“It’s the first time I’ve ever done a horror movie. So it was a real education.”
When you’re an actor in an M. Night Shyamalan movie, it’s easy to start obsessing over the eventual twists that are surely to come. But as Jonathan Groff experienced in Shyamalan’s new film Knock at the Cabin (February 3), it’s easy to get “lost” in the story. “We’re really submitting to his vision and trying to help him achieve exactly what he wants.” Groff plays Andrew, a father held hostage along with his partner and young daughter by criminals who force them to make an impossible decision to avert the end of the apocalypse. Groff says he understood Andrew “in a primal way” and that this was “the first time I’ve ever done a horror movie. So it was a real education.” For an actor so known for his voice, both in the Frozen franchise (as Kristoff), but also in Broadway musicals like Spring Awakening and Hamilton, the difference between stage and screen is huge. “I’ve really appreciated my time doing film and television, because it really keeps me on my toes” and that “there is something really freeing about the intimacy of film and TV that I really love.”
What about Knock at the Cabin excited you?
Well, Night is one of those filmmakers, there’s a handful of them, where I went to go see their films in the theater throughout my life. I distinctly remember the experiences where you really feel the director’s eye throughout it and to me, his films, they feel special and they feel specific to him. So he’s one of those people that even before reading the script or anything, I always wanted to work with because he’s got that very specific point of view. So Night was the first draw. And then when I read the script I was pretty freaked out. It grabbed me in a very primal, visceral way. The choice that’s posed in the trailer. The idea of sacrifice and family and home invasion and all of it felt really primal. I had a very visceral reaction to it. My heart was racing. And I had a feeling about the character of Eric, I understood him in a primal way. Then I read the book, Cabin at the End of the World, and that destroyed me. It’s such a beautifully written novel. And then Night and I had a Zoom meeting, I made an audition tape, we did a meeting and we had an immediate connection. He lives just outside of Philly, and I’m from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I’ve got this dream of converting my dad’s horse farm into an artist’s retreat. He’s trained and raised horses his whole life for a living and I have this dream of taking over the farm. When I was Zooming with Night, he was in a converted horse stable in Pennsylvania four minutes from where my family lives and where I live as well in Pennsylvania. That was totally crazy and surreal and it felt like kismet.
You’ll be like Marina Abramović, with the artist’s retreat in the countryside.
It’s funny, we made this documentary about Spring Awakening, which is a show I did on Broadway 15 years ago, and part of the documentary is the whole cast coming to my family’s farm in Pennsylvania. It started in that moment. I grew up playing pretend on the farm and dress-up, I was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. A very creative energy there on the farm as a kid. And then bringing my friends there during Spring Awakening, they got really inspired and excited being there. There’s a lot of Amish farms and they don’t use electricity, there’s something creative and something in the air in that area. I want to make it into an artists’ retreat because I think it’s just an inspiring place to be.
When you’re working on an M. Night movie, do you know the twist? If you do, how do you get that out of your head while you’re acting?
He’s got the whole movie storyboarded, almost like a comic strip. From when we walked in, even from our very first rehearsals, he’s got it all planned out. He knows exactly the shots that he’s going to do and exactly how he wants to tell the story. So it’s kind of easy to get lost inside of his process. Because as the actors, we’re really submitting to his vision and trying to help him achieve exactly what he wants because he knows exactly what he wants, and he’s incredibly specific. But, for the most part, it’s one location, and we shot it pretty much completely in order, which also made it easy mentally to go through. Working with Night, he really seduces you into his world and into his methods, so playing the ending or not playing the ending, I didn’t even think about that. I was just trying to play each specific moment. And one of the fun things about this movie in particular, there’s seven of us through most of the movie, all together, and he really created an environment in rehearsal, which is also great. We had a couple of weeks of rehearsal before we did it and then on set where we were, all seven of us, passing the ball back and forth and in the movie. You really feel that when you watch it, everybody was fully committed and really playing with each other. So it was really easy to get lost in the story.
With the premise of this film, it feels like every scene would be very intense. How do you maintain that intensity without going crazy?
