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Maggie Gyllenhaal: A "Crazy Heart" and an Oscar Nomination

When actress Maggie Gyllenhaal talks about Crazy Heart (see our review, here), she does so with a passion that's both endearing and contagious. Certainly, she did this movie as much for her soul as for the paycheck and acclaim. And all that has paid off with Oscar nominations this year for herself and co-star Jeff Bridges. In this roundtable interview for the film, Gyllenhaal freely muses on motherhood and on the role that got her into the Academy's category of Best Supporting Actress.

In telling the tale of down-and-washed-out country musician Bad Blake (Bridges), who is now reduced to playing bowling alleys, the film amply details the collapse of one career. But in intersecting his decline with novice music journalist Jean Craddock's (Gyllenhaal) own attempt at a career and at personal ascension beyond being just another struggling single mother, it caps a dual redemption.

Native New Yorker Gyllenhaal has played such deliverance roles before, and not always so successfully, as in the young drug addict of Sherrybaby. (Still, that role earned her a 2007 Golden Globe nomination, as did her 2002 screen debut in Secretary.)

Her signature strength and vulnerability, tempered with forthrightness, are a combination the thirtysomething thesp genuinely possesses — yet also wields as a laser to heighten the characters she plays. In Craddock — a single mom whose uncle owns the Santa Fe bar where Blake plays and who hopes to write about him to jump-start her journalism career —  Gyllenhaal has found a worthy focus for her beam. The character imagined in the Thomas Cobb novel, Crazy Heart, and directed by filmmaker Scott Cooper poses an acting challenge if only for her crazy choices.


Q: You're a mother both in real life and onscreen here. What were the similarities, and was your character drawn from your actual child-rearing experience?

MG: I've played mothers before I was a mother and, I think, successfully — sometimes anyway. I've also played heroin addicts and have not been a heroin addict, but for me, in this particular movie, my state as a mother when I made the movie is a huge part of the movie for me. It's also a huge part thematically of what happened to Jean.

My daughter was almost two when I made this movie, and I was having that feeling that I think parents must have intermittently throughout their children's lives. I had it for the first time, like I had been focused almost completely on my daughter, on being a mother, and I had this surge of a feeling that I needed to do something for me. I was also a woman and an actress and not just a mother. I worked.

For some reason [maybe] in the production notes or something, it said that this was the first movie I've made since she was born. It's not, but everyone all day has been saying that to me.

I did The Dark Knight when she was seven months old and I also did Away We Go, but Batman was literally 15 days over eight months. It was very different. It was difficult, but my focus was on my eight-month-old. As much as I could, it was impossible for me to take my focus from her.

[The time it took to do] Away We Go was three days. So, this was in some ways the first thing [I've done]. If I say that I needed something for me it was this movie. I had so much built up and kind of welling in me that needed to be expressed after having become a mom. And it's in the movie.

Basically that's what's happening with Jean. I think she's been trying to be a good mom and pull it together after what must've been a complicated beginning with this child. I think she's at an emergency state of what I'm describing and I think she just feels like, "I need something for me. I need something that feels good to me. I don't care if it's bad for me. It's better if it's bad for me."

Q: How did it feel to take these intense emotions for your own child and apply them to some little boy actor that you've never met before?

MG: Well, I don't think it's that simple. I think it's the feeling of wanting to be free and to be an individual and be...

Q: Coming into your own...?

MG: That's sort of more where it resonated. I didn't feel anything like what I feel for my daughter for Jack Nation, the little boy who played my son. It's not like that for me. It's sort of a little more trippy or something. It's more that on a sort of bigger level I think these things were sort of very simpatico.

Or for example, like the scene where he's writing a song on my bed and I get upset, I think that scene is actually not anything that's actually expressed. It's not about what I'm saying. It's actually kind of saying, "I'm completely screwed here. I'm in love with you already. It's over. It's done. It isn't good for me but there's nothing that I can do about it. It's over."

When you have that feeling, and there is a four-year-old involved, the stakes are massively raised. And I just don't think that I could've understood that before I had a child. But in terms of like the everyday stuff, I think you can sort of fake that if you're not a mother. I'm not sure.

Like in Sherrybaby, for example, I played a mother, but it didn't matter because I wasn't really a mother. I mean that woman had never put a bag of Cheerios in her purse and had never put her hand in her coat and pulled out like a squeaking giraffe ever. She gave birth but that's it.

So it was almost better that I wasn't a mom. Actually, I just watched this recently, I watched it at the premiere, and when asked, "What's the most important thing about you?" I say, "I have a child." So for me in this case, being a mother and the way I am a mother are all tied up in the performance.

Q: Was your daughter with you on the shoot?

MG: Yeah.

Q: If Jean weren't a mother, would she have stayed with and gotten into that destructive role, or did being a mother lead her to protect herself ultimately?

MG: Yeah, I think so. What's so nice about working on a script that's so good and with an actor who's so good is that you don't actually have to make a lot of choices.

I think if you're working with a weak script you have to solve things often, and if you're working with someone who's not there with you and going to respond to you, you do have to make a lot of sort of actor choices. If you're lucky enough not to be in that position and you know where you're coming from and what you want and all these sort of basic acting things, you can kind of just let anything happen.

Usually though, even with a really good script or something, there will be one thing that I'll kind of think, like, "Oh, that's something to avoid or something that I kind of need to think through," one thing that I'll hold onto. I remember thinking before we started shooting, like, "Okay, how does," and this was way before we started shooting. "How does a capable, smart woman fall for like a serious drunk?"

