Probably best known as one of Zooey Deschanel’s three male roommates (and potential love interest) on the sitcom New Girl or from his brief scene stealing turn as the principal in 21 Jump Street earlier this year, actor Jake Johnson has been making quite the name for himself playing somewhat aloof characters with near perfect comedic timing.
This summer, Johnson gets one of his most interesting roles to date as Jeff in the indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, a somewhat douchy news reporter bringing along a pair of interns (Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza as the shy and somewhat standoffish Darius and Karan Soni in his big screen debut as the nerdy and romantically hopeless Aranu) to investigate a mysterious classified ad from a man named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who believes he can travel back in time. While his chief intern does most of the real work, building a relationship with the man, all Jeff can think about are his real reason for leaving Seattle to go to the small town of Ocean View, Washington: to hook up with a girl that got away. That and eventually to get Aranu laid.
The laid back and gracious Johnson spoke to Dork Shelf by phone from the west coast to talk about his relationship with his co-stars and director Colin Trevorrow, the challenges of having a character in a movie that has very little do with the main storyline, but a lot to do on their own, and why he thinks the film is a perfect summer movie.
Dork Shelf: Had you heard about the original real life ad the film was based around before the script came to you and how did Colin approach you to do the film?
Jake Johnson: No, I heard about it after the fact. I got the script and then I heard about it. I knew Colin through a mutual friend out in Los Angeles. We had socialized, and back when we were starting out we had made a couple of videos together from his apartment. So we worked on some projects that never ended up making it out of someone’s editing booth, but we’ve known each other for years. Colin really just said that he had the opportunity to direct and I really wanted to work with him, but I always say yay or nay to projects based on the character. This character had a great arc to him. I felt like he had an exciting run and that I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.
DS: It’s a really hard character to make sympathetic, and that’s something you do a great job of here. Jeff is the kind of person that a lot of people know and work with a lot.
JJ: That’s really kind of you to say. When it comes to a character like this, who you think is kind of a dick, I think Jeff has a lot of heart to him deep down that you need to see when you read the script or see the movie.
DS: He’s kind of a repressed child in a lot of ways.
DS: Did you base any of those traits off of anyone you knew?
JJ: I kind of based him on… You know, whenever I see a guy who I think might be kind of a dick I always wonder if I really knew them and I knew their whole backstory if I would like them more. I just imagine, knowing exactly how Jeff’s story was going to end, that I really liked him. I think you really need to sympathize with whomever you’re playing. I know some actors can do it otherwise, but I’m not able to do it unless I actually kind of like the guy in the first place.
DS: It’s also very different in a movie like this where your character has his own stand alone story line separate from the rest of the main plot. When you’re playing a character that has his own story, do you always have to keep the overall arc of the movie as a whole in mind when you play that character since you factor into the story directly at key points?
JJ: That’s interesting. I think on something like this you have to keep your own character’s main story in mind the entire time, but there are definitely times when you have to abandon that story and feed into the A-story. Jeff’s the guy who really wants to believe in what he’s there to cover, but also because he knows it could save his career. I think deep down Jeff is one of those guys who has become a dick just because he didn’t get anywhere being a sweet guy in the past. I think for him, he wants to believe in time travel. Time travel’s neat! But he’s gotten jaded to the point where he knows what he thinks are all the “cool” answers to everything, so he puts up this front that says “Only freaks believe in time travel.” Deep down it doesn’t change how he feels. It’s like kids with Christmas and holidays. You believe all of that, and you watch kids for those first couple of years when they think Santa Claus isn’t real and then they have that turn where they make fun of kids who still believe in it. But deep down inside you always want to believe. You always want it to be real. That’s just Jeff’s thing.
My whole thing with Jeff’s past was that he was kind of an overachiever to get to this writing job he got and once he got it, I dreamed up that he became very afraid about losing the very little bit of clout he actually has. It’s that feeling that you get when you’re on top of that little hill you’re on, but you know very quickly that the next guy is coming and they’re going to knock you off it. This is one of Jeff’s desperation attempts to kind of find this woman again, because he’s looking for any sort of life vest to kind of keep him in the game.
DS: You have to have a strange kind of bond with your co-stars Aubrey and Karan and their characters because you’re their hotshot boss, but you really couldn’t give a shit what they do as long as your job gets done for you. What was building that dynamic like with them?
JJ: You know, it was neat. It was Karan’s first movie, so he was a lot of fun to work with because he’s kind of new to it all. We kind of formed a Jeff and Arneu type relationship between the two of us. With Aubrey, she’s really fun to work with, but our story didn’t match our actual relationship, so it was fun, but we we’re also kind of distanced. We kind of helped each other with the process and kept each other going.
DS: I was going to ask about Karan and this being his first movie because he’s working with comedic and dramatic actors that come from similar improvisational backgrounds on a film that has to feel as natural and stripped down as possible. Did you ever give him any tips on how to roll with the more comedic elements of the story?
JJ: The main note I gave him was that at times he would go a little bit big at the beginning, but once we told him that less was more he really did a great job.
DS: Now what’s Colin like as a director because the film seems pretty deliberately cast. Was he receptive to the ideas you guys might have or would he prefer you guys stuck to the page and what you were hired to do?
JJ: You know, Colin is kind of a perfect match. He’s got everything up in his head about how he wants it to look and how he wants the tone to come across, but he’s also really receptive and open to being free and in the moment. If you’re improvising and it’s not working, he’ll cut you right off immediately, but if it is working it often turns out to be the best stuff to make it on screen.
DS: Now this is a smaller movie that was shot on a low budget in and around Seattle in just a little over 20 days in a lot of different locations and most of what the characters do is move from one place to another. You guys are constantly on the go in this. Is that something that seems more tiring than it looks?
JJ: It was a tiring movie to make, but also an exhilarating one. You know, sometimes even a smaller role in the bigger movies can be more tiring because you’re sitting around doing the same thing over and over again. There’s a real freshness to this movie and that feeling of going around everywhere really plays into that. It’s got that fast pace to it.
I kind of think of it as the perfect kind of summer movie. It’s fast, fun, there’s heart, and laughs, and it’s a nice combo.
DS: I really liked Ceremony quite a bit, and I heard that you were working with Max Winkler again. Could you say what you guys are working on now?
JJ: Awww, Thanks, man. Yeah, we are working together and we just sold an idea to Warner Brothers. It’s basically about a group of guys who are kind of sick of being average and undervalued in their town and the end up forming their own mafia, and it kind of ends up working. It’s a story about becoming an actual parody.
Safety Not Guaranteed opens in Toronto on Friday, June 15th. It expands to Vancouver and Montreal on June 22nd, to Calgary and Edmonton on June 29th, and to Halifax, Victoria, Ottawa, and Winnipeg on July 6th.