Jake Johnson is officially on our watchlist (no, not that kind of watchlist). If the rising star poses any threat, it’s his side-aching humor and overbearing charisma that we need to worry about. Despite his relative anonymity—you might recognize him from his recent supporting roles as the pseudo-goofy everyman in Paper Heart, Get Him to the Greek and No String’s Attached—Johnson seems to enjoy sampling a little bit of everything at the table rather than sticking to a single dish, so to speak. Whatever the analogy, the fast-rising actor has already gone through more life changes in his infant career than most people undergo in their lifetime.
In Ceremony, Johnson plays Teddy, Uma Thurman’s troubled, yet loveable addict brother—a big drinking problem, an even bigger heart. It’s another supporting role for the actor, but Johnson manages to upstage the film’s better-known stars with his sharp comic timing and down-to-earth charm from scene-to-scene, each one a flash of rare talent that doesn’t go unnoticed. The film, directed by Max Winkler—yes, the real life son of Arthur Fonzarelli—a children’s book author (Michael Angarano) convinces his socially inept friend (Reece Thompson) to join him on a weekend trip for some bonding time. But Sam has a secret ulterior motive for the get away—to crash a wedding and rekindle a flame with the bride (Thurman).
Ceremony is now playing in New York and Los Angeles with a national rollout to follow.
How did you get into acting?
I started out doing a lot of theatre before moving out to Los Angeles and then did a bunch of commercials. I signed with a commercial agent named Samantha Daniels who helped me get into union and started making short films. My first proper role was in a movie called Redbelt directed by David Mamet.
You worked with Mamet on your first feature? That’s not a bad gig.
Exactly. It was a lot of fun. And my first TV role was on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
You have a background in standup comedy, right?
Yeah, I did improv comedy. I was in a sketch comedy group called The Midwesterners with a guy named Oliver Ralli. We had a two-man show and performed together for over 5 years. We tried to perform at least once a week at either the Upright Citizen’s Brigade or The PIT or Surf Reality, all these different venues. I tried to get up there and just keep practicing.
How did you land the role of Teddy in Ceremony?
I had previously worked with Max [Winkler]. I did a scene in a web series called Clark and Michael with Clark Duke and Michael Cera. Max was one of the producers on that and I was brought in to play a character. Max and I really got along and he called me up soon after that to talk about some other ideas. We did a pilot presentation together and worked on a couple of other ideas. When Ceremony came up, the part that he had originally intended for the character of Teddy no longer worked, so he said, “Maybe we can have you play this character.” I went through the whole auditioning process and got the part.
Do you have any reservations in working with first-time directors?
I actually really like it because there’s something about working with first-time directors where everything feels very new. They push you to bring a lot to the table. I guess it’s the same with experienced directors and it ultimately depends on the individual, but my experiences have been very good. I did a movie called Paper Heart with Nick Jasenovec and he was a first-time director as well. I think they really push you to make your own choices because they haven’t done it before and they’re not set in their ways. There’s a nice level anxiety involved as well and that pushes you to work harder.
Coming from a comedy background, did you push for a lot of improv on set?
I definitely pushed for it and there was a lot of improv involved in this. Max and I were on the same page in the sense that the scenes would be blocked out where we would know exactly what needed to be accomplished and then he would allow me to try out the different ways of getting there. Working with Max was an incredible experience. I really feel that he’s an actor’s director because he really loves actors and he loves performances. He wants everyone to be at their very best and does whatever he can to ensure that you’re going to give a good performance. For an actor, it’s really kind of nice. You feel like you’re in good hands. It’s like you’re part of this team and you have a really good coach.
What was your approach to playing Teddy, the alcohol and drug-addled, yet fun-loving, party animal?
I guess my approach was to try and find a way to really relate to him. I’ve known a lot of people like that and certainly I’ve partied myself. The thing about people who have addictions is that they’re really funny and really sad at the same time. I wanted Teddy to sort of embody that. Even though he’s going through a rugh time this, he still enjoys drinking. It’s like what Charlie Sheen said about his addiction, “I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t having fun doing it.”
Incidentally, what do you make of Charlie Sheen? What’s the matter with him?
I don’t know. [Laughs] All I know is that it’s interesting. Whatever’s going on, I’m totally fascinated by it. Some people are saying they’re bored with it, but I’m definitely not bored. I just think he’s really entertaining as a person. He’s been successful for years and years, yet he has never been as popular as he is now.
Did you drink at all on set when you were shooting this film? What were in those beer bottles and wine glasses?
We weren’t really drinking. Maybe during the wedding scene I had a little bit of whiskey because it was so cold. And the ocean scene, I potentially snuck in a drink or two… There really wasn’t a lot of drinking. It was just about trying to play it loose.
Teddy has a surprisingly full-bodied character arc for a supporting character. He hits rock bottom when, in a drunken stupor, he almost drowns in the ocean. Was that tough to film?
The drowning scene was difficult because I was in the ocean in the middle of October. The wedding speech scene was also really hard in terms of finding the right tone. It was all really challenging. I don’t mean for this to sound cheesy, but Max runs a set where he tries to take the pressure off and wants you to do what you do best. He has a strict system in place and you have to fit into his roles, but he wants you to do it in a way that you feel comfortable—that helped a lot.
