Saturday, August 15, 2009

Interview with Jonathan Groff, Star of Taking Woodstock and Soon-To-Be Household Name

Jonathan Groff: Hi Sasha.

Sasha Perl-Raver: Hi Jonathan. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

JG: Thank you.

SPR: I’ve been describing you as the Kate Hudson of this Almost Famous. You are going to be such a massive movie star. Are you aware of that fact?

(He erupts with laughter) Wow! That’s very nice. Thank you.

You know journalists; we don’t have to gush. We’re mean, we’re critical. You were unbelievably charismatic. Is that how Ang Lee got you for the part? Did he see you in Spring Awakening and decide to include you in the movie?

He didn’t. It’s actually a crazy sort of story. I put myself on tape for this movie with Avy Kaufman who is this incredible casting director who does a lot of movies with Ang, among other things. I put myself on tape which we, as actors, do all the time. You go, there’s this little digital camera and you put yourself on tape and it goes away to the universe and you never hear anything again (he laughs). I put myself on tape, actually it was a week after I’d left Spring Awakening and I got a call, literally, two hours after the audition from my agent. He said ‘Avy loved your tape and she fast tracked the tape to Ang and Ang thinks it’s great and he needs a couple of days to think about it but he thinks that you’re the guy.’ And I got a call a couple of days later telling me I’d got the job having never even met him, just from this tape, which was insane.

But that makes perfect sense, having seen the movie. I think that is what’s going to start happening. Have you already started getting other calls for other parts or are you holding off until the movie comes out to decide that you’re going to do next?

Yeah. I’ve gotten no calls. I’m just waiting to see what happens after this guy comes out and I feel really lucky because, thank you for saying I did a good job but I also got to play this guy named Michael Lang. I got to spend a lot of time with him in real life. He was very generous with me and I got to spend the weekend with him and his family and pick his brain or whatever. And he is this magnetic, mystical, beautiful, amazing human being. So I was just trying to do him justice because he is this unbelievable person.

Did you know anything about him before accepting the part?

Well, when I went to the audition, before I auditioned, I watched the very famous Woodstock documentary which he’s featured in several times. He’s in like the first fifteen minutes and when he came on screen with his hair and his motorcycle and his leather vest and a cigarette coming out of his mouth I was like ‘That’s the guy that I’m auditioning for?’ (laugh) I was totally blown away. He’s such an incredible person and character and sort of blows you away in that documentary and so I was totally freaked out when I saw that because he’s so charismatic in that documentary. So I’d known him for the audition and for that but I hadn’t known him before that. But people that really know Woodstock, this was part of the challenge of the movie, is people that really know Woodstock not only know the name Michael Lang and know what he did, but they also know what he looks like, how he walks, how he interacts with other people. He’s very beloved amongst the Woodstock community. So we really had a task in that we had to honor him and his genius and brilliance. Ang really wanted to capture his vibe. We really wanted to capture his vibe because he really is a special person.

Can you actually tell me a little bit more about working with Ang Lee once you got to set? Especially since you didn’t even have the opportunity to audition for him, that first day, walking up, that has to be almost crushing pressure.

I was so nervous. Yeah. Because I had never done any sort of movie before. Ever. This is my first one and I was so nervous to meet him. Literally all of that melted away our first meeting which lasted about three hours over at Focus Features. A, because he’s such a nice guy. He’s so unassuming. He’s so humble and ego-less. He puts you at ease the minute you shake his hand. He instantly made me feel relaxed and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I know this is your first film. I’ve done a lot of people’s first films and you have nothing to worry about. I’m going to hold your hand through this process. You’re going to be totally fine. I know that you can do it. I know you’re going to be great. And feel free to ask any questions. No question is too small to ask. I totally understand what you’re going through.’ So that was great for starters, so have Ang Lee say that to you. And then he drops the four-inch, three-ring binder of research on my lap of articles and history and pictures and gave me fifteen films to watch and like five mix CDs of music from the time period he felt was important to listen to. And then it immediately became out the work, creating this character and making this movie. I get really excited when all that stuff starts to happen. He expects you to do your homework and really demands a lot of you. He gave me three books, I was reading the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, there was all this stuff to get ready for it as well. So, he gives you all this research and sort of the next phase of working with him is the rehearsal. I would come to upstate New York where we they had our production offices where we were shooting and we would have work sessions. Dimitri and I and Ang would sit there and read through the lines and talk about, talk about what he wanted and just sort of speak through it, say the words out loud. There were a couple of times where I would sit there and do my lines and Ang would sit a couple of feet away from me and just stare at me, ‘cause I’m also trained in the theater so we express a little more to reach the last row of the balcony. And he would say, ‘Okay, you don’t have to show me so much. If you’re feeling it, I can see it in your eyes. If you’re feeling it, I can see it in your eyes’ he kept saying. Just incredible lessons that you’re learning from this master. We did that and that was great and the next phase was the actual shooting of the movie. He’s actually a lot like Michael Lang, he’s the leader that’s very quiet, doesn’t raise his voice and everyone instinctively just wants to please, wants to do what he says. Onset he was very calm, soft-spoken, and very specific about what he wanted, the kind of shots he wanted, how he wanted you to feel in the shots, what he wanted to see from you, but he also doesn’t talk as much onset. He really expects that you’ve done your homework, which, hopefully, I think we all did. He’s meticulous and obviously pays a lot of attention to detail. You end up feeling, before the first meeting with him that very first day when he dropped the binder on me, walking in there I was feeling very nervous, but the minute I met him, because of the way he is, I felt very safe. But you also feel safe because you’re doing a movie with Ang Lee, so you feel comfortable and confident to sort of just throws your hands in the air and do whatever he asks you to do because you know you’re working with this incredible artist.

