Jonathan Groff:
from wishing well to Woodstock

Waiting tables in New York City isn't all that bad. Working with director Ang Lee on a movie is better -- and a lot more intimidating.

Just ask Conestoga Valley High School graduate Jonathan Groff, who made a public appearance Sunday, Sept. 13, in Lancaster County, Pa., to promote his new film, Taking Woodstock, and to help raise funds for his alma mater. Groff attended an afternoon screening of the movie at Penn Cinemas in Lititz, answered questions from his fans and made an evening appearance at his old school to help raise money for the Conestoga Valley Education Foundation.

Here are a few fun facts he revealed:
• Groff spent a summer as the voice of the wishing well at Dutch Wonderland.
• Although he received a Tony nomination for his performance in the Broadway musical Spring Awakening, he is bashful about singing in public.
• Groff hopes someday to be an action hero.
• A teacher can change a student's life.

Groff, now 24, loves to recount his experience in middle school, when drama teacher Sue Fisher told him to take a shot at stardom. "I never really thought of acting as a career," he said. "But she sat me down -- I'll never forget it -- and said I should pursue this as a career. That started me dreaming about it." Since then, Groff has walked the boards at Ephrata Playhouse and the Fulton Opera House. He has had a steady stream of jobs in New York, off-Broadway and on, most famously a starring role in Spring Awakening.

His first movie experience, Groff said, was totally different. "I could look at a Broadway production and understand the mechanics of it," he said. "But film seemed like something beyond my wildest dreams. It seemed very distant, very mythical and unobtainable."

Groff doesn't have any immediate plans on stage or screen, but said he's "itching to get back and do my next film."

"I hope to be the kind of actor who goes back and forth between theater and film," he said. "Theater is my first passion. It's where my heart is. But film fascinates me."

Fisher, who attended Sunday's show (and has been to every stage production Groff has done), said seeing him on the big screen "was absolutely exhilarating."

Groff pulled up to the theater in a 1958 white Oldsmobile Super88 convertible. Dressed for the part -- he said later he was wearing part of his wardrobe from a Central Park production of Hair -- he walked up the red carpet and spent about an hour meeting fans, renewing acquaintances and flashing the "peace" sign for cameras.

CVEF director Beverly Breniser said Sunday's fundraiser came together "very quickly" once she contacted Groff's mother, Julie. "He was, as always, very gracious," said Breniser, wearing a fringed and beaded vest and a waist-length Cher wig for the occasion. "He seems thrilled to be here." Breniser said CVEF provides grants to CV teachers "for programs they can't normally get in the budget." Money raised through Sunday's event will go directly into the school's drama and theater program, at Groff's request.

The crowd erupted in applause when Groff walked into the theater, again when his name appeared in the opening credits and yet again when he made his first appearance as promoter Michael Lang, exiting a helicopter amid a throng of naked, dancing hippies. "Far out," he said.

Although Groff had limited screen time compared to stars Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman, he made an impression with each appearance. Always smiling, he offered a feel-good, can-do vibe to the tale.

Sunday was Groff's seventh viewing of the film, he said. "But there is no place I'd rather be than my own hometown to see this movie with my family and friends."

After the movie, Groff spent nearly two hours answering questions from the audience and telling animated stories about his experiences. "I've been really lucky," he said. "Every project in the past five years was something I really cared about ... when really, I just wanted to be employed."

Groff also offered advice for anyone hoping to follow his path into acting. "Throw yourself into it and take as many opportunities as you can -- with no ego," he said. "Be a sponge and soak up every experience that you can."

Besides the event at Penn Cinemas, Groff also made an appearance from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at CV Middle School, where he starred as Teddy Best in Best of the West. It was his first production.

The evening gathering was scheduled because Taking Woodstock is rated R -- for nudity, adult language, drug use and more -- and "we didn't want people bringing their 13-year-olds," Breniser said. "So we wanted to give those people an opportunity to meet him, too."

CV junior Margaret Kramer was one of the many people who flocked to the theater and had a chance to meet Groff in person. "I really look up to him," she said. "He's the sweetest guy I ever met. I really want to be his friend."

"He's amazing," added pal Beatrice Osborne, who came over from Manheim Township to meet the star.

After the Q&A session with Groff, the CVEF auctioned off a signed marquee and movie poster for the film, which earned an additional $950 for the foundation.

interview by
Tom Knapp

17 October 2009

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