'Mindhunter' Actor Jonathan Groff On His Most Life-Altering Roles

Jan 1, 2018
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year. Today we're concluding our holiday series featuring some of our favorite interviews from 2017. We've picked a fun one for today to help you get the year started. If you're a fan of the hip-hop musical Hamilton, you know Jonathan Groff as King George in the original Broadway production and on the cast recording. Children love Groff from the animated musical "Frozen" in which he voiced the characters of Kristoff the ice harvester, and his reindeer, Sven. Groff starred in the Broadway musical "Spring Awakening" opposite Lea Michele and played opposite her in the musical TV series "Glee." He starred in the HBO series "Looking," about a group of gay friends.

I spoke with Groff in October shortly after the release of the Netflix series "Mindhunter," in which he stars as an FBI agent trying to understand the minds of convicted serial killers to better understand how to identify and track down other killers. It's based on the stories of the two FBI agents who first developed the technique of psychological profiling. In this scene, Groff's character, Agent Holden Ford, is in a state prison medical facility where he's conducting his first interview of a convicted serial killer.

The killer, Edmund Kemper, is based on the real Ed Kemper, who was known as the co-ed killer because he killed six college students as well as his mother. Kemper is played by Cameron Britton. This clip begins with Groff's character, Agent Ford, explaining to Kemper the purpose of his visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MINDHUNTER")

JONATHAN GROFF: (As Agent Ford) Well, it's sort of a research thing.

CAMERON BRITTON: (As Edmund Kemper) Research?

GROFF: (As Agent Ford) Just a series of interviews, chatting with individuals not unlike yourself.

BRITTON: (As Edmund Kemper) We're just talking. I don't get to go some place, do a bunch of tests.

GROFF: (As Agent Ford) No, yeah, no tests - just right here.

BRITTON: (As Edmund Kemper) Why?

GROFF: (As Agent Ford) Well, because I believe it could be useful.

BRITTON: (As Edmund Kemper) Talking about what?

GROFF: (As Agent Ford) Well, I don't know...

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM BELL RINGING)

GROFF: (As Agent Ford) ...Your behavior, I guess. If you want to, that is. I mean, we don't have to talk about anything at all if you don't want to.

BRITTON: (As Edmund Kemper) Why are you so tense? You're tense right now.

GROFF: (As Agent Ford) No, I'm not tense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You're tense.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Jonathan Groff, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you on the show.

GROFF: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for having me. I'm such a fan.

GROSS: So among the serial killers, Ed Kemper, who we just heard you interviewing in the fictionalized version - you know, he abducted several female hitchhikers, killed them, engaged in necrophilia and cannibalism, killed his mother. It's an example of the type of killer who you're interviewing, and what's the creepiest moment in season one for you?

GROFF: I think I guess I can say this now because with Netflix, the whole thing gets dropped, but if you don't want a spoiler, close your ears. But for me, probably the creepiest moment is the final - my character's final moment at the end of the series. Ed Kemper is kind of a running theme. He sort of sets my character on his journey in the second episode and sort of comes up a lot through the first season. And we're sort of lucky that he's our first interviewee because he's so open and so expressive, and we learn a great deal from him. And he sort of haunts me.

And there's this final moment at the end of the series where my life is falling apart, and I kind of run into his arms (laughter) literally and figuratively, and he sort of goes on this monologue about, you know, how his victims are his spirit wives. And it's a pretty chilling monologue that he has in a pretty chilling moment for the character I play, Holden, and kind of the climax of emotionally what I'm going through. So that was a pretty crazy moment.

GROSS: You just collapse afterwards (laughter)...

GROFF: Yeah (laughter). What else can you do when you're hugged by a...

GROSS: ...After he takes you in his big embrace.

GROFF: (Laughter) exactly.

GROSS: Yeah.

GROFF: I remember when we were in LA and Joe Penhall, who was the writer of the show, was talking about that moment, and he said, you know, I just had this image of - what if the final image of the first season was a serial killer embracing our hero? What if he just is, like - it ends in this kind of hug? And then, you know, David took it and ran with it and created what he created. But I just love the idea of that.

GROSS: What kind of research did you do for the role?

GROFF: I started by reading the book "Mindhunter," written by John Douglas, who my character is inspired by. And he really lays it all out in that book, just sort of specifically his journey but also emotionally the kind of toll that talking to the serial killers - and he even says more so talking to the victims - had on him in his life. And he did have a total mental and physical breakdown.

