On Fox's "New Girl," Jake Johnson plays Nick Miller, the grouchy, sweet roommate who's an old soul trapped in a thirtysomething bartender's body in a will-they-won't-they relationship with Jess (Zooey Deschanel). And then there's his great leaping technique. Johnson spoke with us about Nick's evolution from the cynic to the sensitive guy, his relationship with Jess, meeting Rob Reiner and the beauty of Nick and Jess Halloween costumes.
Nick has changed a lot. When the show started, he was sort of the straight man. He’s become a lot stranger.
I’ve heard that in the show’s conception they were going to have Nick be very grounded. And as it went on, they realized that something they really liked in Nick was when he would go crazy and get really weird. I was talking to Brett Baer about this: They also realized that Lamorne Morris [Winston] is very good as a voice of reason. And there’s a scene we were talking about in season one, when Max [Greenfield, a.k.a. Schmidt] and I were pitching Zooey’s character on how to deal with Dermot Mulroney. And Lamorne’s line was like, “Or we could just handle it like an adult, which I’m sure you’re not going to do.” And they said in post-production they were watching it and all cracking up, and they realized Lamorne is really good at that. They really like it when Jake goes bananas, so I think they just started making more of a change. We switched paths a little bit.
For one thing, you're a great leaper. I have to ask you about how that came about. Did the director just say “Leap!”? Or did he give you specific instructions?
In season one, Nick’s character was kind of grumpy and saying “no” to everything. And so, for example, for a scene like that, Schmidt and Jess would have leaped around and Nick would have stood there. For season two, I think they want Nick’s side of saying yes to come out more. As an actor, I wasn’t sure how to do it. Larry Charles was directing the episode, and he made me do that probably 12 different times. He would just say, “Leap again.” And then he would go, “Eh, I think it can be funnier, Jake. I think it’s got to be weirder, Jake.” And then we did that take and he was like, “I like that one.”
Now Nick’s characterization is very clear: He’s the old man in a 30-year-old’s body. Do you remember a moment when it clicked in so specifically?
Part of the thing with that — and I don’t want to give myself too much credit because we do have great writers — but I’m kind of that guy. When I’m sitting down, and they say, “Alright, we’re rolling,” when I have to stand up, my body does click weird. I am the guy who, if everybody has to go to one mark, it takes me the longest, and I feel like I got old-man knee. So I think the writers found something there and really heightened it. I feel like, season one, a lot of times I had no idea who Nick was. And it was fun to play him because each week I would get a script, and I’d be like, “I guess this is who the guy is.” And over the summer, I came back and they really found Nick. Because season two he’s been so clear on the page. I’ll be at the table read and I’ll know exactly why he’s doing the weird stuff he’s doing. But, while they make him really weird, I think the Nick-Jess stuff is at another level. I feel like they’ve also really been hitting the real stuff, too.
What do you think was hard initially about writing Nick ?
The thing about Nick: He connects all the characters. Nick is close to everybody, and so a lot of times Nick is somebody who is in each story. And he’s got something close to each person. So I think what is hard was giving Nick his own funny stuff while connecting him to Schmidt and Jess and being part of the will-they-won’t-they, but also keeping Nick — on his own — funny. And so they would do episodes where it would be one or the other, and now they saw a way where Nick can do both.
He is the one who is closest friends with everybody in the house.
I think he and Jess are obviously very close and they have that weird thing. I think he and Winston have a very close thing because of their childhood. And him and Schmidt, deep down, have their own little weird will-they-won’t-they. I did an interview the other day for the Advocate, and the guy who was interviewing me goes, “So I have to ask about the will-they-won’t-they.” And I said, “Yeah, I think they did a great job with Nick and Jess.” And he goes, “No, I’m talking about Nick and Schmidt.” [Laughing.] I thought it was so funny. I hate the term, but I think it’s a pretty funny bromance.
With the Nick and Jess stuff, did “The Fluffer” episode put their tension on hold, or is it going to keep coming up?
It’s going to keep coming up. With that story, there’s just a lot of unresolved stuff. I think that the way the writers handle it is very smart. The writers don’t tell me what’s going to happen, but they’ve told me, “We’re going to make some serious moves in that relationship this season.” I’ll sit down once in a while and pick a writer’s brain, and they just tell me, without telling me what’s going on, that the relationship is going to have some things that affect it.
Don’t you feel like they would have just made out already? Or is Nick the kind of emo dude who would be so much in his head that nothing would ever happen?
Don’t call Nick an emo dude!
I don’t mean that in an insulting way!
Do not call him an emo dude! Unbelievable! I am not playing a character on TV who could be described as an emo dude. Just shoot me in the face now.
