets and play. She tells all these stories about meeting her friends at the pool – just stuff you would never do now because it would be so dangerous for kids to roam the streets at 5, 6 & 7 but she grew up in a town where there was this level of freedom and independence that would just be impossible today, because now it’s way more populated.
PC: And also because people now often say they don’t even know who their next door neighbour is. In those days, where I grew up in England, it was really rough and there were some very unsavoury people but on the flip side there were more good people than bad, who looked out for each other and their families, so we could play out all day. Certainly where I live now we know our neighbours but I’ve heard lots of people say they don’t know theirs. When you have kids it is a fine balance: it can be a big bad world out there never mind what we see on Mindhunter…
PC: Did you have a nickname in school?
JG: I did not. I used to hate it in elementary school when people called me Jonny; I don’t know why I didn’t like that nickname.
PC: I suppose it would be just like Groffy or something, if you can add a ‘y’ to a name people do tend to do that.
JG: Yes, I have way more people now call me J Groffy, they call me JG, so I have lots of nicknames now but I didn’t have any in high school. In middle school which is 7-8th grade here (you know 10-12 years old) I was very obsessed with being cool and having the right clothes and going to school dances and hanging out with the ‘cool’ kids. I was very obsessed with the social ladder at age 11 & 12. And then, once I did the 8th grade play – which I guess I was maybe 12 or 13 at that time – I just found my love for theatre and then I didn’t care at all where I fit in the social scene.
PC: Really? Because you do look like the type who was in with the ‘cool’ kids.
JG: All of that kind of need and headspace that was taken up thinking of trying to be cool or whatever, was gone almost in a blink of an eye. As soon as I did the play it was like ‘boof’ and it was gone – all I cared about was theatre. Then there are these two great theatres in my hometown: one is called the Fulton Opera House, which is a regional theatre where they would have actors from New York come down and perform in the plays; and then there’s another theatre called the Ephrata Performing Arts Center, which is a community theatre which would hire local actors. So once I was 13-14-15-16-17-18 I spent all my free time after school working at those theatres, whether that was playing parts or being in ensembles in the musicals or working with as backstage crew. I just became obsessed with theatre and acting and then that’s all I did, all I could be about, throughout high school. I had friends in high school and I would do the high school plays and stuff but I spent all of my social time at these theatres – I had a handful of friends at high school that I connected with but I wasn’t quite as involved – I was always thinking about theatre outside of school.
PC: You were always going to be an actor it seems, weren’t you?
JG: Yeah I thought I wanted to be an actor when I was in the barn playing Dorothy at 4 or 5 years old but then, once that 8th grade play happened, and I started meeting people in the community that were from New York who made their lives being actors, that’s when I really became keen on the idea of pursuing that.
PC: What was it that drew you? I mean: are you sort of the sort of person that likes to be in the spotlight, did you like the confidence it gave you or the closeness you feel with people when you are in a play? I was an amateur stagehand at one point and there was always a feeling of being lost after a play run finished.
JG: For me, the desire to act always comes from a place of play, imagination and daydreaming and play, and all of that is really where that joy comes from, and it just has really always turned me on. You know everybody acts for different reasons: people act from a place of pain, expression – a sort of exorcism of that – but for me it’s always come from a very joyful place and a sort of place of imagination. I think there was a part of me… you know I was not out of the closet when I was in high school and I wasn’t living fully a gay life until I was 19 – that was the first time I was ever with anyone sexually and then I didn’t come out of the closet until I was 23 – so I also think there was an element of escapism in acting that probably helped me express myself when I was sort of not expressing myself, in retrospect. I think that was there definitely an element of it but even now (even with Mindhunter) I so enjoy playing ‘pretend’.
PC: I have spoken to a lot of actors who have said that acting is an escape for them: whether that’s from a terrible childhood or whose parents have said, ‘Acting is the last thing we want you to do.’
JG: My parents actually – when I was thinking of going to college and wanting to major in theatre – they encouraged me to not major in theatre, but to move to New York instead and just pursue acting. They said, ‘You know you love it and you have so much experience in community theatre and whatever, why not just go to New York instead of paying 40 thousand dollars to train in acting?’
PC: Yes. I interviewed an actor who has been in a couple of Quentin Tarantino productions and Quentin Tarantino said the same thing to him, ‘Don’t bother going to acting classes, just act wherever that may be and watch two films everyday.’ That worked out great for him.
JG: For me experience has always been the best learning tool and if you are lucky enough to be able to get experience… I’ve always learnt on the job, that’s always been the best way for me. Jumping in and trying it, and getting to work with different people and different directors and different actors and different musicians – and taking stuff from all of those experiences.
My parents, even though they are not at all in the arts, somehow instinctually knew that, aside from the fact they didn’t want to help me pay for college, (laughs) they really supported me: they knew it’s what I loved. My dad trains and races horses for a living and my mom was a physical education teacher, they centralised on things they were really passionate about. So when I said I wanted to be an actor – even though they didn’t know a lot about acting, the passion that I felt for that – I think they recognised that so they were very supportive in my pursuit of that as a career.
PC: It’s like what Holt [McCallany] said in his interview with me. Obviously his parents were in the business, but he said when he and his brother got to university level his mother said, ‘I will pay for you to study anywhere you want.’ She was that supportive – and of course he ended up in France. Amazing to have that kind of support.
