Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: In his 15 years in the industry, Jake Johnson has deftly evolved into one of Hollywood’s most splendid stars. He exudes a charming affability and candid realism onscreen (not to mention, intense chemistry with most of his scene partners). That charm transforms even his vaguely immoral characters into people worth rooting for. Look no further than Minx, which is having a moment. In the ’70s-set HBO Max comedy, which airs its season one finale on April 14, Johnson plays an enterprising but murky publisher who teams up with a young feminist to create the first women’s erotic magazine.
The role is a departure from Johnson’s other recent gigs, like his turn on the long-running sitcom New Girl, his role as Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (and its upcoming sequel), or his crushing cameos in Apple TV+’s Mythic Quest and the new anthology Roar. With over 50 credits, Johnson has checked off a range of genres, from big-budget blockbusters to beloved indies to fan-favorite TV fare. But his background, interestingly, lies in screenwriting and improv (he’s performed with comedy troupes like Second City and written several movies), which has directly impacted his view on acting.
The A.V. Club spoke to Johnson about selecting projects based on “good writing,” what it was like to enter the industry in the internet-explosion era, the dynamic between New Girl castmates, and his desire to work with Oscar Isaac.
Minx (2022)—“Doug Renetti”
The A.V. Club: Doug is a shady character that you can’t help rooting for. What’s your trick to make him likable?
Jake Johnson: My trick is that I, as Jake, need to really like my character in order to spend so much time playing him. I like Doug. I loosely based him on my uncle Eddie. He made neon signs; he worked in our garage; and he had side businesses. He was progressive in terms of how he viewed humans, but not so much that he would go to a march. Doug is shady; he makes mistakes; he fucks up and hurts people. But he’s relatable—a work in progress trying to do something exciting.
AVC: Doug’s duality as a capitalist with ultimately good intentions really comes into play in Minx’s eighth episode during the live Dick Cavett Show. He gloats about the magazine and kind of throws Joyce’s [Ophelia Lovibond] defense of him under the bus. What was it like to film that?
JJ: That was one of the hardest episodes. I hate to be the oversensitive actor, but it was hard to shoot that. I had blocked it in my head that Doug and Joyce would be sitting next to each other, so he wouldn’t be looking into her eyes. He’d be looking at the host and the audience. Doug’s intention isn’t to hurt her as badly as he does. He thinks he has a million-dollar idea and he thinks he’s going to help everyone involved. But what he does is wrong. When director Rachel Lee Goldenberg put me sitting opposite Ophelia, it gave me an actual stomach ache because there’s not a false step in how she plays Joyce. Even I was like, “Oh, Doug, you can’t do this.” I think the second half of Minx is better than the first, especially episode eight. It’s one of the best TV episodes I’ve been part of. I think Rachel should win an award for it.
AVC: How do you view Doug in terms of how he factors into the show’s narrative about women’s empowerment and progressiveness in the ’70s?
JJ: I don’t think he factors into that part. He’s progressive but it’s because he deals with people on an individual basis. He’s not a true great feminist or leader. He loves Tina [Idara Victor], who happens to be Black. He sees in Joyce a great idea for a magazine, and she just happens to be a woman. It makes him progressive but he’s just a grinder and a businessman. In doing this work, he falls into feminism. He’s trying to make his company, Bottom Dollar, work. He’s got big dreams but has been kicked in his face his whole life. Now he doesn’t care who helps him win, what gender they are or how they dress, or their sexual interests, as long as they’re part of the winning team. That’s why he’s comfortable around all the male nudity too.
AVC: In the finale, he owns up to his error and gives the magazine back to Joyce. There’s a beat before he does that as she’s climbing up her stairs. What do you think he’s thinking at that moment?
JJ: Doug does low-level magazines. He’s a nickel and dime kind of guy. His business is successful, but Minx puts him in the big leagues. Along the journey of the season, he forgets it’s Joyce’s brain that got him there, not the big dicks he puts on the pages. He thinks he’s lighting Minx up on fire with the marketing and selling. At that moment in the finale, he realizes and probably already knew deep down that she’s the talent. Joyce is going to do this somewhere else and have a popular magazine of her own. She’ll be a big deal, and he’s still going to be a rat over at Bottom Dollar. He has to let it go. It’s like if you have a crush on someone and they don’t have one back, they’re eventually going to go away. Doug cannot control her.
