Ever since I formed an intense parasocial relationship with a fictional, grumpy bartender when New Girl premiered in 2011, I’ve been haunted by one question: How did Jake Johnson make a romantic hero out of a character who doesn’t wash his towels? What kind of artistic alchemy has allowed him to transform a man who isn't convinced he knows how to read into an internet husband that has made so many of us grudging sister-wives?
It’s a testament to how void of Hollywood pretension and full of genuine thoughtfulness Johnson is that I’m able to maintain my physical form when I finally get to ask him such questions over Zoom. Conversation with Johnson is grounded by authentic, unaffected connection. It underpins his approach to art, from the empathetic exploration of grief and love in his new film Ride the Eagle, which he both co-wrote and stars in, to how he lets Nick Miller’s large, earnest heart peek through his taciturn exterior on New Girl. It extends to how Johnson treats mere strangers, too: around five minutes after our conversation ends, I see that he posted a picture of my book, Love in Color, and encouraged Instagram (yes, the whole of Instagram) to join him in a “little book club” to read it.
The unnecessarily kind act was in seamless accordance with the glimpse of Johnson that I have seen in his art and in conversation. There is an emotional honesty and disarming likability clearly infused in his craft — be it acting or writing — that I would venture to say can only come from a person who enjoys speaking with people rather than to people. Below, Johnson and I speak about the storytelling process, his co-creation of Nick Miller, and not being a romantic (but actually being a romantic).
On its face, Ride the Eagle is a movie about a man who’s essentially alone in the woods with a dog, which seems like a pretty masculine premise. But it also has an element of sweetness and vulnerability, and there’s warmth to your character. Is this something that you deliberately bring to your characters? A desire to challenge our notions of an emotionally repressed man, or a traditionally hyper-masculine man?
I love that question. You're the first person who brought that up. Yes. The whole idea of this character was I wanted him to be that “cool drummer guy.” But he's not feeling anything. Years ago, I went to a therapist because I was like, “Man, I really feel like I should be feeling more.” I think women naturally, and I don't mean this as like a big generalization, but it seems obvious to me that there's more feeling involved in their existence. And I feel like men are kind of missing out because somehow it's been described that having feelings is weak. But I just don't prescribe to that anymore. So I wanted [my character] to be somebody who deeply missed their mother but was so repressed in that, that they didn't even know they missed her. We wanted to tell a story about somebody who seems pretty carefree and happy but he's not feeling anything.
When I think about your character Leif, I feel like he represents an evolution of some of your previous characters. Nick Miller is somebody who is very tender but is almost scared of his emotions. Even Into the Spider-Verse’s Peter B. Parker has a lot of heart despite the grouchy exterior. Is this something you're conscious of when you choose roles?
Yeah I think that is a theme. I'm a little bit older than most of my characters. I'm actually 62 years old. [Laughs]
Well, you look great.
Ah, thank you, I dyed my hair. Well actually, this is a wig. But those are things that I care about. I am trying to be more of an evolved human as life goes on, so that'll be something I want to bring to the table for my character. Peter Parker was written, but I think they wrote it for me knowing that those are themes I care about. Nick Miller was an evolution. When I auditioned for that part, he was a very quiet lawyer. The description was: “the smartest guy in the room, but too shy to say it.” But to the credit of [New Girl creator] Liz Meriwether and the writing staff, they wrote to the actor’s strengths; whatever you were good at. That’s why by the end of the series, Lamorne Morris’ character [Winston] was really funny.
There’s a clear arc with Winston, for sure.
It took the writers longer to find who he was. They realized, “Oh, wow. Lamorne is really funny as this version of Winston.” Season 1 Nick is not the same as Season 5 Nick. He’s a different person. The writers were very clear on Zooey [Deschanel’s] character and Max [Greenfield]’s character. But the rest of us it took more time, because I think the writers had to find what we were bringing to the table. I do think that's part of the reason that a lot of my characters are similar. I'm gonna bring something to the job, that's why I'm being hired. I bring a theme I care about. I’m not going to play a character I cannot relate to. If I can't connect to them, I don't want to portray them.“When people ask me how much of me is Nick, I don't really know how to answer that. I’m not dating Jess Day, living with Schmidt. I don't have roommates. I don't want roommates. I'm 43 years old.”
“When people ask me how much of me is Nick, I don't really know how to answer that. I’m not dating Jess Day, living with Schmidt. I don't have roommates. I don't want roommates. I'm 43 years old.”
How much of yourself did you bring to Nick Miller? I feel like that’s part of his likability: people are drawn to him because he feels like a very real person.