JG: Yes it’s amazing! Holt and I have that in common actually. He was very close with his mother. It’s so funny because we often talk about how we spend all this time in Pittsburgh, when we are acting in Mindhunter, talking to these serial killers. One of the many consistent qualities is that they have all have troubled relationships with – mostly – their mothers, and how he and I have had just the opposite experience.
PC: Yes I know with Holt he couldn’t have been more loved, by the sounds of it. You wonder: would they have turned out differently had they had that love and support? I don’t know how much you have researched serial killers, but does that just apply to men, or is that a factor in female serial killers too?
JG: That’s a great question, most serial killers are men (at least the ones on Mindhunter are) I don’t [know] to be honest if female serial killers have a troubling relationship with their parents. We talk a lot about nature v nurture (that sort of age-old question) how someone naturally dotes when they’re young and then it’s their environment that cultivates the bad behaviour: is it more one than the other? I think it’s still a question people are still trying to answer and it’s one that we explore a lot on the show.
PC: I suppose if the show runs and runs eventually, if not this coming season, it will feature a female serial killer.
PC: So you said earlier about your parents being very into physical education: was there any pressure to do sports? And with your dad: he didn’t expect you or your brother to follow him into the horse business? What does your brother do?
JG: My brother runs a company in Lancaster PA: he is a businessman. We are very different from my parents. My dad actually comes from a long line of dairy farmers: he is the oldest brother of his family and he was meant to take over at the dairy farm; it would have been the appropriate next step for him. He was not passionate about dairy farming and he was not passionate about cows (was not a fan of cows) – cows are incredibly hard work and you have to be really into it. He didn’t want to do that so he found another avenue, through family friends, and discovered a passion for horses. He would not have wanted to demand that my brother and I go into the horse business because he was sort of permitted that freedom, as the oldest son, to get out and to do his own thing. He would have loved it if we were in the horse business. I’m sure that would have been amazing for him to have that happen – it would have been a great experience and a bonding experience for us – but it doesn’t always add up that way. We became close in a different way. He’s still racing the horses. And my mom: the great thing about her being a physical education teacher for my brother and I was, even though we didn’t go into teaching or Phys Ed in any way, she instilled in us passion for exercise and running; we were doing races when we were in elementary school, in 4th grade we were doing the three-mile run or whatever and when we were on vacation. She instilled in us that love of being active. She will be 64 in the Fall and she looks so young because she took care of herself and she exercises.
My brother, even though he is a businessman, gets up every morning and works out. Certainly, as an actor – for example on a show like Mindhunter – you get issued with your costumes at the beginning of the season, then we have 10 months of shooting and I can’t get fat! (Laughs) On the set there’s always food going around and I wake up every morning, religiously, and exercise, and that’s partially because it’s great therapy and it’s great to stay in shape, keep my mind clear or whatever and that’s a lot to do with the fact my mom gave me that habit when I was a kid.
PC: What about horses? Did you get to ride any? Are you an accomplished horse rider or were they purely for breeding?
JG: No! Well my dad does harness racing so he’s not on their back, he’s behind them. So I’m sure if we had shown any interest at all, my brother and I, I’m sure that he would have gotten a horse we could have ridden around and that would have been really fun. But my mom kind of instilled in us a fear of being around the horses because, in those times that we were playing around on our own, she didn’t want us to go near the horses and get kicked. So we grew up with sort of this fear of horses, funnily enough, and then occasionally on Saturdays we’d have to shovel the horse poo out of the stall – just everything about the horses as a kid was what we would eye roll about. So we were never really around them.
The first time I had to ride a horse was for a movie I did called Taking Woodstock: which was my first film that I shot in 2008. It was directed by Ang Lee and the final shot of the film was me riding up this hill on a horse at sunrise. So I took some horseback riding lessons for a couple of months and I invited my dad to the set on the day that we shot the scene where I rode the horse up the hill and so it was this very proud moment, ‘Look Dad! I know how to ride a horse!’ I’m 33 now but I did get on a horse eventually and he was there to see me do it, which was a special moment.
PC: I’ve been on a horse a couple of times but it was really scary especially when they lower their heads to eat grass, it’s so scary.
JG: Oh totally and they feel your fear. I find them very skittish and very sensitive and you jerk the wrong way and they flip. Each horse has a different personality but as a whole they are very sensitive so the minute you are scared in front of them they are basically all over it, so trying to get ‘Zen’ and breathe…
PC: Are you a sucker for musicals, or theatre in general? In your free time would you go see a straight play or do you think musicals are so much better?
JG: Good question. I mean my heart is always in musicals, because that’s what I started [out] doing, but I was just in New York this week (I had a couple of days off so I went there) [and] I chose to see two straight plays. I love theatre in general. I’m a junkie – a total theatre junkie – pretty much anytime, anywhere, I love live theatre in any form. For me when a musical is great there’s nothing better. To successfully put a musical on and all the elements come together – the choreography, direction, music, orchestra and all of that – it’s just a miracle that a musical ever works (there are so many different elements to it) so when that is all kind of ‘cracking’ and it all comes together, there is nothing more exciting to me than that. I don’t discriminate: I love all live theatre.
PC: What was it like doing the voice-over for the character Kristoff for Frozen? How does that differ from other mediums, since you wouldn’t necessarily feel connected to the other actors like you would in a film or show where you are side by side? I assume they record the voice over segments separately?
