Everyone who reads this is a friend of Jake’s and they can get the Jake Johnson special.
In Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, three magazine employees are sent to investigate a classified ad seeking a companion for time travel. They venture to Ocean View, Washington, and set up a haphazard surveillance. Darius (Aubrey Plaza), an intern, is recruited as the shill. Her dry wit and cynical nature seem perfectly suited to trap the enigmatic oddball Kenneth (Mark Duplass), while scoring a good story. She’s accompanied by fellow intern (Karin Soni) and staff writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) who, smelling a nutcase, intends to expose the aspiring chrono-voyager. But Darius begins to see past Kenneth’s paranoid loner facade and finds the compelling person inside. The drawback? This still doesn’t rule out the possibility that he just might be crazy.
Anthem dropped by the Stella Artois Cutting Room at Sundance to catch up with the funnyman who continues to impress in film and television.
What have you seen at the festival so far?
Nothing. [laughs] We literally flew in yesterday and had a full day of press. We’re doing this all day today before leaving tonight. I have to get back to work tomorrow. It’s crazy.
Really busy, but it’s nice.
In our previous interview, we discussed how an actor stuck playing the sidekick in supporting roles might graduate to lead roles.
You’re suddenly on this massive TV show New Girl. That didn’t take long.
It didn’t take long at all.
How did you get involved with the show?
Elizabeth Meriwether, who created New Girl, had seen Ceremony and really liked me in that. When No Strings Attached came along, which she wrote, Liz wanted me to come in and audition for it. The director of that film, Ivan Reitman, wasn’t sold on me because he wanted a bigger name actor and I had to keep going in to audition. When I finally got the part, I worked with Liz a lot and we got to know each other well since she was on set every day. When her show New Girl got picked up, she asked me to audition again and everything worked out.
Is New Girl your brand of comedy?
I don’t think I have a brand of comedy, unfortunately. I think my life would be so much easier if I had a particular brand. But New Girl is great and I love doing it. I love the writing and they’re really killing it. I like my cast mates a lot. Zooey [Deschanel] is awesome. [Max] Greenfield and Lamorne [Morris] are great as well. We’re getting unbelievable guest stars like Lizzy Caplan. Lake Bell came on recently. It’s a great day job. My character gets to make out with really hot girls. [laughs] It’s like, give me a break!
What about the well-documented fear among actors where you sign a TV contract and that inevitably limits your choices in film due to time commitment?
I’ll be perfectly honest and tell you that I didn’t really think about it. I’ve never been accused of being the smartest man in the world. [laughs] When you’re an actor, you just audition for pilots no matter what. I’ve never gotten a pilot before. When I auditioned for Liz, I didn’t think about the pilot getting picked up. I didn’t think about it being a big hit, you know? Shooting the pilot felt like a 5-day shoot on an independent movie. When it got picked up, it was really cool. Then it became this monster and I realized I would be doing this for a long time. So I’m really thinking about the decisions that I made now, but I wouldn’t change anything. It’s nice to have a job that I like and I’m very thankful for it.
Do you find yourself having to pass on a lot of film projects? TV seems like a double-edged sword.
I already had to pass on stuff a couple times. It’s really hard, especially when you’re a grinder, which I am. I worked so hard to get these amazing opportunities and now I have to say “no”? There have been a couple parts that I was really excited about and really thought were going to happen. At first, production was like, ‘Sure! Of course we can accommodate.’ And then they’re like, ‘No! Of course we can’t make that happen.’ With that in mind, I’m saying ‘no’ because I have a damn job. I’m not saying “no” because I’m cleaning toilets. It’s champagne problems. ‘Excuse me, sir. This is way too bubbly.’ [laughs] It’s free champagne, so shut up! The schedule is crazy, but we committed to do this show and we all love it. From August until March, that’s the first priority.
Are the hours pretty grueling?
I almost didn’t make it to Sundance. We shoot Monday through Friday with 14-hour days. They’re actually shooting as we speak. Everyone is feeling the inconvenience because of me. Since I’m not on set today, they have to rearrange the schedule and shoot out of order and that makes everything a little funkier. I’m back on set tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. I just can’t squeeze in any movies with that kind of schedule. That’s why I want to go crazy during hiatus like a college kid where I get to drink a lot and get really weird. [laughs]
How did you get involved with Safety Not Guaranteed?
I knew the director, Colin Trabaro. We did shorts together years ago for Youtube. Colin and Derek [Conley] wrote the thing and I wound up reading it. Greg Walter, who manages Aubrey [Plaza], Derek, Colin and myself, told us we should all work together. We all had a meeting and I signed up. I’m a big fan of Aubrey.
