For about three year, Jake Johnson has been on my radar as a great source of everyman comedy. He doesn't do characters per se, but when he does he infuses them with a kind of matter-of-fact persona that makes them immediately recognizable and winning. His brief appearance as Jesus in the last HAROLD & KUMAR movie is a prime example of this. But I first met him when we did a Q&A in Chicago with Charlyne Yi for their movie PAPER HEART, and it was then that I learned the most important thing about Johnson: he's from Chicago.
In the last year, he's been one of Zooey Deschanel's roommates on Fox's hit series "New Girl," and his profile has skyrocketed as a result. Even in small roles on TV or in such films as GET HIM TO THE GREEK, NO STRINGS ATTACHED, or 21 JUMP STREET, he manages to find a way to make himself noticed by just being funny and not necessarily upstaging his co-stars. And in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, he plays one of his most complex characters to date as a writer seeking the truth about a man (played by Mark Duplass) who placed a classified ad in a newspaper seeking a fellow time traveler.
Johnson's character drags along two interns for this assignment, including Aubrey Plaza (from "Parks and Recreation") and newcomer Karan Soni, who was hired right out of college to play the role of resident weird guy Arnau, and he's damn funny at it. I interviewed the two together, and it's appropriate since they are essentially paired up in the film as a comedy duo, both of whom have deep psychological issues involving time (the past for Jake's Jeff character, and the future of Arnau). Please remember, the interview was conducted in mid-March, so some of what Jake might have to say about "New Girl" is a little dated, but none of it seem significant enough to push the interview out any earlier.
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is out in already a couple cities, and is expanding to quite a few more this week. Please enjoy my talk with Jake Johnson and Karan Soni…
Capone: Good to see you again, Jake.
Jake Johnson: Yeah, we were at that hotel in Chicago with the pool table. Was that the one?
Capone: I believe so; it's hard to keep track. I just remember the Q&A with Charlyne for PAPER HEART.
JJ: She was so fun to do those Q&As with. She was such a nut.
Capone: I bet. The funniest thing about this movie is that every character in this movie has a horrible relationship with the past, present, and/or future, and your character in particular goes through extreme measures to deal with it or not deal with it. Talk a little bit about your characters' relationship with time.
Karan Soni: I like mine, because he's not old enough to have regrets I think, but I feel like on the path that he's on he will have regrets, because it doesn’t really seem like he’s having fun with his life. He’s just in it, just because he thinks that if he puts all of these perfect pieces together he will be happy eventually. I think it's cool, because he gets to wake up from that, because he’s so rigid and stuck in that, and Jake’s character could not be more opposite. I love that kind of stuff, because it’s conflict and they clash and everything. I think it’s cool, because I can relate to that the most, because [pause] I’m not 30 yet.
JJ: Wow, thanks for making us feel like old men.
Capone: “I’m not middle aged yet.”
JJ: “I’m not like you guys.”
Capone: Thank you for thinking I’m in my 30s, first of all.
KS: I don’t know….
Capone: Jake, your character is obviously a little different.
JJ: I think my character, Jeff, is… I think it just didn’t turn out for him. He’s at a point where he’s been faking it for long enough, and it’s all coming to a head, and the movie starts and he’s already kind of losing it a little bit.
Capone: You say some of the most horrible things about that one woman in that movie. "She’s not that fat."
JJ: It’s hard, because it was written for a far less attractive woman. Jenica [Bergere] is an attractive lady.
Capone: Yeah, she is.
KS: "She's not that fat!"
JJ: I auditioned with her and I felt like she was really good, like “No, she is not that fat.” [Colin Trevorrow]’s ideas that he was pitching were there, and she was just the best actress for the job. It was clear right away “We’re changing it up,” but a lot of those lines were like “We can’t get rid of them. It's part of the movie."
Capone: That got some of the biggest laughs though. What I love about Karan's character is that, because you’re a new actor, you’re an unknown quantity, and Jake and Aubrey are both on TV, and Mark [Duplass] is in every third movie this year. But you’re the X factor, and nobody knows that much about you, so you are constantly surprising us. How did you get involved with this movie?
KS: They were auditioning a lot of people, so I got a chance to audition. It was a mix of all kinds of people, and I just kept going through that process and they decided to give me the job, which was really awesome.
Capone: Did they ever tell you like why they liked you the best?
JJ: He’s our “McLovin,” and the other guys that auditioned weren't.
Capone: That’s true.
KS: I don’t know. There were all kinds of people in the auditions, so I’d be in the waiting room and be like “Oh, it’s narrowing down,” and then you wait for ten minutes and there’s like 15 other guys from all over. I never took it seriously, because I was just like, “Well, they could go for anything.” I think it was just a fit.
Capone: Did you ever look at those other actors and go “Is that what they think of me?”
KS: Normally I do, but with this one they were all so different, that it was hard. Sometimes I go in for stuff and I’m like, “Wow, okay that’s how the world sees me. That’s awesome.”
Capone: When you first read the script, do you remember something specific about Jeff that you kind of latched on to and said “Okay, I can work with that. I can build on that.”