JG: The big revelation for me was that doing a Disney film is the same as re-enacting a Disney film when you are a kid in your bedroom, because you are just totally alone in a padded room (‘now you’re in an ice storm’ so you have to pretend ‘Anna’) using your imagination; so it’s harking back to the days of me being in a room alone acting out Peter Pan or Mary Poppins.
PC: I’d never thought of it like that but yes you are right.
JG: I never met any of the other actors: well I’d met them but I never worked with other actors. I didn’t see them throughout the whole process until we were sitting there watching the first screening of the movie together. They cut it all together and that was very surreal to see how… You are really, as a voice actor in those animated films, a small piece of a big picture. There is so much work and so much effort goes into it and how it comes together is really just phenomenal. They videotape you while recording and then try to match your mouth with what the character does, and it’s pretty amazing.
PC: Did you cry when you watched the first screening?
JG: I think I did cry.
PC: You would have to be hard-hearted not to!
JG: My mom and I will still watch. I mean it’s been years (and now we are recording the second one) it still has not sunk in fully yet that I’m in a Disney animated film – very surreal.
PC: What about the technology they use in The Avengers for Ultron? Where they have sensors on the actor’s costume. That would be cool on Frozen.
JG: Motion capture you mean. They don’t use that on Frozen: they have a little video camera in the recording studio, so the animators can sort of reference if there is a gesture or something while you are making a vocal sound. They match the gesture, like if they are saying ‘Wow what was he doing there” they can reference it visually, but they also use their own faces as well. It’s just fascinating to watch the process. We had a session with the animators about where you breathe from and where you sing – what’s happening in your mouth when you’re singing as opposed to talking – to help them animate the singing part.
PC: Returning to family stuff: I read somewhere you have roots in England, Scotland and Germany. I have been burnt before where I’ve referenced something and it turns out there is no truth to it… so have you?
JG: No! Maybe I’m just not aware of it. (Laughs) Years ago we did one of those genetic test things with my family and I think we were West German; I think that’s where most of our DNA was from; I would have to go back and look at it.
PC: How has it changed for you in everyday life since Mindhunter blew up? Can you still ride the subway? Can you still go your doctor’s surgery and go shopping without wearing false glasses, nose and moustache?
JG: It hasn’t changed at all, not even a little bit. Yesterday I was in a coffee shop in Pittsburgh and the girl was saying, ‘Are you in Mindhunter?’ I have a very sort of ordinary white boy look and I don’t really have distinctive features that stand out in a crowd, so it’s great.
PC: I suppose, say someone like Johnny Depp, you might recognise straight away.
JG: Right. When I was in high school and I came to New York I saw Kristen Chenoweth. She is a famous musical theatre actress and she’s [done] some TV stuff – she is barely 5ft tall, blonde, just like this petite, little blonde girl, when she walks around she looks like she has a spotlight on her, just the way that she looks. I remember seeing her in Times Square, I went, ‘Oh my God! That’s Kristen Chenoweth!’ and went over to her and spoke to her and got her autograph. I don’t have that quality.
PC: I’ve asked that question before and other actors have said there are just so many famous people wandering around New York at any given time that it’s not the same like if you came to Edinburgh, you would be swamped. One actor told me he saw Bruce Springsteen in Manhattan and he was being a complete fan boy about him but he didn’t stop him and ask for his autograph even though he was dying to. Maybe people just leave you alone.
JG: Yeah, maybe.
PC: I always like to ask what life lessons has a person taken from their parents or grandparents. When the time comes, hopefully years and years away, when you look back and say, ‘Oh I remember this about my dad or this is why I’m this kind of person.’ You are obviously a nice person, a gentleman: has that rubbed off on you from your parents?
JG: The biggest thing would probably be discipline and the appreciation and sort of joy that you get from working hard: both my grandparents worked really hard; my parents worked really hard. When I was at that formative age 9-14, I would mow my grandmother’s lawn and I’d worked for my dad on his horse farm – they were always forcing us to do stuff we didn’t want to do. We were sort of like ‘ugh’ through all of those years when you are going through puberty and being forced to do manual labour. Then coming out of the other end of it and understanding the value of it and the sort of joy that you get from working hard and, when it’s over, feeling pride in what you achieved and looking forward to doing it again. That’s something my parents have that I know they took effort to instil into my brother, and I don’t know if that quality comes naturally or not in people, but it was definitely kind of forced upon us. Now it might show itself as being as simple as learning all your lines before you come to set, or being really prepared for an audition: just having that respect for yourself and respect for the people who you are working with so are prepared in doing the work. Doing the ‘math homework’ version of your job is something that my parents instilled in me when I was a kid, that I take with me. I remember my mom always saying, ‘It’s important to always make a good first impression.’ I remember ‘Have respect for people who are older than you’ was a golden rule – we talked a lot about that when I was a kid. But the biggest thing was probably the value of working hard.
PC: That is probably reflected in the fact that you didn’t want to go to university or whatever and just wanted to get in there, hands on, get your hands dirty and do the work.
JG: Yes, they instilled in me that desire to learn and work. From an early age I was such a sponge. Once I got to high school age, and was meeting those people from New York who were working in my hometown, I was just asking questions, then I was going to New York in my senior year of high school and then I finally moved to New York when I was 19 – taking classes and waiting tables. Getting the understanding: you get out what you put in; if you work really hard and put a lot in, that work takes you somewhere. Sometimes it doesn’t always take you where you expect it to go but it definitely helps.
