Jake Johnson is on his way to meet with a studio about potentially starring in a major film role that could take his career to an even greater level than he's already achieved. But don't pop the champagne for him just yet: He's planning to turn down the opportunity. This might not be the head space that you'd expect from someone who's about to be without a regular gig for the first time since 2011. But as Fox's long-running comedy New Girl comes to an end after seven seasons with its series finale on Tuesday, May 15, Johnson claims he's completely content with sitting back and letting his peers go after Hollywood's "golden ring," as he terms it.
Let’s start with the final season of New Girl, which seemed like it wasn’t going to even happen, right?
We were told towards the end of season six that we were probably not going to come back, and therefore Liz Meriwether, who created our show, said she wouldn’t be satisfied without a finale feeling if we didn’t come back. So that’s why the end of season six felt like it could have been a finale with, you know—Nick and Jess kiss, and story lines get resolved. That was just in preparation if we didn’t get picked up.
Why did it seem like you weren’t going to get picked up?
Because we didn’t get big enough ratings. Our fan base—which we have a wildly loyal, awesome fan base—are younger and watch things on Netflix. So very few of our core fan base are watching New Girl Tuesdays at 9 o’clock. A major network needs you to be watching it when it’s live. Those people don’t care about it while it’s coming out live. Our fan base wants to watch New Girl when they want to watch it. Now, they’ll end up seeing it, but they might binge it all in a night and go through season four in a weird 15 hours of your life. Which, for me, I don’t care at all—I get it. I think that’s just way less sexy for Fox, and that’s why we were told we didn’t have the ratings. That’s why they ended up canceling us in the end. Creatively, New Girl didn’t decide we’d had enough.
This pilot season, I read a lot of great TV shows, and I got close, but I couldn’t say yes to anything because I don’t know if I want to be doing this when I’m 46.
They said the show’s going to end, and a few of us on the creative side asked [Fox co-chairs] Dana Walden and Gary Newman if we could at least finish it off in a way that felt satisfying to the fan base because I have sensed there’s a really strong group of people who’s been loyal to the show, and I didn’t want them to feel like, "I’d spent all these years watching these characters, and then it just got ripped away." So to Dana Walden and Gary Newman’s credit at Fox, they offered us eight more [episodes], which is a really odd number. They were ready to be done with it, but they said, "If you guys care about it and want the fans to have it, we don’t want the fans to be disappointed either." So they gave us eight more with the intent [of], "Finish it."
How do you keep excitement for a show for seven years?
It’s a good question. For me, the way that I, and the way that we as a cast, kept it fun, was to make my fellow cast members laugh. Truly. Like, if I’m doing a scene, and it feels like a scene we’ve kind of done before—where, like, Schmidt wants Nick to wear tighter pants, and Nick doesn’t want to. When Max and I read that, we both feel like we’ve done this bit, so where it would get fun is if I can improvise something new to make Max laugh. And if Max does something that makes me laugh and makes me break, it just feels fun and exciting.
I did a movie last summer that’s coming out this summer called Tag with a great ensemble, and I did that because there were so many actors in that group I wanted to work with. I wanted to just be with another ensemble, and that was fun. I’m writing a movie right now with Damon Wayans Jr. that has been an absolute blast to do. I think what I really want to do is work with talented people. I would love to work with great directors. I’d like to work with people who have got vision. And I want to enjoy my days.
Is “enjoying” your days the goal?
I’m not sure. I’m 39 years old, and I do feel like there was a chip on my shoulder through my late teens and 20s and early 30s about this business and what I wanted to do and the importance of it all. That’s faded some, and it’s turned more into, I feel gratitude towards the business, but it’s not everything. It’s just an awesome job. I love making movies, and I love making TV, but I want to make them with the right people. If someone’s really talented, and they’re an uber piece of shit egomaniac, I don’t want to work with them. I don’t care how good the movie will be. I can’t spend six months of my life begging someone to leave their trailer because they’re going through a manic episode, even if on-camera, they’re phenomenal. Fuckin’ pass. But if I can work with really interesting, smart people who have a common decency and know how to treat other people, what a good job we have.
What was the chip on your shoulder during your 20s and early 30s?
My childhood dream was to be on TV and movies. When I was growing up outside of Chicago, it felt like it was an impossible dream. I knew we had Second City, and that somehow Bill Murray and Tina Fey went from Chicago Second City to SNL, but outside of that, I never knew how you’d do it. I just felt like I had to find a way to do this. It felt ruthless and intense, and when I first moved to L.A., I would never leave the city. I would never go on vacations, and I wouldn’t visit home because I was afraid some audition would come that could be the big break. So I had to be writing and working, and I was obsessed. It feels like after New Girl, the obsession has gone down. I hope to work, but if I don’t work for a chunk of time, I think that’s OK.
