It's hard not to love Jake Johnson, especially while watching him as Nick on New Girl. But he's banking on fans having a slight change of heart with his turn in the film-festival flick Safety Not Guaranteed (out in limited release June 8).
He plays Jeff, a cocky journalist who discovers an intriguing classified ad (it reads: "WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke… You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.") and tries to find the supposed time traveler … among other things.
We chatted him up, and the Chicago native revealed the lengths he'd go for his home team, why he spends a possibly unhealthy amount of time on Craigslist, and a maaaajor on-set secret that he and co-star Zooey Deschanel have been keeping.
This movie is equal parts really funny comedy and heart-tugging melancholy. What about that attracts you?
Those are my favorite things. My dream career would be to be in things that have real heart and are telling real stories but while doing that, you're getting really big laughs. I don't necessarily love the straight crazy comedies. Caddyshack is amazing, but there's not a lot of new Caddyshacks.
Is one — comedy or drama — more challenging for you than the other?
It depends on the character. For me, it's about understanding where he's at, and sometimes I just have no idea. And when you don't have any idea, it's really hard to hit the joke or the drama. But with Jeff, I felt like I understood where he was coming from. I related to his journey. And even though he's a dick, I felt bad for Jeff.
In the movie, your character, Jeff, obsessively tracks down an old teenage fling. Did you relate to that?
I'm happily married — been with my wife for seven years now. But I had an old girlfriend that when I lived in New York, we dated from when I was 20 to 24, and we lived together in Queens and I thought we were going to get married. And we did holidays at our little apartment and cooked lasagna and brought the families. And when we split, it was devastating and it was fast and it was weird. It wasn't like, "Well I have been having sex with so-and-so, and I love him now!" That's when it's clear. It was like, "Well, we are so young and I think we should date other people." And I was like, "Well, why?" She was like, "I don't know, but in my heart I think it's real and we'll find each other again." It was like, "Wait, what?" Our conversation on it, it was never like, "I don't love you." It was like, "I really love you but think that we should not be in each other's lives for a year and then see if we naturally find each other." And we didn't. And she's still one of my really good friends. She's in a serious relationship where the guy is great and "blah, blah, blah." And there's not that thing anymore besides the fondness for each other.
But when I was shooting this movie, I would call her a lot and we hadn't talked in a while and we just became friends again. And I thought, for this character, it's less of a mid-life crisis, but what if you really wanted her back and thought, "I could get her back" and then you can't. And that's why I felt bad for Jeff because I knew the ending and I knew she's not into him. And I knew he thought for sure she would be because for him, he's not that smart and he thinks the Escalade makes the man and the clothes make the man, but who he is, she's not interested in. And so I thought from the beginning, he's kind of a piece of shit but he's going to lose, man, and it's going to hurt and he's going to freak out.
So, the classified ad that kicks off the movie was based on a real one that ran in a newspaper. You ever flip through those?
I was really into classifieds for awhile. I'm a big negotiator. My father owned a car dealership when I was younger … it's just in my blood. So when I started working as an actor, I missed it. I don't negotiate my own contracts. I audition and then I'll call my agent and he's like, "We're good." I'm like, "Let me get in on the f***ing call. Let me pretend my name's Maury, and I could just talk, too!" Like, the way I got my television is on Craigslist, they were trying to sell a $1,600 dollar TV, and so I wrote to them, "I'm very interested, but I'll give you $200 cash". And then they write back, "F*** you". And then we would start a weird negotiation.
If you could travel through time, where — or, rather, when — would you go?
The summer of 2003 in Chicago. I would go back to Game Six of the National League Championships when the Cubs were playing the Florida Marlins. In the seventh inning, I'd find Steve Bartman, and I'd say, "Pal, you are going to think I'm f***ing nuts, man, but I'm going to take your seat for the eighth inning. Trust me. The ninth inning, we are going to switch back." And in that inning, when Luis Castillo hits that foul ball and when I see Moises Alou, I'm going to push everybody back." Because I feel bad for that son of a bitch. So that's what I would do.
The film co-starred Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation and Mark Duplass from The League. With you just starting New Girl, did you all talk shop between takes?
Aubrey and I did talk a lot, and she gave me a lot of advice about being on a TV show. I love television. I grew up a big TV junkie. And I don't like the fact that a lot of these sitcoms are dying, so I'm really glad to be on one that is coming back.
Having started on the indie film circuit, what do you like about being on a major network?
The consistency of work. I like my costars. I like the scripts. I like that these little movies that I love to do get more attention.
Okay, enough stalling. The eternal Ross-and-Rachel question: Will Nick and Jess ever get together?
Well, I'll tell you. And this is an exclusive. [Dramatic pause.] Nick and Jess have been secretly sleeping together since Episode 2 but the cameras just haven't caught it!
The truth is, I'm asked about it a lot. I really enjoy working with Zooey. I mean, I love working with everybody. I love being very stupid with Max [Greenfield]. I love it when Schmidt and Nick are fighting and creating dumbness. But what I love about working with Zooey is that there's a real depth with those scenes, even when they're stupid. Even when it's a silly premise, there's a certain weight and a certain levity that those scenes have that is really fun as an actor to explore. I like that I'm going to be able to explore for another year and have no idea at this point what'll happen. It's not a movie so I haven't read the script and said, "Yes." But I think that there is something undeniable between those two, and I just don't know what it is.
So, what's one thing fans can look forward to next season?
I hope that either Zooey's character or Hannah [Simone]'s character become professional massage therapists. And they need to practice in scenes and obviously Schmidt and Winston don't want to be touched. So I think in the scenes, I should get back massages while drinking that fake beer that Nick drinks all the time.