Jake Johnson has a thing for dicks. But before you alert Perez Hilton, let's be clear. The 33-year-old actor admires dick-ish characters; i.e., the potty-mouthed wise guys who seem too cynical to function in society. Which is perfect because he plays exactly that in the Colin Trevorrow-directed SXSW hit Safety Not Guaranteed (opening in limited release today), about three dysfunctional journalists (Johnson, Aubrey Plaza, and Karan Soni) investigating an oddball (Mark Duplass) who put out an ad seeking a companion for time travel.
Johnson's bitter role in the film is quite the departure from the part that has made him uber-famous: Nick Miller on Fox's "adorkable" hit sitcom New Girl. Thanks to Nick's lazy but lovable persona and his Friends-esque sexual tension with Zooey Deschanel's Jess, Johnson can now find his face inside the locker doors of high school chicks across America.
Complex sat down with the actor to chat about why he prefers playing the guy that's difficult to like, what he thinks about being a heartthrob, and why hipsters have ruined his idea of what "being a man" means.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
Derek Connolly, the screenwriter of Safety Not Guaranteed, wrote the part of Jeff with you in mind. How do you respond to people who take the time to write a role specifically for you to play?
It’s a really nice thing, but for me, I like to know the director a little bit or be a fan of something they did first. I knew Colin personally, so this was a very easy "yes."
In the film, your character doesn’t travel through time, per se, but, in a sense, he does physically and emotionally go back in time with a woman from his past. What do you think Jeff was missing that made him want to go back?
I don’t think he ever got over her, so she’s that ex that he still thinks about. Well, he never found a new one and he never fell in love, so the thing he was missing was that he thought there was something back there for him. I think he thought that that character was going to move to the big city with him.
Also, one the most interesting things about your character is the juxtaposition between you and this inexperienced brainiac intern, Arnau (Soni). What do you think it is about him that Jeff takes a liking to?
I think in both Arnau and Karan Soni, the actor who played him, there’s just sweetness there. There’s just something good about him and I think Jeff likes the fact that Arnau is a sweet kid and he wants good things for him. And a little sex goes a long way. [Laughs.] So he wants Arnau to experience that.
It’s funny, though, because, in the beginning, you wouldn’t think that Jeff would do that. He comes off as such a dick.
What changes in him?
I think getting his heart broken leaves him feeling very vulnerable and he’s got a lot of love to put somewhere. Since he can’t put it on that girl from the past, he throws it at Arnau.
Also, I read that you like playing characters that are dicks. Why is that?
[Laughs.] Everybody needs a bad guy. Why do I like playing characters that are dicks? I feel like, as a human being, I have a chip on my shoulder sometimes. A lot of times, if I don’t know somebody, they’ll think I'm just a dick. I have a big broken nose and I’m not a huge smiler, and I daydream a lot. So, if I don’t know somebody, people just assume that, one, I’m tougher than them or, two, I don’t like them and I was being rude to them. In reality, I will not have had a thought about that person. I am not secretly judging them. I am not even thinking about them.
A lot of times, if I don’t know somebody, they’ll think I'm just a dick.
I started developing this mentality when I was younger. When I was around 19 or 20, I started getting the feeling that I was getting a rough fucking deal here and that I've got this chip on my shoulder, so instead I started celebrating that. I thought, “Well, if you think I’m a bad person, then I’ll show you a bad person,” because I don’t think I am one.
All of the characters that I’ve loved watching are the bad guys. I am an actor, so you obviously want to be celebrated for your work, but I don’t have that thing in me as a person. I don’t like pandering, I don’t like people who need to be loved, I don’t like the whole idea of, "It’s the applause that brings me back!" So I like characters that don’t like it to an extreme level. I like being in a movie theater and watching with the audience squirm a little bit and be like “Ugh, fuck that guy!" Deep down, I don’t know why I like that. I've got emotional problems. [Laughs.]
Who are some of the characters that you watched growing up that resonated with you?
Loved me some Joe Pesci. He's just a classic guy. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yeah, classic dick. Just checkin' farts’ and fools’ necks. That was always great. I’m just gonna say all Pesci, all the time, man. If there was a network that was 24 hours of Pesci, that would be my dream. It would be hidden cameras around Pesci all the time. The Truman Show? Just call it The Pesci Show. [Laughs.]
You know, in this day and age, there could be a Pesci reality show.
I know. There really could be!
[Laughs.] In Safety Not Guaranteed, you guys do a lot of improv, and both you and Aubrey Plaza have that background. What was it like bouncing off of her? She seems really intimidating yet cool at the same time.
It was fun! She’s not quite the persona she puts out. If she were, it would be a lot harder to work with her. [Laughs.] It'd be a nightmare. But I really liked working with her because she wants to be good and she really wants to do good stuff and she really cares, so we had a lot of fun. She likes to do bits a lot and goof around. I think she’s a huge talent so it was an honor to be able to work with her.
Going back to the Upright Citizens Brigade, do you ever go back and do any shows?
I just did an improv show last week with Ben Schwartz. He’s got a show that he does once a month, and it was myself, Steve Little from Eastbound & Down, Horatio Sanz, and Tom Middleditch. It was really fun, but I don’t do it very often. I do perform at Second City in Chicago. I improvised with the mainstage guys a couple of weeks ago. It was really neat.