Obviously, it's a much more interesting movie if she is a capable and smart woman than if she's just like a wreck. So how does that happen? Then, you know what, I never thought about it again. I think that's how I did it. She's just not thinking. I am a person who uses my brain and I don't think, too. It happens to us.

Q: When your character meets this guy, she's apprehensive. He calls and says, "Do you want me to come over or not?" She hesitates...

MG: Yeah, but it's over. It's done. The second I walk in the room it's done. I mean, it's done and that's how it is. There are a few moments, I think when I say goodbye to him and we've spent the night together. I say goodbye in the driveway; I played that scene like, "This was crazy and goodbye. I slept with Bad Blake. How did that happen?" But it's also kind of over.

Q: Was it her desire for adult affection that made her vulnerable? That's what makes this film seem so authentic.

MG: This is the thing for me on this movie. When a movie works for me — whether it's successful to other people, there are movies that I've made that work for me — and...usually when I read them I know, like, "I have to do this movie." I don't usually know why until later and I'm just figuring out why for this one.

I think the reason is that I had that feeling, that I had to do this and wanted to see why. And then it's so different, this role, for me than some of the other roles that I've played that I'm proud of. The other ones, some of the others I think about,  I think I was fierce. I was so fierce and kind of like a powerhouse in some of my other roles that I like and I think when I was a little younger I thought that was the idea, just be as strong as you can be and that you could fight anything that got in your way.

Like Lee Holloway in Secretary, she's the submissive but she's a fucking powerhouse. This woman is not like that. When I watched it, sometimes I watched some of the things that I did in the movie, and when I first watched it I watched it with my best girlfriend because my husband was away and I was so ashamed watching some of it. I thought, "God, she seems so weak." Then I was looking at my girlfriend, who's a professor, and she's so great and so awesome and strong and I thought, "She's weak, too and so am I." Sometimes I'm not.

I think it's only recently really, like in the past couple of months even, that I see the real power in feeling your feelings and being vulnerable and not being so ashamed of the weaknesses in you and to expose them sometimes. So that's what I learned here and I didn't know that. I knew it in my work before I knew it in my life.

Q: The images from this film stay with you.

MG: It haunts you, yeah and it goes so down and dark and terrifyingly dark and then brings you back up again.

Q: This movie has a remarkable sense of place, which helps with the character and her role in the movie. In that way it's similar to Away We Go.

MG: I think so. We shot really quickly in Sante Fe. The movie takes place in Santa Fe and we didn't have to pretend that part of it. You get there and you're like high...

Q: From the good air?

MG: Yeah.

Q: Did you have trouble with Sante Fe's altitude?

MG: See, I don't like the desert. It's not my thing. 

Q: So you don't go to the Burning Man Festivals in the desert?

MG: [laughs] No. That's not my thing. I was a little bit afraid of going to Santa Fe and being in the desert, and I loved it. I loved it. I did. It just went along with everything else in this movie, which was so intense and so fast and so open. I mean that's what happened with Jeff [Bridges] and I.

I just knew that the movie wouldn't work unless these people actually deeply love each other. It wouldn't have and I think he must've known that, too and we just met, didn't have any time and we just sort of went, "My heart is open. I'm up for anything." And I felt exactly the same thing from him and we just did the movie.

Q: One reason your two characters worked together so well despite the 25-year difference is that she has had as much trauma in her life as he had in his, except in very different ways...

MG: Yeah, of course. I think that's true. That's the thing, what brings people together? My friend who is a screenwriter and really smart and great and who I love came to see the movie at the premiere and liked it a lot and said, "I watched you walk into the room and I thought that if these people were supposed to be lovers the movie isn't going to work. If they pretend that they're going to be lovers they're cheating. Then I watched it work." I think that, too. I love that about it because it does make you have to be compassionate about why people love each other. I don't know why they [get together], but you're right, it's all those things. You can be so attracted to the thing that makes you the sickest.

Q: She's relieved in a way, not even telling herself that once Bad does something in losing her kid she can never forgive him for it and will never get back with him.

MG: Well, I do think that if my friend is right that you begin the movie thinking, "No way they're going to work," and then you watch it work, and then at the end it can't survive -- then that's a good movie. I think at the end it really can't. I mean, how can you make the movie so that they end up together and it's right? You can't. I mean, I understand what you're saying, but no, I don't thinks he's glad. But I do think that it makes it a little clearer. 

Q: What are her priorities?

MG: Well, not just what her priorities are but like it makes it… The thing is that if someone were a responsible parent who was not drinking and thinking carefully and the child got lost for a half hour they could end up together. Somebody said to me, "He only  had a sip of that drink, that's all you saw."

I think it makes absolutely no difference. If you're with someone who's a drunk they could be drinking and who knows, who fucking knows, maybe he only did have one drink. I don't know. He might've had one drink. He might've been drinking all day. He might've been drinking all the times in the movie that you think he's trying not to.

You just don't know and so it can't work because ultimately she knew. I mean, how about in the movie, which is so great what writer/director Scott [Cooper] did, where he firsts takes Buddy and she comes home and they're not home for two seconds and she thinks, she knows it's not safe and if she knows it's not safe then she can't do it. I don't know if I felt relief but I think it's just really terribly sad. At the same time they do reveal their love for each other, both of them, by not being with each other. I think she is loving him by telling him no.

Q: She can't find anyone else that she had that much fun with...?

MG: In order to be with him she has to not think, like I said, and that can't be good for anybody.