JJ: Without giving anything away, it was the break. It was when things go really bad for Jeff, and he starts going crazy. There was the sequence when he finds Arnau and goes and says, “Let’s go” and the Go-Cart stuff. That whole sequence was where I felt like “That I know how to do. I understand the tone. I get the joke. I like it. That’s my sense of humor. That’s what I like.” And so I thought the rest of it I could find Jeff around that, but when I was reading the script, that was the part where I was like “Yeah, I’m going to do this. I want to do those three days on set bad.”
Capone: I love that in that sequence he’s like smoking, he's got the liquor bottle. The only thing missing is like a gun.
JJ: Actually I think we talked about that. “Is there some way we could get it in.” There was some point where it was like there’s one shot where he’s on the beach shooting a rifle or something where you're like, everything is going too far.
Capone: Shooting at seagulls…
JJ: Right, shooting birds.
Capone: The scene where you dress Arnau for his big moment. I Colin said you improvised that to a certain degree?
KS: It’s all him really. It was just me like, “Yep, let’s do that.”
JJ: As real guys, we hung out a lot and we got to know each other, and there were just some bits that we were doing. When we were doing that scene, and it was written to be in this really beautiful long hallway, and it was supposed to be part of the fun. Colin described it as this great “oner,” and everything felt really good, and then day of he’s like “Come here. It’s not working out, because this is an ugly location.” It was the first time Colin was pissed off, and I was like, “Well this is the scene I really liked.” Then we did the scene a couple of times, and it wasn’t great. It was just tight and weird, so then he let us improvise some, and I wanted to.
KS: He really just let us improvise. Like he just kept letting us go.
JJ: He just said “Do it again, anything you want.”
KS: That was totally just great when we did it that way.
Capone: You have the beginnings of a love scene in this movie. Was that a great day in your life in your first big movie to have a love scene?
KS: That was so awesome, because even though my character is not as big as the other three, he still has an arc that’s in the script, and I’ve never been able to do that on anything. So I was really nervous of that part, because it’s like the payoff moment. So yeah, I really liked that moment in there, and people seem to like it.
Capone: It’s very sensual, that kissing scene.
KS: Colin was like “This is a big one. Are you ready?” I was like “Way to take the pressure off.” Then he’s like “Okay, done. Cool.” I was like “Oh. Okay.”
Capone: And as nice a moment as that is, one of the most awkward moments in the film is Jeff asking his old girlfriend to move with you to Seattle, and that whole exit is just so awful and she’s naked. Tell me a little bit about shooting that. How many times did you have to do that?
JJ: We shot all of her stuff in a day, so each scene we probably had five or six goes at it, and Colin would describe what he wanted, and then after each one he would say something to the extent of “Okay, are you happy? I’m happy with that.” That one was we got in bed and we did some stuff he cut out where he would have me go really broad with it and yell at her and then say mean things and then go really quiet with it and then he pieced it together. I thought he did a really nice job with it. I think Jenica really does a great job in the movie.
Capone: She’s great, yeah. I’ve seen 21 JUMP STREET. You have a couple of really great scenes, maybe three actually, I can’t remember, two or three.
JJ: I hope it’s three.
Capone: There’s one right at the beginning where you give them the wrong names.
JJ: I tackle them.
Capone: There’s one I remember where there’s a fight going on, and you just go “I should be doing something to stop this now.”
JJ: Oh, really?
Capone: Do you remember that?
JJ: I was only in two or three scenes total and I was there in New Orleans for three weeks and I tried so hard not to get in trouble, but it would literally be like, “Please let me come on set,” because if not they would be like “We just don’t need you,” and our hotel was right next to a casino and Bourbon Street, and I do like to drink and I do like to gamble. So I’m like, “You're killing me! Please make me work. I’ll do my job.” So no, I don’t remember.
Capone: I could almost swear it was three scenes. I guess you haven’t seen it yet.
JJ: I still haven’t seen it.
Capone: Are you going to be here when it screens?
JJ: I’m back to ["New Girl"] tomorrow morning. I do this and then I’m on a flight at 5:00pm
Capone: So are you still shooting "New Girl" now?
JJ: Yeah, we have two more.
Capone: I don’t think it’s aired yet, but David Wain told me he directed an episode.
JJ: He did. It hasn’t aired. He was awesome.
Capone: I’m dying to see it. I love that guy.
JJ: Yeah, I love that guy too. He was really fun to work with.
Capone: You’re on this huge show. There are so few shows that absolutely connect right out of the gate.
JJ: It’s really a dream come true. I grew up loving TV. I’m 33, so when I was growing up it was before reality shows and before TiVo, and my family didn’t have cable, so network TV was what as a family we watched. We watched "Roseanne." We watched "Cheers." The reason I got in this business was because we loved it. It was something that unified my family. We had one TV and we all ate dinner in front of it. It was my mom, my brother, my sister, and me, and the TV was our fifth member.
