[This story contains spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections]
One could say that Jonathan Groff was “oblivious” to the Matrix Resurrections role he was up for until he eventually received one of the most exciting calls of his career from filmmaker Lana Wachowski. Despite auditioning with scenes that would later belong to Neil Patrick Harris’ The Analyst character, Groff was surprised to learn he’d be playing a new iteration of Agent Smith, the Matrix franchise’s big bad that Hugo Weaving memorably brought to life in the original trilogy. Like Thomas Anderson/Neo (Keanu Reeves), Smith has a different look and occupation inside the present-day Matrix as he’s Anderson’s business partner at their video game company. So Groff had as much creative freedom as he wanted in order to explore this new version of Smith.
“So I knew from the beginning of the process that this was going to be a new programming of Agent Smith. And [Lana Wachowski] told me that she didn’t want me doing the entire performance as an impression of Hugo Weaving,” Groff tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And at the same time, in the script, there were those fun moments where my business partner character says, ‘Billions of people just living out their lives… oblivious.’ So there were moments like that [from the original Matrix trilogy], but on the whole, she was ready and interested in seeing a new version of the Agent Smith character.”
But even though he had free rein, Groff still returned to Weaving’s work and kept him in his thoughts.
“There’s a YouTube clip of Hugo Weaving every time he says, ‘Mr. Anderson!’ in the span of The Matrix trilogy,” Groff says. “So I watched this video clip a lot, and I played the movies in the background while I ate dinner. I always had Hugo in my mind.”
While Mindhunter fans are still grieving the loss of the David Fincher-led psychological crime thriller series, Groff, who played series lead Holden Ford, has a rather composed outlook on the situation. He even likens Fincher’s decision to put the beloved Netflix series on ice to the choice that former Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause made in regard to the 1997-1998 Bulls, led by Michael Jordan. Krause determined that the 1997-1998 Bulls would be the dynasty’s last go-round in order to rebuild the following season. Krause’s controversial decision was recently documented on ESPN Films and Netflix’s wildly popular docuseries The Last Dance. But unlike the entire world’s response to Krause’s decision, Groff absolutely respects Fincher’s call.
“To me, Mindhunter is Fincher. The whole experience for me was the honor and privilege of getting to work with him,” Groff shares. “So I’m not a sports person really at all, but it’s like the [1997-1998] Chicago Bulls. Do you go for another season with the team? Or do you just do what the general manager says? But if the general manager believes that it should stop, you have to go with the general manager. And this is how I feel with David. The minute he says he wants to do another one, I’ll be there in a second. But I trust his vision and his instincts, and so I leave it always in his hands, as ever.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Groff also looks back at his tireless work ethic while filming Mindhunter, which led him to being nicknamed “The Robot.” Then he reflects on his Matrix Resurrections fight scene with Reeves and the moment he’ll never forget.
So what’s your memory of watching The Matrix for the first time?
So I missed it initially when it was in the theater, but when I was in high school, a group of my friends went to — you may remember it — Blockbuster Video. We got the VHS of The Matrix and had our minds blown.
Gosh, I miss those days.
Remember walking through and picking up the box? It’s just not the same now. Remember, too, how disappointing it would be if the movie was not behind the box because it had been rented and you had to pick a different movie? I totally forgot about that until just now.
And then you’d always go to the front desk to have the employees check the return bin, but it never worked out in anyone’s favor.
(Laughs.) Exactly. Those were the days.
So what was the first step towards being cast? How did the ball get rolling?
Carmen Cuba cast me in Looking back in 2013, and we’ve remained friends through the years. So she sent me a text saying, “I have a really exciting movie and a really exciting director. Would you like to meet said director on a day off from your rehearsal?” I was rehearsing an off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors where I was playing Seymour, the quintessential nerd. So I said, “Yes.” Then I found out it was Lana [Wachowski] and it was The Matrix. So I flew to San Francisco and had my meeting with Lana, her wife [Karin Wachowski], their friend Aimee [Allegretti], who’s an executive producer on the film, and their dog. And we talked about San Francisco and we talked about life. Lana told me her creative impulse for this film and why she was making it, and then we read some material. And a couple of weeks later, I was on a break from rehearsal for Little Shop and she FaceTimed me. I was standing on 9th Avenue and 42nd Street, outside the West Bank Cafe, and she told me that I was going to be playing this new iteration of Agent Smith. And I was in total shock to be honest. I never imagined that something like this would happen and then it all started from there. I started the next week with a trainer to get physically in shape for the fighting stuff.