Q: How was it seeing Jeff on stage and seeing him as a musician?

MG: Everyone was playing music all the time. Steven Bruton, who was[singer-songwriter] T Bone [Burnett]'s 's partner and passed away and to whom the film is dedicated, he was around and he and Jeff would sing "Falling and Flying" to me and it was just all the time happening. Everyone was practicing, playing. The musicians who were playing, most of them were real musicians and so music was really just a part of it.

Q: What did you talk about with the musicians?

MG: I did spend a lot of time with Bruton. The musicians, who were the day players... playing musicians in the movie, I didn't [talk to]. The only scene that I'm in is that one scene at night where I have another focus, which is really Bad Blake. But Steven and I did get to know each other really well and I hadn't listened to Lefty Frizzell before.

My husband [actor Peter Sarsgaard] listens to a lot of blues, which is actually where that question about Son House and Big Bill Broonzy came from because I'd heard a lot of that music. He played me music and we talked a lot about sort of some of the background of the music because I do think that Jean does listen to country music and knows more about it than I do, although not a great deal more. I think she does walk into the interview without a massive amount of information, but I think that's part of their connection, that she says, "I can feel that you must've liked Lefty Frizzell," not that that takes a genius, but it takes knowing more about music than just Hank Williams.

Q: Did you know who the late honky tonk-influenced country singer Lefty Frizzell who is referenced in the movie — was before doing this movie?

MG: Did I know Lefty Frizzell as a musician? It's interesting that you ask me that because I actually to listen to country music and it completely came from me. I was born in New York and I grew up in California and I've lived here for fifteen years, in New York. There's no reason at all why I should like country music and I do.

The country music that I listen to though, I'm not sure what T Bone would think because it's not influenced by where I'm living at all and none of my friends listen to country. It's all my own thing. I didn't know Lefty Frizzell although I did listen to Merle Haggard and Hank Williams and some of the other old school guys that we talk about. I didn't listen to Lefty Frizzell until I started the movie and did the interview. But I do love Gillian Welch and Iris Dement, Emmylou Harris. I love The Dixie Chicks. I do listen to country music and I don't know why. I just like it.

Q: Did you ever go on the road with a band?

MG: No. No, I never have.

Q: Were you a big concert goer as a kid?

MG: Yes and no. I had a boyfriend who was really into music, very snobby about music and really kind of liked a certain indie rock thing and looked down on my CD collection. I was completely ashamed by it. I definitely thought at the time that my music wasn't cool enough.

Q: If you had a chance to do an interview with someone who would you like to talk with?

MG: That's one of the questions where later on I think, "Oh, I should've said...," but I have to say that I'd like to talk to David Lynch.


Photo credits: Brad Balfour

For more by Brad Balfour:



New Moon's Anna Kendrick In the Twilight

Born and raised in Portland, Maine, the hugely talented Anna Kendrick, now 24, was nominated for a Tony Award when she was only 12 for her work in the Broadway musical High Society. And her much-YouTubed performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch in the 2003 indie movie Camp — a song written for a character twice her age — is a showstopper.

The articulate and level-headed actress reprises her supporting role as high-school mean girl Jessica in the second Twilight movie, New Moon, and costars with George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in the upcoming Up in the Air, a serio-comedy about a corporate ax-man hired to conduct layoffs at companies all over the United States. Kendrick spoke about this and more at the Waldorf Astoria Towers Hotel in New York City.

Q: Did you draw from your own memories of high school to play Jessica?

AK: Jessica is just so different from me and so different from my high school experience. There's something very fun and liberating for me about playing a girl I would have seen as an enemy. And also about simultaneously playing the gossipy mean girl, but inevitably showing how needy she is and how desperate she is and how pathetic it all comes across. Because anybody that's doing that kind of [bitchy] thing is obviously very, very needy.

Q: Maybe that vulnerability you bring out in her explains why audiences kind of like her.

AK: Maybe. I mean, yeah, I think that's what [creates] the comedy; if she were particularly self-assured I don't think it would work. I think there's [humor] in her desperation.

Q: In this second movie, does Jessica know Bella hangs with vampires?

AK: No, no! None of the school kids ever, ever know anything about the mythology. That's true throughout the series. The young actors in the Harry Potter movies formed a bond of camaraderie and stay in touch. Has anything like that happened with the cast of the Twilight movies?

I know that [for] the Harry Potter [movies], they have this big studio and they film in a lot of the same locations. For us it's a little bit more like going back to college, or like the first day of school where you see everybody again. You all hang out all the time while you’re there, and then it's like “OK, see you next fall!.” But it's nice. It's like returning to a place where you know what works and what doesn't… or at least hopefully you know what works and what doesn't. It's pretty rare to be able work with the same people again; so often you never see the people you work with [after the project is over], and that makes it very special.

Q: What's next for you? Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has wrapped, right?

AK: Yes. And I finished [the third Twilight movie,]  Eclipse, so I think I’m done with the
Twilight saga. There are four [movies], but I don't think I'll be in the fourth — my character isn’t really in that book. [Bella] graduates in Eclipse, so that's basically it.

Q: See you next fall!

