It’s been around 12 months since we first saw Looking – Michael Lannan’s comedydrama about a group of gay friends living in San Francisco. Sounds simple on the surface, no? But this show brought modern gay life to international audiences in a way which hadn’t quite been seen before. We laughed, cried and cringed along with Patrick, Dom and Agustín in series one. But as you’re reading this, a bigger and bolder series two is already well underway on HBO – and is set to air on Sky Atlantic imminently. Naturally, we spoke to the cast and crew who’ve helped make Looking one of the most important pieces of telly in recent memory. Starting with the linchpin character Patrick – AKA, the charming, handsome and quite brilliant Jonathan Groff...
Jonathan Groff is teasing us about our accent. We’re talking with the former Glee-turned-bona-fideHollywood-star mid-filming for the second series of Looking, and he’s teasing us about our accent.
“When I’m talking to people from London who have British accents, I have a blind ear to what you’re saying,” he laughs. “I was on set last night with Russell Tovey and he had to say something like four times and I was like, ‘I can’t understand what you’re saying.’ But we’re gonna work through it.”
For those not in the know – firstly, shame on you – Looking is an American comedy-cumdrama about a trio of gay friends in the Golden City, with the show exploring their relationships, friendships, sex lives – even struggles with their own mortality. Modern gay life has never been brought to an audience on this scale before, which is what makes Looking one of the most important pieces of television in the last decade.
“At the end of the first series last year, it felt like we were just getting into a groove,” Jonathan tells us. “We were just starting to find our way with the stories and the characters. Basically, the honeymoon wasn’t over when we ended last year. So everyone – the crew, cast, writers – we were all DYING to get picked up for a second series. We just wanted to come back and continue to make the show.”
But series two isn’t going to be an easy ride for Jonathan, who plays 29-year-old video game designer Patrick. The last time we saw him, he was caught up in a love triangle with his on-off boyfriend Richie and, urm, his boss Kevin, played by the UK’s own Russell Tovey.
“When Kevin and Patrick met in the first season,” Jonathan explains, “he was trying to hit on him. And it was so awkward because Patrick doesn’t have very good game when it comes to approaching a potential romantic interest. Then that was completely squelched when you find out that, not only does Kevin have a boyfriend, but Kevin is
also his boss. So any sort of idea of romance in Patrick’s mind went out the window.
“But that allowed him to be open to a genuine connection with Kevin. He wasn’t trying to impress him or making him his boyfriend, because he was his boss. Patrick really got to be himself with Kevin and that really opened up a connection between the two of them that wouldn’t have otherwise been there. It evolved because the romantic attraction was undeniable at the end of the day.”
If you’re anything like us, you had mixed feelings about Patrick. On one hand, the relationship and life choices he made infuriated you – how could he do that to Richie?! – but on the other, you sympathised with him. The beauty of such a complex character like Patrick is you found yourself really relating to him; seeing yourself in his shoes, making the same terrible decisions. It’s something that’s not lost on Jonathan. In fact, it’s partly what drew him to the role in the first place.
“I felt with Patrick, from the first audition, it was really close to the bone,” says Jonathan. “He’s one of those characters that feels incredibly personal. When I was at the audition with Andrew [Haigh], Michael [Lannan] and HBO, it felt very real. It’s thrilling to play a part where you’re not hiding behind anything, you’re just exposing yourself in a very real way. The chance to work with Andrew and Michael was definitely the thing that brought me to the audition room, but once I started saying the lines, I started thinking about Patrick and the scarily realistic qualities the role had. We did a scene last night and afterwards I was like, ‘I’ve literally said these lines in my life.’
“I feel like I see Patrick’s anxiety and confusion about a lot of problems for himself, because he overthinks things and gets too into his head. He’s not living his life moment to moment – he’s outside of it, thinking about it, being anxious about it. But there’s times when I’ll be talking on a date or with a group of friends, and I’ll hear myself and I’ll think, ‘Stop being Patrick right now.’ He certainly crept into my life, but in a good way. The awareness of overthinking.”
Sounds to us like Patrick is evolving into Jonathan’s evil twin.
“I didn’t think about that,” Jonathan laughs. “I don’t think of Patrick as evil, so maybe my alterego rather than evil twin! The social awkwardness that Patrick has, I feel like I know how to not act that way in my real life. But deep down inside, that’s how I’m actually feeling.”
Sex was a central theme running throughout the first series of Looking – and series two is no different. Whether it’s Dom coming to terms with his open relationship with his older boyfriend Lynn, or Patrick grappling with taking a more submissive sexual role. But what separates the sex in Looking from, say, the US version of Queer as Folk, is that it feels vital to the story. It’s used as a mechanism to drive plot points forward, rather than to titillate and tantalise. Not only that, but seeing a kid-friendly star like Groff, whose other acting credits include Glee and a little-known animation called Frozen, get on down on prime time telly is actually quite a bold move.
“The sex scenes in the show are such a great opportunity for character development and a great opportunity to show gay intimacy in a way that isn’t sensationalised,” says Jonathan, “which is Andrew Haigh’s speciality.” If you didn’t know already, Andrew is the creator of cult British gay indie flick Weekend. “I’m always so excited about the sex scenes because it’s HBO, so you really get to GO there. And it’s Andrew Haigh, so you know it’s gonna be very true to life and the intimacy is going to feel authentic. It’s the best version of a sex scene that I could jump into as an actor.
“We’re really trying to take this
opportunity; this very rare air time that you get on a Sunday night, on this time slot, on HBO, to shed some light on things. It shocked me after the first season to know how little people knew about gay sex and gay intimacy. Straight people have said to me that they didn’t even know until after our show that gay people could have sex while facing each other!”
Which is what it all comes down to with Looking. It’s not a ‘gay show’ as such, and to call it so would diminish just how brilliant a piece of work it really is. It just happens to be a show about life, love and relationships, centred around gay characters. Jonathan even tells us a story about how during a trip to the movies, an audience membered shouted to him how much he loved Looking, and when Jonathan turned around he was faced with a straight guy sitting with his girlfriend.
That’s, in part, the legacy of Looking – how it’s educating the hearts and minds of those who aren’t, shall we say, ‘au fait’ with gay culture. But with series two wrapped up, how does it rank in Jonathan’s own personal legacy?
“This is the most personal experience I’ve ever had,” he says. “Period. It means a lot to me. Every now and then, something comes a long and it’s more than just a job, it’s more than just work, it’s more than making a pay cheque. That’s always my goal when I’m looking for work, but once in a blue moon something comes along where you’re involved in the material and you’re involved with the character. And it’s certainly my favourite so far. It’s meant the most to me because it’s been so incredible, and personal, and because I’m so deeply in love with the people I’m working with. I’m desperately hoping we can keep that up.”
Jonathan, if what we’ve seen of series two is anything to go by, you certainly have.