The real Lang, who was featured in the documentary Woodstock, paid visits to the set and met with Groff to help him get into character. Still, Groff, who makes his feature film debut with Taking Woodstock, found the task of playing Lang daunting.
"[...]People that know Woodstock not only know the name Michael Lang and know all the important things that he did, but they also know what he looks like, what his hair looks like, how he dressed, how he interacts with other people, how he smiles at people. He's a very specific, magnetic guy that is very beloved and people really know him. And so there's a certain quality about him that you have to have, that you have to really capture when you're playing him in the film version, and I guess I sort of achieved that through all of the research and the direction and the guidance that Ang, the amazing Ang Lee gave me," explained Groff at the film's NY press day.
"I spent a lot of time with Michael. He came to see me in Hair in Central Park last summer and stayed afterwards. He said, 'Here's my phone number and here's my email and if you need anything, if you have any questions I'm an open book to you.' And I did, I used him, and I spent the weekend with him and his family in Woodstock, with his wife and his two kids and really got to see him, see his mannerism, see the way he walks, see the way he talked, see the way that he interacted with other people. And I felt really lucky because what better homework can you do than to spend time with the actual guy? It was really helpful in playing the character. But I also felt really lucky because Michael Lang is an amazing human being and I got to spend time with him and hang out with him. You learn a lot about life when you spend time with him, just by the way in which he lives his life."
Lang was instrumental in helping Groff, but so was Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain). Groff didn't meet Lee during the casting process, so his first encounter with the director was after he got the part and was preparing to play Michael Lang.
"Day one, I'm meeting him, we had a first meeting. He sat at a table like this and he plops down this four-inch thick three-ring binder of research and he was like, 'Here's something to get you started.' And I was like, 'Okay, here we go. This is an Ang Lee movie. All right, sign me up.' And he gave me like 10 films to watch, five mix CDs of music to listen to from the time period, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test... I mean I was reading all these books and all these materials to sort of get into the spirit," recalled Groff. "And so that was a whole part of it, was the research and the homework aspect. And then he said to me, on day one he said, 'You know, Michael’s a really important character in this film. He's a really important part of Woodstock and I really need you to represent two things in the movie, one of which is the reality and the business side of it, getting the permit, finding the location, using that hotel as offices, the sort of businessman aspect of it, entrepreneur. And then you also need to represent...' Because Michael Lang does and did represent the spirituality of Woodstock, he said, 'When I see you come off that helicopter in the beginning and your entrance, I want to see Woodstock epitomized in you, in the way you walk, in the way you look, in the way you look at people.'"
"He gave me a very specific job, to represent those two things. And so that was our first meeting, the homework, the mission. I went home, I researched, I did all of that stuff, and then we had some rehearsals. And I'm a theatre actor, for starters. This is my first movie I've ever done and the acting style is very different. And so for a while in the rehearsals he would sit across the table from me and I would read lines for him, like the final scene when I'm on this horse and I'm sort of summing up the whole thing. And I would sit there and he would look in my eyes and he would be like, 'Okay, you're showing me too much. If you're feeling it, I'm going to be able to see it in your eyes, so just feel it.' And I’d do it again, and he was like, 'All right, you felt it. Did you feel it? I thought you felt that. I could see it in your eyes. That was right, you've got to do it like that.'"
Groff continued, "So there was like that whole training and then on set he's very soft-spoken. He expects you to have done all of your research and all of your homework, and he expects you to arrive with something - and hopefully you do. And then it’s just very specific notes, little things here and there. 'Look here on this... Do this on this.' You know, little things to sort of affect your performance and then that's sort of it. I learned so much from him, so much from him, and he's a real master. I learned a lot about Michael Lang from Ang as well because Ang, the way he leads the crew and leads the cast is very much in the spirit of Michael Lang because he's very soft-spoken and very gentle and really trusts in people and trusts in his crew. And so I learned a lot from that as well."
Although he's portraying Michael Lang as he was 40 years ago (can you believe it's been that long since Woodstock?), Groff says the Michael he got to know is basically the same man he was back in the 1960s.
"I mean he essentially is the same person, down to the grin, down to the twinkle in his eye," said Groff. "He gave me a tour of downtown Woodstock and he still walks the same way as he did back then. And he was walking down the street and everyone is like, 'Hi Michael.' It’s like the king. He’s like the king of the town, of downtown Woodstock. Everybody knows his name. Everybody waves to him. It was very similar to the Michael Lang of 1969."