Words seem to come easily to wavy-haired Jonathan Groff, and his soft voice lacks the pretension one might expect from a 27-year-old who never studied acting per se but who became a Broadway star six years ago as Melchior Gabor in Broadway’s Spring Awakening. His eyes rarely break contact as he chats about collaborating with Alfred Molina in John Logan‘s Red at the Mark Taper Forum. It is his first time working with Molina.
“I have never worked with anyone like him before, “Groff says, paying homage to the 59-year-old British actor who morphs seamlessly between such disparate film characters as Diego Rivera in Frida, Comte de Reynaud in Chocolat and the mad scientist, Doc Ock, in Spider Man 2.
“I can tell you I have never been in a rehearsal with him where at least several times a day I do not get chills. The hair on the back of my neck totally stands up. He’s such a incredible actor.” The experience, he says, has been moving and inspiring. It also parallels the play itself. In Red, his character, Ken, is tutored by the much older 20th-century Russian painter, Mark Rothko (born Marcus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, 1903-1970).
It isn’t that Molina actively tutors Groff. “But I had to be on my game. [Director] Michael [Grandage, 2010 Tony Award for Red] wanted to get us on our feet because it’s such a technical piece.” Lots of moving parts. “But it’s like there’s no acting required. Fred told me that the play is so good that, on a good night, you’re just riding it. When you’re doing a play that isn’t so great, then you’re trying to figure out ways to approach it so that you feel like it’s working. But when the play is so good like John Logan’s play is, you don’t have to drum up some emotion. The words take you there.”
Molina (Art and The Cherry Orchard) has been in Rothko’s shoes before, first in London and then for two years on Broadway where he was nominated for a Tony Award. Rothko’s rage is aimed at the art world and, at times, toward Groff’s character. “Michael said to us in rehearsal, and Fred echoed it as well, that there is a cord between the two of us that lasts the whole evening, and it sort of changes its shape and tautness and how far away and close we are and connected or disconnected we are, but it’s always there. I’ve never experienced that before — just the two of us telling the story non-stop. It’s such a workout.”
Eddie Redmayne, whose last name — one might surmise — helped pin him as an ideal choice, performed the role of Ken opposite Molina’s Rothko on Broadway. Groff remembers seeing a performance. “My agent called me in January or February and said Eddie can’t do it in Los Angeles and Alfred Molina is still going to do it and they were interested in meeting with me. I jumped and read the play and just wept. I flew myself to New York, met with Michael on a lunch break from Evita, and read for him. And I got the job.”
He remembers being blown away by the Broadway production, even though he knew nothing about modern art in general or Rothko in particular.
Groff remembers the nerves he felt leading up to the first day of rehearsal in Studio A at the Center Theatre Group’s space across from the Music Center. Being off-book was an immense relief. He wondered, however, whether the “room will be open to my energy and my instincts or will I be more like a replacement for Eddie?”
He paraphrases playwright Logan, a three-time Academy Award nominee (Hugo, Gladiator and The Aviator) and recipient of the 2010 Tony for best play. “We’re all open to new interpretations and new stuff. And Fred echoed it as well. Michael said it, too.
“So on the first day Michael said we’d bring in some of the physical movement they learned from the previous production, like moving a bucket on a certain line so that everything else fits. But as for the emotional journey and the blocking, let’s be free and open.”
He also remembers Grandage saying that as a director, everything for him is always about forward motion. “It’s funny because he never goes back and repeats work. This is a first for him. But this play means too much to him. He wanted to work the Taper, too, because it’s such an amazing space. He’s very focused on what we can bring that’s new and what has changed in two years that will allow us to shed new light on it.”
When he first walked into the rehearsal space, Groff remembers seeing a lot of red paint on canvas and thinking, “Wow, we’re really doing this.” Grandage, he says, has this baptism-by-fire, sink-or-swim method. “You jump in staging right away and do your table work while you’re on your feet. If you have a question about a line, then we can talk about it when we get there. That’s been beneficial to me, to go in and physicalize it and not over-think it.”
