Jake Johnson is best known as one half of the will-they-or-won’t-they couple on Fox’s New Girl. (The other half is played by Zooey Deschanel, if you must know.) But starting tomorrow, he can be seen as a likeable yet hormone-riddled magazine reporter trying his best to quell his douchebaggery in the indie time travel comedy, Safety Not Guaranteed. The film, directed by Colin Trevorrow, is based on a real-life classified ad posted by a potential loon (Mark Duplass) seeking a partner to travel back in time with (Aubrey Plaza). Johnson’s role heads to a small Pacific Northwest town to investigate and, you guessed it, discovers something about himself in the process. Here he is on the character’s cokehead origins, being TV famous, and that time he saw Britney Spears in real life.
You were just at upfronts for The New Girl. What was that like?
Here’s what’s great about upfronts: our show is coming back. It’s fun because we’ve got a good group and everybody’s nice, so it’s really fun goofing around. Last year it was really uptight. I felt like a freshman going to school. Now it feels like we’re sophomores. We’re more confident now that we’re not freshmen. But Randy Jackson’s there, dogging everyone when they walk in. Simon Cowell walks by. Those are like the seniors.
Did you see Britney Spears?
I did. Celebrities don’t do a lot for me. I get weirded out when I’m around athletes, but celebrities, not so much. My whole life I’ve been that way. I don’t know why. I’ve seen the real big ones, you’ll walk by and be like, “Check it out, Tom Cruise, cool.” But with Britney Spears I got weird. I was totally weird. Gawking, staring at her, eavesdropping. She’s got that Madonna thing, where she’s so famous that she doesn’t just go home and eat, she goes into some weird capsule. Seeing her was pretty weird.
Can you relate to any aspects of your character Jeff in Safety Not Guaranteed?
What I can relate to and what I like about Jeff is that he’s kind of a son-of-a-bitch. What I actually like about him is in the beginning of the movie he gets laughs, but I don’t think he’s that likable. And then he gets what’s coming to him, and you forgive him for earlier stuff.
I read that your character was originally going to have a bit of a coke problem.
Here’s what happened. We started doing scenes the first day of shooting, and I imagined Jeff as a d-bag, but more the kind of guy who smokes weed and listens to Nickelback and loves Creed. In certain circles he’s fine, and I viewed him as a very likable guy at first. So I thought at first let’s make him more likable, but Colin told me to stop viewing him as a weed head, that this is the kind of person who does cocaine by himself at parties. And I thought, “Yeah, that’s a different guy. I know that guy.”
How has being on a popular TV show changed your life?
It’s changed my life dramatically. My strategy as an actor was that of a guy who’s going to lose in the end, and I was okay with it. The game plan was just do these little indie movies. Then I met Elizabeth Meriwether and she put me in No Strings Attached, and no one there at the studio really wanted me and she fought to put me in. Then New Girl got picked up. I’d never tested for a TV show, I’d never been close to a TV show. Certain actors, like Max Greenfield [Schmidt on New Girl] tested for twenty different shows. Certain guys are in the game. Other guys are not in the game, and I was not in the game. Because of Liz, I got on the show. And here’s what really happens: the world gets very small. It gets really trippy because I’ll be in my own little dream world. I went to Chicago to do some press and hang out with my nephew, and I was in a Walgreens when someone did a double take. So you go, “Either that dude recognizes me, or he’s gonna fucking kill me.” And you’re like, “Cool, he recognizes me.” Then you’re in another aisle and there he is. Then you see him whispering to somebody and you go, “Is he whispering about me or am I just getting weird?” And you see two other people talking and looking at you, and I’m not famous enough where it’s very clear. Then someone will finally, and it’s mostly a young woman, she’ll go, “You’re that guy on New Girl, right?” And once that happens, it’s a good ten minutes of shoulder-hugs with strangers.
You’re friendly with Max Winkler and Jonah Hill. Do you have a group of creative people in LA that you collaborate with?
