Born and raised just outside the Windy City, funny man Jake Johnson has been a TV staple in recent years with appearances on such notable shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lie To Me, FlashForward, and the animated Allen Gregory. Jake has also recently been seen as the hard-assed principal in this year’s relaunch of 21 Jump Street and the notable role of Jesus in last year’s A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.
Currently starring opposite the quirky Zooey Deschanel on FOX’s critically acclaimed freshman comedy, New Girl, Jake plays Nick, a well-meaning but hilariously unstable relationship addict who shares an apartment with Jess (Deschanel), Schmidt (Max Greenfield), and Winston (Lamorne Morris).
With New Girl finishing up its first season and his first major starring film, Safety Not Guaranteed, hitting theaters next month, Jake found a few minutes to chat with us (albeit while feeding his 6-month-old nephew) about hooking up with the new girl, his new indie film, and winning his first Playboy.
Playboy.com: What got you into acting in the first place?
Johnson: I was a young guy growing up in the Chicagoland area; we had John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Chris Farley acting on the stages over at Second City. So I wanted to be one of those guys. Second City was the first dream, performing in front of Chicago audiences. Then when I got older I moved to New York with the intention of moving back to Chicago at some point and started grinding and grinding and getting lots of work.…The rest is history.
Playboy.com: Any chance of still getting on that comedy stage?
Johnson: I’m in Chicago right now. I’m actually going to jump up with the Second City guys Saturday night and do some improv. I’m very nervous because those guys run at 100 miles an hour and I go about 35 [laughs]. It’s a Ford Focus driving with Ferraris.
Playboy.com: Any plan for your set?
Johnson: I’ve got nothing. The only preparation I’m doing is probably having a couple cocktails and hope it doesn’t go terribly.
Playboy.com: I’m pretty sure that works for a few things. Job interviews, dating, work…
Johnson: [Laughs] Fortunately I use that model for both.
Playboy.com: So the first season of New Girl is coming to a close, it’s been renewed for a second season, the ratings are amazing. Did you expect any of this a year ago?
Johnson: I would have been really happy if we had just done the 13 (initial episodes). Doing TV is so hard; you never know what’s going to work.
Playboy.com: How much of your role is improvised?
Johnson: At the beginning of the season, not very much; but the further we went, the more they let me improvise. The stuff where Nick gets really weird and rants—that’s improvised!
Playboy.com: Are there any aspects of Nick that are similar to you?
Johnson: The thing that’s similar about Nick and me is that we’re both old men in young-ish men’s bodies [laughs]. We are far more grumpy about the world than we’d like to admit. We both get pissed off about very dumb things.
Playboy.com: Nick’s got a few problems (Johnson: [Laughs]) on the relationship front; was there anything you could relate to from previous relationships?
Johnson: I sure have had some crazy exes! I think the thing that I’ve brought to it, though I still have to give some credit to the writers, is the breakups. But definitely as a man, I understand a good breakup so it’s not that hard for me to play.
Playboy.com: In Tuesday’s episode you tried to give up dating; have you ever tried that before?
Johnson: I have, actually: I broke up with a girl in New York and moved to Chicago and I gave up dating to focus on performing onstage.…That lasted about three months until I got bored of giving up on dating [laughs].
Playboy.com: How do you handle having two incredibly gorgeous ladies as costars? What’s it like working with Zooey and Hannah (Simone)?
Johnson: I think it’s really nice having attractive costars because it makes you show off and try to be better. If I wanted to chill with a bunch of guys, I’d be probably more… kind of an asshole [laughs]. But having a pretty lady around makes you want to be a nicer person.
Playboy.com: When are we going to see Nick and Jess finally hook up? The producers have been playing with this all season.
Johnson: I really don’t know. It might happen by the end of this season or it might be prolonged. But I’ve got my money on something happening.
Playboy.com: Would you say it’s inevitable?
Johnson: I’d say. You put these two people in real life, at some point they would hook up.
Playboy.com: Tell us about your new film, Safety Not Guaranteed.
Johnson: The movie’s based off a real classified ad that a guy in the Northwest wrote that he was going back in time and he’s looking for a partner in crime and your safety is not guaranteed. The movie is about my character who’s a rough-around-the-edges guy who takes an intern, played by Aubrey Plaza, and we go off and find the man who writes the classified ad. It’s a really funny movie. We played it at Sundance and SXSW this year and really blew the roof off.
Playboy.com: This is your first headlining film role; do you want to continue down that path?
Johnson: For sure; compared with television, everything’s a cakewalk [laughs]. TV is no joke. Because of New Girl, I’m not going to necessarily jump into a role just to do it. But if the part is worth it, and Safety Not Guaranteed was a good one, then I’m happy to do it regardless of the size of the role.
Playboy.com: Anything else coming up?
Johnson: I’ve recently sold an idea to Warner Bros. with Max Winkler. It’s a mafia comedy that Rodney Rothman is going to write and Steve Carell and myself are going to act in. We’re working on the script right now. It’s like a Judd Apatow meets an Old School type.
Playboy.com: What was your first Playboy?
Johnson: I don’t remember the issue, but I was in seventh grade and we were playing cards and this guy used an old Playboy rather than $15 on a bet. I won the hand and brought it back to my house in the ’burbs and snuck it into a drawer. I kept that Playboy for a lot of years [laughs]. It was pre-Internet so Playboy was like the Holy Grail.
Check out New Girl's season finale next Tuesday at 9/8c on FOX. Follow Jake on Twitter @MarkJakeJohnson