AK: Yeah. So now I'm unemployed
Interview courtesy Maitland McDonagh from

"Zombieland" Makes Jesse Eisenberg A Possible Action Figure

For 26 year old actor Jesse Eisenberg--who was awarded lots of attention for his troubled teenager in The Squid and The Whale--becoming a zombie-killing machine offers a curious shift in gears. Interspersed with his first-person voiceover as the wussy Columbus, Zombieland spotlights two survivors who forge an uneasy alliance to live in a world destroyed by a plague that turns nearly everyone into zombies. Both are trying to get east to see if anyone is free of the infection. The multiweapon-toting, bad-ass Tallahassee (the darkly funny Woody Harrelson) distrusts bonding as much as he hates zombies--but that's only because he doesn't want to pummel a friend if they've morphed into the living dead.

At first bamboozled by sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), they forge a relationship with this duo to form a dysfunctional and desperate ersatz family. All four have found their own ways to vanquish zombies, so when the sisters steal the boys' SUV and guns, they catch up to the girls and go along with their determined effort to visit their favorite amusement park in California.

This horror comedy not only brings out the mayhem-making on Eisenberg's part, it shows he's capable of spoofing the kind of post-collegiate, sexually repressed geek he played in Adventureland who, lo and behold, worked in an local amusement park. Ironically though, as Eisenberg admits in this exclusive one-on-one interview, he's more of an arthouse rather than genre fan and proud of it.

Q: You’re a healthy 20-something. How have you avoided watching your share of horror movies? Maybe you read little too many Greek tragedies—I saw a performance of The Bacchae by Euripides the other day and that could be translated into a horror film.

JE: My friend directed a Greek play and then he did like a horror movie version of it. It’s not actually that different. I just don’t really like horror movies. They’re either scary, or if they’re not scary, they’re terrible. If they’re not scary then they’re a failure, and if they are scary then they scare you. So either way, you kind of walk out lost. But this movie is really not that. As you saw last night, it’s mostly comedic, and it’s a real fun experience. The horror of it is really secondary.

Q: Now that you’ve done this movie, and you’re a zombie-slayer, are you going to investigate a lot more horror films?

JE: I have my own narrow view of cinema, but no, not really.

Q: You’ve got to see the Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn with the slaying of the vampires, or maybe John Carpenter's Vampires. Bride of Frankenstein is one of the great movies of all time. Didn’t making this film intrigue you as to what is behind the psychology of horror films like the old Universal pictures? What would you want to see?

JE: I’m sure they’re great. There was a movie out last year that everyone said to go see, called Let the Right One In.

Q: The Swedish vampire movie.

JE: Is it really good?

Q: It’s really great. For those who like indie films, you get your dose of indie art from of it. It’s teen angst via the vampire genre without too much teen idol-making. Now that you’ve done the kind of movie that might make you a teen idol, are you worried that Robert Pattinson's Twilight fans will switch over to you?

JE: That’s not my nature or the character in this movie. The only people that will be interested in me from this movie will be grandmothers, and they don’t have websites. No, I think there’s no threat.

Q: You don’t think that you've made a valid play for Wichita--Emma Stone--to fall madly in love with you?

JE: Yeah, but he's not that kind of character. Thank God because who wants to be in the tabloids for anything, ever.

Q: If this movie does well, you’re going to be doing lots of comic-cons and things like that now.

JE: I know, I realize that... I know.

Q: Do you collect anything that you might find at the comic-cons so you should be looking forward to them?

JE: I had no idea what anything was there. We had to go to this year’s [San Diego Comic-con]. I was out of my element.

Q: You didn’t get turned onto any cool graphic novels?

JE: No. they couldn’t be further from my comfort zone.

Q: You must collect something; what do you collect?

JE: I don’t know. I don’t have any space for anything. We have collector’s half-photos of Fidel Castro at my house. I don’t know why. We have like three amazing collector’s editions.

Q:  How did you separate yourself from the character which plays on the type of characters you've done?

JE:  All the acting is very naturalistic, so it seems like we’re all these people. It takes a lot of effort to establish this tone of this movie. The movie asks a lot of you comedically in a very specific world and in a very specific way.

It’s a unique world that the movie takes place in. I don’t see the character as exactly like myself, but I’m sure when people see the movie they will think that. Until one acts in a movie, they realize that it requires effort, even if it looks very natural or casual.

Q: When you do a movie like this—you’ve handled guns, kicked ass on zombies—how does it change you? Are you inspired to be more of an ass kicker in some way?

JE: No. I don’t want to be promoting violence to children or making it look fun. Luckily, my character does not want to shoot people. He might close a door on this girl’s foot and she’s trying to kill me, and [he'll] say, “I’m so sorry that I hurt your foot.”

I’m glad that my character and I cannot have too much fun with the violence. People are going to see this movie who maybe have a proclivity towards violence, and we wouldn’t want to make it look that much fun where it’s inadvertently promoting it.

Q: Woody does a damn good job of making it seem like it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It brought out your inner shit-kicker. Do you think you’re going to get offers now to do a lot more shit-kicking as a result?

JE: No, no, I don’t think so, nor am I interested in that. It’s exhausting and technically difficult to shoot scenes like that. The scenes that I’m interested in are the scenes where we’re creating these characters. These other scenes, half the time the stunt guy is doing the thing that’s the most fun looking.

Q: If you had to smash anything like you did in the film, if you had that opportunity to smash as a result of the freedom to smash, what would you have had in mind?   

JE: Probably a laptop computer, because you know how frustrating it is when it’s not doing the thing you asked it to do. It’s the most frustrating thing in the world, and you just want to throw it against the wall. It would probably feel good for one second—and after that, terrible.

Again, the things that are most fun to watch are usually the things that are the most difficult to shoot. When we were filming the scene where we destroyed this store, you had to be very careful. And then when you watch it, it looks like the characters are having fun so spontaneously. But it’s a difficult thing to shoot. It’s so much fun to watch so you can relive it, almost, through your characters.

