Jake Johnson Found His Way Back

Jake Johnson has a bone to pick with television. It has to do with a certain brand of character—“people who live outside the norm, but they’re not losing,” as Johnson describes them. They never get a fair shake plot-wise. Instead, those who don’t live the quintessential American Dream, with the white picket fence and the 2.5 kids, often get what he calls “the skeezy used car salesman treatment.” All the same, these are the characters Johnson grew up idolizing; as a teenager who aspired to become an actor, they’re the characters he longed to play. They’re also the characters who frequented his childhood home.

Take Uncle Eddie, for example. When Johnson was a teenager, his Uncle Eddie fell into some legal trouble, then came from Florida to live with Johnson’s family in suburban Chicago. “He was complicated and I loved him for it,” Johnson says, remembering the countless nights he was hustled over the chess board, or the time his uncle tricked him into creating a fake betting pool to swindle his classmates. Uncle Eddie made neon signs for a living, and Johnson became his right-hand man; together they pounded the pavement, knocking on doors to sell signs to local businesses. But one day, when Johnson climbed into his truck and unexpectedly got the third degree, Uncle Eddie suddenly came into sharp relief.

“It was the middle of winter, and I wasn’t wearing a jacket,” Johnson says. Over Zoom, he’s every bit as warm, thoughtful, and authentic as you’d expect him to be. “He yelled at me to go inside and put a jacket on. I didn’t grow up with a dad, so that male energy was really weird for me. We had a big standoff, then he said in the middle of the fight, ‘If we get in an accident and I can’t reach you, you could freeze to death.’ I thought, ‘This big, weird fight is because he wants me to be warm?’ I was like, ‘That’s awfully sweet, you jackass.’ The people we hung signs for thought Eddie was as shady as it gets, but the guy I knew was really sweet and interesting and multi-dimensional.”

Sweet, interesting, multi-dimensional—sounds an awful lot like the characters Johnson has made his name playing, from Nick Miller, New Girl’s misanthropic bartender turned romantic hero, to Peter B. Parker, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s sad sack with a heart of gold. Now, in HBO Max’s raunch-com Minx, premiering March 17, he’s channeled that same sensibility (and a healthy dose of Uncle Eddie) into one of his greatest characters yet: Doug Renetti, a wheeler-dealer publisher of erotic magazines in louche Los Angeles circa the 1970s. Skin magazines like Randy Republicans and Secretary Secrets keep Doug’s Bottom Dollar Publications afloat, but in the decade’s rising tide of liberated women, Doug sees a lucrative untapped market. “How is it fair and equal that a guy has twelve places to go to see a pair of titties, but a gal has no place to see a dong?” he wonders aloud. It’s textbook Doug: a revolutionarily progressive idea, cloaked in bawdy tradesman’s slang. In Joyce Prigger (Ophelia Lovibond), an ambitious editor unsuccessfully shopping around a radical women’s lib magazine, he finds a reluctant business partner. Together, Doug and Joyce create Minx, the first erotic magazine for the female gaze; in its glossy pages, progressive articles about birth control and wages for housework are sandwiched between vibrator advertisements and splashy centerfolds of naked firemen. In Doug, Johnson immediately recognized the type of character he knew so intimately, and always longed to play. “I thought, ‘My only job is to not screw this up,’” he says.

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In the hands of a less generous actor, Doug would no doubt suffer “the skeezy used car salesman treatment,” but Johnson plays this raffish hustler with depth, compassion, and infectious charm. Kitted out in period-appropriate platform shoes and pastel leisure suits, it’s exactly the kind of tough-talking but tender role that feels tailor-made for him. Minx’s creative team was surprised and delighted to cast him; “we didn’t even dare to think we could get Jake,” says executive producer Paul Feig. During the casting process, Johnson was starring as a charming ex-con turned bar owner in Stumptown, a beloved but short-lived ABC drama. When Minx show-runner Ellen Rapoport heard the project had been canceled due to pandemic production woes, she raced to offer Johnson the role of Doug that very same afternoon. “Jake has such likability and vulnerability on camera,” Rapoport says. “He seems complicated, but he’s so warm and likable that you can’t help but root for him, no matter what he’s doing.”