I just read this really great book called The Creative Habit, by the choreographer Twyla Tharp, and she talks about her creative process and other people’s creative processes – other famous artists and how they do their work. She just really drives home the point that, no matter how lucky and brilliant someone is initially (and perhaps there is an artist who at one point, you know, just got lucky, they basically sneezed and became famous through something), she talked about if you want to have a long career, anyone that is considered an expert or quote ‘genius’ – brilliant at what they do – nine times out of ten they have a very intense work ethic and they work really hard at what they do. It’s a myth that some people are just brilliant and can do whatever they want. When you look at all the people who have had success, a lot of it is hard work, and I feel grateful that my parents have instilled that quality into me at a young age.
PC: Holt said about you, in his interview with me, that you always turned up on set with your lines learned – that was one of the things he admired about you.
JG: Well he’s the same way. I will never forget when we rehearsed our first scene (the first scene we shot together) it was where we were teaching at road school and we were talking. He was talking about motives and stuff and for the first rehearsal we were both off-book. We were set up ready to play and I’d never really met him before – I’d met his mom, we were familiar. But we got there and I went, ‘Wow! Okay, cool. This is going to be fun.’ You never know what your co-stars are going to be like, and he showed up and it was very clear we both had a similar kind of desire to do well. We wanted to come in and we wanted it to be good and we showed up ready to play and we just had so much fun the first season, because we both had this deep desire to do a good job, and to be there for each other, and to make something great. We wanted to fulfil David’s [Fincher] vision: we both have immense respect for him and what he does, and we just wanted to do well together.
PC: It’s a mutual respect you and Holt have. I asked him how he would describe you and he told me you were so ‘infectious’, as in: ‘Always happy, eager to work and a pleasure to work with from day one,’ those were his words. I asked him, if I ever spoke to you, how would you describe him? He replied, ‘Ah, you know, the grumpy one, the guy who arrives on set at 5 a.m. grumpy until I’ve had coffee.’
JG: That’s so not true! We are a very interesting pair because we are very opposite in many ways and sort of like it is in a show, sort of like an ‘Odd Couple’ dynamic between the two of us. But at the same time he makes everybody laugh.
PC: I love his deep, hearty laugh.
JG: Yes, he has that quality I don’t have where he’s always the life of the party, everybody shows up and he’s always telling jokes. He’s always like shooting the shit with the guys on the crew, making everybody laugh and smile. He’s just got this jovial, infectious energy that is just so specifically Holt – honestly I don’t know anybody else who has the energy that he has.
PC: He is so passionate as well when he speaks, you can hear it in his voice.
JG: Totally, totally and he’s incredibly intelligent.
PC: Yes he is, it is like when I watched the interview where he is speaking away in French and you are looking at him in wonder, like: ‘Where the hell did you learn to speak like that?’
JG: Oh my gosh that was a trip! We did this press tour. He’d talked about how he’d gone to school in Paris, he had a flat in Paris… He’d talked about all, but it had never occurred to me that he speaks fluent French! So we were in Paris on this press tour and all of a sudden he whips out this French – I was like: what?
PC: It is written all over your face.
JG: He just is endlessly fascinating and is constantly surprising.
PC: Some French people have told me he actually speaks the language very well, not some pigeon French.
JG: Yes! That’s what we were asking the Netflix people that were based in Paris, that were French – they were saying yes. They were like, ‘You do have an American accent but you speak the language so well.’ He’s just such a character that guy.
PC: I have such a soft spot for him. He goes out of his way to help people. He’s just lovely!
JG: He’s such an old school gentleman – they don’t make them like that anymore. He’s just got class. He would say this and credit it to his mom. She was Midwestern and very well-mannered; she had impeccable manners. She was very humble and very gracious, always thought about other people first. We don’t have that as much anymore: it’s very old-school. He’s like a guy from another time in a lot of ways. His nature and his manners are just very special.
PC: He is so nice with his fans too.
JG: His mom became a famous cabaret singer and she had very personal interaction with her fans. That’s part of the beautiful quality about him.
PC: Is Holt going to be your forever friend?
JG: Oh absolutely! Absolutely! We’ve gone to see a bunch of plays together in New York; we went to Shakespeare in the Park last summer.
PC: Yes, he was saying, ‘I will get Jonathan over when I go to London. He will drag me to all the plays and musicals. We will just spend the whole weekend at the West End.’
JG: Yes. When we were on the press tour in London, we went to go see a play. That surprises me because Holt doesn’t seem… I mean, even on Mindhunter, in the past he’s done all these action movies, he’s played a lot of cops, he’s played boxers, he plays a lot of meat-heads and so you wouldn’t guess that he’s very cultured, loves cabaret, friends with the writers of Kiss me Kate for example.
PC: Holt knows everyone like Liam Neeson and Clint Eastwood.
JG: I would kind of expect him to know those guys – that makes sense to me because those guys are action type actors, that to me I can understand but, for example, when we went to the memorial service for his mother, he knows Steven Brinberg, who is a cabaret artist famous for doing a Barbra Streisand impression. I was like, ‘How do you know Steven Brinberg?’ It’s just hilarious that he’s very close friends with him. When you know Holt’s body of work in action films you just wouldn’t put those two together.
