It’s understandable if you made the mistake that Jake Johnson was a leading man; after stealing scenes from established stars like Ashton Kutcher, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, his screen presence certainly seems as formidable as theirs. But Johnson has really only come into his own in the last year or two, sneaking into films big and small and helping create some of their most memorable moments. And in Safety Not Guaranteed, the actor plays Jeff, a magazine editor who enlists two interns to investigate a personal ad seeking a companion for time travel, and inadvertently provides the broken heart that lurks just beneath the film’s quirky romantic optimism.
Johnson recently sat down with Movies.com to talk about Safety Not Guaranteed, and about how he turns these throwaway roles into something special. Additionally, he discussed the evolution of his career, including how his turn on TV’s acclaimed sitcom New Girl has made him a hot property – even if he’s eager to cool off a little bit.
Movies.com: It was particularly interesting to me how your story in the film reinforced, in a realistic way, the story that was being told in a fantastical way through Mark and Aubrey. How did you initially see Jeff, this character you play, and how well constructed were those layers?
Jake Johnson: To give Derek the writer credit, everything that you just said was totally on the page. I’m getting a lot of scripts now to see what I’m going to do next and a lot of them have a solid A story, but what I loved about Safety Not Guaranteed is there is a story that is fantastical and neat and fun -- there’s moments when Aubrey is in the super market doing the tomato cans stuff and that makes me laugh as an audience member -- but that tone is very different than everything Jeff’s doing. It’s almost two movies going at the same time, and it’s essentially about the same thing -- and they all come together. And I really like that about the movie, and I really took to the script as well.
Movies.com: What kind of preparation do you do for the characters that you play now? Even in 21 Jump Street, you make the character your own.
Johnson: I think there are certain types of human beings that I find more interest in than others, and I think if you are actually genuinely a weird person, I will probably like you more. Part of me has to go, “What are you talking about?” and I don’t mind someone who’s got a little darkness to them. I’m not talking about hurting babies dark, just a little bit off the path. As an actor I don’t have any interest in playing characters that are like “the sweet love interest” or “rock solid” and has like a kid but the wife died of cancer, because those aren’t the people in my life. Those aren’t the people that I hang out with or celebrate. I want to bring to [a character] something about them that you’re not sure of, so I try to find that in everything I’m doing. And if it’s not there, I try to invent it a little bit.
Movies.com: There’s a real astuteness in your characters’ self-awareness. How difficult is it to balance the way humor seems to work now as a device to reveal emotions, without undercutting the feeling beneath it?
Johnson: I don’t know why that’s happening, but when I did No Strings Attached, Ivan would say at times, “You use too many words in your comedy.” He’s one of my heroes, but he would get on me and say we’re part of this generation where rather than just saying the joke, we fill it with so many extra words. And it really made me think about comedy roles -- and I really do that. Like the punch line of the joke would be “The glass” and so every take I’d be like, “The glass,” and right after I do that I’d be like, “Is on the table -- it’s right next to me, and that’s the glass!” And he’d be like “Cut! Why don’t you shut up after the joke?” I like to do it [because] you reveal something about the character’s insecurity and about why he made that joke. And a lot of times, that second one is where the bigger laughs come as well.
Movies.com: In comparison to your character, who spends the whole movie trying to recapture the past, how nostalgic are you? Was it easy to relate to that feeling of, “oh wow, high school was the best”?
Johnson: I like thinking about the past. I’m not one of those people who are like “Never think about the past or the future, live in the moment” -- I don’t do that. I love sitting around and getting really sad for the ‘80s, getting really emotional when I’m sitting in traffic thinking about myself as a kid. I have really great memories of things. And what I loved about Jeff in terms of his break-up is I had an ex-girlfriend I was with for four years when I was 20, and at that age it was just so dramatic, just so intense, and the breakup was just so devastating and life-crumbling. And now I’m 33 and I’ve been with my wife for seven years and we’re more adult and like if she left me I would just die, but it wouldn’t even be dramatic; I would just shrivel up and die.
But it was fun to do this part because I got to remember that period of my life. And I think Jeff in this movie is very immature. I think he’s a little boy with an Escalade and a condo… and that’s why he wants to be friends with Arnau. And when she asks about his life and he’s like, “Well, I got this Escalade and a condo,” and she goes, “Tell me more about your life” and he’s like “I just did,” it’s because there’s nothing deeper there. So I liked remembering me as a young man and thinking about that with Jeff during the breakup. It was really nice to go back in time.
Movies.com: It seems like he has a little bit of an epiphany, this little heartbreaking moment, but the movie doesn’t resolve it -- and I think that’s a great strength of the movie. Do you think about what the arc of a character is when you’re starting to play him?
Johnson: Without question. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about because in films I’ve done, I would need a sequence in there where I fully understood the character – and [in Safety Not Guaranteed,] that was the sequence. Originally, the girl was supposed to be fat and ugly and super nice, and I didn’t quite get Jeff because he’s such an asshole, but he then likes her. But from the break up, to the crying in there, to getting Arnau the kiss, I thought, “I know that sequence. I know Jeff there.” I know that as a person you have a theory and then you have a deep down theory, and when he lost I thought that guy would of course go, “Fuck you, I’m right, and I’m going to prove it with this guy.” Rather than deal with me, he’s just going to go “You know what, no, you’re going to get laid, you’re going to do this.” And with that hour alone, he’s in that go-cart, and he knows he lost. And losing sucks.
Movies.com: What sort of opportunities are you finding -- and seeking -- because you’ve come into a lot of movies as a great support system for other people, and at the same time you’re breaking out as a star thanks to this TV show?
Johnson: It’s really tricky because I’m getting scripts, but I don’t want to act for the sake of acting. I’m never going to be that actor who’s just in a bunch of projects to keep working. If I’m not getting good stuff, I’m happy not to act. I do have a gambling problem, so that’ll keep me busy. Before I had my TV show I had to act to pay my bills. In terms of earlier decisions, there are some things on IMDB that are not consistent with anything I’m saying because it was a job -- but because of New Girl, you take away that equation. And so I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m being a little weird, because I don’t need to be the lead in something, I don’t need to be any bigger of a celebrity than I am right now; I’m not really a celebrity right now, and I kind of like that. It’s already at the level of being on New Girl that I’m already that guy in that dive bar and I’m taking photos with people and the flash is going off and everybody is like “F*ck!” I loved this place until I became that guy that’s ruining what’s cool about this place. I was at this speakeasy last night and everything was so cool -- it was really one of those nights where I’m like, yeah, this place rules and it proved itself. Until some girl yells “Nick!” and everyone turns around. And I respect it, because they like the show, but then there where flashes going up from the iPhones and I’m the guy doing the family photo pose -- and I’m thinking, if I was in a back table and not me, I would think that I sucked. So I don’t want to just raise my celebrity, I want things that are real and interesting where if I watch it, I would like it. And those are really hard to find.