Jonathan Groff is the wild card in The Matrix Resurrections. Groff is the film’s most eye-opening bit of casting among the four core characters — everyone knows Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II has already punched his action card with roles in Aquaman and the Candyman remake. Groff, conversely, is most referred to as “the guy from Frozen” or, if you’re a theatre nerd, “the guy from Spring Awakening.”
Which is why he’s going to be freaking brilliant.
Groff steps in for Satellite Award winner Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith, the antagonist who battles Neo both physically and philosophically in the Matrix universe. Those are some big sunglasses to fill, but remember that Groff is a two-time Tony Award nominee, a Grammy Award winner, and recently got nominated for an Emmy Award. He’s not coming out of nowhere— film fans just don’t know the full extent of his talent yet, and The Matrix Resurrections is where he’s going to steal scenes and be a spark plug in one of the greatest franchises of all time.
Jonathan Groff is an inspired casting choice
Longtime Matrix fans are already harping on how Jonathan Groff is not Hugo Weaving… but he’s not supposed to be.
Groff’s presence in The Matrix Resurrections is not meant to take anything away from or imitate Weaving. The Lord of the Rings alum was reportedly not able to reprise the Agent Smith role, requiring the Wachowskis to find another villain. It’s an example of character and story decisions being changed due to production factors — in this case, an actor’s unavailability — which happens all the time in film and TV. Fans don’t often consider these practical elements, because they don’t have to; they’re focused on the finished product.
But with that vacancy in mind, recasting was the most sensible option for the Wachowskis. The Matrix mythos is so tightly wound that deleting Agent Smith wouldn’t have made sense. It would have also necessitated the creation of a wholly original antagonist for Resurrections, and sci-fi franchises in particular have a terrible track record with that approach. One needs to only look over at James Cameron’s Terminator franchise, which tried to follow up the success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s T-1000 with a series of pale imitators.
So if you have to keep the Smith character, the absolute last thing you want is someone who’s in any way close to Hugo Weaving. That becomes insulting as it seems like the movie is just trying to get a discount version of Weaving. And it immediately invites the kind of comparisons that Groff is enduring now.
The best thing you can do is go completely in the opposite direction. Find someone who is drastically different from their predecessor, because if that person does their job correctly, they’re going to give viewers something new to talk about and add something to the established character. And there’s not a farther distance from Hugo Weaving’s staid and intense performances than the boundless energy and incredible personality of Jonathan Groff.
On the surface, Groff is the anti-Agent Smith. But that’s exactly why he meshes perfectly with what The Matrix Resurrections is about.
Jonathan Groff has the perspective to reinterpret Agent Smith
Where Jonathan Groff is really going to show his skill in The Matrix Resurrections is in how he reinvents the character of Agent Smith. Just because the character isn’t human doesn’t mean he can’t have character development — in fact, that makes it even more critical.
Playing a non-human character limits a performer’s skill set. They can’t rely on the usual range that they would in portraying a person, like getting a big angsty scene to showcase their inner turmoil. In fact, they’re often asked to suppress those emotions and the physical behaviors that they would ordinarily utilize. But the most creative actors find ways to animate an inner life despite those limitations so that the audience can still engage with the character.
Groff has the exact skill set for this challenge. His performance in the Netflix series Mindhunter makes him perfect to play Smith. His character Holden Ford learned how to suppress his emotions in order not to be read by serial killers, meaning that Groff had to keep a cool stare and a monotone going in several lengthy scenes. Yet despite that relative lack of reaction, he was still able to communicate what Holden was thinking and feeling to the audience streaming at home. He’s an incredibly thoughtful actor, often saying more with subleties and small choices than with the dialogue that’s provided for him. He’s so present in the moment that he brings more than is ever on the page.
As for that dialogue? Matrix enthusiasts know Agent Smith will have a monologue somewhere about humanity. Mindhunter prepped Groff for that one too, with those long scenes closer to small two-hander plays, or when Holden was instructing a room full of people about hostage negotiation. He can make mouthfuls of complicated dialogue flow naturally. And at least from the trailers, this movie has given him some space for the pithy one-liners he’s proven to be good at. Providing Smith with Groff’s appealing personality will not only make him more interesting, it’ll make it more satisfying when he (hopefully) gets what’s coming to him — because the audience will either be sad to say goodbye to a great villain or they’ll love to hate him.
Groff’s casting ensures Smith will have his own character arc, too, and not solely exist as the adversary for Neo and Trinity. Across two seasons of Mindhunter Holden Ford transformed from buttoned-up FBI agent to one who uncovered and struggled with his own darkness. Groff put in the work to seamlessly unravel the character without undercutting Holden’s credibility. He was still a hero, just a much more complicated one. In Matrix, Groff gets to go the other way. He’s starting with the evil foundation that Weaving laid so well and then because he’s so genuine and so charismatic, he has the capacity to build the character up a bit. What if Smith’s built a whole life of his own that watchers get to learn about? What if we start liking this guy? The most memorable — and dangerous — villains are the ones who are humanized. If anyone can dig that out of Agent Smith, it’s Jonathan Groff.
The Matrix Resurrections needs to bring something new to the franchise after this many years away, and the oversaturation of other sequels and reboots. Movie fans are burned out on this trend, wary of franchises that should’ve ended by now, but also getting their hopes up. Groff and Mateen are the two fresh faces who can inject new adrenaline. If things really are supposed to be different, then Agent Smith needs to have evolved, too.
