Actor leaves coveted Hamilton role for spot in Netflix murder drama
NEW YORK His TV fans know him as Patrick in HBO’s Looking, and as Jesse St. James in Glee. His movie fans know him as the voice of Kristoff in Frozen. And his theatre fans? They know him as the pouty, thoroughly annoyed King George in Hamilton.
Now, fans will see Jonathan Groff in an entirely new sort of role — as an FBI agent, trying to get into the mind of serial killers, in the new Netflix series Mindhunter.
The series takes place in the ’70s — think Son of Sam and Charles Manson — and is produced, and directed in part, by David Fincher, who knows his way around a gritty crime story, having directed Gone Girl and Zodiac. It’s based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas, who spent many years developing psychological profiling to probe the minds of the country’s worst killers.
Groff sat down recently to discuss the part, and working with Fincher.
Q This character’s a departure for you. Had you ever wondered what it was like to be in law enforcement?
A No. Being an actor and artist feels like the opposite. We’re emotional, we’re expressive, we’re empathetic, and playing someone in law enforcement seems like the antithesis of that — which made it really exciting. Also the character of Holden is inquisitive, really interested in bringing psychology and sociology to law enforcement. He’s kind of the New Age FBI agent.
Q You come from theatre. What’s the difference in the two types of acting?
A It’s true that in theatre, you get adrenalin from the crowd, but I’ve found that on TV, particularly something like Mindhunter, there’s a level of adrenalin that happens. When they say “action,” everyone’s really quiet on the set ... There isn’t a live audience, but my heart beats a little faster, and I get inspired in that space between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’
Q In theatre, you can keep refining your character. Can you do that in TV?
A Yes, in theatre, three months into it, I’ll think, ‘Oh no, THIS is what it’s about! If only I’d been thinking about that during opening.’ And then three months later I’m thinking, ‘Oh, actually it was the first thing!’ You’re always refining. With David, it’s much like theatre, you’re always softening or sharpening the edges and creating something really specific.
Q That first interview with a serial killer in prison is bonechilling.
A It’s sort of the moment everything comes into clarification. At one point, the killer asks me, “Why are you so tense?” For two days of shooting, I’d been fidgeting and doing various things, and suddenly David came over and said, “what if you don’t do anything?” It was genius.
Q There seems to be a Silence of the Lambs dynamic here, with you as the Clarice figure.
A Totally. But it’s interesting, as amazing as Silence of the Lambs is, David wanted to blow up that notion of the comic-book version of the serial killer, that brilliant omniscient genius, and really take a genuine human look at who these people are. They had mostly average IQs, and they’re just sad, (messed)-up people with a damaged story.
Q The term serial killer didn’t even exist then?
A No, and that’s the fun of the show. It’s all this vocabulary that we’re now very comfortable with, but back then it didn’t exist. Watching these guys sort of shooting from the hip, going on instinct, is really interesting.
Q So there’s no Hannibal Lecter here?
A It’s almost easier to understand if it’s an Anthony Hopkins type. ‘Oh, they’re an insane brilliant crazy person.’ But when it’s, ‘no, this dude is my weird neighbour that I ignore,’ that’s really scarier.
Q You had to leave Hamilton to begin shooting this show in Pittsburgh. Was that hard?
A This opportunity was so extraordinary, it was a nobrainer. But it was bittersweet to leave the show, because I loved that group. And there was actually a moment when we were performing at the White House, (Hamilton) director Tommy Kail was just reminding me of this, and (then) president Obama got up impromptu and hugged everyone. And I was crying so hard.
Q Are you headed back to the theatre soon?
A I’d love to. It’s my first love. I’m addicted to it.
Jonathan Groff, right, best known for his roles on Looking and Glee, stars in Netflix’s new 10-episode series, Mindhunter.