David Sedaris has one of the most distinctive voices in literature, so when the time came to make a film based on his work, it was important to find the right actor for the part. Luckily, when director Kyle Alvarez set about making C.O.G.—his adaptation of a Sedaris short story coming out September 20—he had Jonathan Groff in mind.
Groff, a Tony nominee and alumnus of Glee and The Good Wife, might not have immediately seen himself in the role, but Alvarez’s vision won out, and the charming tale of an upper-crust college kid who spends his summer working on an Oregon apple farm and finding out just who he is, is better off for it.
DuJour caught up with Groff to talk odd jobs, cross-country bus rides and why he’s been known to have a car full of Amish ladies.
So, this movie kicks off with your character, David, heading off to find himself by working on an apple farm. Did you ever take any kind of journey of self-discovery?
I have! I sort of had the experience of this movie in a few different ways. I’m from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and my dad runs a horse farm. So I’ve had the manual labor experience, shoveling horseshit at the farm and taking care of the lawn, doing a lot of the work. I moved to New York and did Spring Awakening on Broadway, and when it was over, I went on a solo trip to Italy for a while. That was a moment when I was journaling a lot and learning about myself.
And the bus trip! God help anyone who has to ride cross-country on a bus.
I was actually drawing on a lot of personal experience for that. Right when I graduated high school, I got this job doing a bus-and-truck, non-union national tour of The Sound Of Music. We were on a bus every day. We would play Shreveport and then drive to Texas. We had a whole day of shooting C.O.G. on the bus, and the minute I stepped on—it was almost the same bus, with the same fabric on the seats—I could feel the pain and anguish and frustration and nausea you get.
This is the first film adaptation of a work by David Sedaris. Were you a fan previously?
I was a fan! I read Naked, the book C.O.G. is from, before knowing about the movie, and I’d seen him do live readings. This is the first time anyone’s made his work into a movie, so when I first got the script, I said to my agent, “I think this will be a great movie, but this is not my project.” I don’t look or sound like David Sedaris. It wasn’t for me.
So how did it end up working out?
I found out later that Kyle Alvarez, our director, was interested in making a Sedaris story into a movie, but not with a protagonist who looked or acted like David. So I met with Kyle and we talked it out, and then it just happened.
Was Sedaris involved in the movie?
Not at all. The first time I got to meet David was at our premiere at Sundance. One of the first things he said after the movie was, “I can’t believe I was such an asshole.”
Your character leaves behind a sheltered East Coast existence to go to Oregon and work on a farm—not a glamorous job. What’s the strangest gig you’ve ever taken?
My dad’s side of the family is Mennonite, and their community in Lancaster is very close to the Amish community. My grandmother had Amish women clean her house and work in her garden, so whenever I would mow the lawn there, I would drive them home, which was bizarre but interesting.
The other thing I did was work at an amusement park in Lancaster called Dutch Wonderland. I was a ride operator, and I worked the ball bath, where you just sit and watch kids play in balls. I was also the voice of a wishing well that people would toss quarters into. That was my favorite, because I would sing modern-day pop hits in the voice of a wishing well.
Between one of the most awkward first dates on film and Samuel’s strange friendship with Denis O’Hare’s born-again character, there are some strange interpersonal relations going on. Is it Samuel or the people around him?
Maybe since we’re getting it all from David the character’s perspective, it’s just his experience of things instead of how things actually are. One of the things we see in the movie is that when you’re really down and out, you’ll find the good in anyone just to find someone to lean on.