New Girl's Jake Johnson | Interview
Tue May 1 2012
Launching with record-breaking ratings, New Girl was a major success in this year's television season. While many have tuned in to see film star Zooey Deschanel take on the small screen, fans of the show have gotten to know and love her band of male roommates. Chicago native Jake Johnson stars as Nick, a down-on-his luck guy whose obvious romantic chemistry with Deschanel's Jess has taken a backseat to a weirdly funny exploration of a man on a downward spiral. Last Tuesday's episode concluded with an epic screaming match between Nick and Jess after she discovered he had reunited with his destructive ex-girlfriend, Caroline (Mary Elizabeth Ellis). When Johnson returned to Chicago last week, we met up with him to discuss how what to expect from the last two episodes of the season, what he loves about doing the show and his upcoming film, Safety Not Guaranteed.
You’re from Chicago and all of the out-of-towners I know have a food appointment when they come back in town.
After I booked the pilot, I got a call that said, “Be a little bit easy on the weight.” I got the "Too Fat for Fox" call. I like pizza and I like cheeseburgers a lot and I like Chicago food a lot. But I've been warned. We’re coming back for season two, I don’t get to get fatter again. I like walking around probably fifteen pounds fatter. [Laughs]
With only two episodes left in the season, what do we have to look forward to?
The next [episode] is a really fun one. Without giving anything away, Nick made a video of himself in 2010 after Caroline broke his heart and it basically says, “If you ever are thinking of getting back with this terrible person, take a look at you now.” And that video comes up.
There was a really impressive fight between Nick and Jess in the most-recent episode. How much of that was scripted? The longer it went on, the more it sounded like the two of you were just shouting random things at each other.
Michael Spiller directed that episode and he’s really great at this kind of stuff. We did it cross coverage, which means you can shoot at the same time and use anything from either camera, which is my favorite way to do it. That was one that you read and you were like, “Whether I like it or not, on a Thursday night I’m gonna be shaking my ass at Zooey Deschanel in front of a crew of probably 80 people in my underwear. Cool.”
How upset is Nick going to be when he finds out that Jess and Russell broke up?
[Laughs] You know what, finally a good question about that. Everybody always asks, “How much does Nick deep down love Jess?” The real question is, “How much does he love Russell?” I think what the writers did with Russell was so funny and so weird. It’s so out of character in such a good way. I think Russell really opened up another side of Nick. I think Nick is great when he’s grumpy and great when he’s mean and goes on rants but there’s also some sophisticated old man he goes and falls madly in love with and it’s not really that explained. I think Nick’s devastated. And as Jake, I’m devastated because Dermot [Mulroney] was awesome. Legitimately, when I saw that he was gone, a part of me felt like Nick and I was like, “That was a man I was hoping to do a season of television with.”
Winston and Schmidt have clearly stated they are not on the Caroline bandwagon in the past. How are they going to respond to her return?
They hate her. They hate her guts. She’s Nick’s atomic bomb. She’s brings out the parts of Nick that are weak and whiny and annoying. It all stems from her. In your group of friends, there’s always that one person who’s got that one partner that everybody hates. And that’s Caroline. The guys hate her and Jess hates her and, I bet deep down, Nick hates her, too. He’s just so insecure, he thinks he loves her.
You were in No Strings Attached, which was written by New Girl creator Liz Meriwether. Is there something you really like about her writing style?
I think she actually has a voice. Liz Meriwether is pretty unapologetic about what she thinks is right and wrong. She’s confident enough where she’ll open up her line. I think she’s really smart in how she moves these characters around even when I don’t see it at first. The Dermot Mulroney stuff: I was so confused by that script that Nick was in love with him. I brought it up with Meriweather and she said, “It’s really funny. It works.” That’s what I like about working with her. You can talk to her but she also knows exactly what she wants.
It’s been really interesting getting to know these characters over the course of the year and when you go back to the pilot, Nick kind of seemed like the normal one of the bunch. As it’s gone on, he’s just gotten crazier and weirder. What’s been your experience getting to the character?
