Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Jake Johnson can’t explain the exact science behind it, but there’s something about a dude wearing a jumbo pinkie ring that exudes influence.
Best known for his seven-year run on “New Girl,” Johnson became an unwitting Internet crush as Nick Miller, a lovable mess and a misanthropic almost lawyer turned bar owner turned published author who keeps his money in a Ziploc bag and doesn’t see the point in washing his bath towels.
But if you thought nobody could be cool enough as cool Nick Miller, Johnson came strutting in as Doug Renetti.
Doug is Johnson’s character in the 1970s-set TV series “Minx” — a magnetic and slightly sleazy publisher of an erotic magazine who finds a reluctant business partner in feminist Joyce Prigger (Ophelia Lovibond) and launches the first Playgirl-esque nude magazine for the female gaze. Like Nick, Doug is an underdog of sorts. But this role has Johnson fitted in polyester leisure suits, shirts unbuttoned low enough to show off his chest hair and, of course, those gaudy rings. (More on that later.)
The series returned for its second season last week, switching to Starz. (The network picked up the series after Max pulled the plug late last year.) It continues Johnson’s busy summer. Last month, he reprised his role voicing Peter B. Parker in the animated sequel “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” Then comes the release of “Self Reliance,” the comedy thriller film he wrote, directed and starred in, which will be available to stream on Hulu on Sept. 8.
Speaking over video from his home in Los Angeles, the actor discussed the Kanye West lyric that motivated him during his early years as an actor, making his directorial debut with “Self Reliance,” and getting into the advice business for a new podcast. This conversation, which took place before the SAG-AFTRA strike, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: You look like you’re having the best time in the ‘ 70s wardrobe. I saw a tweet that said, “define sex appeal” and someone replied with a montage of you in “Minx” in all these outfits. How do you feel when you’re in all that polyester?
A: As a man in 2023 who is not a blinged-out guy, I don’t have that experience. Even when I go to red carpets, I just look like a dad who’s going to like his kid’s high school singing event or my kid’s graduation. I wear black suits and a tie and I just want to look professional enough that people don’t make fun of me. My entire style is just don’t f— it up. And so you don’t get a boost, you don’t feel an extra confidence, you don’t peacock.
So when I get to wear a fur jacket and boots that have 2-inch heels, it changes how you feel. When you have rings on and you’re talking with your hands, people listen. I’ll be at craft service saying to somebody, “I promise you, my man, a turkey sandwich is better than the ham.” And people are going like, “I think he’s probably right about turkey!” I know it’s about the jewelry. People respect jewelry. They might make fun of it, they’ll say, “He looks like a clown,” but they’re also suddenly getting a turkey sandwich. When I put the stuff on, even though it’s just on set, that is where I find Doug and where Doug is different than Jake. He peacocks and he loves it.
Q: What’s it like to be telling a story that isn’t constrained by boundaries? Did it take time, comfort-level wise, to be on a set where nudity is more common than the average set?
A: It definitely takes getting used to and it’s odd. When I first saw “Boogie Nights,” I thought Burt Reynolds’ performance in that was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. And when Burt Reynolds first sees Mark Wahlberg’s characters’ d— in that kitchen and isn’t threatened by it, doesn’t do the thing that I was used to men doing when men would see d— in entertainment, which is like, “I’m going to barf!” It’s not like seeing it is going to make you want to grab it and instantly change your sexuality. And his reaction when he saw it, it was just a huge dollar sign.
With “Minx,” for me, it was not anything besides, “Oh my God, it’s in the world of ‘Boogie Nights.'” So, it was just like, “Oh, thank God. I’m never going to probably be able to be in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. But I get to be near one of his movies.” It’s like going to Paul Thomas Anderson space camp or whatever.
Q: Doug really, really wants to be successful as a publisher, and he really wants to be taken seriously. And he’ll do just about anything to get there. Is that a familiar feeling as an actor?
A: Oh, yeah, there’s always got to be something when you play a character that you personally connect to and, when I was about 16 or 17, I did my first play in high school and thought, “Man, I want to do this.” I was in the suburbs of Chicago and I didn’t really know how you make it a career. But I was like, I don’t want to do another job and do this as, like, a hobby at night; I want to figure out how to do this.
It became an obsession. It was a manic push for a lot of years to do anything — to be on any stage, to get any offer. Nothing was beneath me. There was no judgment of the material. If they said, “Do you want to stand on stage while we throw rotten veggies at you? We’ll give you 25 bucks.” I’d be like, “Thank you for the opportunity!” I used to do this stuff in New York for a period of time, I would go on subways and perform. I would have like a weird mask and just try to do random shows simply to perform.
Q: Tell me more about this.