Jonathan Groff makes his The Matrix Resurrections co-stars even better
Let’s be real for a second. Everyone knows how much of a badass Keanu Reeves is — even moreso thanks to the John Wick movie. His picture ought to be next to the word in the dictionary. Carrie-Anne Moss is equally tough; she was an action heroine when those roles weren’t fully developed for women yet, and if you haven’t seen her more recent work in Wisting you’ve very much missed out. Playing Agent Smith means not only being able to hold one’s own opposite these two clear stars of the Matrix franchise, but being capable of actually threatening them.
Heroes are only as good as the villains they battle. If the audience doesn’t believe that they’re in legitimate danger, then there are no stakes and there isn’t a movie. This goes double in a sci-fi movie like the Matrix films; if you’re talking about the fate of the entire human race, then you’d better have an appropriately lethal villain up your sleeve. Even better if that villain is able to make the audience feel they ought to be scared (see again: the T-1000).
This is tripled up for The Matrix Resurrections. Smith and whatever the frak he’s up to has to be so great that it pulls Neo/Thomas Anderson back into the Matrix. He has to be fearsome enough to upend Neo’s entire existence! And we have to believe that Groff can legitimately brawl it out with Reeves, who has an almost mythological reputation himself now for kicking butt. He’s the new Chuck Norris, in a movie where fans are going to expect top-notch fight scenes.
But Reeves has already publicly praised Groff’s fighting ability. The Hamilton alum earned the nickname “The Savage” despite never having done an action movie before. A moniker like that, and an endorsement from the person who knows what it takes best, speals volumes about Groff’s physicality. His being new to the genre will work in his favor, too; when you see an established action star, even though the movie is different, you generally know what to expect. We know that Dwayne Johnson will smash people and that Jason Statham has a certain fighting style. We have zero idea what’s coming from Jonathan Groff — and that’s going to be part of the fun.
Groff is also going to give Reeves something fresh and unpredictable to play against. The Matrix Resurrections trailers have already teased one moment between their two characters, where Groff’s version of Smith is presented as a friend to Thomas Anderson before being revealed for what he is. How will Neo react to that kind of betrayal? To a bad guy who wants to kill him with kindness? It’s a lot more layered than Reeves squaring off against more of the bog-standard, doom-and-gloom action movie archetypes.
Smith’s character has so much more material to mine in Resurrections, moreso than any of the other three main characters. Because of what he is and how he’s reintroduced, there are so many possibilities with him. There are certain questions that have to be answered — why is he even here? Was he rebooted when The Matrix was rebooted at the end of Revolutions? What does he think of his new form? Just because he may have chosen it as part of a calculated strategy doesn’t mean he doesn’t have thoughts on it. Smith always has thoughts; we know from past canon that he learns from Neo, and he’s got to have a lot to say about current states of technology and man, if Resurrections’ future makes reference to anything that’s happened in the real world within the last five years.
To return to the Terminator comparison, the mistake that most of the subsequent sequels made was to assume that the T-1000’s appeal was only in his liquid metal superpowers. They kept trying to make similar or “better” versions of that character, with Terminator Genesys flat-out introducing a new T-1000 (played by Lee Byung-hun). Those groundbreaking special effects were just part of what made the character both fearsome and awe-inspiring. The rest of it was Robert Patrick’s performance; he made the T-1000 unsettling when he was just existing. He also gave the character a real curiosity, as if he wanted to understand his mission and not just execute it. That’s the same inquisitiveness Smith refers to at the end of The Matrix Revolutions when he says that Neo “taught me the purpose of all life.” The difference is Smith gets to come back and keep learning.
Groff bringing his own unique set of skills and way of looking at the world to a villain who’s so sharply drawn means the character has to adapt to him, not just the other way around. He’s too different not to leave his own fingerprints on the role. And that means Reeves and Moss can’t approach Smith the same way either. They’re going to be challenged and excited, and everybody wins.
Jonathan Groff is a great actor — and The Matrix Resurrections pushes him to a new level
Blockbuster franchises like The Matrix cast top-notch talent. Jonathan Groff getting the part of Agent Smith should be notice enough to fans that he has what it takes to do the job. Studios and filmmakers don’t put people in movies this big unless they’re absolutely sure about them. Casting is a high-stakes, long-term endorsement and Groff has earned his place at the table.
What we haven’t seen from him yet is a true villain role. Over his career he’s never played a clearly bad guy. The closest he’s gotten was Ian Todd in the second season of Starz’ political drama Boss, who schemed through half the show and randomly slept with his half-sister, but there was still an ounce of sympathy for him because he was the main character’s previously unknown son. Plus, the writing of his story arc was uneven enough that you felt bad he was even in certain situations.
Agent Smith is Jonathan Groff’s first heel turn. He can show us that he can play a villain without going overboard into cinematic caricature. He can go to places he hasn’t gone before as an actor. He can prove that he can portray a character people hate. This is one of the rare areas of character development he hasn’t explored yet, and from an acting standpoint, that makes Matrix 4 that much more intriguing. It’s always rewarding to see actors do something you haven’t seen before. We want things that are new and bold, and Groff is both in this role.
And as we’ve just discussed, this is his first action film. Groff is unlikely to break out the heavy weaponry and go full Strike Back in the future, but it’s another new experience for both him and us. Especially with the movie’s having at least some practical work and not simply a boatload of CGI, even the most die-hard Groff fans are going to learn something new about him from The Matrix Resurrections. Between the stunts, the unabashed villainy, and putting his own stamp on a memorable character, by the time the credits roll it’ll be clear that he’s truly given this performance everything he’s got.
The Matrix franchise is about breaking the system, being an individual, and doing incredible things. So it’s very fitting that The Matrix Resurrections will be another breakout role for Jonathan Groff, whose whole career has been bringing himself to characters in ways we’ve never expected.
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