Bar Keep

Jake Johnson on His SXSW Comedy ‘Drinking Buddies,’ ‘New Girl’ Success

Jake Johnson on his star-making turn on ‘New Girl’ and SXSW comedy ‘Drinking Buddies.’ By Marlow Stern.

Carlo Allegri/AP

I’d grab beers with Jake Johnson.

That’s the first thought that goes through your mind after speaking with the 34-year-old actor. It’s no surprise, then, that his Nick has become such a beloved character on television’s best sitcom, Fox’s New Girl. The moody, sarcastic bartender with the mellow, Chicago-tinged delivery and shabby clothes, Nick has become this generation’s Woody from Cheers—a lovable Average Joe.

And in Drinking Buddies, one of the most well-received films at this year’s SXSW, Johnson plays a scruffy Chicago beer maker who just might be in love with his co-worker and beer-guzzling pal (Olivia Wilde). Their attraction to one another leads to problems with their respective mates, played by Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston.

Directed by mumblecore maestro Joe Swanberg, the entirely improvised film was shot in just three weeks and it sounds like the cast and crew had a hell of a good time.

“We were actually drinking while shooting,” says Johnson. “All the beers were real, and this is high-alcohol-content beer, not Miller Lite, so before you know it you’re pretty lit up!”

In the film, the characters play a little drinking game in which Johnson serves as the blackjack dealer, and every time the girl busts, they have to chug their beer. According to Johnson, of his female co-stars, Wilde could handle her booze much, much better than the petite Kendrick.

“Anna is one of the bigger lightweights I’ve ever been around,” he says with a laugh. “The scene where Anna and I are playing cards, she thought it was a nonalcoholic beer, but it was a real beer. And she chugged a real beer thinking it was nonalcoholic, and got drunk instantly.”

Johnson is also, by all accounts, happily married. This shouldn’t come as much of a shocker, except for the fact that he’s just so damn good at capturing unrequited love onscreen—whether it’s Nick and Jess (Zooey Deschanel) on New Girl or his character and Wilde’s in Drinking Buddies.

“I have no idea why!” he says. “Before working for Liz Meriwether [on New Girl], I’d never had a character who had a love interest. Now that I get to, it’s a lot of fun as an actor. And these women’s talent levels are really high.”

Before he became America’s favorite drinking buddy, Johnson grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. His parents split when he was 2, and he was raised by his mother, who supported him by making stained-glass windows and operating junk shops throughout the city. Coincidentally—or not—his character on New Girl has been known to rescue junky port-a-potties, and has a strained relationship with his father, played by Dennis Farina.

“My father wasn’t a deadbeat though—he owned a car dealership in the South Side of Chicago,” says Johnson. “My dad wasn’t around when I was growing up, and in my 20s, he kind of resurfaced, and now we’re close. He wasn’t a con man like Dennis Farina, but he just wasn’t really present.”

Johnson had always wanted to be an actor but it was a definite uphill climb.

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“Coming out of the suburbs of Chicago, I didn’t know anybody in the business so I didn’t have any connections, so being an actor felt like wanting to be on the Chicago Bears,” he says. “It never felt like a realistic thing.”

He began writing his own plays and eventually started performing in them. Then, he transferred from the University of Iowa to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he studied creative writing. Midway through his tenure at Tisch, he began doing improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade, and then started performing with his best pal, Oliver Ralli. “This is what I really want to do,” he thought.

It took a long time for the acting world to catch on, so Johnson worked a bunch of different jobs as he tried to break in. According to Johnson, these included delivering furniture for a few years, working construction, working in a casino, selling burritos out of a van, catering weddings, and yes, working as a bartender.

“I didn’t start to make a living as an actor until I was 27, so there were always odd jobs,” he says. “And for the first couple of years of supporting myself as an actor, it was just commercials. So you’d book it, make enough to last you a few months, and then have to book another one. I was living check-to-check until No Strings Attached.”

In that film, which came out in 2011, Johnson played the best pal of Ashton Kutcher’s character, who engages in a friends-with-benefits relationship with a doctor, played by Natalie Portman. Prior to that, he’d thought he made a breakthrough playing the second lead in the well-received 2009 mockumentary Paper Heart. However, because the two central characters in the film, Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi, played fictionalized versions of themselves, and Johnson played the film-within-a-film’s director, it didn’t bring Johnson the acting opportunities he hoped it would.

“I did a lot in that movie, but it didn’t feel like it as far as my career goes,” he says. “I literally got meetings in Hollywood where they wanted to see me as a director. I was like, ‘That’s flattering but really disappointing because I need a job!’”

He eventually moved out to Los Angeles, where he “auditioned for a million TV shows and didn’t even come close”—as in, they never even had him back for a second audition. Then, Liz Meriwether had him come in and audition for a Fox sitcom pilot called New Girl, opposite another actor who had struggled for a long time to book TV shows, Max Greenfield.

“When I auditioned with Max, we both knew there was a really nice Odd Couple relationship between us,” says Johnson.

On the show, Johnson plays the grungy, penny-pinching everyman bartender, Nick, while Greenfield plays Schmidt—an effete, suit-wearing power broker and self-described “douche.” When asked why he and Greenfield have such great chemistry on the show, he pauses.

“I’ve thought about it a lot and I think as people, we couldn’t be more different and it’s very much like Nick and Schmidt, but we both really get a kick out of the other guy,” he says. “That dude really makes me laugh. And on set, it’s like a family where mean jokes are OK, so Max and me just give each other fuckin’ hell in front of the whole crew. If Max screws up, I’m going to kill him, and if I do, he’s going to kill me. There’s this element of fun that I feel the characters have as well.”

A recent New Girl development everyone’s been talking about is the long-awaited kiss between Nick and Jess, played by Zooey Deschanel. Whereas many shows have lost their momentum after the two central characters finally get together (see: The Office), viewers, along with the cast, believe the kiss—which was accomplished in four takes—has, according to Johnson, “given a new charge to the show.”

“I like the idea of Nick and Jess together, and not together, but playing this game,” he says. “I felt like we were getting to a place where it was starting to feel unrealistic that something wasn’t going to happen. It’s a sexual show in that there’s a lot going on with roommates and sleeping around, so to have Nick and Jess not even be holding hands ever, and she’s taking home guys for one-night stands and Nick’s sleeping with strippers, it just started feeling like something’s gotta give here!”

While there hasn’t been a new episode of New Girl in close to three weeks, Johnson says viewers can expect lots of interesting developments in future ones, including the return of Nick’s father (Farina).

“It gets really crazy with Nick and Jess in a fun way,” he says. “The characters go back to Chicago to meet Nick’s whole family, including my brother, played by Nick Kroll, and this comedian, Bill Burr, plays my cousin. I think we’ve got a lot of really fun stuff coming up.”

And Johnson’s got some fun, non–New Girl stuff in the pipeline as well. He’s starring in the romantic comedy The Pretty One, opposite Zoe Kazan, which will premiere at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, and recently signed on as one of the two leads in the comedy Let’s Be Cops, opposite his onetime New Girl co-star Damon Wayans Jr.

“It’s a studio comedy in the vein of Beverly Hills Cop, and there’s a lot of action,” he says. “It’s a throwback action-comedy like the ones that I grew up loving.”

Johnson pauses. “With my career and the way I continue to imagine it, I’m not an overnight success kind of guy, and I’m not interested in celebrity or notoriety, or any of that. I just love acting, and hopefully I’ll continue to do really good work.”