And then we had, like, rehearsal in Pittsburgh, so - which was great. I was doing "Hamilton" when I got the part, and then I left early to go to LA and to Pittsburgh. And so then we had a couple of weeks of rehearsal with David, and then we jumped right in.

GROSS: So you were in the cast of "Hamilton" on Broadway when you got the part for "Mindhunter." Let's talk a little bit about "Hamilton." So you played King George, aka the white guy in the cast.

GROFF: Yes, (laughter) exactly, exactly.

GROSS: And you're the king, and the whole Revolutionary War is about cutting ties with you. So you're, like, the bad guy, but you're also, like, the comic relief in the show. So how come your character is funny as opposed to more of a threat?

GROFF: It's this idea that Lin had that King George would sing the equivalent of kind of a breakup song. You know, it's called "You'll Be Back." And so the moment when we see King George is the first kind of comedy moment in this show, and there hasn't been one up to that point.

And it's interesting because I think the audience watching this show is digesting a lot. They're digesting a lot of words because of the rapping, and they're also seeing these historical figures visually in a way that they've never experienced them before. We're used to seeing pictures of them as old white men, and here they are young, vibrant and the opposite of white.

And so when King George comes out about 20 minutes into the first act - and then he comes out, and you just immediately know what his perspective is because we all know the history. And then he sings this sort of Beatles-esque song. So it's this melody that's uncomplicated and familiar. And then on top of all of it, Lin throws in this (laughter) idea of, you know what? Yeah, I know you've left me, but you'll be back. And it's that sort of passive-aggressive British thing where he's talking about killing your friends and family but sort of ending it with (singing) da-da-da da-da (ph), you know? It's this, like, sweet, kind of jaunty melody. So I think all of that put together provides the humor of that moment.

GROSS: Well, we should hear you sing, as King George, "You'll Be Back," the breakup song that (laughter) you were referring to. So this is my guest, Jonathan Groff, in the original cast recording of "Hamilton."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'LL BE BACK")

GROFF: (As King George, singing) You say the price of my love is not a price that you're willing to pay. You cry in your tea which you hurl in the sea when you see me go by. Why so sad? Remember; we made an arrangement when you went away. Now you're making me mad. Remember; despite our estrangement, I'm your man. You'll be back soon. You'll see. You'll remember you belong to me. You'll be back. Time will tell. You'll remember that I served you well. Oceans rise. Empires fall. We have seen each other through it all. And when push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love. La-da-da da-da. Da-da da-da di-ah-da. Da-da da-da di-ah-da (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So that's Jonathan Groff in the cast recording of "Hamilton" as King George. You should describe what you wore onstage for that song.

GROFF: Right, OK, so it was exactly what you see in pictures of King George. So it was the white wig - the white powdered wig, a giant crown, a huge cape covering the, like, king outfit. I also had a scepter (laughter) that I hid underneath my cape that I revealed at a particular moment during the song. So it's a very opulent, giant costume - a sensible, you know, inch-and-a-half heel. Paul Tazewell is the costume director - incredible.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROFF: It's one of those parts that, like, just works. You know, I joined the company actually off-Broadway. Brian d'Arcy James originated the role. And a week after the show opened, he had to leave to do another show. So I ended up doing the show downtown for two months, replacing him. And I had no real rehearsal. I rehearsed for about a day and then went into the show. And so when I went into the show, I had no British accent. I had no idea what I was doing.

But the material is so great that it got - you know, it was such a lesson because I - Lin jokes with me. He was like, it was (laughter) - the first week in the show, it was like I was doing the high school play. I just had no sense of character. I just came out in the costume and sang the song and walked off stage. And through the course of the first month, it was kind of like a rehearsal process in front of the audience, which was really awesome and really interesting. But it was a testament to the material that even without any sort of sense of what I was doing in those initial weeks, that you could come out there, and the song just kills.

GROSS: I think maybe in part because of the costume, King George comes off a little bit like Queen George.

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: Its funny you say that because I feel like that maybe is a little bit of my added element to the character (laughter).

GROSS: OK, so tell me about that. Tell me about that.

GROFF: Yeah, because - it's interesting because when I originally saw the show, I saw Brian d'Arcy James. And I was pulling my hair out a little bit because he came out kind of like Napoleon. You know, he's got these hilarious giant eyebrows. The crown, like, sits on top of his eyebrows. And he's got these legs that just, like, are innately funny when he walks out - and just the expression on his face. And he just was hilarious in this broad, kind of genius, vaudevillian way. And I thought to myself, I can't do that. I don't know. I wonder why they hired me. He's a totally different physical type than me. He's older than me. We're just completely different beings.

