Interview: Jake Johnson talks ‘New Girl,’ ‘Jurassic World’ and his Sundance return

01.06.15 5 years ago

Whether it's an actor, producer, writer or director, it's always nice to sit down for an interview when your subject has good news.

Last month, I pulled up a booth on the Clyde's set — Yes, the booths are disconcertingly moveable — with “New Girl” star Jake Johnson hot on the heels of the announcement of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival schedule, which includes Joe Swanberg's “Digging For Fire,” an ensemble that represents Johnson's co-writing debut. Johnson also co-stars as part of a rather astounding cast including Anna Kendrick, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Melanie Lynskey, Sam Rockwell, Sam Elliott and Chris Messina among many many more names.

Johnson was excited about the Sundance announcement, as well as this summer's reunion with  his “Safety Not Guaranteed” director Colin Trevorrow on the slightly larger scale “Jurassic World.”

And yes, Johnson is also excited about Season 4 of “New Girl.” He has perhaps my favorite explanation yet for why the Nick/Jess relationship threw off the balance of Season 3, an interestingly selfless explanation at that. Johnson also had the simplest and cleanest response to my question about the new credits, one that didn't require five follow-up questions.

In the interview, we also discussed the rise of Tran as a key “New Girl” character and a potential business venture with Nick and Schmidt.

Click through for the full Q&A…

HitFix:    Off-topic to begin with, how much are you looking forward to being at Sundance with “Digging for Fire”?

Jake Johnson: I'm really excited man. Thank you for asking about that movie. That's a movie that I co-wrote and co-produced and I love Joe Swanberg. I just love him.

HitFix:    “Drinking Buddies” was pretty great.

Jake Johnson: Thanks man. And I think he's a brilliant dude and I love the way he does his process of making things. He kind of takes it to a throwback era where he wants everybody at their best and everybody having fun. So it's never, “You can't do this,” it's more if an actor has an idea, if a camera operator has an idea, do it. Just make it work. And so I'm really excited. We didn't think we were going to get in. And so Joe and I were calling each other a lot and other people had found out and we hadn't and so we were like, “Oh s***.” But that's where we wanted to be. I loved being there. I was there with “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Paper Heart” and I'm really, really excited to go back.

HitFix: Well, which of Joe's films would you sort of compare it to? What would you compare this one to tonally?

Jake Johnson: Obviously, “Drinking Buddies.” To me it's “Drinking Buddies” a couple years later. It's kind of about dealing with having a kid in a relationship and that thing where you're a part of yourself but maybe that's okay. So it's almost “Drinking Buddies” with a little bit older, a lot less beer meets “Stand by Me.”

HitFix: But it would be hard to have a more beer than “Drinking Buddies.”

Jake Johnson: I would be dead.

HitFix: When did you guys actually make that?

Jake Johnson: We made that last summer.

HitFix: Is that the sort of experience with the writing, with sort of that freedom that it makes it hard for you to go transition into anything else?

Jake Johnson: Yeah and no. It's a good question because yes it does, but it also doesn't. After that I did “Jurassic World” and I didn't write a word of that. And I didn't give an idea; I didn't say like, “You know what my character would do?” Colin Trevorrow, who did “Safety”, directed that and he and Derek Connolly, who wrote “Safety,” wrote it. But everything was figured out and they like doing like all these like sweeping epic oners. So on that I was really happy to just show up and do my job. But it really depends on the thing. It's hard for me to not want to do a Joe Swanberg movie every hiatus, even apart from audiences and anybody else, as I really like it. I love being on his sets. He wants everything real so it's like I know it's not going to be for a mainstream audience; I know it's not going to make $100 million, but it's like we like making them.

HitFix: Well, I feel like if you look at the cast of that movie…

Jake Johnson: It's a great group.

HitFix: At some point you have enough names there that maybe…

Jake Johnson: Hopefully. We'll see. It's a sick cast. Like people come in who are like… Jenny Slate comes in for a day. When you have that kind of talent… Tim Simons…Where you're like, “Oh this is a joke.”

HitFix: And is “Jurassic World” the kind of thing where because the writers know you basically, you don't need to improvise because they know what your voice is and they can write it to that?

Jake Johnson: No. That would be awesome. No not those guys. This is more they just knew exactly what they needed because everything was figured out. And on a budget like that everything was like, “So this cues to that which needs this. We need this line for that.” So there was just no room for me being like, “Let's open this s*** up.” Colin and I a couple of nights would like come up with some ideas and some bits that we would a little. But everything was, you know, the script was really good. A lot of times when you improvise a lot it's because it needs some improv where you look at it and you say, a lot of times before you even signed up for a project like, “We're going to open this s*** up, right?” And on a thing like that it just didn't. It was just Derek and Colin are good writers. 

HitFix: I know that on this show a lot of it has been sort of people have talked about how there had been sort of takes where it's like, “Okay let Jake go off and do his variations on it.” [“Yeah, totally,” he agrees.] Is that the kind of thing that sort of empowers you to do more writing in the future moving forward?

Jake Johnson: Yeah maybe. I started off wanting to be a writer before an actor. So I just started getting the parts as an actor. And so the improv is more, it less feels like writing and more just feels like it's really fun to do.

HitFix: And has that changed as we're into Season 4 on this? Do you get to do more improv? You get to do less?

