Jonathan Groff was 'there to throw it down' in The Matrix Resurrections
The stunt team had a nickname for Jonathan Groff during prep for The Matrix Resurrections: The Savage. Something would happen to the 36-year-old actor of stage and screen once he hit the training mat. Groff, known to the masses as the lovable voice of Kristoff in Frozen, would unleash a rage he never knew he had. Even Keanu Reeves, who's had many action roles, agrees: "Yes, lots of power."
"I think any anxiety that I had about fighting, any sort of 'Oh my God, what am I doing here?' energy, I just funneled into my commitment of being able to do it to the best of my ability," Groff tells EW. "The minute I set foot on that mat, I was there to throw it down."
The true nature of Groff's character in The Matrix Resurrections is still being decoded. But EW's exclusive sneak peek at the franchise's fourth installment, arriving 18 years after the original trilogy concluded in 2003, sees the suit in the midst of battle with Reeves' Neo. (The Savage jumped out!) The photo also confirms that Groff's character is the same figure from the movie's trailer exhibiting some Agent-like moves, particularly those rapid punches.
It's not lost on Groff, who came out publicly as gay in 2009, that he has this opportunity to take on such an action-heavy part. He's used to hitting the stage as King George in Hamilton and as Melchior Gabor in Spring Awakening, for which Groff was in the midst of planning a 15th anniversary revival performance when he spoke with EW. Hollywood also hasn't historically welcomed LGBTQ performers to the action space.
"Only vicariously would I have dreamed to be Jennifer Garner in a red wig on Alias kicking ass," Groff says, not as a joke but as a matter of fact, despite the twinkle in his eye as he says it. "To be given the opportunity to kick ass was so surreal and fun and empowering."
Groff believes he rehearsed more for one particular fight sequence in Resurrections than any play he's ever done — and he had Reeves, a veteran of The Matrix, as his guide. "He taught me so much about the agreement of two people to hit each other but not hurt each other," he says. "It's like making love with someone." Groff knows how that sounds but he doubles down. "When our fight was over, I felt deeply connected to him in a physical way."
He remembers one particular day filming Resurrections when that lesson became crucial.
During an intense sequence, Groff's character has to smash Neo's face against a wall. He and Reeves rehearsed the choreography with a flat hand ahead of the shoot date. Once they arrived on set and were going through the motions, director Lana Wachowski had a thought.
"Lana's like, 'If you could do an open palm and put your finger right underneath Keanu's eyeball and then smash his face into the wall, that would be great for camera,'" Groff recalls. "I look at Keanu and he just gave me the nod, like, 'Go for it.' And the trust! I mean, I have to spin in a circle, slap my hand on his face, and then smash it into the thing. I feel like there's so much love and respect that is swapped in those moments."
It was Groff's impression that Wachowski, who developed Resurrections without her sister Lilly, was interested in capturing "genuine in-the-moment human interaction." The cast, he says, never over-rehearsed and Lana herself was never quite explicit in what she wanted from her actors.
"Lana's style of filmmaking has changed with mirroring her transition," Groff says. (Lana came out as a trans woman and completed her transition after 2008's Speed Racer. Lilly also came out as trans in March 2016.) "She was explaining to us how, in her earlier work, she would storyboard things like they were comic books almost, and create exact frames of what she wanted as her way of literally controlling her narrative, because there was so much out of control inside of her. Then when she embraced her identity, this articulated itself in her work and opened her up to the idea of capturing the things that can't be controlled."
Groff and the rest of the cast spent a lot of time with Wachowski through the process of making Resurrections. The troupe would schedule "artistic outings" to visit museums or go out dancing as a way of bonding. Groff even remembers Wachowski setting up a "drum circle" to keep everyone feeling connected. "It was spiritually very important for her that we all hang out, [that] we understand this is a group effort."
When production wrapped the first leg of filming in San Francisco before heading to Berlin, there was a wrap party. Wachowski is apparently "always throwing a party," Groff mentions, but this was more like one of the filmmaker's rituals.
"She was saying, 'These experiences are over before you know it. I want to just remind us all to take in every moment of this journey, even though it feels like long days now, it feels like we have so much work to do,'" he recalls. "She just has this extra special energy of allowing us all to take in the moment, which even added to the ability to be vulnerable and jump off the building spiritually before every take."
It appears even someone dubbed the Savage can appreciate that.
The Matrix Resurrections opens in theaters and on HBO Max Dec. 22.
For more on The Matrix Resurrections, order the January issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Dec. 17. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.