And when I jumped into the show, the sort of revelation that I had was - I was watching these clips of Barbra Streisand on YouTube, these old clips from her television special from, like, the very early '60s when she was, like, 22 years old or something - and this one clip in particular of her singing this song "When The Sun Comes Out." And the newscaster goes, ladies and gentlemen, once again, Barbra Streisand. And she walks out. And it's one shot. There's no cutaways. And she comes all the way down center. And she sings the song. And it's like she's having sex with herself with her own voice...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROFF: ...Is what it feels like to me while I'm watching this. It's just - she has extreme power and control. And there's this sensuality that she has while she's singing. And I thought, you know what? I'm going to [expletive] myself with my own voice as King George.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROFF: And that is the energy that I'm going to bring to my performance. And so perhaps the kind of, like, the vibe that you were getting when you say it's more of a Queen George than a King George is me trying to channel my inner Barbra Streisand.

GROSS: That's really funny. So you mentioned that the song that you sing is kind of British Invasion. But I have to say, the melody reminds me of The Monkees' song "Daydream Believer." Do you know that song?

GROFF: (Singing) "Daydream Believer" - yeah, of course.

GROSS: But it's the first part that really reminds me of it.

GROFF: Oh, wait; sing the first part for me. How does it go?

GROSS: Very much like the melody.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I would sing it, but I would just be mocked.

GROFF: (Laughter).

GROSS: And I don't remember the words. But it's the same melody.

GROFF: Wait; I have to - you have to...

GROSS: Wait; I'm going to look it up. Hang on. Hang on. OK, (singing) I could hide beneath the wings of the bluebird as she sings. (Laughter) I'm so off-key.

GROFF: OK, first of all, Terry, you have great pitch.

GROSS: No, I have terrible pitch. But that's similar, isn't it?

GROFF: (Humming) And it's like (singing) you'll be back. Soon you'll see. You'll remember - yes, it's very similar.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROFF: I never even - I sort of had forgotten about the opening of that song, but you're exactly right.

GROSS: And The Monkees...

GROFF: It's very similar.

GROSS: And The Monkees are kind of like the fake British Invasion.

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: Totally, totally. It's like a rip-off of a rip-off.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, it's funny. So what was it like to be the white guy in the cast of "Hamilton"?

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: Incredible. It was great. It's so funny you say that because at one point, they gave us - somebody - I think it was one of the dancers. I think it was Betsy, who funnily was another - like, the other white person in "Hamilton" in the ensemble. But she gave us all the Ta-Nehisi Coates book "Between The World And Me." And I did a lot of reading backstage because I was only on stage for nine minutes.

And I read that book, and I was like, oh, my God, I really am representing, like, white supremacy in so many ways in this show - being the king and then also funnily enough only working for nine minutes while everybody else is, like, busting their ass onstage. So it was weirdly symbolic in many ways.

GROSS: So I find it really interesting that, you know, adults and teenagers who love "Hamilton" and were obsessed with "Hamilton" - while that's going on, there's children who are obsessed (laughter) with "Frozen" and listening to that over and over in the same way that other people are listening to "Hamilton" over and over. And you're on both of those. That must have been odd for you to have these two separate identities - you know, one in a hip-hop musical and the other in an animated kid's musical, also knowing that people were obsessed with both of them and listening to them over and over.

GROFF: It's so cool. You never know if something's going to be a success and then in the particular case of "Hamilton" and "Frozen," like, a kind of worldwide phenomenon. You know, it's all about timing and luck. For me, it's especially cool because I grew up in Pennsylvania dreaming of being on Broadway. I also was Mary Poppins for Halloween when I was 3 years old and dressed up like Peter Pan for two Halloweens in a row. So I was a big Disney kid.

GROSS: So I have to ask you. When you're dressed up as Mary Poppins for Halloween, did your parents think, oh, my God, he's dressing as a girl. What does that mean?

GROFF: (Laughter) I know you would think that when I eventually came out, they were like, I think we knew at 3 when you wanted to be Mary Poppins.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROFF: But they were shocked. But it's really, like - I still thank my mom to this day for letting me do it. It didn't even - she didn't bat an eye. She was just all about letting us express ourselves however we wanted to, which was amazing.

GROSS: Were you singing...

GROFF: As far as I can...

GROSS: ...At age 3?