PC: Yes I watched Holt on the Jimmy Fallon show he was teaching Fallon some boxing moves and he was very ‘New York’ Manhattan-like, very different to how he is. It’s that whole different perception of him, to what comes out of his mouth especially when he speaks French. Most actors I’ve spoken to have been lovely, but there is just something about Holt that is special. Actually all of the Mindhunter cast – and I don’t know if it’s coincidence or if it’s particularly driven that way but – (those we have dealt with so far) I think are really special. They are really supportive of each other. We have remained friends with a core group of them. I don’t know if these people were especially handpicked by David or the casting people with that element of being young and ambitious and kind. I have seen this once before that was in cast and crew members on NBC’s The Blacklist but it’s rare.
JG: Well I think David doesn’t have time for bullshit. He’s not going to waste time. He’s all about the work. He’s all about finding the best way to tell the story and has a hard-working discipline and I think partially intentionally (but maybe subconsciously) finds people that want to work. Not to have this thing lead into the next thing but to have them go work on specifically that job. Which sounds like obviously something everyone would do but. like you said, generally it’s not. I think David, whether it’s intentional or not, ends up surrounding himself with people that are there to work. In the case of Mindhunter, you’re right: it is a very special group of people and that’s partially just that simple fact that everyone is there because they want [to be there], they’re showing up to work and trying to make something that’s really good.
PC: Yes, and they are very supportive of each other’s work too, like when Cotter Smith and Jack Erdie did a play in Pittsburgh together recently, both David and Holt turned up to watch it.
PC: Tell me more about working with David Fincher. Obviously his name is on everyone’s lips nowadays and we know his style of directing – we all know he may shoot the same scene 70 times – but there’s much more to him than that. I always like to get information first hand, if I can. What kind of impression has he made on you?
JG: Well it’s just the whole idea, for me at least, [of] having complete faith and trust in someone and knowing that they are going to take you somewhere that is interesting, and working with him is different to working with anyone else. One of the reasons being that you go, ‘Okay, I will just do whatever you want,’ because I so believe in him and in his brain and in his vision, and his point of view, because he’s just proven time and time and time and time again – with all of his films and projects – that he’s one of the most interesting, creative people working today. So just to get the opportunity to be a part of his world is exciting and especially with this TV experience, particularly right now, in this very moment, it’s the first time he’s ever come back to a television show. He directed the first two episodes of House of Cards and he was Creative and Executive Producer on that show, but he never came back to direct it again. He very much had his hand in every episode on the first season of Mindhunter. We weren’t sure if he would come back and do the second season or not, because he has never done that before and now here he is, and we are working on the second season. Just to get that extended time with him and to see how… I guess the thing that is so inspirational about him is that he doesn’t sit back and go, ‘Okay, we know what we are doing. We know who these characters are. Let’s just continue comfortably down the road we were going down before.’
We came back to the second season and obviously some of the sets are the same, and we actually basically know who the characters are, where before we didn’t know what the show was yet – we were still making it. So there’s that element, which is great. But it’s still the same process as it was the first time around: it’s not laid back and comfortable; it’s not pressing the same notes; he’s really trying to move things forward and make things different, evolve it and grow it and change it as it goes along – that’s just an artist that is always searching, always changing and always asking the questions. He’s just always trying to get to a better version of the truth: in the writing, then in the shooting and in the editing, he just never stops working and never stops asking questions, and it’s just so rare to find someone like that.
PC: So how does it work that David Fincher directed the first two episodes and the last two: what happens in-between when he hands the reins over to another director but is obviously still on set?
JG: There’s a bit of a balance: you know he lets them do their thing and they are of course directing in the context of the world he created, so he can’t just hand it over.
PC: It’s not total control for them, he’s leading it?
JG: Yes, he’s set up the vocabulary of the show and the vocabulary of the shot and how the show is made, so they are allowed a certain amount of creative freedom, but in David’s world. In the first season he would occasionally come on set and help us stage certain scenes or certain shots in the morning, then he would leave and let us figure it out from there, or he would let the director set up their shot then give them notes later. He was literally in Pittsburgh for the entire year so his presence was there regardless of if he was on set or not. But then in rehearsals and stuff – because one of the other things about the show is we get a lot of rehearsals, we get to read through all the scenes with the writers before we shoot them – he’s there for all of those.
So we are always talking about the intention of the scene and what the intention will be on the day. He said this great thing on the first season that I’ve really stuck with: that when the writer is asking, ‘Why do we have to bang out every specific word of the scene before we start shooting?’ David talked about how, when you show up on set the crew gets the sides, the actors get the sides, the extras get the sides – everybody gets a copy of the sides – and everyone will have a different interpretation of what these sides mean and how the scene is going to look, so you want the scene to be as specific as possible once it gets into the hands of all those people. So that there is this innate direction of where the scene is going by the specificity of every word, of every line; and really taking the time to craft that out – so everyone getting their hands on those on the day, on set, is very important. Even just the attention to detail in that regard, in the writing and in the rehearsing, affects how the guest directors will then come on and direct the scenes because we spent so much time rehearsing specifically – exactly – what every line, and every word, is intended to express.
PC: Can you say to David Fincher, or the writers, ‘I don’t like this line,’ or, ‘This line isn’t something I feel Ford would say.’ A lot of writers are very precious about their work (and of course you wouldn’t do it just because you could) but would you be able to challenge a line and make a suggestion about what would fit better or is that totally off-limits?