Q: Did you talk about a back story as to how the zombie plague began? Did you elaborate--just for fun--on whether it was some sort of biological experiment?

JE: It changed so much over the course. At first, we weren’t sure if people would be interested in knowing the back story. And then we did the test screenings of it and realized people actually want to know where it came from.

So the final verdict is that it’s now like a mad cow disease. It came from contaminated hamburger, which is good because it has some kind of possible practical implications toward the food industry. Woody is really happy with that because he’s a strict vegan.

Q: Woody Harrelson is an incredibly naturally funny guy. I don’t know how you get on set with him without breaking up all the time. Abigail Breslin can be funny too. But you must have had some interesting conversations with him, because he’s got that passionate, serious side about politics, philosophy, and other things?

JE: I’ve admired him for many years. I work with a few animal rights organizations, I’ve been vegetarian for five years and I was vegan for a year. I’m not a vegan right now, but when we were filming I ate all the same food he ate.

Q:  You had so much fun with Woody there, that you must love to have a chance to work with him again. Do you see that as a possibility?

JE: Yeah, I would love to. He kind of cast me in this, so I owe him a lot and would love to.

Q: Not only as a result of this movie, but are there people you’d like to act with or work with? Now you’ve done such an interesting range of people, you’re moving on to a new plateau.

JE: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I would never think that I would get to meet Woody Harrelson. It always ends up being more shocking than you would have expected had you tried to fantasize about it.

Q: Do you ever sit there and fantasize about who you would have as your leading ladies?

JE: No, I’m surprised that they stay on the set after they meet me. As you’re well aware, I’m more than lucky.

Q: It must have been fun working with Emma. Did you know her from before? She really doesn’t take seriously that role of the sex kitten, zombie-slayer. It must have been fun to work with her.

JE: It’s a great asset to the movie that she’s not the typical hot girl. She’s an incredibly funny person. The character that she has is a very strong and self-respecting female character, which is not the most common thing—especially in a movie like this, a horror-comedy.

Q: You’re lucky that you’ve been able to get some really great directors. Are there people you want to target? Writers you want?

JE: No. Once you start doing that, you just open yourself up to disappointment, because it doesn’t work that way. It’s best to just be open minded to whatever new opportunities present themselves, like in this case.

Q: You must have thought about sequels.

JE: No, no, I haven’t. If you’d asked me a week ago if I wanted to do a sequel, I would say that would definitely be the last thing that I would ever want to do. In fact, they asked me when I originally signed up for the movie, “Could you sign on for a sequel now?” I asked my lawyer at the time, “Please, please, don’t agree to something like that,” because the worst thing you want to be doing is a sequel to a movie that no one likes. When I saw the movie the other night for the first time in Miami, I was so blown away. I think it would be a great thing to do.

Q: When you envision that sequel, can you imagine all the possible places to go, like zombies in New York versus zombies in LA?

JE: I would love to do that, too, because I wouldn’t have to leave home to film it. That’s exactly right; there’s so much you could do. Although I imagine zombies in New York would be so much more expensive they’ll probably end up doing zombies in Tulsa. But there are so many possibilities because there’s such a free-flowing logic to the movie.

Q: You were pretty young when you started, and you’ve naturally evolved. Where do you want to go from here? You’ve done comedies, but they’re with a more indie heart to them then some of the raunchy buddy stuff that 's produced and directed. Where do you see yourself going now that you’ve added this into the catalog?

JE: Well, I never expected to be in a movie like this. But because the script was so good, I wanted to. So I guess it’s just project to project, regardless of what the genre is or the size of the movie. I feel like if it’s good, then that stuff is really not relevant, and that’s what I felt about this. I mean they’re sending me a lot of movies that are similar to this because people are liking this movie, but they’re awful.

I have plays that I’ve written that I’m trying to get done, and it’s certainly helpful to be in movies that people see. The next movies I’m supposed to do happen to be dramas, but if something like this came along again I’d be happy to do it.

Q: What about directing and other things?

JE: That’s a whole different [story], to actually have some command of authority, and I don’t have any of that.

Q: But then you'd rise to the occasion.

JE: I suppose you could, but you need a deep voice or something.

Q: Oh, you’re undervaluing your magnetic and influential skills.

JE: Thank you, but you’re the same person that wanted to see an action figure of me.

Youthful Actor Jonathan Groff Is Taking Woodstock And The Stage

For such a young actor, Jonathan Groff has had this charmed life. First, he lands one of the highest profile roles in a musical, Spring Awakening, a show that was meant to confront Broadway conventions. Right after he leaves that show--with a Tony and Drama Desk Lead Actor nomination in hand for his performance as Melchior Gabor--he goes on to play Claude in The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park 2008 revival of the '60s revolutionary classic Hair. In both roles, the sweet-faced Groff challenges authority with a smile and triumphs theatrically, if nothing else. And this is all accomplished before his 24th birthday. As a newcomer to New York City, making his way here from Ronks--a town near Lancaster, PA--Groff went from high school theater geek to Broadway contender in a very short order.

But of course, with these two achievements under his belt, getting tapped to play the part of Woodstock organizer Michael Lang in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock seemed a natural progression from Hair. Though he has limited screen time, he so effectively slipped into that role that he physically seemed to mutate into Lang.

Now, besides his illustrious cinematic debut playing a historically resonate figure on the heels of the 40th anniversary of the actual Festival, Groff adds further heat to this summer's boil by playing Dionysus in The Public Theater's Central Park presentation of Euripides' The Bacchae.