Well, that’s embarrassing. [Laughs] In TV, they create characters at the beginning and then they start writing more and more for you. I always thought, if you’re gonna do TV, you want to play a straight, solid, pillar-of-the-show kind of guy. And then, what happens with TV, it’s like when you were younger and you would have a sleepover at a friend’s house. The first episode is like 7pm. It’s fun. You’re having a good time. The second/third, you’re ordering pizza, you’re goofing around. It’s fun. Episode five, it’s like 11pm, parents go to bed, it’s fun. Episode eight through nine, it goes into that midnight-2am stage where you start getting tired. By episode eleven, you’re in the 3-7am zone and guess who’s not sleeping? This guy. I think in the end, if we get to do multiple seasons, I think Nick is going to come full circle. He will be a guy that will reach his potential.
You’ve gotten to play a pretty wide range in the shows between Nick’s cancer scare in the “Injury” episode and, of course, his hilarious infatuation with Russell. How do you balance both of the sides of the character?
I really like it. If I had to just do a one-note thing, I would get really bored. I think that’s one of the fun things about doing this show. We’re given opportunities to be actors and to be clowns. When you get to do both of those, it really makes work fun.
The "will they/won’t they" dynamic between Nick and Jess is kind of refreshing compared to other sitcoms. Typically, that stems from one character pining for the other one, but these two seem totally fine being friends. It’s kind of put the audience in the position of being that buddy saying, “You guys should totally be together.”
That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that take on it, but it is true. Nick’s not sitting around with his friends saying, “She’s my dream gal and I need to be with her.” And Jess isn’t doing it either. It is very clear that there is a connection between them. In real life, if Jess and Nick were really roommates, it would get explored in some way or another. I think it’s funny that none of the other characters really push for it.
There was the one episode where Cece was convinced that Nick was in love with Jess.
Other than that, they just dropped it. To be honest, it’s the fans that really keep it alive. Then we’ll do something like go to the Paley Fest and the audience is really asking a lot about them. On our individual Twitters, when people write about what they like, so much of it is, “Hey @markjakejohnson, any chance you and Jess are gonna get together? When do you think you’re gonna kiss her?” Guys, I am not that decision maker.
“I’ll just be on set and lean over and kiss her and maybe they’ll keep it in.”
Exactly. That’s the way TV works. When I decide it’s time for Nick to do something, that’s the way television works. There’s 70 executives who are like, “No! That is not the way it works!”
You’ve had some really amazing guest stars this year. Do you have any actors you'd like to see on the show next year?
I would like Jack Black to play Nick’s older brother. I just thought of that right now. Yeah, lets try to get Jack Black.
You and me, lets make this happen. I’m sure I have his number somewhere.
[into recorder] Jack Black. What do you say? Come on out. Come do New Girl. I’m talking into the little box.
The show has had a lot of success, how has that impacted you and your career?
I’m a grinding actor. That’s how I’ve always viewed myself. You go from one job to the next. All it does is allow me the opportunity to keep working. Really, from August until April of next year, I have a day job. The best part of the show’s success is that we get to keep doing it.
You’re in the film Safety Not Guaranteed, which is coming out this summer. Can you talk a little bit about it?
It’s a really fun movie. It’s coming out here June 15. It’s based off a real classified ad from a guy who is going back in time and he’s looking for a partner and your safety is not guaranteed. It’s a funny idea. Derek Connolly wrote a movie about a guy who’s a writer for a magazine, who takes two interns to a small town to find this guy and do a story on him. It’s really funny and it’s sweet. We saw it at the festivals with the audience and they went crazy for it in a way that I had never seen from a screening. I’m really excited to see how people take to it. The talk has been really hyped right now. I’m trying not to get too excited, because you never know. It’s a really special movie.
New Girl airs Tuesdays at 8pm on Fox. Safety Not Guaranteed opens in Chicago on June 15.