Doug occasionally puts the audience’s sympathies to the test, namely when his financial interests supersede his moral compass (as Johnson points out, Doug is a capitalist above all else). But so too does Joyce, who can often be uncompromising in her patriarchy-smashing vision, to the detriment of her magazine and her staff. When Joyce’s rigid sense of feminist integrity conflicts with Doug’s bottom line, conflict erupts. Their sparring matches make for some of the show’s liveliest scenes—and the liveliest days on set, according to Lovibond, who went toe-to-toe with Johnson in many a playful debate. “We were very much in our characters’ corners,” she says. “We could imagine the bell going off in the ring, and then we’d be in our corners, fighting our stances. We went round and round while Ellen stood there watching us argue as if Joyce and Doug were our best friends.” Johnson has this “stupid thing” about needing to empathize with his characters, he says; as a result, he’ll always go to the mat for them.

jake johnson

Johnson as Doug Renetti in Minx.

HBO

Doug is a walking contradiction: a man who publishes magazines like Milky Moms and Bodacious Butts, but also a progressive and free-thinking businessman whose crackerjack leadership team is staffed almost entirely by women. Doug’s generosity as a boss is part of what makes the character so winning; in one scene, he confesses that he’s never fired anyone, while in other scenes, we see him deputize his secretary to guard Bottom Dollar’s sensitive financial secrets. Musing on the bosses who’ve influenced him, Johnson immediately thinks of his mother, who raised three children as a single parent. “She was the parent, the friend, and the boss,” Johnson says. “I was a really wild teenager. I’ve got dyslexia, so as a kid, I didn’t care about school and didn’t get it. My mom saw a different path for me. She wanted me in the arts, acting and writing and applying my brain, but I wasn’t interested. As the boss, she won, and as a 14-year-old, I lost. Now, I’m still living her vision.”

Five decades after the era of Minx, the series lands in a world where some of the egalitarian dreams of Joyce’s generation remain unrealized. But for Johnson, who grew up restoring furniture with his mother and working in her junk shops, feminism is just common sense. “The idea of somebody not being a feminist is insane to me,” he says. “My definition of feminism—and I am fully a feminist—is that women are as capable as men are. That’s how I think everybody deep down feels, I hope. If not, what world are you living in?”

jake johnson

Elaine Chung

Minx came along just in the nick of time for Johnson, who joined the show after a serious dark night of the soul. When Covid-19 brought Hollywood to its knees, it turned out to be exactly the unexpected wake-up call he needed. Nearly two years after the series finale of New Girl, his long-running Fox sitcom, Johnson was severely burnt out. After years of working as a journeyman actor, New Girl had catapulted him to a new plane of success, but the network sitcom schedule was grueling; “we shot all the time and did press all the time, then I’d fill the summers off with movies and more press,” Johnson remembers. “I’d become that actor I don’t like. The first thing I would think about when I got to set was, ‘When do I get to leave? How fast can we shoot a scene?’ When the pandemic hit and I wasn’t able to work at all, I really missed it, and I was afraid that it was going away forever. I made a promise to myself: ‘If Hollywood opens up again, I’ll only take jobs that I really want to do. I’m really going to try.’”

Johnson kept busy at home in Los Angeles during those months, putting his daughters through Zoom school and constructing a freestanding office in his backyard (shoutout to YouTube tutorials). He also teamed up with frequent New Girl collaborator Trent O’Donnell to write Ride the Eagle, a winsome indie dramedy about a slacker musician who reconnects with his estranged mother after her death via her video will. Ride the Eagle was a scrappy production, filmed in just eight days on a shoestring budget, with a crew of eight people holding microphones near the cameras in lieu of a sound department. When each twelve-hour day wrapped, Johnson and O’Donnell headed into the kitchen to prepare a meal for cast and crew members, then constructed the next day’s schedule over beers. The DIY experience was a welcome throwback to Johnson’s years as an up-and-comer, when he took odd jobs like making a documentary about the Midwest while living in an RV. “That was when I really just loved acting and writing—I just wanted to do it and didn’t care,” he says. “The pandemic reminded me that I’m still that person.”