GROFF: I was singing at age 3. There's a video of me singing, you know, just "A Spoonful Of Sugar" with - holding my carpet bag and dressed as Mary Poppins.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROFF: And as Cinderella, I dressed - I went through, like, a very intense drag phase from I would say, like, 3 to 5.

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: From 3 to 5, very - I was Cinderella in my own little corner, you know, really intense. And now I'm gay, but I don't have that that deep, like, drag desire anymore. It's like I did it, you know, from 3 to 5. And then it's not something that's been calling to me in recent years. But I guess you never know.

GROSS: So you did the voice in "Frozen" both of Kristoff and the reindeer Sven. Can you talk about getting the voices?

GROFF: Yeah. I had never done voiceover work before. And it's interesting because the role - the character of Kristoff, when you really step back and think about it, is a little bit of a psychopath in that he speaks in his voice. And then he spends so much time alone in the woods with his reindeer that he speaks on behalf of his reindeer, which I guess in some ways seems psychotic.

But then now that I'm talking about it, a lot of people have weird pet voices for their pets - right? - where you sort of - you go like this, and you talk like this. Or you talk like - you know, it's, like, that weird thing that we have for our cats and dogs. And so we were exploring the world of that and did a bunch of - we tried a bunch of different voices and then landed on the one that is Sven. (As Sven) It kind of sounds like this...

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: ...Which I - part of the joy of "Frozen" has been 'cause kids, you know, between 3 and 6 - their parents were like, this is Jonathan. He's the voice of Kristoff in "Frozen." And they kind of look at me with this blank stare like, no, he's not. Like, he's not blonde. He's not a cartoon. I have no idea what you're talking about. But I do make voice memos for kids. And they kind of - they freak out about that where I talk as Kristoff and then break into the Sven voice. So that's been fun.

GROSS: Can you give me an example of how that sounds?

GROFF: I feel like this. I feel like - (as Kristoff) hey, Terry. What's up? This is Kristoff from the movie "Frozen." And I'm here with my friend Sven. Say hi, Sven. (As Sven) Hi, Terry. It's me, Sven. I'm such a fan of your work. And then we would sing, like, (as Kristoff, singing) reindeers are better than people. Sven, don't you think that's true? (As Sven, singing) Yeah, people will beat you and curse you and - and we would just, like, sing the whole song for you in the voice memo. You get the idea.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's so great.

GROFF: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, I have to ask you. You didn't come out to your parents or publicly till you were in your 20s, until I think after you were in "Spring Awakening." Do I have that right?

GROFF: Yeah, correct, correct.

GROSS: And so it's interesting. Like, Broadway seems to me like it would be one of the most safe places in all of entertainment to come out because, I mean, like, historically, there have been so many gay men, you know, on stage and behind the scenes in Broadway.

GROFF: Totally.

GROSS: So did it - were you not ready, or did it not feel comfortable enough?

GROFF: Well, it's sort of - it was sort of a combination of things. And really, it's specific, as it is to everyone sort of...

GROSS: I didn't mean that in any kind of critical way. I just meant, like, that's...

GROFF: Oh, my God, I don't feel that you were being critical at all. No, oh, my God.

GROSS: Yeah, I - it's just, like, that's a relatively safe space, as far as things go.

GROFF: Are you kidding me? I - yeah, it's, like, everyone here is gay.

GROSS: Exactly, right (laughter).

GROFF: Wouldn't - isn't this, like, easiest place to - I know exactly what you're talking about. Oh, my God, no, it - but specifically, you know, I grew up in Lancaster, Pa., moved to New York when I was 19, and I immediately started dating someone who was also from this - my same hometown. And we were together for 3 and a half years, and he was my - if you could see me, I'm doing air quotes right now. He was my roommate, right? And so we had this kind of great - I mean, great - I say that, you know, in that it was appropriate for our situation and what I needed in that moment, where within the four walls of my apartment, we could be in this relationship. But then outside, I didn't have to define who I was.

And so when I was 20 years old, I got cast in "Spring Awakening" and got swept up in this experience where, you know, it was kind of tunnel vision. We were working. It was nonstop. We were all really young. And even throughout the course of that - you know, I did that show for about two years in total, including off-Broadway. I was completely in the closet, and I was able to live this very compartmentalized life where I would go to work. And weirdly, the show was very sexual and about sexual awakening, and I was having sex with Lea Michele onstage and getting her pregnant. And, you know - it was very sexual show. And yet I was very asexual in my life, and then I could go home to my boyfriend, and we could be gay together in the sort of four walls of our apartment.