JG: My sort of personal thing is to sit back and let it happen, let the evolution of the writing take its course without me saying… As an actor I find you think, ‘Oh I don’t know if I would say it like that?’ And then you start saying it ‘like that’ and it ends up being a great surprise; ‘I wouldn’t have thought I could sing like that but now this is actually adding a dimension I wasn’t aware of.’ So my tactics, certainly in this Mindhunter experience, is to let the writers write – and just because David is so involved and has the whole thing mapped out in his head, I’m pretty quiet during that part of the process. I just take the tack of: I’m just here to try and make whatever they give me work. That’s my own personal philosophy.
PC: I guess you’d have to struggle with yourself to imagine doing it better than the vision Fincher has in his head.
JG: It’s kind of going back to that thing of working with different people and being inside of different processes. I’ve done shows where they would say ‘Action’ and we would improv for about a minute into the scene and then we would get into the vibe of the scene and then improv out of the scene – and that was really fun, and stuff would come out that was really unexpected and great, and that they would use sometime in the edit or whatever. This process is the complete opposite of that – absolutely no improvisation – everything is planned within an inch of its life and like you said: when you are in the room with a brain like David Fincher’s, I’m just going to let him take the reins. For me at least that’s part of the joy of this process – being submissive to his brain.
PC: I hate asking questions you will have already been asked a 100 times or more but: how did you get the role, basically? I have read how it happened but I like to hear it from the horse’s mouth so to speak.
JG: I met David when I auditioned for The Social Network in 2008 and didn’t get it. Then I was doing Hamilton on Broadway and they sent me six or seven scenes (which are just pages of dialogue) and I put myself on tape in New York on a Monday or Tuesday, and then they responded immediately and had me put myself on tape again on Thursday, and then I flew myself to New York that Monday (it all happened in about a week) and sat with him in his office.
PC: What was that like? Obviously you had met him before but you must have been blown away thinking, ‘I could be the lead on a show that David Fincher is doing!’ Do you have to pinch yourself or do you feel you have earned it?
JG: It’s a total dream. I honestly didn’t believe that it was going to happen because it was too good to be true. Even when we were in rehearsals in LA, I really would go home and think, ‘I’m certain it’s not going to work out,’ and then we are shooting it and I’m thinking, ‘It’s still not…’ I was so excited about it. I just didn’t believe it was real until it came out, actually. It really wasn’t until about half-way through the season of shooting it – when it was clear that it was going forward – [that] I started to go, ‘Okay, this is really happening.’ Every step up until that moment I was too excited to let myself even think that it was real.
PC: Television is such a fickle world as well: you just can’t call what’s going to be a hit and what’s not. Obviously, because it had David Fincher attached to it, there’s going to be some sort of success but it’s not guaranteed.
JG: Totally! You never know what’s going to happen.
PC: I think I read that at the end of a day’s shoot you weren’t thinking, ‘Oh my God! There are all these serial killers going about!’ That, in fact, you were raring to get your teeth into the role you played. Did the things that you found out whilst filming affect you? Like when you are at home eating dinner: did the what’s and why’s cross your mind or did you just go home and switch it off?
JG: I’m not a method actor. The minute I think about what we are talking about is real, I just don’t want to go there, because I think, ‘Wow! These are actual people who actually did these things.’
PC: Who could be living next door to you!
JG: It’s too much to even think about, so that – combined with the fact [that] in the first season I was in almost every scene – I would go home and not even have time to even think what we had just done. I would be memorizing my lines for the next day, trying to keep up and not lose myself as far as the preparation for the work goes; there’s just so much work to do, it didn’t linger with me that way. It wasn’t like I had reflective time to sit and think ‘wow these people’… I was like: ‘Okay, what are my lines for tomorrow?’ It was more about the logistics of problem solving and telling the story than it was sitting and meditating on the reality of what went down.
PC: What about when filming finished? I know some of the cast have explored serial killers further and like Holt saying he wants to interview a serial killer (he told me that he had written to one).
JG: He wanted to go and talk with David Berkowitz.
PC: Yeah and Anna Torv said she had read up a lot about it after filming finished.
JG: There is not a part of me that wants to meet David Berkowitz: just the idea of it makes me feel scared and weird – and what would I say?
PC: And what he would say? Yikes, I agree it would be really scary. It would be too real, not pretend anymore.
JG: Too real! On this show we are trying to tell the story as respectfully and accurately as possible and then I just don’t want to think about it.
PC: Everybody raves about how outstanding Cameron Britton was as Ed Kemper and rightly so: apart from him, is there anyone in particular who stood out for you or just overall whose performance was great?
JG: Good question. In my audition scenes they were with the Kemper, Brudos [Happy Anderson] and Richard Speck [Jack Erdie] and what I loved is that they were all different, and this show isn’t just serial killer of the week. You get the information from the serial killers and you get a little window into their lives, but then you also see the evolution of the FBI agents and how they get savvier and how they put things together, and the psychology of getting somebody to open up in a different way – so for the Brudos thing, the idea of the shoe. And even when Holden goes back and interviews Brudos and they talk in the third person about his killings – that I found really chilling – what a creepy, strange way. It almost makes it feel even scarier to hear him talking about it. When he’s talking to me he’s sort of deflecting, deflecting, deflecting and then how he talks in the third person – I found that really scary.
