“I’m doing a lot of parkour this summer,” Jake Johnson brags after filming some of the most strenuous action sequences of his career for his latest starring vehicle: A Funny or Die spoof for American Eagle’s new line of casual-sporty Flex/Denim jeans.
The New Girl star leans back in an air-conditioned bungalow, taking a break from leap-frogging over tree branches and hurtling over obstacles that line the Malibu ranch the shoot’s taken over for the day.
“I usually like to train a year per minute,” he jokes. “This will be about three minutes or so. I should have trained for three years, but I cut it a lot shorter. Ten-hour days, six days a week. Not very much for a guy like me—an athlete.”
Reuniting with Drunk History producer Funny or Die for the parkour-filled comedy short is just one of a few projects Johnson’s working on during his summer off from New Girl, which starts filming its fifth season in September. Two weeks prior, he got to text his Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow his congrats when their second film together—Universal’s Jurassic World—took home the biggest box office opening of all time.
The fact that it was a Jurassic Park sequel was only the icing on the cake, says Johnson. “With a movie like Jurassic World people always ask, ‘Can you believe you were in it?’” he says. “But it was really Colin. If he comes to me with a $500,000 movie he’s going to shoot in his backyard, I really want to do that movie with him.”
Since breaking out as Zooey Deschanel’s lovable slacker roommate Nick Miller on Fox’s New Girl, Johnson’s spent his time off making movies—budget sci-fier Safety Not Guaranteed, Joe Swanberg’s indie dram-com Drinking Buddies, Fox’s buddy comedy Let’s Be Cops.
But with greater star power comes greater control over one’s destiny. Earlier this year, Johnson added producer to his résumé when he re-teamed with Swanberg for the indie ensemble Digging For Fire, which premiered at Sundance and hits theaters next month.
“The reason I wanted to produce [Digging for Fire] is, Joe [Swanberg] and I oversee everybody,” he explains. “So everybody’s cool and everybody wants to be there. And if anybody isn’t cool, we then have the power to say, ‘Hey, man, you’ve gotta go.’ This is a fun one, this isn’t Jurassic World—we’re not trying to make a billion dollars. We’re going to hopefully put it on VOD, and people will want to see it … and you gotta go.’”
The Chicago-area native has also gravitated toward indie film darlings who’ve grown out of the highly improvised, so-called “mumblecore” era, like Swanberg, the Duplass brothers, and writer-director Lynn Shelton, who’s helmed numerous episodes of New Girl.
“Mumblecore has its critics, or people will talk shit on the computer about it so it becomes a thing where it seems negative and they don’t want to be called mumblecore,” says Johnson, “but mumblecore’s a great thing! You guys launched a genre of film in your basements! That shit’s wild.”
When it came to inking his summer schedule, Johnson went back to working with his pals. For the Funny or Die shoot, the 37-year-old found himself surrounded by parkour pros (“It’s nice to see parkour and talk to guys who are trying to evolve the sport of it… but I’m not one of those guys,” he laughs). Behind the camera was another familiar face: Ceremony director Max Winkler, who also has a number of New Girl episodes under his belt.
Next, Johnson’s headed to Chicago to shoot a super secret feature, “but I’m not supposed to talk about it,” he teases. Then it’s back to New Girl for a new season that promises to keep the sitcom on the track it righted after Season 3’s fan-‘shipped romance, Johnson admits, threw the show off.
“New Girl taught me a big lesson because everyone was pushing for Nick and Jess, and when we got to Season Three everyone was mad at us,” he said. “So, you can’t listen to people. You have to have your vision. I think our show was doing a little bit of a Choose Your Own Adventure where it was like, ‘Well, what’s everyone saying?’”
“I was doing the same thing when I first started,” he continued. “‘What do people like about Nick? Let me try doing that.’ Then you all of a sudden realize, ‘I have no idea who this dude is.’ So I think last year the show got back to its roots, back to just trying to make a funny show.”
As the crew shifts set-ups to a new location for Johnson to tumble over and around in his Nick Miller-esque outfit and New Balances, he assesses his future as an action hero—perhaps his nerdy, wisecracking technician will leave the control room and tangle with some Velociraptors in the Jurassic World sequel?
“Fans have been dying to see The Parkour Jake Johnson Vehicle,” he deadpans, cracking a sly smile. “At my age, a ripe 37, I don’t see myself at this point ever trying to jump over a tree branch… but maybe in the right American Eagle pants I could do it.”