I just meant he is really sensitive! He’s paying attention to how Jess feels all the time ...
He’s a very sensitive guy. You know, Larry Charles said something that really kind of blew my mind a little bit. We were sitting around during the episode and talking, and I asked if he had any advice for me while I progressed with the character. And he said season one Nick was showing how tough he is and how cynical he is. But he said, “Keep in mind that the people who are the most cynical are the most sensitive.” And so, season two is about showing that. Season one was about pushing everything away. Season two is about feeling everything. He said, “Nick’s a sensitive bastard.” I mean, you’re right about that. He’s an overly sensitive dude. But in terms of the kissing between Nick and Jess, I sometimes think that it’s surprising that nothing has happened up to this point. But in the same sense, it’s like, you know, they’re roommates. So, if they did do something it could get really bad.
And they also know each other well enough to know it couldn’t be casual.
I agree. Neither of them are cool. They’re not the kind of people to sleep together and then the next day be like, “Fuck it, whatever. We’re so cool. We had sex.” I think both of them would be really weird. It wouldn’t be cool to live with them.
Do you and Zooey talk about this stuff?
Zooey and I became really good friends last year and we both realized very quickly that we really like acting together. So we’ve talked a lot about the Nick-Jess stuff and what we like about it, but we’ve never talked about, you know, is it weird that they haven’t hooked up yet? I think we’ve both kind of wondered — because we don’t have any control over it — how the writer’s are going to do it. But whenever there’s a Nick-Jess episode, like “The Fluffer” episode, where we have a lot to do, we’ll always call each other and text each other to talk about what scenes we’re excited for. In the “Re-Launch” episode there’s a lot of madness, but in the final scene on the hood of the car where she and I are talking we were both really excited for that scene all week. Because we knew, “Oh, we get to step back into this.”
That scene was such a moment where you’re like, “Oh, they would probably make out now.”
Liz [Meriwether, the creator] has told us a lot of times in scenes, “Jake, don’t put your hand there. It’s too forward.” They keep pushing us apart. But I also feel like the problem with those two is that if they kiss they’re just going to start dating. I don’t think they’re going to make out on the chair and then go back to their lives. And I don’t think either of them want to date right now.
Story wise or character wise?
As characters. If these guys are real people, I don’t think either of them are ready to date and be in a serious relationship. In my interpretation, and I’m not a writer, Nick knows he has feelings for her. But he’s not going to admit to those because he doesn’t want to deal with them. They’re both willing to take the chance that the other person is going to fall in love with someone else, but I think that deep down they hope it doesn’t happen.
Certainly at this point, they would be a disaster as a couple.
If they started dating right now they’d be a disaster.
Has Olivia Munn already done her story line or is that coming up?
I think she’s around next week and the week after. I’m excited. She’ll be a lot of fun. We’ve had a lot of crazy guest stars. I flipped out last week because I’m was on the couch doing a two person scene with Rob Reiner. And then, in between takes, I was doing, essentially a one man Q&A about “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride” and “Spinal Tap.” And then I go to the kitchen area and do a scene with Jamie Lee Curtis, and then that night Rob Riggle was there. And I’m like, “This is a fucking disgusting Wednesday.” This is just too much. They’ve been killing it with the guest stars.
What did you ask Rob Reiner about “Princess Bride”?
Was Andre the Giant cool?
Incredible, and then Rob would start telling Andre the Giant stories. I think Wallace Shawn in that movie is one of the funniest things of all time. So I said like, “Wallace Shawn killed it!” And then, the scene where Wallace Shawn tried to poison Cary Elwes and they go back and forth, I go “that’s one of the funniest scenes of all time,” and Rob Reiner started doing the scene as Wallace Shawn because he fucking directed it. And I’m just sitting there like this is stupid. This is amazing. Rob Reiner is a natural storyteller, so everybody in our crew — we got a lot of bunch of grumpy dudes on our crew because we work long hours – I’ve never seen our crew be as captivated by anyone as Rob Reiner. The crew was just standing around Rob Reiner in a semi-circle listening to him talk. One of our crew guys had a shirt of Inigo Montoya’s face and underneath it said “Revenge.” He wore it to set. Rob Reiner talked about that character and then in "Stand By Me" he said he took the kids and worked with them for a couple months and that was the movie he was most proud of. Shit like that. It was amazing. “The Princess Bride” is one of my all-time favorites. You know how people always ask, “What are your top five?” “Stand By Me” and “Princess Bride” have been in my top five for the last, probably, 15 years.
What’s the rest of your top five?
