Faces to Watch 2014: TV | Jonathan Groff, Annet Mahendru and more
The Times asked its reporters and critics to highlight figures in entertainment and the arts who will be making news in 2014. Here’s who they picked:
Jonathan Groff | Actor
He closed out last year as the voice of the rugged mountain man romantic lead in Disney’s animated feature “Frozen.” But things are about to get less PG for Jonathan Groff.
The 28-year-old actor is switching out the unadulterated fun for adult-only fun when he stars in the HBO series “Looking.” The half-hour dramedy, from Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”), centers on three gay friends navigating adulthood in progressive San Francisco.
“It’s as extreme as it gets,” Groff acknowledged during a cab-ride phone call. That’s no stretch. Within the first minute of “Looking,” Groff’s character is occupied in an awkward sexual encounter amid foliage.
The Pennsylvania native made a mark as the hot-to-trot, shaggy-haired lead (Melchior) in the Tony-winning Broadway musical “Spring Awakening.” He’d go on to bolster his theater cachet in productions that included “Hair” and “Red.”
He’s also built a presence offstage with sideline TV parts. In a role that made use of his musical sensibilities, Groff had an arc on Fox’s “Glee” as Jesse St. James, the male lead of the rival glee club. And in 2012 he appeared in the final season of Starz’s “Boss” as an adviser to Kelsey Grammer’s character, Chicago Mayor Tom Kane.
“I feel really lucky that I got to play supporting roles and see great actors do the daily grind of a television show — and to learn from that,” he said.
He wrapped the year with “Frozen,” in which he drew notice for being the first “prince” voiced by an openly gay actor.
In 2014, Groff will attempt to prove he can carry a TV show when “Looking” premieres Jan. 19 — something HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo isn’t worried about. “I think he is built to be the lead of a show,” Lombardo said. “The camera loves him. He is frustrating and lovable and sexy and flawed and charming and just so human.”
Being the face of a show has its own pressures. Ahead of its premiere, “Looking’s” place in gay TV history is already generating analysis. It’s drawn comparisons for its brashness to its time-slot companion “Girls” and Showtime’s groundbreaking retired series “Queer as Folk” and been blasted for its lack of diversity.
“I feel like a lot of people will be tuning in with the expectation of seeing an entire demographic being represented, which I feel is such a dangerous expectation,” he said. “It can’t be everything to everyone.”
Later this year, viewers can also see Groff in the buzzed-about Ryan Murphy theater-to-telepic adaptation of Larry Kramer’s AIDS drama “The Normal Heart,” which also features Julia Roberts and Mark Ruffalo and will also air on HBO.
“I hope I don’t overstay my welcome on anyone’s TV,” he said.
— Yvonne Villarreal
Annet Mahendru | Actress
Annet Mahendru could teach James Bond a thing or two. In her role as Nina on FX’s “The Americans,” she plays a high-level KGB agent stationed at the Soviet Embassy in Washington. She’s also the lover of CIA agent Stan Beeman, who has recruited her to be his informant. But Beeman doesn’t realize that Nina, newly committed to her country after discovering that Beeman has lied to her, is misleading him.
The actress, who speaks Russian and five other languages, brings an exotic flavor to the drama: She was born to an East Indian father and a Russian mother and has lived in Afghanistan, Russia and Europe. Although she doesn’t get much opportunity to display it on “The Americans,” she has a comedy background, studying improvisation at the Groundlings School.
Her other credits include “2 Broke Girls,” “Mike & Molly,” and “The Blacklist.”
— Greg Braxton
Nancy Dubuc | President and CEO of A&E Networks
Nancy Dubuc has been a rising star in TV programming for more than five years. She has one of the most eclectic portfolios in television, overseeing the A&E channel, History, Lifetime and the Lifetime Movie Network. Dubuc has significantly bolstered her channel’s brands by expanding the definition of what constitutes historical and A&E programming.
The strategic pivot helped introduce “Pawn Stars,” “American Pickers,” “Hatfields & McCoys,” and “The Bible” to History and “Duck Dynasty,” “Storage Wars” and “Bates Motel” to A&E. She and her team have been successful in helping revive the TV movie genre for basic cable with such movies and miniseries as “Bonnie & Clyde,” “Drew Peterson: Untouchable” and “Prosecuting Casey Anthony.”
Dubuc’s challenge is to continue her streak of finding offbeat entertainment nuggets and characters (Think Robertson family of “Duck Dynasty”) that go against the established grain to create pop culture. And of course, she must manage that talent (Think Robertson family of “Duck Dynasty”). Her track record is the envy of many TV programmers, undoubtedly placing her near the top of any executive wish list — although A&E Networks would not want to let her go.
— Meg James
John Mulaney | Actor-comedian
At 31, John Mulaney is already a seasoned TV comedy vet, with five years as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” the Comedy Central special “New in Town” and multiple late-night appearances under his belt.
But in 2014 the Chicago native will take a giant leap forward with his own sitcom, “Mulaney,” on Fox. In the grand tradition of comedians making the transition to series television, he’ll star as a fictionalized version of himself. The show, executive produced by Lorne Michaels, will also include scenes of Mulaney’s stand-up act, which with its accessible, observational style has invited comparisons to Jerry Seinfeld’s.
After graduating from Georgetown, Mulaney earned a name for himself in New York’s downtown comedy scene with “The Oh, Hello Show,” in which he and fellow Hoya Nick Kroll played fiftysomething Upper West Side divorcees with a shared love for Alan Alda.
In 2008 Mulaney landed a writing job at “SNL,” where he and Bill Hader created one of the show’s most popular characters, night-life expert Stefon.
“‘SNL’ was great because you rewrite so much. Going through the week you change things all the time, and you cut things you really love” he says. “A sitcom is longer than an ‘SNL’ sketch but only 21 minutes long. You have to be brutal.”
And though it may not have Alan Alda, it does have old-school appeal in the form of Elliott Gould, who plays Mulaney’s neighbor, and Martin Short as his boss, a veteran comedian-turned-game show host. “He’s the funniest person in the world,” says Mulaney. “SNL’s” Nasim Pedrad also costars.
Originally developed at NBC, the series is the latest Fox sitcom, following “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” with strong ties to the long-running sketch comedy show.
The multiple-camera comedy will be taped before a live studio audience, a style that has somewhat fallen out of fashion in TV comedy but one that Mulaney, given his experience on “SNL” and love for classic ‘80s sitcoms such as “The Golden Girls” and “Family Ties,” feels strongly about. Having to do it all in one night, he says, is helpful: “There’s a certain point where it’s done.”
— Meredith Blake
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