Then when I got in the business, I moved out to LA in 2004 and everybody was already saying like “TV's dead, man.” I’m like “What?” I love movies, but I was like “What do you mean it’s dead?” There were all of these reality shows where everyone is saying, “There’s no more work. You do a show, and no one watches it.” It was always kind of a bummer, so to be on one that has hit, the response from people is really neat. Because I’m on it, I forget about it, but people will keep coming up and saying what they like about it or how they connect to it, and it’s a really cool feeling to be like, “Oh wow, we have a show that there are people watching.” It’s not like "Cheers" where everybody watched it, but there’s a percentage of people that’s enough where Fox is happy, and these people who watch it really love it. I’m like “Great. What a dream come true.” I hope we get to do it for a long time.
Capone: You kind of pop up in unexpected places, like HAROLD AND KUMAR as Jesus. Have you seen it?
KS: No, but I’ve seen the trailer. I’ve seen him in the trailer.
Capone: I quote that scene that you’re in, because it’s such a classic spoiled little kid moment of like “My dad owns the place.”
JJ: That was a crazy shoot, because all of those women in the club were Detroit strippers, and I was in that Jesus gear and it looked so real, right? It looked so real that a lot of these girls and I swear I’m not doing a bit--I was getting the most sex eyes I’ve ever got in my life. Girls don’t flock to me like that. [Laughs] That hasn’t been my life experience, so I was walking and these hot stripper girls would be giving me these looks, and I was always in costume, like “These girls have a sex thing for Jesus?”
Capone: “He’s famous. He’s got no money.”
JJ: He’s got no money, but he’s famous. He’s the most famous, but he’s dead broke. It really showed you like what celebrity does, the fact that I looked like Jesus. It was either a celebrity thing or a father figure thing, but these women were going with it and it creeped me out.
Capone: You get into some weird projects: 21 JUMP STREET’s drinking and gambling and Jesus strippers…
JJ: Before "New Girl," I was hoping that was my career, just weird experiences and weird parts. That was kind of the game plan.
Capone: You’re a gifted improvisationalist, as many of the cast members are, but Mark kind of takes it to a different level where in a lot of his movies.
JJ: That’s the whole movie.
Capone: It is, but when we think of improvisation we think about getting to the joke. But with him it’s getting to the heart of the scene or character. What did you learn from working with him?
JJ: It was. Mark is a brilliant guy, and I’ve been a fan of his since Mike Cera showed me PUFFY CHAIR like it was a secret years ago, and when I saw it I was so impressed and wanted to work with them so bad. So I came in really fanboying out, and what I really learned is he is an actor who acts, directs, and produces at the same time in his head. So when you say “Do the joke,” a lot of people improvise, they are looking to end a moment and to get the out, which makes sense, because you need that too. He’s doing it like chess. He’s doing a scene thinking three scenes ahead. So if you improvise a moment, it’s going to help later and a lot of people don’t do that, myself included. So it was really nice to act with somebody where he was really just thinking about the whole project. I found that really impressive.
Capone: He’s listed as an executive producer on the film, but it he made it seem like he wasn't really "in charge."
JJ: He did a lot. He’s being humble. He was definitely a producer.
KS: The entire crew I think was on board with this, because he was on it.
JJ: Everybody knew him.
KS: We wouldn’t have been able to make it without that crew.
JJ: And the speed of it, the feeling of it at times, felt like a Duplass movie where there was a feeling in the air of the DP and the world of it felt like one of his movies. Yeah, he was being humble.
Capone: What did you learn from working with him?
KS: We didn’t get to do a lot of scenes together, but he just commands the set with respect from all of the crew and everyone. It’s interesting, because he talks to every single person, and everyone is on board, and you can just feel that energy. He knows when to motivate people. It's interesting to watch that. Typically it’s like actors stick with actors, and so it was just amazing.
Capone: When I was talking to Mark about the different places that his character could have gone in terms of scary or silly, one of the things I offered up was creepy, but you kind of cover the creepy vibe in the car with Aubrey [Plaza], where you have some great little throwaway lines--the one about the leggings is a particular favorite. Did you get to throw in a few little extra ones out there?
KS: Yeah. I think a lot of it just didn’t make it through, which I’m glad, because I didn’t want it to be too jokey. It’s like we’d be on location and there were all of these moments… It was really fun to do that, but yeah I think the amount that they use is the right amount, where it’s like “Oh look a weird joke,” and I think it sticks together better. But yeah, I did improvise a little bit.
Capone: Jake, I meant to ask you before when we were talking about "New Girl" was now that you're down to a couple more episodes, do you have anything big planned for the end of the season?
JJ: In the next episode coming up, Nick goes on a very weird journey. I personally think Nick as a character, what I really like about him and it has been there from the beginning, is that he seems normal, and then the more you get to know him you realize he’s about to have a nervous breakdown.
Capone: Yeah, I think that’s fair.
JJ: Whenever he starts getting it together, he really screws it up, and the next run really starts showing that he starts losing it. All I’ve heard about the ending that I can give away is it’s the main group, not any guest stars. They're keeping the team back together, and I heard something about it being in the desert.
Capone: Is it going to be a “very special episode of 'New Girl'?”