Kind of. LA’s an interesting place because it’s actually way more of a small town than I’d ever realized. You meet one person and somebody knows somebody else, so the group of creative guys I work with is pretty big. I met Jonah because I met Michael Cera at a party years ago, before Superbad came out. He put me in Clark and Michael. I had one line as an audition director but we goofed around a lot and had a lot of fun working together. Max Winkler produced that, and so he put me in another web series that Matt Spicer was directing called So On and So Forth, that Jonah Hill would hang out on set on. He was going to give Spicer directing help and ideas. So Jonah and I got pretty close. When he was doing Get Him To The Greek, he was like, “I’ll get you an audition for the movie.” And so then you get an audition for the movie, but he’s not in the audition room so you have to earn a spot. All they had for me at the time was Studio Executive 4, and I had no bits. I’m the guy with the mustache whose cell phone rings and Diddy makes me throw my cell phone out. After that, Max and I kept working together, and then his movie Ceremony got greenlit, and I auditioned for that. Liz Meriwether saw Ceremony and liked it, and asked me to audition for No Strings Attached. I didn’t know anybody when I moved out, it wasn’t a group of friends I grew up with. I moved out there when I was 26.
Did you initially move to LA to become an actor?
I wanted to be a writer and an actor. I did this project that is untitled and the weirdest thing that I’ve ever done. Have you ever seen the movie Comedian by Jerry Seinfeld?
Years ago, when I was living in Brooklyn, that movie pissed me off. I was struggling at UCB, performing, a total unknown, had a day job doing construction, and I would perform on stage and audiences hated me before I would start. I would have to shuck and jive in order for them to be like, “He’s okay.”
Why did they hate you?
Because they didn’t know me. And if you’re not known at all, you’re just another Joe who’s jumping up. And Jerry Seinfeld said, “I’m gonna go around and show everyone what it’s like to be a struggling comedian.” So my buddy and I one night were partaking in some activities, and came up with a paranoid joke version of it called Project Joke, about two guys who are unknowns who travel the Midwest and write a sketch show in a week and each night perform at a different theater and then book a night in Chicago and pack the house by lying to people about how big the show’s going to be so tourists go, and they do the show they wrote to see what it’s really like. We didn’t do anything about it. I was in Oklahoma with a writing partner of mine staying at, no joke, a crystal meth drug house, trying to write an animated movie, thinking, “This is a fucking nightmare.” We went to his uncle’s house and his uncle was talking about how he came from the grassroots to the top, saying, “You’ve gotta be bold.” We were very not sober, and I told him about my dream project, and asked him to come on board, and he said, “What do you need?” I told him I had everything lined up, we just didn’t have the money. He said, “What do you need?” I said, “$10,000.” And he wrote me a check for $10,000. I was literally at a pay phone calling Bill, and I was like, “Bill! Bill! Bill! We’re making Project Joke!” So I hired my sister to film it, she hired her friend, she’d never worked with a camera. We rented an RV, got an audio guy from Craigslist. I called all the venues around the Midwest, we interviewed the mayor of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, we interviewed kids, and we did a show each night. I interned at SNL when I was 20, and so I would call places and say, “We’ve got SNL talent coming to Minneapolis, would you like them to perform?” And they’d be like, “Who?” I’d say they didn’t know them yet, but it’s SNL talent, which it was. We got all bucked up, we did the show, and I came to LA to see if I could finish and edit that and get going, and it did not pan out.
Where is it now?
We got 40 hours of footage and no finished product. But it got me out to LA and then I spent two years there. I worked in a casino, I was a raider, I was a bartender, and then I started booking commercials, and then I met Mike Cera and other people and just kept going.
You’ve been writing a pitching project for a while. Is it a lot easier now that you have the clout of fame and the show?
Yes. A lot of the ideas I’m pitching are ideas I’ve had for years, but they’re just being listened to differently. But it’s also a growth. Being on New Girl has taught me a lot about television. The original stuff I was pitching was way crazy. Now I’m understanding more. Max and I just sold an idea to Warner Bros. that Rodney Rothman is going to write and Steve Carrell attached himself to. So we’ll see if it happens.