And because Dimitri was carrying his first feature, I’m sure there was a sense of comradery there as well.

Absolutely. Absolutely. It was even more of a mountain to climb for Dimitri because he’d never really acted before, it was all stand up. So not only was this his first big movie, it was a major career change in a way. It’s a totally different skill set and a totally different mindset and I really think he’s amazing in the movie. He’s sort of a personal hero for me because he took everything with a grain of salt and remained positive and was very hard working, never threw a diva tantrum. You’ve just got to love someone like that who just jumps in and has no previous experience whatsoever and just goes for it. I feel lucky that I got to work with him and got to know someone like him because he’s such a good person.

You’re back doing Shakespeare in the Park for the second time. Was Hair before or after you filmed this?

Let’s see, was it before or after? (he muses) I got cast in the movie in May, we started rehearsal for Hair in July and we ran Hair in August and I actually left Hair early to go shoot this movie. I left Hair on a Saturday and we started shooting first thing on Monday morning or something. It was crazy, they sort of overlapped a little bit.

And did they bleed into each other in any way because you were immersed in this world of hippie-dom?

Yeah, I feel really lucky because a lot of that research that Ang gave me before we even started Hair rehearsals was totally appropriate for that project and vice versa. It was like my own personal Summer of ’69 last year. I was living in that time period for the whole summer. I was listening to the music and wearing wigs and the whole nine yards. The character I played in Hair and the character I played in Woodstock are totally different so there really aren’t any parallels there as far as the acting of it was concerned, but the backdrop of it and the vibe of it was absolutely beneficial that I got to experience both at the same time.

And what about now playing Dionysus this year in your return to the Park? Because there’s something about him, the idea of the God of Ecstasy, which absolutely could be paralleled to Michael Lang.

It’s so funny that you say that because I was just talking to my dad on the phone about a week ago and he was asking me how rehearsals were going and I was like ‘It’s so crazy because I never expected this, but I’m using a lot of Michael Lang in this character.’ I keep thinking about him, he keeps coming up for me in this project because Dionysus is famous for, when they performed the Greek tragedy in like 400 B.C. or whatever, they performed with masks on and the Dionysus mask had a grin. Even though he was doing all of these terrible, awful things, ripping peoples bodies apart, he always, on the outside, appeared very angelic and was grinning always, so I keep thinking of Michael’s grin and Michael’s angelic, mysterious, mystical smile.

Now, as you’re going off to do other things, have anyone spoken to you yet about being on Glee?

(He explodes with laughter) It’s so funny because Ryan Murphy is a friend of mine! I did a pilot for him about a year and a half ago for FX that never went and we became close on the set. I think he as well is a brilliant, brilliant director, writer, creator. I know him very well and, obviously, my greatest friend on the planet is the genius star of that show. I feel, indirectly, a part of it just because I’ve known about it for so long and know them both very well but, no, there hasn’t been any talk about me appearing on it yet.

If you had the opportunity to create your own dream concert the way Michael Lang did, who would you bring together?

That is a brilliant question! Hmm, okay, let me just think about what’s in my CD played right now. Well, it would have to be outdoors because that’s part of the whole thing. I’ve been obsessed with Ray LaMontagne lately. Do you know him?

Oh my God! I just saw him at the Bowl a few weeks ago.

You did? Was it great?!?!

He’s not much of a showman, he didn’t talk between the songs but listening to his voice…Ohh! He drives me up the wall. I love him more than I love breath.

Oh my God! That’s so crazy! I do too and I’ve never seen him live. I would listen to ‘Til the Sun Goes Black CD every day before Spring Awakening. I would turn all the lights out in my dressing room and lay on the ground. I would listen to the song ‘Be Here Now’ every day because, as an artist, it’s the perfect thing to listen to because that was what I was trying to focus on. And the first day, this is going to blow your mind, the first day on the set of the movie, I was so nervous, obviously, because it was first day of the movie was the first day that I was working, it was the scene with Eugene Levy on the hill, and I go into the makeup trailer and the song that the makeup lady was playing in the trailer was 'Be Here Now.'

No! That’s like a sign!

I know! Isn’t that crazy?!?! It immediately put me at ease. I just felt like, this is where I’m supposed…it was a moment for sure.

Good luck with the movie. I have no doubt it’s going to make you a huge star.

Oh, you’re so nice. Thank you so much for everything.

Taking Woodstock opens August 28th, 2009

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