Did you read actual material from the movie? Or did she use dummy sides?
It was The Analyst’s (Neil Patrick Harris) big giant monologue that he has. So it was a big long piece of dialogue that she just had me do in a bunch of different ways and a bunch of different versions.
So just to confirm, until Lana called you with the good news, you had no idea who you were actually going out for during the audition.
Yes, I had no idea that Smith was who I was being considered for. That came later, yeah.
Whenever I talk to actors who’ve been cast as famous characters, they’ll often say that they referenced the original role as little as possible, but in this case, your Smith is meant to evoke Hugo Weaving’s take. You say several of his famous lines just like him, and Lana would sometimes follow your line delivery with Weaving’s own performance of that line. So what was your approach in this case?
So I knew from the beginning of the process that this was going to be a new programming of Agent Smith. So immediately, Lana was giving and sort of desiring creative freedom when it came to the general vibe of the character. And she told me that she didn’t want me doing the entire performance as an impression of Hugo Weaving. She wanted to find something new. And at the same time, in the script, there were those fun moments where my business partner character says, “Billions of people just living out their lives… oblivious.” I love that line. So there’s still this kind of wink to the original. And obviously, picking up the Desert Eagle and screaming, “Mr. Anderson!” So there were moments like that [from the original Matrix trilogy], but on the whole, she was ready and interested in seeing a new version of the Agent Smith character. So we kind of made that up as we went along and as she was making the movie. Her process is that she doesn’t do a lot of rehearsal. We talk a lot about our lives and she tells a lot of stories, and we come in and sort of create in front of the camera on the day. She’s sort of always rolling. So we found our way into the character together. It started with that first scene playing [Tom Anderson’s] business partner and that bled into the Smith that’s in the Matrix. And then the other big piece of it was the fight training and getting physically prepared to do that. I learned the basic kung fu moves, and then with my trainers, I figured out the sort of fight specificity to Smith. And that was, again, where we were trying to give a nod to the original Smith. There were certain poses, certain punches, certain things that we made sure we wanted to hit.
Your downward head tilt really tied it all together, especially when you screamed “Mr. Anderson!” in the sprinkler rain.
Can you tell me more about that day?
Yeah, there’s a YouTube clip of Hugo Weaving every time he says, “Mr. Anderson!” in the span of The Matrix trilogy. So I watched this video clip a lot, and I played the movies in the background while I ate dinner. I always had Hugo in my mind. This scene, where I pick up the gun and become him, we never rehearsed it. And Lana said, “You pick up the gun, you scream, you shoot. Go for it. Action.” This is a perfect example of what the process was like, which was very body-first. Oftentimes, especially when I was working on something like Mindhunter, the character is very analytical, very thought-through. And oftentimes, in films, you’re kind of planning out your character and building it and getting a sense of it before you’d show up on the day. But Lana was really interested in us surprising ourselves in the moment. So when I picked up that gun with the water pouring down on me and I started screaming, it was completely an instinctual, primal experience. It was, I have to say, quite cathartic and quite thrilling. And I only screamed that line maybe two or three times. It was a pretty intense out-of-body moment. I still remember it so well.
So you had the honor of fighting Keanu as Neo. Knowing that he works as hard as anyone at choreography, did you put a lot of pressure on yourself to match his dedication?
Absolutely. All of the rumors are true about Keanu’s level of work ethic. He was there training and getting ready before all of us got there. My first day in the training tent, Keanu was in his jiu-jitsu outfit doing kicks and punches. I mean, he really sets the bar for all of us in the training. When the fight was happening, I also really wanted to be able to be present and to be trading energy back and forth with Keanu as Neo. I didn’t want to be focusing on the moves. I wanted to know it so well so I could actually play it. And the fighting team and Lana really choreographed the scene, the giant bathroom fight, with great characterization and great nuance. It was like performing a really complex wonderful piece of music or an incredibly intricate pas de deux. It was so exciting to be doing such extraordinary fight choreography with the greatest action star of our time and someone that’s so devoted to their craft. I really tried to take in every single moment of getting to be with Keanu and I learned so much from working with him. It’s an experience I’ll hold in my heart for the rest of my life.