He’s sad because he wanted to be part of the shine, but he can’t be unless she invites him. I think most people know deep down when you’re with someone who is doing something better than you. I did a film called Ride The Eagle with J.K. Simmons. After the first take, the director told me “You have to remember to act in the shot,” and I just said, “I’m sorry.” I was watching Simmons and thinking, “Okay, he is so much better, his shine is so bright.” It’s a similar thing with Doug and Joyce.
AVC: Of all your characters, Doug has the most distinctive and colorful fashion sense. He really owns his style. How did the clothes help you get into character?
JJ: First of all, our costume designer Beth Morgan is so great. I’ve never valued fashion. I’m wearing my dad’s old sweatshirt right now. I don’t care or think about clothes much. My main concern is comfort. I like soft and loose. But with this show, Beth was insistent. She had reasons and thoughts about why Doug would wear certain clothes. In talking to her early, I realized I’m going to just go for it. Part of that is realizing other people know more than you and not being an egomaniac. She has the good sense I don’t.
I really didn’t want to wear those leather pants in the pilot. I was embarrassed to come out of my trailer. I would never wear clothes like that, but Doug would. When I walked out of my trailer, crew members were teasing and asking me where I had put my cell phone. But the clothes pay off. I also didn’t want to say no to Beth’s gift. Her art is everybody’s clothes and I didn’t want my comfort to affect that. I would walk up to Beth and she would say, “Okay, one more unbutton of the shirt” or, “You can go put more rings on.” I just said yes.
AVC: How did you come to become part of this Apple TV+ anthology [premiering April 15]?
JJ: I’ve been a big fan of series co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch for a long time. I got an email from Rashida Jones, who directed my episode. I’m friends with her, and she told me she’s directing it and would love for me to do it. I wanted to read it to make sure nothing in it was too embarrassing. I loved it; I thought it was too relatable. I relate to Cynthia Erivo’s s character and the struggles of going back to work after becoming a parent. When my kids were born, it really was tough for me to leave. The guilt is real. I thought it was really pure, and I’m proud to be part of it. It was also cool to work with Cynthia. I really leaned into her for our dynamic. We didn’t talk much about the character’s backstory, but in the scene, we knew what their relationship was.
Mythic Quest (2020–)—“Doc”
JJ: Being part of Mythic Quest [in the “Dark Quiet Death” episode] was similar to Roar in that I’ve been a big fan of Rob McElhenney for years. He’s credited in the business, but he’s still under-credited. What he’s done with It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is brilliant. When I got a call that he wanted me to be part of this show he’s creating, I was so excited. And then I also got to work with the talented Cristin Milioti. I loved the script of the episode I did. I didn’t know the tone of Mythic Quest then; we filmed it in a five-day vacuum. I felt like I was in an indie movie about a love story gone wrong and about someone who sells out a little bit.
I had the same thing with Doc as with Doug. He was wrong, but I understand how he got caught up in the whim and lost his true vision. The actual genius of the Dark Quiet Death video game wasn’t his. It was Bean’s [Milioti]. He never knew the soul of the game like she did; he was just near it and near the money. When I saw the final cut, I was really sad by the end, like the audience. When you find out Bean has kids now? Ugh man, love is brutal.
AVC: What was it like to film that final scene at the video game store when she’s leaving? You get to convey all the pain with minimal dialogue.
JJ: I remember that. I actually felt sad she was leaving. Obviously, we have people from our past who we just want one more moment with and they’re not giving it to you. You can’t demand it. All you’re thinking is, “Fuck, remember when it was good? Can we just have 10 more minutes?” But no, you can’t, so you have to let go. All his misses and failures are right there. When Doc sees Bean walking away and going to her family, it’s like a truck hits him right in the gut.
AVC: Do you draw from your real life in these intense scenes?