PC: When Kemper hugged Holden and you had that panic attack, I could really feel it in my chest, like, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!’ Imagine that actually happening! I’d probably just die of fright, on the spot. You just don’t know what his next move could be.
JG: Yeah it’s scary and I think that the show does that really well: where you feel a sense of safety – because you’re in this jail it feels like a contained environment and they seem so docile – and all of a sudden you realise how dangerous they are and that feeling kind of comes in and out through the course of an interview; all the interviews are that way. I love that quality of the story, it’s very complicated. It’s not like you go, ‘Oh my God!’ It’s like, ‘Okay, that seems like a normal question.’
PC: What do you think of how your character evolved from, I think you said someone who was possibly a virgin, impeccably dressed, boy next door, to how he became near the end of the season and how he will be in season 2? How he was affected by the sexual nature of the killings: in that he grew up more or his eyes were opened more?
JG: Yes, I think so – certainly there’s an element – and John Douglas (who the character is based on) talks a lot about the heaviness and the horror and the depravity and the sadness of the victims’ experience. You know he had a complete mental breakdown in dealing with the stuff on a daily basis and being so all consumed by it. There’s that aspect of the evolution of the character that I think is really interesting, and that’s reflected in the scene where his girlfriend puts on the shoe, and it’s the first time you realise that work is kind of coming home with him and he starts to lose it a little bit. And then, obviously, at the end when he runs literally into the arms of Ed Kemper and is sort of lost.
But the other kind of evolution I find really interesting in the character (maybe the most surprising) is that idea of narcissism and the idea of taking credit for creating something and I think it’s such a human, and American, and embarrassing quality of: ‘I made this. I’m taking credit for this. I started this.’ I say at one point to Wendy, in the one scene, and seeing how that sweetly intentioned, buttoned-up kid, gets a little full of himself, and watching that quality bubble to the surface of Holden I think is really surprising . That quality of narcissism coming to the surface and really loving the fact that he is such a, quote, ‘revolutionary character’ with revolutionary ideas. One of the things that David always talks about doing, that he loves, is that he’s only interested in an argument on-screen where both characters are right and Holden has that scene where he walks out and looks at the OPR [the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility] and says, ‘The only mistake I ever made was doubting myself.’ Holden is never wrong in his actions and in his ideas but the way it sort of transforms him is a very discerning and a little scary: that he’s seemingly so innocent [yet] becomes so monstrous and egotistical.
PC: It will be interesting to see where it goes and how far it will go next season.
JG: Exactly. I love playing that because it’s so rare that you get to play someone that is kind of so innocent, that takes such a journey like that by the end of the season.
PC: I was looking through some fan forums and these are some descriptions that written about you… Someone asks: ‘What do you think about Jonathan Groff?’ Someone else replies: ‘It’s impossible to list just one – he’s an incredible package, not just his body and perfect bone structure, his seductive eyes, playful and innocent. Lips that make the most adorable smile…’ Need I go on? My point is, I wanted to ask: what you see when you look in the mirror?
JG: Oh my God! What do I think when I look in the mirror?
PC: Yes, do you think, ‘Oh today I look dreadful. I have a spot’? Or do you think, ‘Yep, yep you look pretty good today son’?
JG: The latest thing is… well first of all I don’t love looking in the mirror (it’s not my favourite thing). The other day I had to look in the mirror in a scene that we were doing – and I really don’t like looking in the mirror when I’m playing Holden, because it makes me laugh. Looking in the mirror while acting just makes me feel crazy. Some actors love to watch back on the little monitor screens, like, ‘Okay let me see that back, see how it looks.’ That just makes me feel so self-conscious. I would so much just rather watch it all after it’s been cut and made up. I don’t love watching myself in the process. The main thing that I found when I looked the mirror was – because I had a couple of days off and I went to New York – I’m 33 and I’ve never had facial hair and now I’m getting a beard; I am actually able to grow facial hair. That has been the latest revelation looking in the mirror I’m like: Oh my God!! Basically I can go maybe a week and a half and have a normal person’s 5 o’clock shadow, but now it’s been a couple of days of not shaving and I’m starting to grow facial hair.
PC: Wow! You will be able to have one of those full beards that the hipsters have.
JG: Yes and I’m like: I’m officially getting older; I’m starting to grow facial hair; I’m starting to feel more like a man. (Laughs)
PC: I often get messages from people who have been grateful that someone I’ve interviewed has helped them through something by talking about their own experiences, whether it be depression, grief or something else. I know you had a scare with skin cancer and wondered if you would like to talk about that.
JG: Yes of course. Skin cancer for me was so undramatic, in that I just booked for a physical check-up and I’d never gotten my moles checked, so the doctor recommended I did. They saw a mole that looked weird and they cut it out and then they saw that it had like a melanoma cancer in it. The great thing is to get it out before it spreads, have it cut out and then there’s nothing else to it. So before it had spread, they just cut it out and now I make sure I’m wearing sunscreen every time I go in the sun and I get my moles checked once a year. I wasn’t in the hospital; I didn’t have to go through any treatment; I just have this scar on my chest from where I had it removed. It didn’t feel life-threatening or scary in any way when it happened.
PC: There is a fan debate about how you got the scar on your chest and equally the scar on your bicep: that you allegedly got from some woman’s stiletto or something. Is that true?