A: My sister had got these masks from the Czech Republic that were like beautifully done clown masks, old man masks. I was performing on stages and I was at NYU for writing and that era was ending. And I was worried. I was starting to figure out day jobs and it was like a random Saturday and I thought, maybe if I just get out and perform, I could make 50 bucks, 25 bucks. There was no act. There was just desire. But similar to Doug Renetti, you just keep pushing forward and if something lands a little, then you’ve won and then there’s your momentum and takeoff.
Q: Doug starts out this season hustling and trying to rebuild his empire — and, knowing Doug, he finds his way. He’s taking up jogging and he splurges on a car. What was your first big splurge and when did that happen?
A: My first big splurge was when I was able to write my mom a big check and then being like, “Ooh, that’s neat.” I could send a chunk of money to somebody I love and it doesn’t give me like that really bad stomachache where I go, “I’m gonna vomit, but it was the class move.” That was the beginning for me. It was early Season 1 [of “New Girl”], where I thought, “Wow, would you look at that? I got some money.”
There’s a Kanye West lyric that I always listened to when I was a struggling actor, “Wait till I get my money right.” [Starts singing it] I would listen to it, go into auditions — if I had a director treating me like s— or I was in like a waiting room for two hours, and then they would come out and say like, “Actually, we’re good. Thank you guys so much for coming.” And I would think like, “Man, I want to pop off. This is so disrespectful.” Or this time I did a Tampax commercial …
Q: I already love where this is going. When was this?
A: It was 2008 or 2009. It was for the Tampax Pearl, which I don’t know if you know this, but the Pearl is an upgrade over the regular old Tampax. Whatever device it is, it’s just better. And as the commercial goes, brrrp, “Now that’s an upgrade!” The campaign was, you see something and then, brrrp, it upgrades. So mine was: there’s a beautiful woman, there’s the knock on the door and it opens and there’s a fat slob holding a bucket of fried chicken and a six-pack of beer and I go, “C-c-chicken?” And then it goes brrrp and there’s a hunk holding a bottle of wine in a suit.
So I get the audition. But when I get to set, there was an actual fight between the director, who was like this Irish hipster, and the ad people where the ad people were the “hacks” because they were ruining her vision. She was saying, “He’s perfectly fat and greasy as is.” And they were saying, “We want to make him look fatter and greasier.” And she was saying, “Look at him! This is how men of his age look. They’re fat and greasy like this. We don’t have to make him an exaggeration. He’s perfect.” And in my head I was just thinking, “Wait till I get my money right.”
And so they fattened me up a little bit, put some fake grease on me, which made the director so unhappy. I delivered the lines, I brought the chicken. So when you say something to me where you say like, “Well, the internet said this about you …,” I’m like, I am the fat guy holding chicken. The world has a sense of humor. In a couple of years, I can guarantee the world is going to change, and I’m holding that chicken again. And as long as I’m working, I’m happy.
Q: “Minx” was originally renewed for a second season at HBO Max before it became a casualty of the streamer cleaning house. And you were actually in production when the news hit. How did you find out?
A: I think I was driving to work. I contacted some people at Lionsgate [the company that produces the show], who I’m in pretty good touch with, and said, “What’s the real story?” And they said, “The real story is there was financial numbers. We knew this was a chance. We’re very disappointed. And we’ve already got three different streamers who have reached out and they want to watch what we’ve done with Season 2, but there are already very soft, unofficial bids coming in. And one of them is extremely real.”
I think you should have a loyalty to your audience and you should have a loyalty to the people you’re working with, but whoever wants to stream it, if it weren’t Starz, and the truth is, if a new streamer came out, and they said, “This is going to be our first show, but we’re really excited. And we’re going to do a big marketing spend, so people will know where to find it,” I would be thrilled to go there.
Q: Given everything that’s going on, whether it’s the writers’ strike, or a SAG -AFTRA strike, or even just seeing all the consolidation, strategy shifts and layoffs at these media companies — what concerns do you have right now as a creative person in this industry?
A: What I really hope for is less greed from these corporations, more distribution of finances. I think that younger writers and younger actors are having a way harder time breaking in. I think if the business was what it is now when I first started, I would not have survived, I would not have made it. I would be back in Chicago and I’d have [a] ponytail and I’d be doing some version of construction and really disappointing the people whose house I was working on where they would go, “Does this dope know what a level is?” And I would go, “I swear on my life, I’m trying my hardest.”
My big take on all of this, from what I understand what the SAG strike might be about, is really just making sure that people who are starting their careers now, or people who had stronger careers, but they have gotten older, are just more compensated. And I think what’s hard for outsiders of the industry to see where they go like, “Oh, wow, OK, Brad Pitt’s striking? Sure, I’d take his life!” The reality is Brad Pitt would only be striking to support others of those types because there’s a lot of people who work really hard. They’re really great writers, they’re really funny actors — they really help make a show work and they’re just not getting paid enough to pay their bills. And in the old world with residuals, they would.
These corporations need to spread the wealth a little bit. And these big numbers of what the CEOs make each year where they get posted, I’m like, this it just a bad taste, guys. I would stop bragging.