JJ: I do a lot in the beginning when I find my way into who the character is; it’ll kickstart my process. But I like the make-believe and pretend to feel what the character is feeling. I didn’t go to an acting school so I don’t have specific techniques. With Mythic Quest, it was just me thinking, I’m going to register when my ex left me, and I’m going to use it when pretending this is real. If you’re with a good actor, this can get confusing. It took me years when I first started to remember this shit is not real.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)—“Jeff Schwensen”
JJ: I have not gone back and binged on any of my old stuff. Every once in a while, there will be something on TV that pops up. It’ll feel like a cool old home movie. During the pandemic, I saw parts of Safety Not Guaranteed. It was nice to remember Colin Trevorrow directing it and seeing a young Aubrey Plaza.
AVC: A standout scene from the film is you on a go-kart, a cigarette in one hand, and a whiskey bottle in another, just crying during laps over getting rejected. Do you remember filming it?
JJ: Wait. First, what I’m learning about you is that you like jaded and sad stuff.
AVC: I’m giving myself away.
JJ: But that’s okay; it’s good. That’s the stuff that got me into the game, too. As for this scene, it was honestly neat watching Colin [Trevorrow] coming into his own as a director. I knew him as a friend. We had made goofy, SNL-type short videos together. With Safety Not Guaranteed, I realized he’s actually such a good director. Even with that go-kart scene, he set up a rig and I was alone going from lap to lap. He just let me go.
At that point in my career, I hadn’t gotten that much freedom. When you’re a new actor, it’s very controlled. Usually, directors and script supervisors want to tell you exactly what to do. You’re also trying to pay bills so you just say thank you and move on. It felt like Colin was trusting me; it was nice to have freedom. That was my big takeaway from this scene and actually the whole project. Colin wanted my input and wanted me to be more part of the film. Aubrey and Mark Duplass were also such a blast to work with.
Win It All (2017)—“Eddie Garrett”
AVC: You’ve studied screenwriting and you’re a co-writer and producer on both these films. How does your approach to writing a character change when you know you’re playing that role?
JJ: I had a realization that I need to change this about me when I write: I don’t think about the acting part of it. When I’m doing these projects, I’m thinking about the whole thing overall. J.K. Simmons said something to me during Ride The Eagle, when I was handling some of the non-performance stuff. He asked me how I could think about all of it since it’s hard enough just to act. And I was like, “Wait, what an asshole I am; I’m not putting effort into my acting.”
I’m hoping to do a film this summer that I’m writing, and I’m trying to bring in Max Winkler, who’s directed stuff I’ve been in, including New Girl’s “Cooler.” He gets a lot out of me as an actor and reminds me why I love it. I came up as a writer, so I don’t overvalue acting. The actor’s job is to move the story along. In Minx, I just wanted to do that and not worry about story notes. Our creator, Ellen Rapoport, had it all figured out
AVC: How does all this writing experience impact your understanding of and dynamic with the writers on your other projects?
JJ: It might be why I don’t take a lot of jobs now. There’s good writing and bad writing, and I’ve done both myself. The reason I took the Minx pilot is because Ellen’s a good writer. It’s also why I love the second half of the show; it’s brilliantly written. When I was looking at the material, I thought my only job is to not mess it up. I can’t take a job if I have to tell the writer something that doesn’t work. I want my job to be: How do I find my way into this when it’s well written? It’s why I want a second season. If the ending of season one is the starting point, I want to find out what else these guys can do.
No Strings Attached (2011)—“Eli”
AVC: I wanted to bring this film up because of the supporting cast, who have gone on to be leading actors and directors, like you, Mindy Kaling, Greta Gerwig, and Nasim Pedrad. What’s it like to look back on this decade-plus-old film and all of your trajectories since then?
JJ: So with a movie like No Strings Attached, or even 2010's Get Him To The Greek with Nick Kroll and Ellie Kemper, there was a whole group of us. We were all comedy actors around each other when we started to get supporting roles. What I will say about that time is everyone was so nice to each other. I don’t know if different generations have been more cutthroat and mean. When I came up at the beginning of the internet explosion, everyone was so cool.
On No Strings Attached, there was so much talent around. Liz Meriwether wrote it and then went on to do New Girl. She was just 27 or something at the time. The great Ivan Reitman directed us; he was the boss. Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman were great. We just felt like young kids in the building. I remember hanging out with Greta in the trailer, and she was about to get a movie with Russell Brand or something, and I thought, “Oh, she’s about to have her moment.” And it’s still ongoing. She’s one of our top directors now.
