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Interview: Jake Johnson on Playing ‘Tag,’ Swamps and Bidding Adieu to ‘New Girl’

15 Jun, 2018    added by : Kit Bowen
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INTERVIEWER

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English

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Jake Johnson is one of those actors who always adds just the right kind of comedic sensibilities to his films, from big-budget fare like Jurassic World to some of his stellar indie films like Win It All to his hit TV show New Girl, which just ended its seven-year run on FOX.

In Tag, Johnson plays Randy ‘Chilli’ Cilliano, one of the core members of the long-running game of tag. Chilli hasn’t necessarily been as successful as his childhood friends and is a bit of slacker, but his heart is still in the right place. He cares for his friends and will stand by them through thick and thin – even if he’s going to do everything in his power to tag them.

ScreenPicks’ Kit Bowen had a great time talking with Johnson about his latest comedy, along with a myriad of other things like how he was nervous to run through a swamp, how close he is to some of his high-school pals, how he loves to write – and what it was like saying goodbye to New Girl.

How hard was it that last day on New Girl?

Johnson: That last day was actually okay. I mean, we thought we got canceled after Season 6. And you saw what happened with FOX this year. They don’t play. Look, The Mick and Last Man on Earth were hot shows. Brooklyn Nine-Nine. They are killers over there. The public kept thinking we were coming back, but in-house, we were like, “We might not be coming back.” I personally wrote a letter and asked to come back. Just to have that closure. So our last eight episodes, we were in a different studio in Korea town, and we all knew it was over. We went into that like, day one of Season 7 was the beginning of the goodbye party. So the last day, it was over, but we had had our days, like Max [Greenfield] and I would get really sad, you know, “Aw, shit, this is over.” But we had two months to say goodbye.

Were you good at Tag as a kid? Cause I sucked at it and it usually made me mad.

Johnson: [laughs] I haven’t played since I was like 5, but I was a real sporty kid. I was a jock in high school. I played football, basketball and baseball. I love them all until I got introduced to plays and it was like, “Oh, that’s a new path. I like that path.”

It sounded like playing this particular game of Tag was a little rough! Jeremy Renner broke his arm, right? What was the toughest for you?

Johnson: The sad reality about Jeremy’s injury and all that stuff is that it was a small accident. What he did wasn’t that intense. He jumped off a ladder, and he was on wires. And they were supposed to pull back on a certain thing but the weight was off. They have so many experts to make sure you’re safe. The worst thing that could happen is the actor gets hurt during production. That’s the money right there. So they really don’t want that to happen.

Nothing happened to me. It was a lot of fun, but the one thing that was a little skeevy for me was my character has to run through a little swamp in Georgia. All of it was fine until the last moment when I realized we are in rural Georgia. In a swamp. I’m just running through it. I don’t know what lives in this swamp! The stunt guys did it first and they’re like, “Yeah, be careful there’s a bump here,” but I’m like I’m not worried about running. I can run and jump on a log. I’m an athletic human being, but I don’t know what would happen if a snake grabbed hold of my ankle! I’m from Chicago, I’m not prepared for that. But I had to not talk about those fears and just run through the swamp. [laughs]

Well, it seemed like you guys all had a blast doing this movie.

Johnson: We did. You know, doing New Girl I realized I like being in an ensemble. I’m good at it and I like it. I don’t need to be the lead guy. I’m not interested in being out front and having nobody with me. I like being on a team of talented nice people. I asked around and everybody on this, their reputation was that they were easy to work with and a lot of fun. And it was true. No one was a stick in the mud and came in with great energy. There wasn’t one person, from top to bottom, that I didn’t like. That I would be happy to get a text from. I mean there are some people you work with who are good, but they suck. I could never talk about that in press, but we all know they suck. This was not that movie.

And this is a movie about a group of friends who play a stupid game but it keeps them together. They have their wives and kids and it keeps getting bigger and bigger but this is how they stay in each other’s lives. I would be happy to do that with these guys.

Do you have close friends from high school that you keep in touch with?

Johnson: I do. My dream was to be a professional athlete but then sadly I realized, “I think I’m only going to be about 5’10”” But I happened to met a guy in high school who ended up becoming the artistic director of Second City in Chicago, where all the Chicago comedy comes out of. But I met him when he was 15. My other buddy has a band in New York and another one was in my movie Win It All. We were all a crew and we all wanted to do movies and TV. We wanted to make stuff. So, our version of Tag, our game at 15 was weren’t going out and getting drunk, but going to coffee shops and talking about plays and writing. It kept us out of trouble and gave us a goal. When then formed a comedy group and that group, we traveled the country together. We are still working together in different ways and it has kept us connected.

What do you love about writing?

Johnson: What I love the most is when an idea is forming. And I love when somebody goes, “You know what could be funny?…” Or, “You know what could work…” and that start building, and you imagine what that project could be. That to me is the best part of it. And then when you start doing the work on it and you’re writing – and I’m a very disciplined person, apart from all the characters that I play – I like doing the work. I like waking up, drinking my coffee, kissing my kids and going into the office for eight hours and work on a script. I love it. When you’re in it, you hear where the laughs are going to come. You hear it! And then a character surprises you and enters a room and you’re like, “Yeah, we need him here!” Then you are on set and seeing it and it works, that’s when the game becomes so crazy.

Do you feel somewhat blessed to be able to write something and then have it get made?

Johnson: Beyond. It’s a blessing but it’s also a sign of the times. Because I’m not doing $100 million projects on my own because those are harder to make. But I could make something for a little under $1 million, get the studios and financiers to pitch in, and make it with the people I love, that is really where my true happiness with this business comes in.

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