And then this sounds kind of cheesy, but when the show was over, I had - I was playing this character Melchior Gabor who was a rebel, and who, you know, was a person that didn't let the world define him, and who stood up to authority and was this kind of revolutionary. And I'm in life - still am to a certain extent but especially at that time - was this kind of smiley people pleaser who was afraid always of rocking the boat or creating waves in any way.

And when I left "Spring Awakening," I came out of that experience feeling like - this is - sounds so, like, wanky and actory (ph), but it's true. Like, I'd, like, cultivated this side of my personality that hadn't existed before. And I left "Spring Awakening," and within a month of leaving the show, I came out to my parents and to my friends and broke up with my boyfriend and moved into an apartment of my own and completely changed my life.

GROSS: Were your parents surprised when you came out?

GROFF: My dad was shocked, and my brother was shocked, but my mom had an inkling. So it was, like, a mixed - it was a mixed reaction.

GROSS: When your father was shocked, was he upset shocked or just surprised shocked?

GROFF: Weirdly, he was not upset shocked. He was so - this - it was kind of amazing, actually. I'd - had come out to him, and he sort of took a long pause. And he was like, so that's what you've been dealing with. He was very - you know, he created a lot of space for me and I'm sure was having a lot of feelings on his own. But in the actual moment of coming out, he was really, like, really amazing to me.

GROSS: You come from a pretty religious background, right? Your father is Mennonite, and your mother Methodist.

GROFF: Wow, yes. I'm impressed that you know that. Yeah, my dad is Mennonite, and my mom is Methodist. We were raised Methodist. But we're - but my dad's whole side of the family is Mennonite, which is, like, watered-down Amish.

GROSS: Yeah, but, like, Amish people usually wear - you know, like, the women have - often have bonnets. The men grow long beards. They don't use technology.

GROFF: Right, right.

GROSS: They live in their own community cut off from the rest of the world except...

GROFF: Right.

GROSS: ...Maybe for the farmers markets (laughter).

GROFF: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: ...That they come out for with, like, fabulous produce.

GROFF: (Laughter).

GROSS: So but Mennonites don't, like, dress from another century in the same way.

GROFF: Correct. Yeah, Mennonites drive cars and have electricity. And there - it's - this sort of connection in a lot of ways is that a lot of Mennonites in Lancaster - there are a lot of farmers. And so there's this sort of bridge between the Mennonite and the Amish community because the Mennonites are still, you know, conservative and religious. But - and the Amish can ride in cars but not drive them or own them. So the Mennonites kind of end up becoming this bridge between the Amish and the modern world.

So, like, my grandmother, who was full Mennonite, would have Amish women, you know, cleaning her house and working in her garden. Then I would mow my grandmother's lawn, and then I would drive the Amish women back to their farm. So I was, like, the Amish lady chauffeur.

GROSS: So you went to church a lot as a child.

GROFF: Every week, yeah, every week. But that was Methodist, so it was sort of like - that was my mom's church, so it was more just kind of your typical American Sunday school, clocking in, clocking out.

GROSS: Were you taught anything in church or in Sunday school about homosexuality? In other words, some people are taught, like, that is a terrible sin.

GROFF: Yes. I do - I have one vague memory of being in, like, a church meeting where it came up and, like, gays came up, but it's very vague. And I remember - but the memory I have is that it's wrong. And they shouldn't be - you shouldn't be allowed to be gay. I also have this very vivid memory - not related to church - of going to Cape May with my family. And I loved going into bookstores as a kid. I would always go into, like, the mall. Whenever we went to the mall, I would go to the bookstore. And at Cape May, there's a lot of bookstores. There's a lot of gay bookstores. And I must have been, like, 8 or 9 years old or something, and I have this vivid memory of, like, begging my parents to go to this - to let me walk into this bookstore.

And I walk down the sidewalk, and I touched the doorknob of the bookstore, and above the doorknob was a rainbow flag. And I ripped my hand off the doorknob, rubbed my hand on my pants and, like, ran back to my parents and was like, never mind, I don't want to go in that bookstore, which I just - somehow it's so crazy to me that I knew that rainbow meant gay. And I somehow thought by touching the doorknob, I might catch it (laughter) - and knew that it was bad and didn't speak about it with my parents. Like, I'm afraid I might be gay because I touched that doorknob but just sort of - it was my own kind of internal experience. But I don't remember how I learned it, but I remember knowing it.

GROSS: Did you already have an idea that you were gay?