New Girl (2011–2018)—“Nick Miller”
AVC: Speaking of New Girl, that was the longest time you played the same character. Did parts of you seep into Nick, or did it ever feel like Nick bled into your real life?
JJ: We would usually improv jokes but not stories on New Girl since everything was so written out. Acting is a little bit painting by numbers. When you do it for so long, writers then write to parts of your strengths and your personality. We would crack dumb jokes with each other on set that would then bleed into the show, but I don’t think it went deeper than that. The cast would interact with each other in character. We still do it now sometimes. Yesterday I got a text from Max Greenfield, and I still refer to him as Schmidty sometimes. Lamorne Morris and I talk quite a bit; we will go into New Girl rhythms before transitioning back. Even with Zooey Deschanel—we still do our bits. And then there’ll be a moment where we go, “Oh, how is your life,” and then we are just Jake and Zooey again. As a cast, we just really created our own language.
Stumptown (2019-2020)—“Grey McConnell”
AVC: This show came along right after New Girl. Were you nervous about being typecast as the goofy manchild, and is that why you went with Stumptown?
JJ: I’ll be honest, I wasn’t nervous and hadn’t given it a lot of thought. And this will show that part of my brain doesn’t work properly, but when I did Stumptown right after New Girl, I didn’t even consider that Grey is also a bartender like Nick. All the media I had to do was about answering those questions, but Grey has nothing to do with Nick. But then again, I get it. It’s my face, and I’m in a plaid shirt behind a bar.
In terms of the Nick Miller parts offered to me after New Girl, if the pandemic didn’t happen, I probably would’ve taken those jobs. When everything dried up, I had to remember what I really want to do. When I started out as an actor, I wanted to do cool parts. I guess this part of me is like Nick, in that I get paranoid and craft conspiracy theories. I thought, “Fuck, I might never get to act again. If it doesn’t happen, I did not do what I set out to as a pretentious teenager.” There were some goals I was excited about, like I got on television and I made some money. But I wanted to play characters that reminded me of Chicago or my uncles and family. It’s why I loved Minx. I didn’t get that chance before, but when the world opened up, I thought it has to be a rich character or there was no point in doing it.
Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (2022)—“Peter B. Parker”
AVC: Thanks to No Way Home, Spider-Man and the multiverse stuff are all over pop culture right now. Did you watch the film? Do you guys talk about the live-action movie and the pressures of doing the Into The Spider-Verse sequel?
JJ: If those conversations are happening, it’s probably at the top level with Phil Lord and Chris Miller. I didn’t see the new movie yet. I do think Tom Holland is a great Peter Parker and a cool movie star who also seems really nice. As someone with kids, he seems like a nice human being to look up to. In terms of my version of Peter, whenever I get a chance to get in a booth to voice him, I love it. If he got a shot at going live-action, I do view him as a Sundance guy and not a big multiplex one. The budget would be $3-to-$7 million; it would be set in Queens; and it would be grimy with lots of oners. I still don’t envision myself as Spider-Man because our film is animated. If a talented filmmaker or writer imagined me in one of them, it would be an honor. But it’s not like I’m dying to play an Elastic-Man.
AVC: You would bring depth to Elastic-Man that no one anticipated.
JJ: The thing is, I just missed the superhero hype. I don’t have bad feelings about it, but I also didn’t grow up reading comic books. My brother was really into them. It was a niche thing he did back then, so the fact that it’s so mainstream still feels weird to me. It’s cool but I don’t have any deep thoughts about it.
Drunk History (2013–2019)—Various roles
AVC: Is it true that Drunk History is inspired by a conversation you had with creator Derek Waters? What was it like to go and do some of the episodes once the web series kicked off?