And despite some mixed reviews for The Bacchae, the play provides him with another way to provoke through a sort of primordial counter-cultural figure. Groff has had an uncanny instinct for landing provocative parts in great shows, created by well-recognized artists such as the legendary Greek tragedist, the Oscar-winning Lee, or the award-winning playwright Craig Lucas.

Q: Seeing you in The Bacchae, it's clear there's a connection between lots of the things you've done so far. Though Dionysus is a dark figure in this context, the idea of him unleashing sexual tension fits with your other projects. You embrace that kind of role. In Spring Awakening you are part of a generation that would have been hippies if they'd been in the 1960s. So you've experienced this cultural phenomenon being expressed in all these different vehicles.

JG: That's so true. It's funny; I've never even thought about it until you were talking about that. Yeah, I feel really lucky to get to play these revolutionary guys that are working for a cause; it's a really exciting thing. As we were rehearsing for The Bacchae we were doing the press for this movie, and I was on the phone with my dad a couple of weeks ago. I literally said to my dad, "I can't believe it, but there is a lot of Michael Lang in Dionysus."

Everyone talks about Michael's smile and how certain people view it as an angelic smile and other people view it as a devil's smile covering up something. It's the same thing with Dionysus; in the mythology, when they originally performed it in Greece, the mask for Dionysus was a smile. He was doing all of these evil things with a smile on his face.

Q: Wine was the intoxicant of the time but it could have just as well been psychedelics. You've got him going to the women and saying, "It's okay to be yourselves, to leave your husbands. It's okay to frolic nude in the woods with other women." Using intoxicants, unleashing women...

JG: Totally. And the gender-bending; seeing a man dressed up as a woman, which was a clichéd thing for some people, it still is to this day. Anthony Mackie, who plays Pentheus, was telling me about how people from his life, his neighborhood, are like, "Dude, I can't see you in a dress." They won't come see the play, they're like, "It freaks me out, it makes me feel weird," and he's like, "Really?" They know me, they've seen me in a bunch of stuff and it still freaks them out." It's mind-boggling.

Q: I guess they liked you at the Public after you did Hair; that led you to doing The Bacchae?...

JG: I did a Craig Lucas play at Playwrights Horizons, Prayer for My Enemy, and then did a Craig Lucas play at the Public, The Singing Forest and was playing these characters that were incredibly moral, searching, confused and heart-breaking.
[Groff won the 2009 Obie Award for both productions--he's pictured at left with the award and former fellow Hair cast member Karen Olivo]

I was talking with Craig one day, and he was like, "What do you want to do next?" I was like, "I think I want to do a classic play because I've never done a classic. I'd love to play a character that's not so moral, not so upstanding."

Even in Hair and Spring Awakening, they were rebels but they were really good people. But [Dionysus] is very revengeful. At the end of the play I ruin the old man, Cadmus' entire life but he didn't do anything wrong.

Q: When I look at the metaphor, I don't find him all that bad--at least not in you.

JG: It's interesting because there are a lot of parallels between Jesus and Dionysus. I mean, a new religious figure coming in out of nowhere and people starting to worship him.

Q: When you look at the values of the time there was the male dominance and women were supposed to follow orders--he attacked the values of the time.

JG: Totally. The son of god, the son of Zeus; a mortal mother, a sort of immaculate conception thing that some people believed in, and some people didn't. Spreading a new way; Jesus did, "Here's my body and here's my blood." That's all in there. It's really fascinating. I literally have so much fun doing this play, I go to bed at night thinking about how I get to do it the next day so I wake up in the morning and I want it to be 8 o'clock.

Q: How do you do this in all the heat we've had?

JG: We rehearsed in that heat. We we're there all day rehearsing, which is a lot. But the park is the most incredible space in New York; it's just magic A) because it's outside, and in the middle of Central Park which is my favorite place in all of New York, and B) because everyone, most everyone, that comes has waited in line all day to see the show so it's an audience like no other because people are hungry to see this play.

People have to work, or know someone, or find a way in, so when you they get there, and are in the audience, it feels very special and of the moment.

The other night, for example, there was that huge storm that came so we finished just in time before it started raining. There were huge cracks of thunder and lightening. And they keep calling the god whose voice is thunder, I was standing at the end, and I revealed myself as the god in the end. I was standing at the top in my sparkle thing, and there were, literally, strikes of lightening coming down from the thing and we were like, "Whoa, this is so cool!"

We had those moments in Hair too; suddenly a breeze would come through and it changes the entire meaning of everything. It's like you're standing there and suddenly a wind catches you. One night in Hair we were so hot, literally, that our bodies were steaming, and just the energy of it, it's just an amazing space.

Q: You played the one character who is the link to the real Woodstock experience, Michael Lang. You're at the right age, and getting to see this experience filtered through meeting him... How was that whole experience for you?

JG: Now Woodstock is obviously such a huge part of my life and I know so much about it, but when I try to think back to what I knew before this movie, even before I did Hair and before my life was consumed with the late '60s, I remember knowing that Woodstock was a very famous concert in the late '60s and knowing that Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens, and The Who were all there.

It was a movement in some way and that's pretty much all that I knew about it. Now I know so much more about it, and have been learning a lot about it, so being a part of it and living in it for that summer was really inspiring. Michael Lang was 24 years old when he did that and it's mind-blowing. I'm 24 years old and to think that someone had the vision, that drive, and that idea at 24, and actually saw it through, is completely inspiring.