Jake Johnson: Kind of less actually. You know? Actually the same. We used to shoot way more takes of this show. It would just be endless shooting and I think now we're all more like we kind of know what it is so we don't need to shoot 50 versions of a joke, it's like we'll do two or three.

HitFix: Now talking about sort of the Nick/Jess friendship as it were, Liz has been fairly frank about feeling like at the end of last season knowing that something wasn't working and just bailing out of it. Did you sort of feel that at the time?

Jake Johnson: Yeah. I really was pushing for the Nick/Jess thing from the start because I really liked that dynamic. And then the way it happen, it never felt right. It felt like the characters were becoming less of themselves and it was something that the writers talked about. And so I think when they wanted to bail and get out of it I think Zooey and I were more than okay with it.

HitFix: Is that the kind of thing where you can feel it immediately?

Jake Johnson: Kind of. There's just every once and a while you'll read something and you'll just know like, “Oh this feels right.” Like, “This is what it is.” And there was just a lot in season three where you didn't feel like your own character.

HitFix: Do you view that as being proof that this is not an on-screen relationship that was supposed to work or just that it wasn't supposed to work at that time?

Jake Johnson: You know what? I really think, I think take away the way you've built “New Girl,” if you built this show to be a relationship show I think the character of Jess and the character of Nick could really work together. But I think in how this show is built it's such an ensemble that when you actually take two people together and have them really date and one of them is the lead? So you've got The New Girl now dating somebody, because the whole show is essentially through her eyes. So every A story you're going to have Jess in it. So now every A story it's Jess and Nick and then every B story is the guys and that's not what this show is. The show is she's got an A story and the guys are in the A and some are in the B but it's always mixing around. And so I think the characters in another show could work great together, but in the way “New Girl” actually is it just…

HitFix: But presumably that gave you more time as an actor to be in the A story. So do you have to sort of disassociate yourself from the acting part of you that's like, “Okay sure I want to be in every scene”?

Jake Johnson: Well I don't. I'm not that actor. I'd like being in B stories. I like Nick as the bartender who's a little grumpy, who's kind of a dick, who's an old man in a younger man's body. I like on a show like this sitting back and commenting here and there. But that's just me personally.

HitFix: Which of Nick's various aspirations that we've pushed to the background would you like to see more of? So there's Author Nick, there's Hypothetical Lawyer Nick?

Jake Johnson: I think Author Nick is really funny. I think the writers have really hit some really funny stuff with that when they're talking about his book, I really like that world. The bartender/bar stuff personally I don't care that much about. I mean I get it, but it's not necessarily like the most fun stuff. And I really like this idea of Nick and Schmidt becoming business partners.

HitFix: Is that going to be a long-term thing? Does it feel like it could sustain?

Jake Johnson: Yes. I think they're building it in an interesting way and I don't know how they're going to finish it. But as of now the bridge is being built of like, “They're getting a team together and they're figuring out their differences.” And so I hope this becomes a thing. I think it would be so funny to see them in an office together. I think it would be so funny to like to see them go for it and become business partners.

HitFix: Do you remember the first time you read a Tran scene? What was your reaction when you saw that as a thing that was happening?

Jake Johnson: Well, the beginning of that was that I texted Liz early on and said that I think it would be really funny if Nick had a friend in the park who didn't speak, because I thought that was a funny idea for Nick, because he can be such a dick and he such like a mean know-it-all that I thought it'd be really funny to have somebody there. And then what they wrote, that I never thought of that I thought was really funny, is that Nick really learns from Tran. And so I thought that was a brilliant turn. And so the first time I saw it I thought it was really funny. And I also, it seems ridiculous to say this about Ralph Ahn, the actor, because he doesn't talk, but he's so good. Like it seems silly but he is so present and like he gives a lot. And all of us as actors on this show are such dicks to each other that we don't get each other anything that I love those two-person scenes. I love working with him.

HitFix: Is he chatty off camera?

Jake Johnson: He is. Yeah. Totally normal guy. Great family man. Great actor.

HitFix: And do you like that he's now been sort of woven in this deeper way?

Jake Johnson: Yes. Honestly I wish he was in 15 out of 22 episodes.

HitFix: Okay. But not 22?

Jake Johnson: Not 22.

HitFix: You want him to be recurring but not a regular.

Jake Johnson: That's right! If he becomes to be regular he's f**ing my money too. [He laughs.] No I'm kidding. I just think – I don't ever want him talking, unless it's like this series finale stuff. When you get to the end-end I would be happy with it.

HitFix: So he has the last line in the series.

Jake Johnson: That would be amazing. That would be perfect. But I like him around. I pitch to Liz about it like he's just there a lot, so there's like a bunch of scenes he's just on the couch and no one is even that weirded out that Nick has Tran over. It's his buddy.

HitFix: Now Max was saying that apparently the new credits just sort of happened, they suddenly appeared?

Jake Johnson: Yeah. At the beginning of the show I think Hannah Simone was not really a series regular but now she really is. And I think people want to see more of her. And I know I'm always a fan when she's there. I think she's good. And with Damon, who was gone, our show is not just the four of us anymore, it's now the six of us. So I think she started feeling and other people started feeling that it's time to put them in the opener.

HitFix: But do you like the credits or do you see them as just being a placeholder before you get to something else ideally?

Jake Johnson: You know, it's never going to be the beginning of “Cheers” or “Welcome Back Kotter.” Outside of that, I think it fits somewhere really nicely above-average.

“New Girl” returns on Tuesday, January 6 on FOX.

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