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Hollywood’s New Guy Next Door

Jake Johnson on his latest movie, female co-stars and becoming Colonel Sanders

There’s a thing that people say about certain actors who play a certain kind of character. They say, “I love that guy! I feel like he’s totally the same person in real life.” Which is to say he’s someone they would want to have more than one beer with, because there’s an uncommon air of approachability about him. Jake Johnson is one of those actors. Whether it’s the slip-on sandals he’s wearing the day we meet in New York, or the peculiar quality of his voice that makes everything sound like it’s on its way to a joke, or the fact that most of his characters are guys who don’t seem like they love to exercise—he just puts you at ease.

Approachability has been a key part of the roles that have brought Johnson to celebrity status in the last few years: as the lovably disheveled Nick on New Girl, in Drinking Buddies as Olivia Wilde’s “what if” best friend, as one half of the belligerent dude duo in Let’s Be Cops, and even in Jurassic World, as the handlebar-mustached control room operator who witnesses the park’s inevitable descent into prehistoric chaos. His latest role is in a film he’s also credited with co-writing—Joe Swanberg’sDigging for Fire, which has him starring opposite Rosemary DeWitt in a character that reads familiar (even though he plays a gym teacher and spends much of the movie in a sweatsuit, he still doesn’t seem like the guy who loves exercise). 

Johnson in Digging for Fire

Digging for Fire spans a weekend in the lives of a young married couple with a preschooler who are coming to terms with the confines of parenthood and the compromising realities of marriage. It’s an indie, drama-in-the-cake-batter sort of story that gives itself to small moments—passing conversations with strangers and Uber drivers and store clerks that motion subtly to the theme at hand. Johnson says he knows it won’t be for everyone. “The style of a movie like Digging for Fire, or like Drinking Buddies, is naturalistic— slower, subtler moments, more character than story driven,” Johnson says. “No big resolutions. Joe Swanberg [who directed both films] is very good at showing a slice of life.  I think some people expect to see more than just a slice of life when they watch a movie.”

While it’s true that Digging for Fire’s sedated storyline might not hustle the crowds, its star-studded cast will definitely fill more seats than the usual art house flick: Anna Kendrick, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Jenny Slate, Chris Messina, Sam Rockwell, Judith Light, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, and Mike Birbiglia fill out the supporting roles gracefully (and Chris Messina gets naked). Still, the heart of the film beats around Johnson and DeWitt. Johnson is no amateur when it comes to romantic roles, and he has a good idea as to why he’s attracted to them.

“I love acting with strong female actresses. I feel closer to women than I do to guys,” he says. “Not that I don’t have a great group of buddies, but I don’t really like doing a scene where I make a lot of direct eye contact with another man. [laughing]  You know! Between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ is a really vulnerable time.”

Johnson says, however, that the best part of playing a romantic role isn’t necessarily the full-on coupled-up romance. On New Girl, for example, he says the fun was in the dancing around it. “I think Zooey and I both like doing the ‘will they, wont they [end up together]’ thing more than we loved playing the actual couple, because we both really enjoy tension in relationships. It’s fun for us when there are boundaries, and we get to get close to those boundaries and then move away from them.”

It’s easy to assume that someone who headlines indie films would take himself more seriously as an actor than say, his goofy character on New Girl would belie you to believe, but Johnson says it’s pretty much the opposite. You will not, for example, find him wading into the world of method acting. 

“I’ve got to tell you, when I was younger I thought method acting was just the coolest,” he says. “I thought, I am going to aspire to that. But as I’ve gotten older—you know, I’m married and I’ve got kids—the idea of being a method actor with kids seems like the goofiest thing in the entire world. The idea of being like, I’ll be doing a movie for four months and my kids will refer to me only as Colonel Sanders!”

The image of Johnson as Colonel Sanders is now planted firmly in the mind, so here’s to hoping we see that in the very near future.