It’s the first time I’ve ever done a horror movie. So it was a real education. You’re at a certain fever pitch the entire time from an acting standpoint. All seven of the actors were there to show up and really commit, no one was phoning it in. No one was thinking of this as like an easy job or something. Everybody was really committed the whole time. And it was really intense and extreme emotions. We would do some of the scenes and just come off set and be like, “Wow, that was really something.” We had a real camaraderie between the seven of us and we would laugh a lot on the breaks and just kind of chill and release from the intensity of the experience, and that really helped. We did fun stuff in Philadelphia—like Night’s wife, she teaches an exercise like Zumba [but not]. One Saturday, Sunday morning, we all went and did that. So we had a lot of fun that offset the intensity of the scenes. But it was intense.
When you’re in a film like this, how do you keep the twist a secret? I’d totally give it away in casual conversation.
In casual conversation I’ve totally given everything. I’m not great at hiding that stuff but—out of respect for the movie and out of respect for Night and how he really is such a passionate filmmaker and he takes what he does so seriously and it means so much to him—so out of respect of the movie, in interviews, I can be an adult and put on my filter. But in life I’m a little more loose-lipped.
I’m the same way. Don’t tell me secrets.
I’m good at keeping secrets when it’s important. There’s some study I remember reading at some point that even if something is spoiled, if it’s well made, it doesn’t matter. I believe in this movie enough to think that even if you knew what was going to happen, it would still be an enjoyable experience.
If you could be in any M. Night film, which one would you be in?
Such a good question. I mean, Old and just be on the beach the whole time seems like it would have been really fun. Especially because I know they shot that during COVID. But that’s more…
Yeah, yes. I’m glad. Let me think, who I would have wanted to be in one of his movies? I really have no idea.
I would want you to be Bryce Dallas Howard in The Village. I think that would be really fun.
Oh my god, I’m stealing that answer. Yes, I’ll take it.
What’s harder, Broadway or TV/film?
I’m a creature of habit, and I like to do things over and over again. So for me, artistically, I feel more comfortable and I feel more at ease on the acting meditation of theater, because it’s making the same thing every day, fresh and finding something new in the repeated pattern. But the meditation of acting in film and TV, that is more challenging for me and it’s less in line with who I am as a person. Every day it’s something different. So I’ve really appreciated my time doing film and television, because it really keeps me on my toes and it really keeps my knife sharp. Because I am more out of my comfort zone doing something different every day and not getting to settle into that repeated thing. Some actors find it way more difficult to do the same thing every day and find it easier to do a different scene every day, but it’s the reverse for me. It’s sort of like long distance running as opposed to sprinting, I would say theater is like a long distance and film/TV is more like a sprint with scene work. Getting that opportunity to do that scene in one day and then you never get to do it again is daunting, it’s exciting, but also daunting because you’ve got one shot. So it’s that kind of adrenaline and that unique opportunity that keeps me coming back to film and TV. I love the intimacy of how if the camera sees it, you feel it, you don’t have to project to the last row of the balcony. There is something really freeing about the intimacy of film and TV that I really love as well.
I find theater people often don’t like to watch themselves on film. Do you?
I watch everything I do once. Maybe there’s a couple things that I’ve watched more than once, but it doesn’t bother me when I watch myself. I do have moments of regret when I watch myself. But I do think theater is more the actor’s medium because we tell the story every night over the course of however long the play or musical is. But what I like about watching film and TV back the one time is to know what the story ended up being. Because we don’t know when we’re in it, the same as with Knock at the Cabin. I mean, most of it is the same but what are the editing choices? What did they cut out? What did they amplify? What is the score? All those elements are such huge parts of the storytelling and it’s always really fascinating for me to see what the product is in the end. I really enjoy that part of it. That’s unrelated to watching myself, which is always complicated, but ultimately fine. I can get over the mistakes I’ve made.
When are we going to get another Mindhunter? I need it very badly.
I have no idea. It’s all up to David [Fincher]. If he wants to do it, I’m sure all of us would run in and go back and do it immediately. David is such a consummate artist and he packs so much into his work, so it makes sense that it would be something that would be played again and again. I’m excited for his next movie.