GROFF: Yes, for sure. I sort of - you know, I always knew. I always knew that I was gay for as far back as I can remember. And obviously, you know, judging from that moment, it was sort of like this ominous thing that I was probably going to catch at some point.

GROSS: Right.

GROFF: Because I used to try and - I used to try and trick myself even in, like, in middle school and high school while I was, like, fantasizing, you know, like as you do as a teenager. I would think about men and then at the last second think about women to try and, like, trick my brain to flip the switch to kind of, you know, try and make myself straight.

GROSS: It didn't work, did it (laughter)?

GROFF: As Ed Kemper says in "Mindhunter," it didn't take.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did - you know, your parents are both athletes. Your mother is a gym teacher - right? - and your father I think was a basketball player in school.

GROFF: Yeah, yeah, both athletes, yeah.

GROSS: Did they give you, like, bats and balls at first before they realized, no, it's about the stage, not about, like, the football field or the baseball diamond?

GROFF: Yeah, it's sort of - it's the complicated - it's, like, this sort of yin and yang in a positive and negative about growing up for me was that I had this weird shame about being gay that I must have learned from my community and from my parents and from my family. But at the same time, both of my parents - they did, you know, like offer me up sports if it was something I was interested in, but they had this amazing instinctual ability to allow both my brother and I to follow our passions.

My dad was expected to be - to, like, run the dairy farm because he was the oldest of his family, but he ended up training and racing horses because that was his passion. And my mom, you know, loved teaching and loved sports and loved phys ed, and so that was where she ended up going in life. They both ended up doing things that they loved, and so they wanted to cultivate that with my brother and I.

And so even though they never I think had seen a play really - I think my mom had seen it play, certainly not my dad. When I was into acting and wanted to be Mary Poppins and wanted to be Cinderella and wanted to be Peter Pan, they sort of let me go for it.

GROSS: Well, your mother had to drive you around to auditions because you were actually in shows as a kid, right?

GROFF: Yeah, exactly. Not until I was - my first one was 14, so I wasn't, like, a child actor. But yes, once I was in - had just left middle school, I started doing community theater and stuff. That was a big thing - driving, which is - you say that. It does sound like a small thing, driving your kids around. But it's a huge commitment. And it is the gateway between me having the life that I had and not is the simple thing of having my parents drive me to and from the theater.

That simple act changed the whole course of my life because they were driving me to this theater called the Fulton Opera House in Lancaster Pa., where I sort of learned about moving to New York and learned about theater. And if I hadn't had that experience, my entire life would be different because I moved to New York right after high school. And I wouldn't have done that had I not had the experience of working in that theater in my hometown.

GROSS: Did you have an audition number that you would always do as a kid?

GROFF: I sang "If I Were A Rich Man" for "Fiddler On The Roof."

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: That was my first audition song.

GROSS: Because you're half Mennonite.

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: Yeah (laughter), exactly, exactly.

GROSS: So you had to do all the idle-diddle stuff.

GROFF: Yeah, yeah, I did. I did the daidle-diddle-daidle-dum (ph). Yeah, the whole - yeah, I did "If I Were A Rich Man" - it's so weird - as a 14-year-old, and that was my, like, go-to.

GROSS: That's so funny. Like you're - as a 14-year-old, you're playing this older man on a - this older Jewish man on a shtetl.

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: I know, right?

GROSS: Why did you choose that?

GROFF: It worked.

GROSS: Of all the songs in the world, why "If I Were A Rich Man"?

GROFF: I just loved "Fiddler On The Roof." I loved "Fiddler On The Roof." It's so funny.

GROSS: Well, it's a great show, yeah.

GROFF: Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter) So your big breakthrough part as a kid was getting to play Rolfe in a production of "The Sound Of Music." Was this a road show?

GROFF: Yes. So I did it at this theater in my hometown, at the Fulton Opera House when I was 15. And then I did the nonunion national tour of "The Sound Of Music." That was my first job. Right after my senior year of high school, I went on the road, and we did a bus-and-truck tour, a lot of one-nighters, every small city outside of a big city. It was the - it was an incredible experience, I have to say, and the perfect thing to do right out of high school.

GROSS: So you were old enough that you didn't need to be escorted by an adult.

GROFF: Correct, correct, thankfully. And it's interesting because Rolfe is only in, you know, 15 minutes of the show. He sings you are 16 going on 17 and then through a series of small vignettes becomes a Nazi.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROFF: But I was so excited to be on this - in this show that I would sit in the wings and watch the show. I would say for, you know, about half of the performances a week, I would sit in the wings and watch the show, which is what I ended up doing with "Hamilton." I would sit in the audience actually in "Hamilton" and watch the show because I just wanted to be a part of it. And it was so exciting to me to kind of be around and to watch it.