Q: Let’s talk about “Self Reliance,” your film about a guy who gets invited to compete in a game where he can win a million dollars by staying alive while others try to kill him. The film starts off with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” When did that quote find you?
A: I had gotten into transcendentalism as an idea in high school. And I just thought it was, and I still think it is, the greatest lesson, and that is: If you feel something about yourself is true, you’re right. I think that voice we all have, whatever that instinct is, if you’re walking down an alley and you feel scared — I don’t know why we’re taught not to listen to it.
The core of this movie that I wanted to make — especially during the pandemic — is that even when the world is crazy, you have a responsibility to listen to yourself. Part of it is so many people are watching so many YouTube videos and going so crazy with conspiracy theories. Even friends of mine, people I value, where I’m like, “You’ve been up until 4 a.m., smoking weed, and now you believe the weirdest s—.” I’m like, “Sit by yourself for a second. What do you really think?” And then deep down, they’d go: “I mean, I think it’s probably all just nothing.” Oh, that’s it! But yeah, I thought, man, if we all just listen to that voice. There are some people who have really wacky inner voices, but the majority of us don’t.
Q: There’s no way we can’t talk about “New Girl.” I know you’re a big TV lover — “Cheers” was so foundational for you. “Roseanne” too. I interviewed Max Greenfield [his former co-star on “New Girl”] about his children’s book at our Festival of Books at USC, and the number of college students who swarmed him was insane. I’m curious for you, as somebody who knows what that connection is like, what’s it like to be part of something like that?
A: One thing I’d like to say that is something that can get picked up as a headline, but I think all press and people can stop apologizing for bringing it up as if it’s something that we don’t appreciate. I think back in the ’90s, or the ’80s, if you did something like “Wings,” that meant you didn’t get to work again until you did “Sideways.” But that meant for 20 years, you just had to live in your mansion in Montecito and do Pilates and keep your body right.
My dream growing up, which was very clear, was I used to believe as a child that people on TV shows were obviously real, their families were real. I believed “Cheers” was a real bar and I wanted to live in that bar. And when I watched, it was an out of body experience. I was not somebody who watches who was half in and half out. I was in the bar with them. I was in Roseanne’s house. And I loved it. And I wanted to live in the TV.
When I started doing that play in high school, and then I found out about Second City in Chicago and I found out that George Wendt [who played Norm Peterson on “Cheers”] had done it, Bill Murray had been there, John Belushi — all these people were five miles south on a stage, and that stage could lead to “SNL,” it could lead to movies and TV shows, it was everything.
When I made my move out here [to Los Angeles] and we booked “New Girl,” even just booking a pilot of a TV show, had that been it and then I left, I did it! I could have gone back to Chicago and felt like, “I can’t believe I have booked a pilot! Wow, man.” Then it got picked up to 13 [episodes] and I remember my wife and I were in Seattle, we were doing “Safety Not Guaranteed.” We were in a hotel and I was hysterical. I had tears coming down. I could not believe that I would be on an actual TV show. And it was the first time in my life I started going to therapy because I was like, “I can’t deal with all these emotions.” In that first year, I lost my mind; I was like, I don’t know how to fathom that this is real life. And then the show kept going and it had an audience.
TV was the dream. So when it finished, I thought, “Oh, I don’t know if I’ll ever get another one like this.” But I did get one. And then this one [“Minx”] keeps finding new audiences. As an old man, there’s going to be a day where I’m done doing this business, where the internet and people’s reaction to me, which is really flattering and nice, it’s not my real life. My real life is a guy who really wanted to do this. I have really bad dyslexia and I have an enormous nose that’s broken at half and I was not a picture of a guy who you go, like with athletes where you go, “That’s a first round draft pick.” I’m the equivalent of a guy from Europe who was like 37, spent time in a Lithuanian jail, and one coach went like, “Maybe we’ll have him on the bench …” and I keep playing.
Q: Before I let you go, tell me about the podcast you’re launching.
A: I’ve been thinking about podcasts for a lot of years. And then my friend Gareth Reynolds, who does “The Dollop” [podcast], pitched the idea where he’s like, “I think you and I should do an earnest but ridiculous call-in show.” But the game of it is [when] we take these calls — all we ask is people to be real, but the problems can be small, insignificant. Somebody called in and this woman from Indiana is in a Dungeons & Dragons game and she’s created a German character named Philomena, but she doesn’t feel like her character gets the credit it deserves and we help her with her German accent.
So the whole backstory is like, “Are you being serious?” And once you realize people are serious, people are so funny. We’re like, “What do you want here?” And she’s like, “I want nerd clout. I want to be the star in the game.” So it’s been really fun for us and really fun for the callers, and we hope the whole thing works. We’re going to release it in August, but we’re gonna just do everything independent. But it’s been a real blast. I can’t wait to finish the first 10, get ’em out, and see if we’ll make more.