Aubrey is hysterical on Parks & Recreation.
She’s hilarious. She totally kills it.
What was appealing about your character in Safety Not Guaranteed?
That he’s a dick.
I hope you’re playing against type.
[laughs] Do you remember Ceremony? I like to play guys that aren’t the easiest to like at first. I like playing characters where you start off hating the guy, but by the end of the movie, you at least see where they’re coming from. Even if you don’t like my character in this movie, by the end of it, my ideal is for people to see that he’s not a terrible guy. He just fell off the tracks somewhere. If I were to hang out with this guy, deep down, I would kind of like him. Even though Jeff is, pardon my language, a piece of shit, I think I would enjoy having a drink with him. It’s like, “You’re such a douche bag and talking about girls all the time, but I actually feel bad for you.”
Do you have any funny stories from the shoot?
We stayed at this place called the Sixth Avenue Inn and we hung out in their bar a lot. When you’re working on an independent film, no one’s really getting paid and you want to have fun doing it. We would shoot for 12 hours and then get a cocktail. The guy running the hotel was around a lot and he and I got to talking one drunken night. We decided to turn the room I was staying in into the “Jake Johnson Suite.” So if you go to Seattle and you tell them you want to stay in my room and you use the password “Stoli,” you’ll get an unbelievable discount with free parking and a free meal. The meal is what I ate there on most nights: a cheeseburger, salad with honey mustard and a Stoli on the rocks. [laughs] I think you get all that for $80 a night. Pass this around to the readers. Everyone who reads this is a friend of Jake’s and they can get the Jake Johnson special.
I’ll have to look into this.
They’re really into it. The room also comes with a view of a strip club. [laughs] It’s classy.
How did you receive the news that Safety Not Guaranteed would premiere at Sundance?
I was shooting an episode of New Girl called “Injured,” which is coming out in about a month. Lynn Shelton directed the episode. We were in the middle of that shoot at the Prince bar and Colin called to tell me the news. Lynn happened to be walking by craft service so we were able to all celebrate together. It made the world feel smaller.
Lynn Shelton directed Humpday?
She made Humpday.
She’s at Sundance with Your Sister’s Sister.
I caught that one at an advance screening in New York.
I haven’t seen it. How was it?
Monumental. I found myself laughing hysterically at moments and wiping away tears in others. She’s brilliant with actors, as you know.
In the upcoming episode of New Girl that Lynn directed, my character has a health scare. The tone of it is a little different from the other episodes. It’s not joke, joke, joke. The characters get scared that I might actually have a health injury and you get to see the characters at their vulnerable states. I think she was the perfect director for it. And she’s also an actor herself.
Do you think directors with an acting background sometimes make the best directors?
I think actor-turned-directors who understand the technical side are the best. That way, the crew respects them and the cast respects them, and everyone’s work just becomes awesome.
What’s her process like? I’d be curious to know how she’s able to pull such strong performances out of her actors.
She likes to give actors a lot of freedom. She’s very open to improv. She’s an actor’s director and wants you to feel comfortable in your role to bring your best. It’s not that she has a vision and you have to fit into it, she has an idea and you have an idea, and together, you can form it into something nice. I think that’s why actors love working with her so much. You’re not just brought into paint by numbers, you’re being asked to bring something to the part.
I saw your name pop up in the credits at The End of Love premiere. Are you good friends with Mark Webber?
I’m there in the movie even though I don’t really do anything. I haven’t seen it yet. I’m a big fan of Mark Webber as an actor. I think he’s a phenomenal talent. I think he’s one of those guys who will have a huge rise. Mark called and said he was looking for a bunch of people to just be there for the movie. For Mark, I would be happy to do anything. I think he’s a huge talent. We’re both really good friends with Michael Cera so I hung out with him a couple of times. I just really like him. I like him as a guy a lot and I like him as a talent. I don’t know him well enough to say that we’re best chums. I just think he’s good.
With all the success you’ve accumulated, what kinds of roles are they offering now? Is it very different than before?
I’m getting more leading stuff, but I really like the character stuff. I don’t need to get bigger and bigger, I just want to do stuff that the people who I respect will like. If I’m in something, they can be assured that there’s something interesting about it. It might not make tons of money and it might not be the biggest movie, but there’s going to be something that I found interesting, and hopefully, they’ll find something interesting too. It’s a little tricky finding what those things are because I don’t want to just take things for the job now. With New Girl, I have a day job so I don’t have to just say “yes” to everything anymore. I don’t have to take a money job because I’m on a TV show. I want to take things that are interesting and potentially really good. If that means I’m the star of it, great. If that means I have a smaller part, that’s great too.