The physicalization is pronounced because we see the mixing of paint. We see its application to canvas. We see artist and assistant respond to it. “I hammer canvases together and staple canvas while we’re doing the lines. We’re lifting paintings and putting them up. The timing is incredibly important.”
That Groff chose not to go to acting school put him in the right place at the right time. About seven years ago, New York City was looking for unseasoned actors and that search landed Groff in the role of 14-year-old Melchior Gabor opposite good friend Lea Michele‘s Wendla in Spring Awakening. While doing the musical, he also had a job on One Life to Live.
“I think everybody’s path is different,” Groff asserts. “Certainly as an artist, as an actor, there is no specific track. You don’t need a college degree to act. In my journey if I had gone to college I never would’ve done Spring Awakening. That job changed my life. It gave me a backbone of training, doing that show eight times a week for two years. It was a springboard for all of us who did that show” — including Michele, who later became a star of TV’s Glee, which also has employed Groff in 12 episodes, in the role of Jesse St. James.
Groff, who only weeks ago wrapped filming season two of the Starz original series, Boss, has given himself the equivalent of a bachelor’s, if not master’s, degree in acting. The star of Boss, Kelsey Grammer, “is a total master, I think, in the way that Fred is here. Kelsey just knows how to work the camera. He’s a pro.”
He applauds the show’s writing and admits the work wasn’t about the money. “It was not a bill-paying experience. It was genuinely about these interesting, complex characters and relationships. I felt really grateful to experience that.”
Maybe it’s because he is young and doesn’t have a family or a mortgage payment — conscious decisions on his part — “but because of that I’m able to do work that excites me artistically. I want to have as many experiences as I can and learn as much as I can. I don’t want to worry about the money right now. Maybe down the line in my career I’ll take a job for the money, but in this moment as a 27-year-old actor who’s done some good work but is, in a lot of ways, still starting out, I’m trying to do those learning jobs.”
He maintains studio apartments in New York City and Los Angeles. He believes NYC has a better theater reputation because it doesn’t have LA’s film and TV industry as attention-grabbing competition, and venues there are more centralized, with many of them within a 15-block radius. Groff’s New York theater experience isn’t limited to Broadway — he won a 2009 Off-Broadway Obie for performances in two Craig Lucas plays, Prayer for My Enemy and The Singing Forest.
However, he adds, “theater here [in LA] is really good! The other night a bunch of us went to Antaeus and saw Macbeth. Oh my God, it was so good!”
As for Groff’s ongoing continuing education, he traveled a few weeks ago to Houston, Texas to take in the Rothko Chapel, a contemplative space inspired by Rothko’s murals. “I wouldn’t have wanted to do that in high school. After Spring Awakening I took a trip to Italy, just because I was more curious about the world around me. When you get to explore your own curiosity, suddenly you go places you wouldn’t have cared about before. Now I’m learning about Rothko paintings and the time it takes to stare at one and I’m doing it because I want to. That’s really exciting to me.”
He made one other major trip inspired by a play. “I went to Greece for a week when I was doing [The Bacchae at] Shakespeare in the Park [in 2009]. I stood in the theater of Dionysus and delivered my opening monologue like a total nerd.”
Greece has its history, but so does Los Angeles and, within it, so does the Mark Taper Forum. “I’m thrilled to be doing a piece in this space which has so much history. Walking past the pictures of [Tony Award winners] Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle on the other wall… there’s a history here.”
And to work alongside Molina gives Groff a new benchmark. “I aspire to be like Alfred Molina in life, in art, the choices he’s made, the person he is. He’s top-notch, top-drawer, put him on a pedestal. He’s the greatest. I also have a great, deep, deep love for him. And at the end of the play, I’m not playing it — it’s just there.”
Red, presented by Center Theatre Group, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012. Opens August 12. Plays Tue-Sat 8 pm; Sun 1 pm and 6 pm. Tickets $30-55. www.centertheatregroup.org. 213-628-2772.
***All Red production photos by Craig Schwartz, except where noted