Jake Johnson knows how to play the cranky nice guy. He did it for seven seasons on New Girl, did it as Peter Parker in Into The Spiderverse. Johnson could have re-upped for more of the same when picking his next TV project, but instead, he wanted something different. And if that thought doesn’t jibe after watching the first episode of Stumptown (which airs Wednesdays at 10PM ET on ABC), the brand new detective series starring Cobie Smulders (who is fantastic in it) where Johnson plays… well, a cranky nice guy, just wait. Because according to the actor, his character has secrets and a dark side that we’re about to see.
In fact, that duality is part of what attracted Johnson to the role, but there are other elements that, to him, make Stumptown stand out. And when we spoke with him last week, we discussed those aspects of the show, the shark jump he’d prefer the writers not to take, and the possibility of a “will they, won’t they?” relationship between his character and Smulders’. That before discussing his upcoming Netflix animated series where he plays a loudmouth basketball coach and the virtue of working with people he’s worked with in the past.
I actually spoke with you years ago ahead of Drinking Buddies and you had a great line about career planning, a Mike Tyson quote: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Is that still your thinking in terms of plotting a career path?
Well, I think to try to plan is crazy. I still 100% feel that way. You know, when New Girl ended for me, I knew I had Into The Spider-Verse coming out, and the Me Too movement was hitting really hard. And it did feel like not only what the industry wanted, but what people wanted was different faces and different looks and diversity and [different] genders at the top of shows. And I thought, these jobs that I was being offered, were leads. I had about a year and a half of passing on opportunities because it was all a show about a guy in his forties who is struggling through life and trying to make it work. And so [the response] became, “I don’t think that’s the temperature right now.” Then I found something where it was a female lead playing a detective. And that’s mostly a part played by a guy throughout American TV history. And I was a secondary character. So, that felt like the right moment… to do right now. But if I would have planned that five years ago, I wouldn’t have known what the landscape of the world was. I have no idea what’s next. But right now it makes sense.
Going into something like this where you’re playing a secondary character in a supporting role, how does that change your approach?
Honestly, for me on something like this, it doesn’t [change] too much. Whenever I’m on set and I’m working, I’m trying to bring as much as I can to the character that I’m doing, and I’m trying to make the character as interesting as he can be so as long as the writers are getting me stuff to work with. And in terms of my character, Grey, Jason Richman, our showrunner, when he pitched me this, he said, “When you first meet him, he’s a regular bartender, not dissimilar to the last time people saw you on TV on New Girl. But your character has tons of secrets and a dark side that comes back to him and will inform where he goes.” My character is a guy that I like in that he’s half a good guy and he’s half a bad guy. And those two things are always in conflict. So if he’s really sweet for a while and he’s really there for Dex and he’s helping her… one hand is helping her and the other hand is stabbing her in the back. There are two sides to him and he’s trying to do good. Like everybody, he doesn’t want to be bad, but he’s been on the dark side for a lot of his life and now he’s trying to get to the good, but the dark always comes back.
You came onto the show after the pilot had been filmed and recast [Johnson replaced Mark Webber in the role]. What’s the challenge of that in terms of catching up to everyone else?
I mean, the first thing I did was call Mark Webber, who is a super talented actor and [I] checked in with him about the production and what he thought, if he gave his blessing. He told me he loved working with everybody and he respects everybody and only had the kindest things to say about the production, which was great to hear. And then he kinda gave his blessing, which meant a lot to me. And then coming in after that was really seeing what they wanted, because they had a very clear vision of what they wanted. They had a clear vision of what the show needed from this character based on all the other characters. And so, I had an easier job because the tests had already been taken and I knew the answers.
Is it fair to assume that there’s going to be something of a love triangle between Dex’s character, your character, and Michael Ealy’s character?