Actors often say that they get to know their co-stars very quickly during fight scenes. Was that the case with you and Keanu?
Absolutely. Oh my god! We’re riding past The Matrix Resurrections posters in Times Square right now. It’s so exciting! I haven’t seen those yet! We’re in a car. So when I was fighting Keanu and also when I was having a fight scene with Yahya [Abdul-Mateen II], you get to know them in a more intimate way. There’s so much trust that’s involved in these fight scenes because you’re really hitting each other, but you’re not hurting each other. So it’s great abandon matched with great precision. It takes two of you to sell it, two of you to tell the story and two of you to keep each other safe. And Keanu, he knew that I had not trained a lot in fighting before this. I’d never done a fight scene before. But he really gave me so much trust and it made me want to rise to meet the level of trust that he had when he fought with me. There were moments where I just slammed his face into a wall and he was so down and so game. So it really forced me to want to raise my game and really keep him safe and really sell the scene.
Did you get to do any one of the wire work for when Smith gets propelled?
This was my stunt double. There were two moments where they used my stunt double. When I get thrown and flown back through the wall, this was my stunt double. And when we jump into the air and punch each other, this was also my stunt double.
So how much of your stuff was shot in San Francisco versus Berlin?
So my very first scene with Keanu where I’m smoking the cigarette and talking about how he has to make The Matrix 4 game, we shot that in San Francisco. And I trained in San Francisco. The fight training was there every day. And then I shot everything else in Berlin.
So we’ve reached the portion of the interview where I vent about Mindhunter.
Making a good show is virtually impossible; making a great show like Mindhunter is absolutely impossible. So when Fincher decided to fold up shop on a great show, did you scream at the heavens for a few weeks? Were you inconsolable?
(Laughs.) You know what? To me, Mindhunter is Fincher. The whole experience for me was the honor and privilege of getting to work with him. This was the main draw for me. This was the main joy of getting to have that experience. So I’m not a sports person really at all, but it’s like the [1997-1998] Chicago Bulls. Do you go for another season with the team? Or do you just do what the general manager says? But if the general manager believes that it should stop, you have to go with the general manager. And this is how I feel with David. The minute he says he wants to do another one, I’ll be there in a second. But I trust his vision and his instincts, and so I leave it always in his hands, as ever.
If David does in fact call you for more, is there an understanding between you and the rest of the key players that you’ll make yourselves available somehow, someway?
There’s such a reverence for Fincher. I can’t imagine that every single person wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to go back.
Were your dreams pretty intense during those days? Was it hard to sleep after 14 hours of dark material?
I didn’t realize it until it was over. It’s so funny because my nickname on The Matrix was The Savage, and my nickname from the crew on Mindhunter was The Robot because I would religiously get up early. I would get up and run four miles every single day, and sometimes, on a Monday morning, I would get up at 3:30 in the morning. So when it was over, I kind of understood. I was very kind of militant about going home and getting rest. I’m very focused. David said to me when we started, “We’re going to work every day for this entire first season and you can’t get sick.” So I was very, very diligent with my health and exercise. And I later realized that this was also my kind of mechanism in dealing with the darkness of the material. The exercise every morning really helped me release things and clear my head and show up ready to act again. But honestly, the material, while it was incredibly dark, I would often think, “This is nothing compared to the people who actually do this for a living.” I mean, we’re acting. I’m not really a method actor, and I have such reverence for the actual FBI agents that do this work and their families and the real devastation that they see. So it felt like an honor getting to tell their stories, and I didn’t carry the weight of the reality of what we were talking about, partially in deference to the people that actually have to do that.
Just out of curiosity, what was your experience like when you saw Damon Herriman’s 1969 Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood after working with his 1980 Manson on Mindhunter?
It was so cool. It was so cool to see the similarities and the differences. And like you said, there are so many years in between those two characterizations. And he is a master class. His performance as Manson was incredible in the Tarantino movie, just like it was over the course of pretty much a week that we shot that interview with Manson on Mindhunter. Every take. From the first rehearsal to the final take, he was an endless well of creative inspiration. That guy’s a genius.