On the show, I didn't bring any of the story stuff. So anything he does, that was written. But I did a movie years ago and David Mamet was directing it. My character beats up Tim Allen and I was so nervous. I did the scene and all I was thinking was, “Anger, anger, beat this guy up.” Mamet took me to the side and said, “You got all the lines. Good. But all I see on your face and in your eyes is anger. Answer a question as Jake. Are you happy to be here?” I say, “Yeah.” He said, “How do you feel about Tim Allen, as Jake?” I say, “I'm really excited, man. I grew up watching Home Improvement. He's a big star.” And he said, “I want you to think about that while you say the lines. Because then what's going to happen is your eyes are going to be warm, but your words are going to be way more fun.”
I really take that with me. I always want to be having my own inner game going on in a project that I'm thinking about while I'm saying whatever the character is saying. So when people ask me how much of me is Nick, I don't really know how to answer that. I’m not dating Jess Day, living with Schmidt. I don't have roommates. I don't want roommates. I'm 43 years old. I don't want to live with two other men and share a bathroom. But his inner life, which isn't translatable, is all me. That’s why all my characters have that inner life.
So many of the characters that you play are true romantic leads. They show up. Nick is a good guy at heart, and Leif has this really tender vulnerability about him. What do you think romance brings to storytelling, and are you a romantic?
In terms of talking about my own life, it would be preposterous and annoying if I called myself a romantic. I think it would be counter to the thing. But in storytelling I think it’s essential. If you remember the movie Superbad, the love was between those two friends. So I don't care necessarily what the love story is. When I started Ride the Eagle, I originally thought the love story was going to be between Leif and his dog. Then when D’Arcy [Carden] came, originally, we had a different ending. There was going to be less of a connection with her. But as an actor, she brought so much to the table, so we changed it.
But in terms of storytelling, if you don't have that love story in the middle it [can] feel almost like [when] you go to a restaurant and get a meal, but you don't have the main protein. You [just] have the appetizers, salads, or fries.
What do you think is a good example of a film with that protein?
This is an old reference from a guy who's now viewed differently, but I really loved [Woody Allen’s] Annie Hall. The beauty of that movie is that it’s a story about a failed relationship with someone you don’t belong with, but are so glad to spend that time with. I don't think a love story means they’re together for 60 years. I think a love story can take place in three weeks. Love is the person that you leave and you feel like, “Man, I'm so glad that happened. It might not have been perfect and in the end, it was really sad. But f*ck, we had so many good times and there was so much I learned from that.”
“It would be preposterous and annoying if I called myself a romantic. I think it would be counter to the thing. But in storytelling I think it’s essential.”
New Girl’s “Cooler” is one of my favorite episodes of television ever. That kiss is legendary — it has taken on a life of its own on the internet. Did you know at the time that you were doing something that could be really special?
We hoped so. It was a really big priority for Zooey and I, and I know it was for Liz Meriwether. There was a lot of discussion between the three of us about whether it would work for the story. When we started I knew Zooey was the star. I realized Max was the breakout guy: Schmidt was the wild, funny character that the writers were writing all these great bits for. I was kind of the straight guy in the beginning. Then I realized that Nick’s value to this machine is that he's with the main girl. That’s the love story. I leaned into that.
Zooey and I had a lot of opinions on it. When they started dating in Season 2, Zooey and I did not want the characters to be together for a whole season. We knew we wanted them to be together in the end, but they’re so different. The credit for the “Cooler” in my opinion goes to the director, Max Winkler. He directed me in an improv ceremony years ago, and he really pushed us. He knew he had a chance in this episode to make it special.
How do you think Nick would have survived the pandemic?
As Nick’s number one fan, how do you think Nick would have survived it?
I think he would have written a sequel to The Pepperwood Chronicles.
That’s how I’m like Nick. I wrote a movie.
I think Nick would have devolved as a human. Just completely reverted to a caveman state.
I totally agree. I can relate to that. One of the things I found interesting about the pandemic was that you were allowed to let things go. I shaved my head and [had] no beard. I keep my hair a certain way [because] as an actor, I don't know when the jobs are coming. For the first time I [was] like, if there's no jobs I can let it rip. I could have no hair and weigh 300 pounds, or I could have a ponytail and weigh 150.
I built a cabin in my backyard and that was a big project. Every day I was working on something, and then I thought maybe I'm just gonna get into construction if [the acting] business goes away. But roofing was scary. In the end, I realized I would rather play a roofer.
What's your dream project?
Honestly, my dream project is working with really talented people and having a director understand that the joy for actors, for me, is being [part of] this team playing make believe. I like to commit to the thing and make it feel real. Because that's real fun. And I think for audiences, they feel like it's real, so they actually get to escape. So my dream project isn’t a person or a tone. I just want the experience to feel like, “Man, we really got to do that thing.”
You just want to make good sh*t.
You know what it is? I just want to make good sh*t.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.