TV’s Jake Johnson showed up to the offices of legendary Hollywood PR firm PMK-BNC with a bushy beard. With the first season of “New Girl” wrapped, he is promoting this year’s film festival sensation Safety Not Guaranteed, hitting theaters Friday. The Sundance and SXSW hit stars Aubrey Plaza as a journalism intern. Johnson plays Jeff, the star reporter investigating a classified ad seeking a time travel companion. So Jeff drags his interns along and uses them to get closer to the story while he drinks and hits on the locals. Johnson kept a humorous perspective on his recent success and laughed throughout our interview.
CraveOnline: Is this your summer beard?
Jake Johnson: This is my summer beard, that’s right. I’m referring to it as my Goonies beard.
Up here belongs to them, but down underneath the ground this is our time. So when I’m doing the show, I belong to them, but this is my Goonies time. This is underground with the kids so I get to grow a beard.
I like it. That’s a long way to go for an explanation. I was thinking, “Who had a beard in The Goonies?”
No, the whole Goonies experience.
So Safety Not Guaranteed was before you got “New Girl?”
When you look back, did you kind of get to play Schmidt?
I would say not at all.
Even being douchey, you didn’t think about Schmidt?
No, I think Schmidt and Jeff are totally different types of dicks. I just do. I think the way Max [Greenfield] plays douchey is very metro and very funny. I think Jeff is trying to use his fame, trying to use his car and his looks and his clothes just to get things. So if you take away the word douchey I don’t think there’s a connection.
Is it fun to just let the douche out?
It is, yeah. In terms of Jeff, I like when he’s a dick at the beginning but I like way more when it breaks him down. I thought the stuff at the beginning’s fun but I like the stuff when he’s with Jenica [Bergere] a lot. Those are the scenes I really enjoyed. With Arnau, I really like when the character is getting his rather than giving it.
As a journalist myself, I had to wonder: is spending a week or two on one story really the best use of their time? I’ve got six interviews today!
No, probably not.
Or, should I be going after the weird features in the classified ads instead?
Yeah, maybe you should. You should go after the big fish. Go out for the 200 lb. tuna.
But after Jeff is done messing around, is he ultimately a really good journalist?
I don't think Jeff is, no, because I don’t think Jeff’s going to write a great story about this. I think to be a great journalist you need to dive deep and then you need to have an interesting perspective on what you saw. I think Jeff’s just living it. I don't think Jeff is learning from what he’s doing. The thing that I like about Jeff is he goes through all this pain and this whole experience, but I think if you met Jeff a month later, he’s going to be back at Seattle Magazine doing the same kind of stuff.
Have you had really bad internships like the kids who go on Jeff’s assignment?
I did. I had a lot of bad jobs but the one big internship I had is I interned for “SNL” when I was 21 years old and that was the joke. You intern there and you think man, I’m going to be with the writers and the great comedians. Then you’re getting everybody sandwiches and then the doors close and then all the great creatives are doing the work. Then they all leave and there’s papers everywhere that you have to recycle and you’re like, “Man, this sucks. This is a job I should be getting paid for because it sucks but I’m doing this for free.”
Did you get to be there on show night?
I was not there on show nights, no.
That really does suck.
It sucks. [Laughs]
What are your favorite time travel movies?
Back to the Future.
Do you like Back to the Future II and III?
I do. I love the original but I do, I’m a Back to the Future II guy. I haven’t seen III in years.
“New Girl” has made quirky a mainstream concept. Are you happy to be involved in that phenomenon?
Well, I think to describe me, if you knew me personally, it would just be quirky in a nutshell. [Laughs] I’m so kidding. I don’t mean to be that guy, but I don’t really think about it. The quirky part of it means absolutely nothing to me. What I like about “New Girl” is I love working with Zooey, love working with Max, Lamorne [Morris], Hannah [Simone.] I think [Liz] Meriwether is brilliant. It’s really fun to be part of a show that the culture has taken to. That’s a whole new experience, to be in something that a lot of people care about and a lot of people have thoughts on and to be one of the characters in them, to have audiences want my character to do things and be frustrated with me when my character doesn’t act on something. I think it’s neat. The quirky part I could care less about.
You were working for a few years before “New Girl” and this movie. What was your journey to this point?
It was a long one. I knew I wanted to be an actor for a long time but I was based out of Chicago and then I went to New York and I did The Upright Citizens Brigade out there. I had a two man show with a guy named Oliver Ralli who’s now in the band Pass Kontrol which is a big band out of New York. We did a two man show and a guy named Bill Bungeroth who now directs Second City Mainstage directed our show. We toured the country with it and handed out flyers in Times Square, tried to get people to notice us and no one did. Then I moved out to L.A. and had the day jobs and grinded, started getting work in commercials. I did about 10-12 national commercials and then got one line parts in things like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the show “The Unit.” Got a little part in the movie Redbelt by David Mamet and kept slowly grinding up and then started getting bigger parts in independents and getting noticed by Liz Meriwether. My big break was really Liz Meriwether saw me in a movie called Paper Heart and really liked it, and then saw me in a movie called Ceremony because she knew Max Winkler and said, “I want you to be in No Strings Attached but you gotta audition for it.” From that it was easier for her to get me in “New Girl.”
What is this year like, doing 22 episodes and having a movie play all the festivals?
Very tiring. It’s awesome. The acting grind is really weird because you grind and you grind and you grind and then you get to a different level and you grind and you grind and you grind. But it opens up new opportunities and really for a movie like this, what I really hope, and I was talking to my friend Max Winkler actually, is I really hope people see this movie. A lot of times you do these independent movies and they play the festivals and you do the press and you talk about it and then it opens and closes. Then four months later somebody goes, “I really want to see that movie. When does it come out?” And you go, “Well, mother – -“ So what I really hope, and doing TV and having something that just blows up and people see it, I want to know how to do one of these little indies that people see, because I think in these little independent movies you’re able to do things as an actor, as a director and as a writer that you’re not able to do in other things. So I really hope this gets out there. It’ll make it all worth it. If it doesn’t I’ll be a way bigger *sshole when I’m doing my press. Like I’m not going to the festivals, I’ll do them right before it comes out. [Laughs]
Now, I live by myself. Am I missing all the wacky adventures I could have with roommates?
You are. Yes.
In season two, is Nick going to be even sadder?
It’s all up to Liz Meriwether. The thing about that is I get asked a lot about what’s going to happen with Nick and Jess, what’s Nick going to do? I have no idea. It’s not like a movie where I have say in what happens.
And you do get a say in the movies?
Well, yeah, I can say no to a movie. This summer I got offered a bunch of stuff that I just didn’t want to do. Then I got a script that I liked so I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to do that because I can see the arc of this guy.” With Nick I have no idea what he’s going to do. So if I show up and the scripts are he’s sadder, then yes, he’s going to be sadder. If he’s the happiest man in the world, then that’s it.
Is the one you said yes to The Pretty One, costarring with Zoe Kazan?
Yes, I’m going to start shooting in a couple weeks.
What kind of character do you get to play?
I think it’s a fun character because he’s a love interest but he’s a very unconventional love interest. He’s a guy who lives in the make believe and I think she’s a really talented actress, so I kind of said yes to see what she and I can do together.