Q: And the fact that he wasn't intimidated.

JG: He's just this chill dude. I asked him, "450,000 people, a disaster area, not enough food, not enough bathrooms, people threatening not to play, rain--why were you so chill? Or even building up to that; what made you so relaxed the whole time? Is it just who you are?"

His answer to me was that he saw it. He said he was the only one; he knew exactly what it was going to look like, what it was going to feel like, what it was going to be like, and what the movement was going to be--what a beautiful thing it was going to be. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

Everyone else was sort of throwing their arms up, screaming, running around and doubting, not knowing, and he said, "I just knew that it would work and so I had complete confidence." It's just also who he is.

Q: How much are you like that or not?

JG: He and I have a lot in common; I think we share a similar quality. Like when I spent the weekend with him I learned just as much about playing him as a character as I did about a way in which you should live your life. I felt like what a cool thing, beyond finding a mannerism, or talking to him about the experience and getting information, it was just cool to spend time with this guy who knows how to live his life with such ease, passion and confidence. He has a lot of faith in people and I think he's incredibly positive. We sort of share that. And it takes a lot to ruffle his feathers; I'm sort of the same way.

Q: Sometimes, it's not good to meet the person you're playing, and there are other times when it's essential. This was an essential moment because you were the one person who plays a character that has to give authenticity to the film.

JG: That was one thing that when I sat down with Ang for the first time and he put the research in front of me, he was like, "Michael Lang, people not only know what he looked like, what he did, and they know his name, but they also know how he interacts with people, how he smiles, his look on his face, his vibe."

Michael's vibe is very specific and people that really know Woodstock really know him. He's also an important part in the movie because he represents all the business stuff like finding a location and doing the press conference and changing the hotel and making it offices and all of that stuff.

But Ang said to me, "When you come off that helicopter in that scene, I want to see Woodstock in that moment. Like Woodstock is landing in his front yard, like this is the start of the whole thing." So he was very, very intent on that and on that day when he shot, he kept saying that to me, he's like, "I really need that vibe, I really need to get that vibe."

Q: Had you ridden horses before?

JG: My dad trains and races horses for a living, but he does harness racing so I had never been on the back of a horse; I didn't know how to ride a horse. A huge part of the joy of shooting the movie was that for two weeks I got to go horseback riding in upstate New York. That amazing horse that I ride at the end, this beautiful white chocolate horse that is RJ, the horse they use in Hidalgo. It was incredible, literally the most beautiful fields and trees and forests; it was so much fun.

Q: In Spring Awakening you're the character that leads the charge, in a sense, right?

JG: Yeah, Melchior's an atheist. It's a society in 1891 Germany where the kids are completely repressed, sex is obviously completely taboo; the very first scene of the play this young 14 girl asks her mom where babies come from and she says the stork. And my character is the only one in the whole play who was raised with liberal parents who taught me about sex.

With my best friend in the play, Moritz--who ends up committing suicide because his body is so out of control--I end up educating him and I write him a sex essay which gets me then kicked out of school. I have sex with that girl and get her pregnant; she has an abortion and dies. So Melchior's the rebel, the revolutionary; he's the open-minded guy that's going to lead. The final lyric that I sing in the show is "One day all will know," because he's going to go out and change the world.

Q: I really like the songwriter. Duncan Sheik. His pop music sounded a little bit like he is an heir to David Bowie for that post-Bowie generation. ?

JG: Duncan can't write a bad song. I'm a fan of his music as well; I listen to it all the time, I have his anthology. But it's so stunning. It's totally his own voice and it's completely unique.

Q: Then you do Hair--they came to you for that?

JG: At that point I had an agent so they submitted me for it, then I had an audition, a call-back for that, and then got it.

Q: Though it's very much an ensemble, the one or two of the characters that anybody remembers is yours, the nominal leader of the Tribe. Did you actually grow your hair for that part or was it a wig?

JG: A wig.

Q: You were never tempted to really grow it out?

JG: I totally would have if I could have, but I didn't have enough time. It was incredible though, to go from Spring Awakening where we were in these buttoned-up, 1891 costumes. Yes, we got to let loose in the songs, but the teachers were hitting us, we were on wooden chairs.

But then in Hair I got to literally release, physically. The whole show is about freedom, as if the kids in 1891 could have had rock 'n roll--that was the whole point of Spring Awakening.

Q: So when you get into Hair, the actual cast really is experiencing the idea of Hair--the idea of the moment. And, except for yourself, everybody else gets that moment of nudity on the stage. I'm sure they didn't do that before on stage back then. The fact that it's still provocative is even interesting.

JG: It is, it's fascinating. You know they say that moment of nudity in Hair, it's always optional, it's always been optional, like since '68 you could do it if you wanted to. They said that moment is about feeling free, whatever that means to you.

Q: You're the only one that isn't supposed to get naked.

JG: Yeah, because I don't burn my draft card, so I'm not free. And so I sing a song about it, and get completely upstaged by all the naked people. Literally, I've never been more upstaged than at the end of Act One of Hair, when you're singing this ballad, "Where Do I Go?," and you're crying and singing. It's this beautiful song, and people are literally in the audience craning their necks to look around you to see the naked people. It was hilarious.

But, when we started rehearsals, that show forces you to experience the vibe of the time. If you're really going to do Hair, you're really going to go there; you live it. It's pretty much all music, with some scenes here and there. Everyone's on stage the whole time. When we were doing it, we were outside in Central Park under the stars, the stage was made of grass. It was like we were really experiencing something that was other worldly.