JG: That is true. I had a light scar… Let me see if it is still there. I had a light scar there from when I was doing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Glee and I was wearing a T-shirt and we were doing the run through. We were just rehearsing it and the stiletto scraped my arm down my bicep – it was pretty hilarious. I had a scar there definitely for a couple of weeks, then it was a light scar and now I think it’s completely gone.
PC: Shows you how dedicated your fans are that they are discussing your scars online in a forum.
JG: That’s impressive that they know so much.
PC: Your meaty thighs are another whole thread!
JG: That’s amazing!
PC: Which word do you find yourself using more than others and do you have a favourite word?
JG: I’m trying to stop saying ‘like’ and I’m trying to stop saying ‘totally’. I’ve had lots of friends in my life who say I say ‘totally’ a lot, so that’s definitely a most used word that I’m trying not to say. The other thing I’m trying not to say is: ‘That’s so interesting’. I say that a lot. And I’m trying to not go up at the end of my sentence per David Fincher: when you talk like this and you end a statement like it’s a question. I’m trying to stop doing that.
PC: You are putting a lot of pressure on yourself! Do you have a favourite word?
JG: I’d say my favourite word is ‘yes’.
PC: How would you spend your perfect day?
JG: It would depend what I’m doing at the time… You know what my perfect day is? It’s waking up, doing some form of exercise – be it yoga or spin class or going for a run. Then it would be maybe having breakfast: making it alone with the radio playing. Then hopping on my bike – this is all taking place in New York by the way. Go on a bike ride to Central Park and then meeting my friends in Central Park at Sheep’s Meadow. Eating and hanging out for a while there.
PC: What’s Sheep’s Meadow?
JG: Sheep’s Meadow is a big sort of grassy area in Central Park. Then maybe go over to a restaurant… let’s see… where would I go? I would go to some restaurant on the Upper West Side, near Central Park, and have a late afternoon lunch with my friends.
PC: I need more details: a meat, fish or cheese dish?
JG: I would go to The Smith and have steak salad and a glass of rosé then I would go back home to my apartment; I would take a nap. Then I would hop in the shower. I would get back on my bike ride up to Midtown and I would perform in a Broadway Musical. Then I would go with my cast members again to some bar afterwards – where I would have a whiskey – and then I would hop back on my bike and ride home. Perfect day!
PC: Do you ride your bike a lot to get round New York?
JG: Yes that’s how I get around. I love it. When I was there two days ago I rode my bike everywhere.
PC: That’s how people don’t recognise you because you are wearing a bike hat: do you wear a hat?
JG: Yes of course.
PC: What could you not live without?
PC: That takes us nicely to the next set of questions…
What was the first record you ever bought or the first download you ever downloaded?
JG: The first I ever bought would be Brittany Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” on CD – it was great.
PC: Is there a song that takes you back to a special time in your life?
JG: I remember listening to that song “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None The Richer when I was in 8th grade doing the 8th grade play. It was in the movie She’s All That and I remember I had to kiss my friend Emily in that play and I just remember the anxiety of having to kiss her and that song being on the radio.
PC: How old were you?
JG: 12 years old.
PC: Aww… was that your first kiss? Did it all go fine?
JG: Yes it was fine.
PC: Do you have a song that you must blast out when it comes on?
JG: Pretty much anything Beyoncé, but especially “Grown Woman”.
PC: Is there a movie soundtrack that you particularly love?
JG: When I was in 2nd grade I used to obsessively listen to the soundtrack Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, with Kevin Costner.
PC: With the Bryan Adams’ song that was in the charts for months?
JG: Yeah exactly. That one.
PC: What about now: what movie soundtrack would you put on?
JG: I love David O. Russell films and I’ve always loved the music in his films so I bought the Silver Linings Playbook soundtrack; I bought the soundtrack for Joy. I just love the music in his films so definitely one of those two.
PC: Apart from musicals, is there a specific genre you favour or do you just love music generally?
JG: I found out that at Beyoncé’s Coachella concert (which I’ve now watched about 150 times) when she has this long 5-minute intro and it starts with a drum roll, and then this sort of like New Orleans jazz music playing in the background – I learnt that the tune is from this band called The Rebirth Brass Band so I’ve been listening to a lot of their music. I’ve been listening to a lot of New Orleans Jazz. I will listen to anything though.
PC: What about live music? Do you go to many live gigs?
JG: I wish I went to more. I don’t go to a lot of live gigs and every time I go to one I always think I wish I watched more live music. That was even the case with the last one I went to, I can’t even think off the top of my head who that was. The best one was definitely going to the Formation Tour [Beyoncé].
PC: Obviously you are a wonderful dancer. Are you always up first on the dance floor – or do you take a bit of persuading?
JG: It depends on my mood. Last time I was dancing was at the opening of Frozen on Broadway and I was definitely the first person on the dance floor.
PC: So you are on a road trip with only a dog for company, not a goat and not a horse: what’s on your playlist?
JG: I would drive all the time – I love driving. Beyoncé, Frank Ocean – let me just look at my phone – Bobby Darin (I’ve been listening to a lot of his), the Black Panther album, Alesia Keyes, The Carpenters, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed , Kendrick Lamar, Barbara Streisand, Chance the Rapper, Lolo (my friend Lauren Pritchard from Spring Awakening), Sara Bareilles, Jackson 5, Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, Amy Winehouse and Billy Joel.
PC: What does music mean to you?
JG: It’s like the reflection of every joy, sadness, confusion. Music is like life to me: there just a reflection in absolutely everything. I love it!
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.