Jake Johnson’s ‘Weird Ride’ From Stoner Bro to Action Star and Back Again
The star of “New Girl” tells The Last Laugh podcast about his new back-to-basics film “Ride the Eagle” and learning the difference between “injured” and “hurt” from Tom Cruise.
Jake Johnson has run from dinosaurs with Chris Pratt, fought off mummies with Tom Cruise, and embodied an alternate universe Spider-Man. But for his latest project Ride the Eagle, the actor has scaled things way back, teaming up with New Girl director Trent O’Donnell to see if they could create a movie that is both safe to shoot during the pandemic and satisfying from a storytelling perspective.
On this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Johnson breaks down how his experience in those blockbuster films has shaped his views on Hollywood, reveals how Cruise taught him the difference between “injured” and “hurt,” and teases the future of his Peter B. Parker character from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
At first, Johnson didn’t think the coronavirus pandemic was going to affect his life in any meaningful way. “I really believed our government was going to handle it and it wasn’t going to be a big deal here,” he tells me. But as the whole world started to shut down last spring, he saw the writing on the wall for the movie business.
“Nobody knew what was going to occur or when or how we were ever going to go back to work,” he says. “And I thought, wow, if the business really changes and we enter a new form of entertainment where everything is isolated and they can find the connection and chemistry in post, that's just not what I signed up for.”
“What I like about acting is connecting with people and doing it as a collaborative art form,” he continues. “And so I just thought, I gotta see if there’s a way that I’m going to survive. I told my wife, I think there's a chance that this weird ride we’ve been on is going to end.”
But instead of giving up, he joined forces with O’Donnell to see if they could “make a movie in this wild era that still gives us the joy of storytelling.” What emerged was their new film Ride the Eagle, in which Johnson spends most of his screen time smoking weed and talking to his dog. Susan Sarandon plays his mom but only appears on a VHS tape from beyond the grave and The Good Place’s D’Arcy Carden shows up as an old girlfriend on the phone.
“I’d rather not have my scene partner be a dog, but you know, it was such a joy to get back into acting again,” Johnson says. “And it really did remind me how much I love this business. I’d kind of been taking it for granted.”
Despite roles in huge movies like Jurassic World and The Mummy, Johnson said he never set out to be a “movie star.” That’s why he’s so excited to get into the prestige TV game this fall, co-starring in the HBO Max show Minx about the creation of the first erotic magazine for women in the 1970s.
“I like movies, but the kind of movies that I really love aren’t necessarily the big movies of 2021. The big movie star thing nowadays isn’t necessarily the thing that fired me up when I was 17 and wanted to do this,” he says, adding that working on the new series “feels way more exciting than being in a big multi-corporate-studio-tied-with-Burger King movie, where everybody in the world sees it and it makes a ka-trillion dollars.”
One of those “big multi-corporate-studio” movies found Johnson trying to keep up with Tom Cruise, who personally recruited him to co-star in The Mummy reboot. “My first thought was, ‘Not a chance,’” Johnson recalls of the original offer. “The reason I was hesitant on The Mummy is Tom Cruise is an intimidating figure. And especially because I had to do action sequences with him. I was like, ‘Look, I’ll do action sequences with an actor who likes stunt doubles.’ That’s not him.”
Johnson instantly recognized the “passion” in the audio that leaked of Cruise berating the Mission: Impossible 7 crew last summer for not taking COVID seriously enough. It’s the same dedication to excellence that he says he saw everyday on set with the actor. “He’s an intense guy,” Johnson says of his co-star. “He is there to entertain an audience and he’s willing to really put himself in harm’s way to do it. And if you’re not all about that, you’re going to get knocked off the bronco.”
Of course, working with Cruise inevitably means putting yourself in harm’s way too. “We jumped over buildings together that exploded. We were on a three-story building that collapsed and I landed on my back and told him that something went wrong because I got hurt,” Johnson recalls. “And he said, ‘Injured or hurt?’ I said, ‘What’s the difference?’ And he goes, ‘Can you go again or is something broken?’ And I was like, ‘No, I mean, I can go again.’ Then he goes, ‘So you’re hurt. Of course you’re hurt. You fell off a three-story building.’”
“And I thought, he’s not faking it,” Johnson adds. “When you see him on a horse and he gets thrown off and he tucks and rolls, his back is bruised. When he’s holding onto a side of the plane and it takes off and that wind is hitting his face and it looks like it’s ripping his skin open because it’s ripping his skin open.”
But if there is one big movie franchise Johnson is eager to return to, it’s the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, in which he voiced the washed-up, alternate universe version of Peter Parker.
“That was one of the best written pieces I’ve ever had,” he says. “I just felt really honored that they picked me to do that. And when I saw it, it just blew me away. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
When I ask if he expects to return to voicing that character in a future project, he replies, “I sure hope so. I’ll be pretty heartbroken if I don’t get to play Peter B. Parker again. I don’t think his story’s over. I would like to know what happens to him.”
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