“Deer Hunter” — that’d be up there. “Raging Bull” has to be up there. And “Rushmore” has got to be up there. There’s a couple more that are strange that, depending on my mood, will jump in.
When you and Jess do those fight scenes where you talk over each other, are you listening, or are you just focused on what you’re supposed to say?
Well it depends on the shoot. Some of the stuff we do as close to the script as possible. And a lot of it, they will cross cover the scenes, which means there’s a shooting camera on each person at the same time. And then you start off on the script and then you just start reacting to each other and you start to improvise while trying to say as many lines as you can. Whenever Max and I are in a scene together we try to improvise a lot. It’s not because we don’t like the writing, it’s because we’re real clowns when we’re together. Max has turned into a good buddy and we always try to fuck with each other and make the other guy laugh. If you can surprise somebody with a line that’s funny, it might not make into the show, but you feel pretty good about it. And when you’re with people 12 hours a day you have to take the little victories.
Do you have a favorite moment you improved?
I don’t because it’s so blurry with what’s improvised and what is all done by the writers. There was one line that Max gave me that I thought was really funny, that was a really subtle thing. And that was in “Re-launch” when Schmidt is talking about Robbie [Cece’s new boyfriend] and he goes, “He’s got nothing on me.” And Max says to me, it would be really funny if you said really quietly “height.” And we did it, and it’s really quick, and it’s really subtle, and he keeps going so you don’t pay much attention to the joke, but I thought that was pretty funny. I thought that was a funny Greenfield joke.
Do you like doing those kinds of scenes where there are so many things happening at once?
I’ll be honest, I like shooting “New Girl.” I like the people. The show is still new to me. I’ve never done TV like this before. So what’s crazy about this is, in my past I’ve done a movie, if there is a fight scene you only do it once, and you fight with the actor and you shake hands and you never do it again with that person in your life. I’ve probably fought with Zoe’s character 15 different times. So when we’re in a fight scene we’re like, “Okay cool, it’s one of those.” When Schmidt and Nick are yelling, like in the last episode about Old Spice, once we get to that point, we’re like now we know how we’re going to fight with each other. And so you try to add a little bit new into it, but you also get to step back and just be like “great let’s do this.”
You’re very good at playing drunk.
Thank you. I appreciate that. I hate to say it, but I’ve had a lot of practice. That’s kind of in my family’s wheelhouse.
You have to walk the line of being addled, but not too ridiculous.
The reality of it is, my uncle Timmy, when I was growing up, was one of my favorite people on Earth, but he was also a pretty bad alcoholic. But he was never a mean drunk. At Christmas and Thanksgiving he would be blasted, but he was also, in my opinion, so funny. He was never mean, never an asshole, and he was never sober. I grew up watching him, and I used to do Timmy impressions on the drive home, because he would tell me the same joke every year. He would have the same stories and in the middle of it would have that drunk moment when he forgot what he was saying and would just kind of shrug his shoulders and everyone would laugh. And for years I would do Timmy to my siblings and my mom to get them to laugh, and so when I got to play drunk – the first time I got to do it was in Max Winkler’s movue “Ceremony,” and I was like, “Oh, yeah, I can do this, definitely.” I was like this isn’t Hamlet in the park, this is my Uncle Timmy.
I saw you tweeted at some people who were planning on going as Nick and Jess for Halloween.
Look at you following me on Twitter!
I was doing my research! But that’s kind of awesome, right?
You know, I rarely respond to people when they just write about the show, but the idea of a guy and his girlfriend going as Nick and Jess would be incredible. I think it’s so fucking weird. I just think it’s such a weird, funny choice. Like you see these people walking around on Halloween. It’s some girl with glasses and a cute skirt on and a vest and some guy with jeans and a plaid shirt and a hoodie with a beer. I think it’s an incredibly weird, funny Halloween choice.
They look basically like they’re not wearing costumes.
She’s dressed like “a cute gal,” and he’s dressed like “a dude.” The beauty of that costume is when people go like, “Why didn’t you dress up?” You’re like “I did, I’m Nick Miller!” I think especially if you’re a guy who dresses like Nick, which I think most guys do, I think that dressing like Nick Miller is the easiest Halloween costume. Also, I’m always trying to have a beer in my hand in the show. So every scene, even if it’s a morning scene, they try to give me coffee, but I try to and have a beer. And so part of the Halloween costume is these guys have to have a beer in their hand. So if they get pulled over by the cops for walking around that beer is part of their Halloween costume. It’s the Nick Miller trick for Halloween – you have to be drinking beer, and you have to be dressed as a regular guy.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer. MORE FROM Willa Paskin
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