GROSS: OK.

GROFF: I learned a lot by watching. I never had formal acting training. Every - all the training that I've had has been from on-the-job training, and most of it has been from watching other people act.

GROSS: So we had talked about coming out when you were in your 20s after having been in "Spring Awakening" - right? - after the show was over.

GROFF: Yeah, exactly, yep.

GROSS: After - yeah, so - but then just, like, a couple of years ago or so, you were starring in the HBO series "Looking," which is about a group of gay friends. And it's about their private lives, so there's - you know, there's a lot of sex in it, a lot of relationships and sex. So it's - it must have been so interesting for you to - after coming out and, you know, waiting a bit to do it - to be in such a kind of totally gay (laughter)...

GROFF: Totally.

GROSS: ...Series, yeah.

GROFF: I thought - and I did - you know, when the project initially came across my desk or my laptop, I guess, since I don't have a desk, I thought, yeah, it's one thing...

GROSS: You don't have a desk.

GROFF: (Laughter) I mean, I guess I have a table that's, like, the table that I eat at that's also...

GROSS: Oh, that's what I have, yeah.

GROFF: ...Works as a desk, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, OK, I got it, yeah.

GROFF: It's a combo.

GROSS: Yeah.

GROFF: But, yeah, I thought, you know, it's one thing to come out as gay as an actor. I came out because I was in love initially. And I thought - because there's this weird stigma of, like, if you come out, will it affect your career? Will it not? There's this kind of unspoken thing. No one had ever told me not to come out, but there's that energy in the air. And I thought, you know what? I would rather be in love. This feeling of love is so great and so deep. I would rather be in love than worry and obsess about my career. That just seems so depressing. So I thought, let the chips fall where they may, and I'm just going to do this because it feels better to be in love.

And then when "Looking" came along I thought, oh, wow, OK. It's one thing to come out as an actor, and then it's another thing to, you know, have anal sex on screen and talk about gay issues and all of - you know, be so gay on TV. Will this really, you know, put a big G-A-Y stamped across the top of my forehead that I can only play gay roles for the rest of my life? But the movie "Weekend" was so - blew my mind in such an - like, such a deep, incredible way when I saw it at the IFC here in New York.

GROSS: That's the movie that was made - I think it was written - was it written or directed by the person who did "Looking?"

GROFF: Both.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, OK.

GROFF: Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, who was our main director and co-writer with Michael Lannan of "Looking." And I just - that movie just rocked me to my core, that any kind of weird insecurity I had about playing gay on HBO - I just kind of shelved it and thought, you know what? This guy is so extraordinary, and I just believe in him so much that I don't care. I want to work with him, and I want to do this. And ultimately what ended up happening for me - and it's one of my favorite things I've worked on, the most personal thing I've worked on, one of the things I'm most proud of in my life. It was this show.

And it also was so - it was such - it changed my life because I got to live in the world of gay identity and talking about gay identity. And for someone, you know, kind of in this sort of, like, gray generation where the generation ahead of me experienced, you know, the '80s and the AIDS crisis and a lot of the people in the generation behind me have grown up - you know, grow up with pansexuality and bisexuality - and there's obviously still issues, but there's - everyone's more comfortable with being out of the closet. And kids in my high school are out of the closet, which is unfathomable to me.

And so for me, getting the opportunity to spend those three years expressing myself as a gay man and kind of just, like, living in that world and talking about gay issues was truly life-altering for me and made me so much more comfortable in my own skin in a way that I didn't anticipate when I said yes to the show.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear a scene from "Looking"? And this is from the opening episode of "Looking," and you've just found out that your ex-boyfriend - you guys broke up about four months earlier - is getting married, and you're invited. And you're trying to figure out, do you go? What are you supposed to do in a situation like that? So here's a scene from "Looking" with my guest, Jonathan Groff.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOOKING")

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) I just think it's really weird invite your ex-boyfriend to your bachelor party, right?

FRANKIE J ALVAREZ: (As Agustin Lanuez) You kidding me? The fact that they're even having a joint one is so horrible.

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) Right.

ALVAREZ: (As Agustin Lanuez) I don't even where to start.

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) I think the only reason that he invited me is because he thought I wasn't actually going to show up, which kind of makes me want to show up to show him that I'm totally fine with the fact that he's getting married even though it kind of makes me feel a little weird.

