Until now, the actor Jonathan Groff's most prominent role was that of Jesse St. James, the prickish rival on Glee. And while playing a high-school kid with killer vocal cords certainly has its charms, Groff is now taking the plunge into more serious drama. He's landed a major role in Season 2 of the critically acclaimed Starz series Boss, which stars Kelsey Grammer as Chicago mayor Tom Kane in a high-stakes, backstabbing world of cutthroat politics.
Details spoke with Groff, 27, about how Glee compares to Boss, what it's like to work with a TV icon like Grammer, and how he stays fit for those inevitable premium-cable nude scenes.
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DETAILS: Boss is a pretty twisted show. How devious is your character?
JONATHAN GROFF: I don't want to give anything away, but pretty devious. [Laughs] If you've watched the first season, everyone on the show is pretty questionable on their motives. Very power-driven people. My character, Ian, follows suit. He comes in as a young upstart, but then throughout the course of the season, his secret motives are revealed, and it's pretty twisted.
DETAILS: How does your character fit into the Boss world?
JONATHAN GROFF: At the end of Season 1, Mayor Kane…cleaned house as far as his inner circle is concerned. I'm the new assistant, and when I show up, he's ready to fire me at the end of Day 1. [But] I come in with a determination to get there and stay there and to get as close to Mayor Kane as I possibly can.
DETAILS: Were you a fan of Kelsey Grammer in his Cheers and Frasier days?
JONATHAN GROFF: Absolutely. I was a huge fan of his. Before I knew about Boss, I'd seen the posters on the street. And when I started auditioning, I watched the whole first season and was just blown away by his performance. Not only because it's so good, but because it's so different than what we all know him as. It's really inspiring.
DETAILS: Do you think the shifty character you played on Glee helped you get this role?
JONATHAN GROFF: [Laughs] I auditioned twice. Once for the showrunner and casting director, and then I had a screen test with all the producers and everyone at Starz. The cool thing about that is, I came to L.A. in January of last year for pilot season. A lot of auditions come across the table. [But] I knew this show was special before even watching it. When I read the scenes for the first time, I was like, "Oh my God. This is so well-written—no acting required." You just have to do what is on the page. Sometimes you get scenes where you're like, "How am I going to make this work?" or "How do I adjust this?" But the Boss scenes came across the table, and I was completely intrigued.
DETAILS: Would you say this is one of your heavier roles to date?
JONATHAN GROFF: It's definitely the most adult role I've ever played on TV. Not being associated with a college student, playing a young man, and showing up to work everyday in a three-piece suit—it felt really different and exciting. I never went to college, so all of my training has been on the job. As an actor, you're only as great as the last job you did. Each [role] requires something new—whether it's a different style of acting, a different type of language, a different character or accent. You have to meet the requirements. One of the reasons I was excited to go after this part is that it's completely different than what I've done before—almost the extreme opposite. Not only is it a serious drama, but it's incredibly intense and bleak and almost Shakespearean in its storytelling. I was pumped to see if I could do that. And I knew that by playing Kelsey's assistant, I'd be in his world a lot. I was excited to watch his process and see him work. He's the real deal.
DETAILS: Boss is a very political show. Are you a political person?
JONATHAN GROFF: No, not at all. I follow what's happening in the news. But I didn't know a lot of the minutia and goings on, and Chicago specifically. It was all completely new to me and made me feel really grateful that I'm not a politician. [Laughs] That's a very cutthroat, tricky world. As an actor, it's sort of a dream place to live. You can play so much with motivation and mixed intention and power.
DETAILS: You're originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and according to your Wikipedia page, at one point you'd planned to attend Penn State. Is that true?
JONATHAN GROFF: I was going to go to Carnegie Mellon, actually, but I deferred my admission for a year because I got on a tour of The Sound of Music right after high school. I thought, "Oh, I'll go on this tour and go and train at school." It was a nonunion tour, and I made, like, $10,000 for the whole year of working. I thought, "I'll never be able to pay off these college loans," so I moved to New York instead of going to school, which, in the end, worked out. The year after I moved to New York, they were looking for young, untrained actors and singers for [the rock musical] Spring Awakening.
DETAILS: Which is more of a high-strung set, Glee or Boss?
JONATHAN GROFF: They're very different. The thing that's high-strung about Glee is that if you're not shooting, you're in dance rehearsal; if you're not at dance rehearsal, you're recording your song. That sort of "summer camp" element on the Glee set can be overwhelming. The thing that's great about Boss is there's no lighting setups, and it's very hand-held-camera, sort of found-footage-looking. It goes so fast; you'd do seven scenes in one day. The thing that was challenging about Boss is trying to spew the political jargon quickly while walking—those sorts of things.
DETAILS: According to Out magazine, your diet while filming Boss was just broccoli, chicken, and eggs. Why is that?
JONATHAN GROFF: My dad, back home in Pennsylvania, is a big eater. He weighs so much more than he should. I was home over the holidays, sitting next to him, and I saw the possibility that if I continue to eat the way I do, this is what I'm going to look like in 50 years. I'm like a human garbage disposal. I can eat, eat, and eat and never feel full. I wasn't eating shit; I was just eating a lot. I work out a lot, so I think that's fine. [But] I decided to cut out carbohydrates. No bread, no cereal, no sandwiches. Carbs and sugar—that was my thing. I was eating a lot of eggs, salad, fish, and steak. And one day a week, I'd have a cheat day, where I eat whatever I want. When I got cast in Boss, I had to sign a nudity waiver before I read any of the scripts. Yes, the nudity moments happened, and when they happened, a couple of days before, I would eat just broccoli and chicken to look my best.
Season 2 of Boss premieres on Friday, August 17.
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—Mike Ayers (@themikeayers) is a New York City-based arts and entertainment writer. He has recently learned to enjoy broccoli.