Jake Johnson's had a good run on the big screen lately — we've loved his supporting roles in "Get Him to the Greek," "No Strings Attached," "21 Jump Street" and more. It's his small screen success that really got our attention this year, though; as Zooey Deschanel's roommate and someday love interest on the pitch-perfect FOX sitcom "New Girl," Johnson embodies the rare and magical combination of gentle misanthropy and humor that makes him a fictional boyfriend of Pacey-like proportions.
His starring role in the bizarre but mesmerizing indie "Safety Not Guaranteed" is a departure for Johnson. Meeting the actor is the key to recognizing his chops — you have to be impressed by skills that transform a down-to-earth man into his "Safety" character, the apathetic and casually cruel reporter Jeff, whom Johnson describes as "a real douche."
There's not a trace of Jeff in the real Johnson, an affable, chatty guy who covers his love of "The Hunger Games" and loathing of high-waisted hipster pants before we even manage to turn on the recorder. With our equipment in place, we work through Johnson's love/hate relationship with computer technology — but we start with the unbelievable inception of his new movie.
The story behind "Safety Not Guaranteed" is insane. If people don't realize this: It's based on a real classified ad someone placed in a magazine in the late '90s, seeking a companion for time travel. How did that turn into a movie?
Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly — Derek's our writer and Colin's our director — they read this thing online and were really into it and came up with the story of what would happen if this guy was real. They wanted the protagonist to be a female who finds this guy — Derek and Colin are huge Aubrey Plaza fans, so they wrote the movie for her.
I know them socially — Colin and I are old friends, and Derek and I have known each other for years now. They didn't write it for me but they kept me in mind for it. I got a script a couple years ago. It was very early, it was before Aubrey had said yes — it was before I knew Aubrey — I read it and I LOVED Jeff. I was like, yeah, sign me up.
The ad — the real ad — reads, "Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed." For most of the movie, it's ambiguous whether Kenneth, the prospective time-traveler, is crazy or if he actually knows how to go back in time. How does the movie answer that when it's based on a real guy?
The guy who wrote the classified ad is in our movie! In the post office, when they're first looking, that first old guy that they think is him — that's really the guy who wrote the classified ad.
People tried to hunt him down for a long time — had he already been discovered?
No. Colin found him, and Colin's a very persuasive guy. Colin befriended him and took time, and the guy didn't trust him, and Colin optioned the classified ad as if it were a script. He worked very hard to make it happen. It wasn't locked into place when I signed on — it was like, there's a chance this won't happen if the guy says no, and Colin was like, "I'm going to meet with him again." The guy, I guess, is like a guy with guns and ... you know ... safety not guaranteed.
But eventually the guy said yes, and he came on set and he had a good time, and I think he stands behind the movie.
It was a hell of a meme, back in the day. Are you, yourself, a meme fan?
Hmm. I didn't have a cell phone until I was 25 — I got so mad when they started doing NBC.com, I wouldn't visit the sites. I really thought the Internet craze was a fad, I didn't want it to win, I didn't want us all on computers, I hate that we all have cell phones, I hate that I love it. I hate that I love twitter.
Here's a reality. I just did a press tour, and I hate that I'm in a city, coming from the airport, and rather than looking at the buildings, I'm sending texts and emails, and someone's like, look, there's the Liberty Bell, and I've been like [mimes texting furiously]. And I'm part of it!
I'm not too cool for school to say there are certain actors, the Sam Rockwells of the world, I love those guys. They don't DO this s**t! They're COOLER than it! That's what I aspire to be. But I'm not. I'm a nerd, who texts and reads tweets and watches funny videos and LAUGHS. So nerd-pants. Those guys are cooler. They just are. There's no denying it.
You know what I love? When I meet an actor and I find out later that they're not on twitter. It's so cool. "YOU'RE BETTER THAN ME!"
It's like people who genuinely ask, "What's 'Twilight'?"
[Laughs] Exactly. "Everything about you, I like. Everything about me, I hate!"
But you do watch funny videos and laugh. So what's your poison — cats eating sandwiches or dogs saying "I love you?"
I like very weird stuff online. Like ... everybody else in the world.
"I like money, food and sleeping!"
[Laughs] Right, I say that like it's interesting.
But what I really love is reporters caught in the moment, because I think of the business that I'm in. I love, like, Bill O'Reilly getting angry. Whenever I'm on set doing "New Girl," all jokes aside, probably once a day when it's quiet and I can't get my line right or something doesn't look right, I'll yell "F**K IT, WE'LL DO IT LIVE!! I CAN'T READ THIS." Every cast member says it. Crew members have pulled it out. Our sound guy, every once in a while, will go, "F**k it, we'll do it live!"
So like those moments, the news reporter who gets a fly in his mouth. That stuff makes me laugh SO HARD. Those are the memes that I'll send around.
One more thing — you've seen the "Quirky Girl" sketch about Zooey on "SNL," right? Accurate ... at all?
Not at all, really. The reality of Zooey as a human … it's a character. She's got her style, but I think the quirkiness was thrown on for projects. Like, she's actually a very smart businesswoman. This thing hasn't been thrown on her lap.
There are certain actors where it's almost like they won the lottery. You talk to them and you're like … "You don't have it figured out at all, you don't have a strategy at ALL." Zooey isn't like that. She's got a web site and a band. She's smart and well-read and interesting.
It's easy to forget that screenwriters create words and actors get paid to make them sound real.
Yeah. Everybody on our set thinks it's really funny — Zooey thinks it's really funny. I'm the only one. Maybe it's because I'm an old stick in the mud.
Also check out our interview with "Safety Not Guaranteed" star Aubrey Plaza on Film.com.