MURRAY BARTLETT: (As Dom Basaluzzo) Why do you even care? You dumped him.

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) I know. I know we broke up for a reason. But, you know, things are complicated. And he has...

ALVAREZ: (As Agustin Lanuez) Yeah, the reason was because he was boring.

BARTLETT: (As Dom Basaluzzo) Exactly.

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) Yeah, I know that he was boring. But now he met Gabe (ph), and four months later, they're getting married. How does that even happen?

BARTLETT: (As Dom Basaluzzo) Well, is he hot?

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) Is Gabe hot?

BARTLETT: (As Dom Basaluzzo) Yeah.

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) He's a little portly...

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) ...Which is not an insult.

BARTLETT: (As Dom Basaluzzo) Oh, my God, you're such a bitch.

ALVAREZ: (As Agustin Lanuez) Yeah, right.

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) It's not an insult, no. He's a very sweet guy. He's just slightly round.

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) I've been seeing them. They've been posting pictures of themselves on Facebook to show how proud they are that they're getting engaged. And it makes me nauseous, but I can't stop looking. So if I go to this party, one of you's coming with me.

ALVAREZ: (As Agustin Lanuez) Well, definitely Dom. You know I got to work at studio tomorrow. Frank's going to meet me. Oh, he should be coming over tonight I think.

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) You have to go with me. Are you going to come?

BARTLETT: (As Dom Basaluzzo) Is it an open bar?

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) Yes, yes, it's an open bar, yes.

BARTLETT: (As Dom Basaluzzo) Right, then.

GROFF: (As Patrick Murray) Thank you - joint, please.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: That was my guest, Jonathan Groff, in a scene from the first episode of HBO's "Looking."

GROFF: I have to say, too, like, one of the things I loved about that - that's such a great scene to pick as a soundbite because it perfectly encapsulates the show because it's telling the story of a world in which gay marriage is now legal. And it's also asking these questions of, now that gay marriage is legal - it's the sort of low-key political moments of "Looking" where, do we have bachelor parties?

Is it weird when it's two guys? You know, it's, like - and they're having a joint bachelor party. Is that stupid? Is that what we do now? It's trying to define who we are and how we relate to each other in the modern-day gay experience.

GROSS: So one of the things you're preparing to do - there's this - a long-running series called "Lyrics & Lyricists" in which a singer or a group of singers celebrate the lyrics of a great songwriter. And you're going to be doing a new, revamped version of "Lyrics & Lyricists." What are some of your favorite songs that you most like to sing? You - like, you've done a cabaret act. Like, what's your ideal cabaret act?

GROFF: Oh, God, that's such a good question. I'm always just trying to be Sally Bowles in my life.

GROSS: (Laughter) But she's not supposed to be a good singer. Sally Bowles is the singer in "Cabaret," and she's not supposed to be...

GROFF: But that's the thing. I guess...

GROSS: In spite of the fact that she was played by Liza Minnelli in the movie, she's really not supposed to be very good. So why are you aspiring to be her?

GROFF: And I think that's why I'm drawn to it because to me, Sally Bowles singing - you're right, with the exception of Liza Minnelli, who is an incredible singer in that movie, it's that idea of - like, when I was a kid in high school, I used to turn out all the lights in my bedroom and, in the dark, sing and pretend that I was singing in front of a - in, like, a jazz club or something - and just expressing myself. And it kind of has nothing to do with being a great singer.

It has everything to do with just, like, leaving your heart onstage. And that, to me, is what - that's, to me, what I like about - like, in these cabarets that I do, it's different. It's honestly different music every time and different songs because it's whatever is kind of speaking to me in any particular moment that's going to make me have that feeling of laying my beating heart onstage (laughter).

GROSS: Jonathan Groff, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

GROFF: It's such an honor to get to talk to you.

GROSS: Jonathan Groff recorded in October a couple of weeks after the release of the Netflix series "Mindhunter" in which he stars as an FBI agent. All 10 episodes are available for viewing. The show's been renewed for a second season. Later this month, he'll do a salute to the songs of Bobby Darin at New York's 92nd Street Y "Lyrics & Lyricists" series. And that wraps up our holiday series.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we get back to new interviews and talk about Alzheimer's disease - what we know about how the disease attacks the brain and destroys memory and what researchers are investigating that might delay its onset and reduce the damage it causes. My guest will be British neuroscientist and researcher Joseph Jebelli, author of the new book "In Pursuit Of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer's." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross, hoping that 2018 is a healthy and fulfilling year for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.