jake johnson

Elaine Chung

While Johnson was falling back in love with acting and looking toward the future, the world was falling back in love with New Girl. Though the series always enjoyed a modest but devoted audience, it downright exploded in popularity as a remedy for pandemic malaise; one week in August 2020, Netflix users in the United States spent a whopping 346 million minutes streaming reruns of its seven seasons. EW declared New Girl “the perfect quarantine comfort binge,” while Mashable similarly crowned it “the ultimate quarantine comfort watch.” It’s easy to understand the curative powers of this sunny series about lovable weirdos living together in a Los Angeles loft, but Johnson was shocked to learn that it meant so much to so many viewers, citing how viewership dwindled during the “slow death march” toward its eventual cancellation and truncated final season. “It felt like an honor,” he says of New Girl’s resurgence. “When everybody felt so terrible, so alienated and alone, I think it was really nice for people to feel like they were back in Apartment 4D.”

The resurrection of New Girl awakened renewed interest in Nick Miller, the character Johnson took from emotionally unavailable man-child to scruffy romantic dreamboat. Long a cult favorite, Nick’s popularity has only snowballed with time—now, TikTok’s Nick Miller hashtag boasts over 645 million views, with viewers editing together supercuts of Nick’s memorable bon mots (“If we needed to talk about feelings, they would be called ‘talkings’” is a mainstay) and testifying about how deeply they identify with the character. Johnson knows what it’s like to feel such passionate investment in a sitcom. “When I was growing up, TV was everything to me,” he says. “It’s always been more about TV than movies for me. I loved Cheers, The Wonder Years, and Roseanne. I really liked movies, but I loved these TV characters. I always wanted to be in those shows.”

On-screen characters have given as much to Johnson as he has to them. As a teenager, he learned to shave by watching Tom Hanks lather up on screen. “I’m somewhat of a fraud as a male actor, because I didn’t grow up with male influences,” he noted. In Cheers’ Sam Malone, he found both a touchstone and a companion. “Sam Malone was my friend, to sound like a real loser,” he says. “I could watch that show through Sam, and I felt like he was part of my real world.” It’s easy to see a throughline from Sam Malone to Nick Miller—from one endearing bartender in a “will-they-or-won’t-they” romance to another.

los angeles, california march 08 jake johnson attends the screening and launch party for hbo max's minx at the hollywood roosevelt on march 08, 2022 in los angeles, california photo by jeff kravitzfilmmagic for hbo max

Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic.com

At first blush, the cult of Nick Miller seems mystifying. How did someone who doesn’t wash his towels charm a love interest played by Megan Fox into musing dreamily, “He kisses you like a coal miner greeting his wife”? Johnson dug deep, found radical empathy for the character, and turned him into a bona fide icon. Call it his Midas touch. From lovelorn bartenders to porn purveyors to washed-up Spider-Men, Johnson’s characters may be down and out sometimes, but he never gives up on them. “I think you’re lucky in your career if you get the opportunity to play great characters,” Johnson says. “Nick Miller and Peter B. Parker are great characters. I think Doug Renetti is a great character, too. I hope Doug has a really great run, then I hope to do a few more. I want a career where I’ve created some great characters that people feel like they really know—characters they can view as their friends. I want the characters I play to feel like part of somebody else’s real world.”

Now, with Nick Miller behind him (and Peter B. Parker awaiting his October sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse), Johnson is looking forward to a long and happy life for his next great character. He thinks Doug Renetti could be “something iconic and exciting”—the kind of character that can go the distance. Doug likely won’t teach anyone how to shave, but he might do some good, all the same. Johnson is hoping to get five seasons of Minx, or maybe even more—take Bottom Dollar Publications all the way into the eighties rat race, see Doug grow and change under a different decade’s pressures. Whatever happens, he has faith that Doug will come out on top. “I’d like Doug even if it wasn’t me playing him,” he says. Lucky for all of us, it’s him beneath the shag haircut.

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