Playing it straight: On Jonathan Groff in ‘Mindhunter’

Some things never change. And one of those things seems to be whether or not an openly gay actor can really be “convincing,” playing a straight role. The question is never really asked when the roles are reversed: from Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain to Andrew Garfield in Angels in America, straight actors are never asked if they can be convincing in a gay role, instead it’s just treated as being par for the course, another day at the office for an actor. I don’t know why it isn’t quite the same for a gay actor, but it isn’t and I can’t help but find myself wondering why that is.

This question is, of course, eternal. Strangely though, it never seemed to be asked earlier in Groff’s career. From the sexually charged Spring Awakening to a guest appearance on Glee, Groff played straight in both projects, and nobody seemed to bat an eyelid. That is, beyond the cursory double-take of anything heterosexual turning up in Glee. Maybe this is being brought up again because of his most recent project pre-Mindhunter. That project is, of course, Looking, the under-watched, under-rated HBO drama created by Andrew Haigh. And for those that aren’t aware of it, Looking was gay. Very gay. All of the three biggest roles are gay men, and the show is about their lives, loves, and psyches. And it’s the first capital “g” Gay project that Groff has played a gay character in.

Fast-forward a few years, and here he is on TV again, playing the male lead in Mindhunter, a Netflix TV show where he plays a straight FBI agent. By the end of the first episode, Groff has flirted with a woman and taken her home. They’ve even – gasp – been to bed together. When I first watched the scenes of his flirtation, I found them funny, even though I’m sure I wasn’t meant to. Watching with my brother, I turned to him and said “there is something funny about hearing him say things that are so straight.” But that was more a comment on the dialogue than anything else, on the style of flirtation; I don’t know what it was, but it all struck me as being, as I said at the time, very straight.

But that didn’t stop me from believing that Groff’s character, Holden Ford, was attracted to the woman across from him, or that he’d rather be going to bed with one of the men that he works with. If Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk is such an astounding feat of acting that he deserves an Oscar for it, then why is it so difficult for people to believe that Jonathan Groff can play an FBI agent that likes sleeping with women?

If anything, it feels like it comes down to ideas of otherness. Giving a cursory google to the sentence “gay actors playing straight roles” only really yields listicles of, you guessed it, gay actors playing straight roles. I don’t know if that means it isn’t a big deal anymore, or if it’s a big enough deal that whenever it happens, somebody needs to publish a new listicle about it. There’s not much text attached to these pieces, beyond a reference to the roles that these actors have played, but some of them seem to mention something that, again, only ever appears in discussions around actors that aren’t straight. The desire to not be “defined” by their sexuality. This, of course, comes back to otherness, to being seen as the thing that makes you unlike the majority. In Groff’s case, that’s the fact that he’s gay. But it doesn’t hamper his ability to play straight, to perform a performance of oral sex on screen, or straight-up straight sex on stage.

Maybe there’s an element of how easy it is to find information, and google an actor or actress to see what their sexual orientation is. I don’t know what would compel you to do it, but you can if you want to. Or maybe it comes from something good, from the fact that people feel like they can be more open about their sexuality. But if all that that’s greeted with are questions about if people will believe that a gay actor can play a straight role, don’t be surprised if people hop back into the closet when nobody’s looking.

With all of these reasons floating around as to why people might struggle to buy into Groff’s portrayal, the biggest problem with it all is the hypocrisy. Ten straight actors have won Oscars for playing LGBT characters, and scores more have been nominated. A straight actor playing gay leads to acclaim, but a gay actor playing straight leads to raised eyebrows. Other than one moment in the pilot, Jonathan Groff’s sexuality never entered my mind during the episodes of Mindhunter that I’ve watched, just like I never think that Phillip Seymour Hoffman is straight when I watch Capote. But Jonathan Groff is an “other” to Hoffman, or Tom Hanks, or Natalie Portman (all of whom won Oscars for playing LGBT characters), and anyone made aware of that seems to wonder quite how straight he can be on camera. All of the actors I’ve mentioned have a couple of things in common, and one of them is that they’re all actors. They act. They literally pretend to be other people, for a living. Jonathan Groff just happens to be pretending to be heterosexual while he’s on Mindhunter, and he’s managed to create better chemistry with his on-screen lover than plenty of straight actors across the airwaves.