There are lines like "look at the moon" and there was the moon in the sky in Central Park; and "Good Morning Starshine," and the stars are literally right above you. There are people dressed as hippies in the audience, people that actually experienced that time, and they're pulling out their own clothes and coming to celebrate. Then people that are my age that think that it's cool, are dressed up and sitting in the audience. And they come on stage with you in the end and dance with you.

Q: I went up on stage.

JG: Wow, that's so cool. One of the first things that I asked Michael while I was at his house--because obviously he's a pretty savvy music guy--I was like, "To you, who really knows the music of the late '60s and was really involved in the authenticity of what it really was, is Hair sugary and silly to you?" And he was like, "No man, that was the real thing. The Vietnam War was happening and they were protesting it on stage."

I was talking to some of the original cast members that came to see the show and they said that after the show was over, at the stage door, some kids would be like, "Do you think I should burn my draft card?" I mean, I can't imagine what it must have been like to be performing that show in 1969 on Broadway.

Q: So how long a gap was it between Hair and Taking Woodstock?

JG: Spring Awakening closed and five days later I auditioned for and got Taking Woodstock. And then I got Hair and Hair began. And then I was performing Hair at night, getting in a white van that drove me to upstate New York to rehearse with Ang, and then the van would drive me back the next morning and I would get up, go to rehearsal and then do Hair at night. That was back and forth for a while. And then I left Hair on a Saturday night and started shooting Taking Woodstock on Monday. So it was literally those two projects back to back.

I did it for about a month. it was a really intense time. It was completely joyful and exhausting at the same time.

Q: Well, I must admit, I wasn't sure how I was going to be affected by Hair. Did it resonate with Ang?

JG: When he cast me, he didn't know that Hair was happening. He didn't know anything about it. He just cast me. I literally put myself on tape, and hours later got a call that they had fast-tracked the tape to Ang and he was interested. So it was this happy accident; Woodstock didn't know about Hair, and Hair didn't know about Woodstock. They just happened to overlap and all the research was good for both. The characters that I played were actually pretty different, but to feel like you were in the world and you were living that time was a real gift.

Q: It was amazing to see how people were trying to re-embrace it and, I think, are still trying to re-embrace. I'm curious to see how Taking Woodstock is accepted.

JG: I can't wait. I think the thing that we have gotten away from, or at least that my generation has gotten away from that we're ready to re-embrace, is the idea of being passionate about something.

I feel like detachment and being an arm's length away and not caring or whatever is like the cool thing. Because in the '60s it was the very passionate defiance of the authority that was great, do you know what I mean? It wasn't that you were detaching like, "Fuck you, we don't care," it was like "Fuck you, we do care about something else."

There was a fire underneath everyone, and I think that that's what is coming back. For example, I was in Midtown when Obama got elected. First of all, up until the election, kids my age were going to Pennsylvania and Ohio and they were campaigning and they were asking questions and they were passionate about something.

Then, when he got elected, I was with my friend Allison Case from Hair, we were at a bar in Midtown when he got elected. It was like New Year's Eve; people were crying and running and screaming and shaking each other. That's the thing; whether it's peace and love, there's always an opposite and all of that, but it's the passion. It's the idea, which Michael had too, the idealistic view that we can hold each other's hands and make change, make something happen, and that we, whatever little thing that I do, can make a difference.

Q: Well I'm hoping is that people can have that feeling without being embarrassed by it.

JG: Exactly.

Q: Well, as good as those guys at Focus Features are at making hits that also have political and cultural credibility, Taking Woodstock is a risk. As Ang has said, "I want to do something that not everyone thinks about doing."

JG: I'm so inspired by Ang. Someone mentioned to me in an interview--that some critics at Cannes were disappointed because they thought it was going to be more about a concert and they also thought that, with Ang Lee, it would be more deeply, dramatically, intense or something.

Q: It is but it's not negative.

JG: That's the thing. When you go and see an Ang Lee movie, you should have no expectations--he reinvents himself with every film. All you know is that you're seeing a piece of art because Ang is a true artist and he listens to his instincts. He listens to his heart, is incredibly detail-oriented, does his research, is a hard worker, has an opinion about things, and puts together a work of art, whether it's comedy, a drama or whatever.

Like the inspiration for Taking Woodstock was that he was doing The Ice Storm and he always researches back five years before the movie. He was taken with the Woodstock thing and wanted to do something positive. This is a guy who reinvents himself every time he makes a movie, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to "Sense and Sensibility", to The Ice Storm, to Ride with the Devil, to Brokeback Mountain--which is about gay cowboys--now to this movie about Woodstock. He's unbelievable.

Q: So are you getting weird offers, getting good offers or what?

JG: I'm back to auditioning again; back to square one.

Q: At least you're making a living.

JG: Totally. At this point, it's about just looking for the good writing. I love acting in the theater,but I'm fascinated with acting on film. I love acting on film, but I've been fortunate enough to work on projects and with writers that are really challenging.

I've learned so much from them and grown as an artist so the rule is if it's well written you can't lose. If it's a film or a play or whatever, if the writing is good and you really feel passionate about it, you just can't lose. You'll grow from it. Whether it's a success or not is neither here nor there; you're going to grow as an artist from this experience.

Q: When this is over do you have other things in hand?

JG: No, I have nothing, I'm free. As of September 1st, I'm unemployed.

Q: At least you get unemployment right?

JG: I do actually; in theory I can.

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