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?
Possibly, but I really view Dex and Grey, my character, as… they feel more like an old married couple that have been divorced but they’re still friends and her younger brother feels like the child. The three of them feel like a family together. More than a “will they, won’t they?”
After playing the “will they, won’t they?” with New Girl, is that something you’d be interested in? Any lessons you learned from going through that process?
What I really feel about it is there’s…I heard a saying years ago that there are only seven stories and we all just retell them and I agree with that. I think there are just certain things that make entertainment work and if the show calls to that then I’m happy to be part of it. But what’s very different for me about this show is the tone. I grew up watching shows like NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues… I like a one hour drama. I like a one hour serialized drama where each week there’s a new case, but you’re ideally going to care about characters and watch them change and watch them move on. So if this is a love triangle, tonally it’ll just be so different that I wouldn’t really have any beef to play it. I just don’t necessarily think that’s where the writers are going. But I really don’t know.
Is Grey going to get involved in any of the casework or is he just going to be a home base for Dex?
I really hope he doesn’t get involved in too many of the cases. I think shows kinda jump the shark a little bit when they have… All the other characters are now involved in the main character’s “A” story. I like that Dex is on her own doing her thing and she checks in with these people. I hope that our writers on our show, rather than just having everyone together rubbing each other’s backs, I hope that everybody has their own story. And I hope they overcomplicate it. So that my character has an arc. Michael Ealy’s character has an arc. Camryn Manheim’s character has an arc. Tantoo Cardinal’s character has an arc. Everybody’s got something to do and then when they intersect those stories, I think it’s just way more interesting. If Grey becomes essentially a helper for Dex on her journey, I think it’ll be a little bit boring storytelling and I just don’t think our writers are doing that. What I’ve seen from our writers’ group is that they’re really pushing and they’re being very ambitious and they’re trying really hard. And that really excites me. When scripts start getting a little bit boring, the spirit of the piece dies and I really like that our group is really trying.
How is Hoops going? Where’s that in its life cycle?
We’ve finished recording. The whole season is written and we have an unbelievable writing staff on it. Ben Hoffman, the showrunner on that just killed it. We have a great cast with Ron Funches, Natasha Leggero, A.D. Miles, Eric Edelstein, Steve Berg, Rob Riggle. The list literally goes on and on of just comedic killers. Right now, they’re animating it. And I think we’re still probably about six months out or something. I know animation takes forever. But it’s really fun to do something that is comedy for comedy’s sake. Something where best joke wins.
Has that changed from the initial pitch to where it is now?
Not really. Chris Miller and Phil Lord are the executive producers on it and we recorded a pilot presentation of it probably four years ago. And the lead character, the guy I’m playing, Coach, is a maniac. He’s a lunatic and he’s always yelling and screaming and it’s got great jokes. So when we did it, we knew it was too harsh and R-rated for Fox, but we did it anyhow. And then with the explosion of streaming, Netflix came around and bought it. So it’s definitely an R-rated show, it’s not for kids and we’re pushing it. And I was really happy that we were able to do that throughout. It’s never really changed. It keeps going harder and harder.
You’ve worked with Chris and Phil more than a few times. Same as you’ve worked with Colin Trevorrow a few times. Can you talk a little bit about just the benefit of that familiarity when collaborating on a project?
I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve worked with a ton of really talented people. Colin Trevorrow’s a great director, he’s got a great vibe and he sees things. Chris and Phil are geniuses and they’re brilliant. So whenever guys like that come calling, I jump to it. You know what I mean? And I worked with Liz Meriwether on No Strings Attached and New Girl, and she’s brilliant. The industry that I’m in, there’s a lot of above-average talent and there are a lot of people who are pretty good and good enough to get by. And then every once in a while you’ve just got real talent. And if I see real talent, I try to sink my teeth in as deeply into that meat as I can so they can’t get rid of me.
Joe Swanberg too, obviously. I love your work with him.
Joe’s fantastic. He’s got a really clear creative vision that is truly unique and when you get on his set, it’s different. And when you watch his movies or shows, that’s something worth fighting for. There aren’t a lot of real voices.
Stumptown airs Wednesdays at 10 PM EST on ABC