Once you wrapped with Fincher and you moved on to your next set, did that new job feel like a walk in the park by comparison since you weren’t doing countless takes and scrutinizing every detail?
Yes. I mean, the world of Fincher is unlike any other set I have ever and will ever be on. I’m absolutely certain. There’s a bittersweet feeling when you’re on another set because it’s exciting to be in the mind of another director or another experience or another TV show, but there’s something really special about what David does. It’s funny because I think the next set I was on was Lana’s set. Lana and David are so different in so many ways, but one of the ways that they are similar is they both have an extraordinary artist’s point of view that is completely singular to their own vision. These are my favorite types of directors to work with because their point of view and their vision is so strong. It allows different sides of ourselves as performers to come out because it’s almost like experiencing another country or another culture. With these strong, artistic directors, you get to feel yourself in a totally different way.
Kristoff, King George III, Holden Ford, Agent Smith, Patrick Murray. Are you pretty surprised by the varied roles you’ve had so far since this industry still tends to pigeonhole most actors?
I feel lucky. It sounds cheesy to say that, but I feel incredibly lucky to have had the varied opportunities and the varied experiences I’ve had. It’s part of what gives me life and part of what I seek out creatively. Honestly, it started with Spring Awakening when I was 21 years old and getting cast in a show like that, which I got to do for two years. And the material of that show was so extraordinary. This is kind of a big word, but it really was life-changing. Ever since then, I’ve been seeking out material and creative collaborators that are opportunities for growth and evolution. This is what I’m searching for most in projects. And the opportunities that I’ve gotten have been such a gift because they bring out different sides of myself and teach me new things. Even this experience with The Matrix, getting to live in Berlin for five months was extraordinary, and getting to play a character that was so brutalistic and so physical was a total stretch and a total thrill.
Decades from now, when you reminisce to your loved ones about your career, what day on The Matrix will you tell them about first?
Oh wow. The first day that comes to my mind is our second day of shooting the bathroom fight with myself and Keanu. It was the end of a long day of fight rehearsal and we were at the halfway point of the fight. And when you’re shooting a fight, you do it in pieces. So we did the first fourth of the fight on the first day and you sort of go through piece by piece. And at the end of the second day, we were in kind of a long sequence. So time was running out and Lana said, “OK, this will be the last take.” So we got part of the way through this sequence that we were doing and she said, “Cut!” And then Keanu did the next move and then I did the next move, and then Keanu did the next move and then I did the next move. The cameras were no longer rolling, but we were so in the zone with each other that we just kept doing it for the joy of it and for ourselves. And this was when I really felt Keanu in such a big way. This guy really does it because he loves to do it, and I also got so much joy out of just doing it whether or not the cameras were rolling. So it was a moment I’ll never forget. It just meant so much that we both were like, “OK, we’re just doing it for the two of us here. It is so great that at the end of a long day of shooting this fight, we want to keep going after they said cut.” (Laughs.) It’s sort of like when you’re in the high school play and you don’t want to go home from rehearsal. It’s real joy and passion for what you do. So I really felt that coming off of him and I was also experiencing it myself.
As we approach the end of the year, there’s a lot to watch right now and there’s a lot to catch up on as well. Have you watched anything lately that’s floored you?
So on the 10th of December — which was our 15-year anniversary of opening Spring Awakening on Broadway — I went to the Atlantic Theater, where we did Spring Awakening off-Broadway, and I saw this new musical called Kimberly Akimbo. It stars Victoria Clark, who I saw three times in The Light in the Piazza, and I got to do a play with her years ago. So I’m such a huge fan. So Kimberly Akimbo is a musical, and I laughed and then I cried. And for the last 10 minutes of the show, I felt a level of pure elation that I haven’t felt in a theater in such a long time. It felt so amazing to be seeing an original musical in a space that meant so much to me and in a live theater after all this time. Theaters have been slowly coming back over the last few months, and to be back in an intimate space and seeing an original piece that was just so moving and emotional is my favorite experience. [Writer’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the recent string of Broadway cancellations due to Omicron]
Well, thanks for letting me work some stuff out in regard to Mindhunter.
Oh my god, anytime! Please call me if you’re feeling sad, if you want to talk something out, if you want to talk Ed Kemper. We can discuss it all together.
The Matrix Resurrections is now playing in movie theaters and on HBO Max.