The other thing is I deeply don’t care about—and this might sound ridiculous to talk about—but I don’t care about any sort of legacy in terms of, I’m not making movies so that at a certain point, you can look back and go, “Wow, he made some great movies.” When I was younger, I really wanted to have a great resumé, but that just doesn’t matter to me anymore. When I sign on to a project, I hope that movie works, and I hope it’s great. Then once it’s over, it’s over. I don’t know if this just sounds like rambling.
There’s a stability to your responses that’s very nice to hear. I feel vaguely encouraged now.
Yeah, but also, in about four years, this’ll be the interview where people go, “Well, that’s what happened to him—he’s living on the streets. He didn’t have enough money to talk like that.” I’m definitely not Bruce Willis rich, but you know.
I don’t have that secret desire to one day win an Academy Award or a Golden Globe. I never need to attend those events. They’re awful, they’re ridiculous and I feel like they’re embarrassing.
I’m easy to work with if the people around me are easy to work with. I don’t suffer fools. I don’t like wasting time, and I don’t like the bullshit of our industry. There’s a lot of stuff of filmmaking that has nothing to do with filmmaking, and I can’t deal with that. That just puts me in a bad mood. But if we all have the same vision, and everybody is passionate and working hard, then I think I’m very easy to work with.
What bullshit in particular?
Ego bullshit, you know? Insecurity that leads to a lack of decision-making, which leads to sitting around and not making a choice and not shooting, and people sitting in their trailers and not leaving. Bullshit. Or somebody coming an hour late to set and everybody else being there, because they felt like coming later. They had other things they felt were more important.
It’s amazing how much of set is waiting around for everyone to show up.
Then when that person comes, nobody [criticizing] them and being mad.
Oftentimes, it’s the star.
It’s always the big star, because if it’s not the big star, they get replaced. I work with a lot of the same people over and over because I like people who are professional and fun, and if there’s somebody like that, it just really ruins the whole thing for me because I don’t know how to then fake it and be like, “Hey, man, no worries! You decided to get here at 10 o’clock, and we all have been here since 7:30. Who cares! I’m just happy to be here!”
I do feel gratitude that I get to make movies and TV, and I love it if people watch it and like it, because that’s why I got into it. I grew up watching shows like Cheers and The Wonder Years, and they were really happy memories for me in my childhood. I would watch a movie I liked as a kid, and it was an hour and a half of an escape that I really needed back then, so if I can provide that? What a dream. If I’m sitting around waiting for somebody to show up to set because they think they're better than the 80 people here, well, that’s not helping anybody watch this fucking movie, asshole.
In about four years, this’ll be the interview where people go, “Well, that’s what happened to him—he’s living on the streets. He didn’t have enough money to talk like that.”
I think, unfortunately for me, I don’t have the same fire that a lot of my peers have. A lot of my peers are way further along than I am and have done way cooler stuff. I’m not going to name names because I don’t want to talk for anybody, but people I’ve sat with, having a drink, that I think, “Wow, you’ve done everything!” and when we get into it, they’re still so fucking hungry in a way that I really respect and I think is cool, but I don’t feel like I have that.
You don’t feel that hungry.
I don’t feel as hungry. I want the gravy, and if the right project comes—like, later today, I have a big meeting for a big studio movie, and I’m not sure I want to do it. I’m not trying to be Joe Cool. I just know there’s a big responsibility in order to say yes, and if you’re going to take that slot, work for it. This pilot season, I read a lot of great TV shows, and I got close, but I couldn’t say yes to anything because I don’t know if I want to be doing this when I’m 46. Other people want to jump right out, so they can get back on the horse, but I don’t know. I don’t like the awards of Hollywood—I don’t have that secret desire to one day win an Academy Award or a Golden Globe. I never need to attend those events. They’re awful, they’re ridiculous and I feel like they’re embarrassing. I get that it's good advertisement for the movie, but man, I wish I was in a movie where somebody else would win all those awards, and I’m just in it with them, so our movie gets publicity, and I don’t have to go to those nights.
From your childhood dreams in Evanston to now, do you think the younger version of yourself would think you’ve “made it”?
I think I have a career in show business, and I deeply never thought I’d have a career in show business. I think making it for me, in terms of the “it,” it was way bigger even in my head when I was younger, and I haven’t achieved what that thing is. However, now that I’m here, I don’t feel the desire to go after that golden ring anymore. When I was growing up, I wanted to be in Dog Day Afternoon. You want to be in a movie like that. That was the No. 1 movie in the box office, so everybody went to the movies to see Dog Day Afternoon, it won all the awards, and it’s a fucking brilliant movie. Nowadays, the equivalent of that movie is a little indie you make. The projects I’m doing, I don’t know if little boy Jake might have considered that making it.