JJ: Yes. So I was babbling at the time of this inspiration. We were getting drunk together and I told Derek some story about Otis Redding that might’ve been bullshit. I believed it, but I had no facts. The next day, Derek asked if he could film me drunk. I was still trying to be an actor back then. I was working at a casino, catering weddings on boats at Marina Del Ray. I said to him, “I can’t have my agents see me drunk if I want to be a professional actor.” Eventually, he and Jeremy Konner made the show and it’s so fun. I went and did the first web series. I did not get what he was talking about with the show till I was filming it. It really clicked then. It was all Derek, though. He’s such a terrific ideas guy. I was just a guy with an alcohol problem.
This also goes back to that same era I was talking about before with No Strings Attached—Derek was a big part of it. He was hosting a UCB show called “LOL.” The idea of Drunk History coming out of that period just makes sense. Everyone was working on each other’s stuff to help out and working for free to get their name out.
Paper Heart (2009)—“Nicholas Jasenovec”
Drinking Buddies (2013)—“Luke Darlingson”
AVC: Both these films have a distinctive storytelling device. Paper Hearts is a documentary with everyone except you playing a fictionalized version of themselves. Drinking Buddies didn’t have a script, just general major plotlines, so it has lots of improv. Was that exciting?
JJ: Funnily, Paper Hearts was also in the same era. The real Nicholas Jasenovec used to direct a lot of the shows that Derek did at UCB, and Charlyne Yi was a big name there. We all got to know each other well. She and Nick were making this documentary, and he realized he didn’t want to act in it last minute so he asked me to do it. I felt like I was just there to improv with Charlyne; she’s so brilliant. We were just doing lots of bits.
Drinking Buddies was my first movie with Joe Swanberg. We’ve done multiple projects after that. He taught me about self-financing. He spoke to me and Olivia Wilde like we were directors, and now Olivia is also such a great one. We would talk about frames, about producing. I thought it was just really cool that he was talking to actors about all that. When Joe and I wanted to make another film, he said to me, “Let’s just do it all—produce, write, and pay.”
AVC: That sounds freeing.
JJ: It is. It’s everything. I like to breakdown and rebuild projects. In Ride The Eagle, our cinematographer Judd Overton, director Trent O’Connell, and I would sit around the kitchen and make our daily schedule. We got to be assistant directors. I now understand how tough being an AD is. Joe taught me this doesn’t have to be insane. You can take it apart, you can bring it together. It’s just a movie after all.
JJ: This was my first acting credit. It was a web series from Derek Waters and Simon Helberg. We were all in the same group of friends. They were based out of Second City in Los Angeles at the time with Eric Edelstein, who I’m still friends with, and he plays Willie in Minx. We hung out all the time. We were comedy nerds. Derek and Simon sold the show to HBO, which I guess now would go on HBO Max. Bob Odenkirk was set to direct. To Derek and Simon’s credit, they went to their buddies for it. I got a call, and as I said, I had no credits at the time. They basically said, “Come in, we’re so excited to do it with Bob.” He has been one of my top guys. To this day, Bob is someone I look up to. Whatever he is doing, it’s the North Star. In those early days, for him to be like, “Alright, good job Jake, let’s move on.” I thought, “Okay, I can be in this business if Bob thinks what I’m doing is adequate.”
AVC: Do you remember back then what you envisioned about how your career might pan out, and how do you think it’s evolved since?
JJ: Eric and I worked on a TV movie in the same year called This Is My Friend. I wanted it to be like an It’s Always Sunny junior. I wanted to have a show I wrote and starred in with my friends. I wanted it to look cool, and have good stories with talented directors. We got Jeremy Konner on board. It’s what I wanted to do for a bunch of years. What’s happened to my career since then, it’s just me being in a constant state of trying to learn. I’m now getting well-written acting roles. I’m literally now reading books about acting and about how people I admire do it. I want to sit down with them and pick their brains. I’m in a zone I didn’t predict and I’m trying to keep up with it.
AVC: Are there any genres or specific roles you want to do next?
JJ: It’s actually talent I want to work with next, like Oscar Isaac. People say he, David Krumholtz, and I look alike. [Note: come on, we had to make a collage to visualize this.] I didn’t see a bunch of his early stuff or his Star Wars, but I have recently gotten into it. This guy’s a monster. I want to work with people like that and see how it feels. Even with directors, like Paul Thomas Anderson. I just want to work with those I really find talented.