I had no idea you guys shot in October. Movie magic, I guess.
I was so cold… [Laughs] In-between almost every scene, we were all in jackets and gloved up.
Could you talk about shooting the scene where Teddy gives Sam [Michael Angarano] life advice towards the end of the film? Max was quoted as saying that was his favorite scene in the film and it’s mine as well.
I really appreciate that. I think it was one of the last things that we shot. Mike and I really wanted it to feel as real as possible. I think we both felt that we had a good understanding of who our characters were and tried to bring as much of that to the scene as possible. We had a lot of fun shooting this movie and we knew that it would be all over in a week, so we tried to capture that truth in the scene. We were actually scheduled to shoot that 2 days later, but ended up shooting it just an hour before it happened. I think that added a freshness to it. I’m glad to hear that it worked so well.
I understand that Jesse Eisenberg was originally slated to play Sam. That would have changed the film quite dramatically I’d imagine.
I came onboard right after Jesse pulled out to do The Social Network. I auditioned with Mike when he first read for the part of Sam. We went to the beach house one day to do a chemistry test together, which is so incredibly important.
You’ve been put in a lot of supporting comedic roles so far. Do you think there’s a formula in which to break out of that and graduate to lead roles?
If you find it, please tell me. [Laughs] Write a book because you’re going to be rich. I think you just have to stay true to how you like to do things. The truth of the matter is that if I don’t turn into a lead guy, I’m totally okay with it because I love acting. I’m more interested in working with directors that allow their actors to bring a lot to their characters and if that means I’m going to get a role where I play for a week, great. If that means I’m going to get a big character and work for 2 months, fine.
I’m not allowed to talk about this movie yet, but I’m shooting something in April or May where I’m a supporting character and I really like him. I got an email from the director and they’re doing so much pre-production, to the point where it sounds maddening. And I don’t have to deal with any of it! [Laughs] I just show up, work for a month and have fun getting into character. I get to leave while they edit it and do all this work. The actor’s life is pretty good as long as you’re working. What’s hard is when you’re not working. I guess that’s a weird answer to a simple question you asked, but the real answer is: I have no idea. [Laughs]
I have a weird question for you: When you’re as funny as you are, do you realize that you’re funny?
Sometimes I think I am and other times I definitely don’t think I am. Sometimes I think I’m funny and everyone else thinks I’m not. For me, someone like David Chappelle is always funny. I don’t think I’m like that, though. I either try to do stuff that I think is funny and, if other people don’t like it, I sort of have to grin and bear it.
How would you describe your overall sense of humor?
I guess what I find funny is real situations and when you loosen the tension in those situations. I don’t like things that are too silly. That’s kind of a broad answer, but I think a bunch of shit is funny.
What are some of the funniest movies you’ve ever seen?
Probably Caddyshack. I think Rodney Dangerfield, Billy Murray and Chevy Chase are so funny in that movie. Groundhog Day is another one—I can watch that movie whenever it’s on, which is a lot, and always laugh really hard.
Not to put you on the spot or anything, but could you leave us with a funny joke that you either made up or heard recently?
This is a weird one, but I find it really funny. I’m not expecting you to laugh because most people don’t. So, this guy is on a plane that crashes and lands on a desert island. He’s all by himself and there are no survivors. He starts thinking, “I have to learn how to survive and hunt wild boar or something because I’m stuck out here.” One day, right before the sun sets, he hears this rumbling that sounds like a stampede. He climbs up a tree to get protection and sees 15 deer and they run right past him. It’s the first form of life he has seen on the island. 30 seconds later, he sees 15 naked men with erections chasing the deer, and he’s like, “What the fuck?” The next day, he goes to the same spot, hears the stampede, sees the deer and 15 naked guys running. Again, he’s like, “What the fuck?” On the third day, he sees the same thing goes, “Fuck it! I’m lonely and I have to make this work,” takes off all his clothes and hides behind a bush. The deer come by and as soon as he sees the people running, he’s like, “Fuck it. I’m going with them” and starts running with the naked guys. Their all giving him a thumbs up and he has no idea what they’re up to, but he’s in! They chase the deer and corner them in this cave and he’s really hoping that they’re going to eat the deer, right? That’s when the leader of the group with this huge beard and dreaded hair goes, “Alright everybody, grab your deer and get ready to fuck ‘em!” The guy’s like, “Oh my god. They’re going to have sex with the deer? That’s terrible.” But he can’t back out because he’s part of the group now. That’s when he sees a sickly looking deer in the corner and he’s like, “Well, that’s the easiest target. I’m just going to grab that one since it’s least likely to kick me in the face.” So he ruffles this sickly deer as everybody else is ruffling their deer and gets into position.” The leader goes, “Hey! What the fuck are you doing?” and he goes, “What am I doing? You all grabbed a deer. We’re going to have sex with them, right?” The leader says, “Well, yeah. But the deer you picked is so ugly.”