North Shore native Jake Johnson talks sports, Second City and finding success on-screen.
On the TV series “New Girl,” Jake Johnson plays Nick Miller, an adorable but curmudgeonly chronic underachiever. But in real life, the North Shore native is anything but: In the last two years, Johnson has graced the screen in big-budget movies such as “No Strings Attached” and “21 Jump Street”; starred in critical indie darlings such “Drinking Buddies” and “The Pretty Ones”; made memorable guest appearances on television shows like Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” and, most notably, has been an essential part of the success of “New Girl.” The Fox sitcom, which tells the story of the title character, played by Zooey Deschanel, and her three male roommates, is a bona fide hit for the network, earning five Emmy and four Golden Globe nominations — including Best Comedy Series.
“We all get along great and love making each other laugh,” Johnson says, adding that a fair amount of their off-the-cuff humor is included in each episode. “We always shoot the script as is, but then we do a few takes of improv,” he says. “A lot of it makes it onto the air.” As for this season’s much-discussed storyline, in which Johnson and Deschanel’s characters finally give into their mutual feelings, Johnson doesn’t reveal much. “She’s a great actress, and working with her has been a real treat,” he says.
Johnson, 35, traces his comedy chops back to his Chicago upbringing. Though he grew up in Winnetka, and moved to Evanston when he was 15, he trekked downtown whenever he could. “I loved how close it was to the city. In my opinion, Chicago is the best city in the country.” His trips often included a visit to Second City, which the actor credits as inspiring his love for acting.
But it was his talent for writing that got him into the industry. While attending the University of Iowa he wrote a play, which garnered him admission to the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. He moved to LA soon after and waited tables while writing and starring in short films and appearing in bit TV and movie roles. After a small role in the 2010 Russell Brand movie “Get Him to the Greek,” Johnson’s career began to accelerate, with appearances in several blockbuster movies, and in 2011, he was cast in “New Girl,” which, now in its third season, draws in an average 5.7 million viewers per episode.
Though filming the show means that he and his wife, Erin Payne, are now LA-based, Johnson’s love for Chicago still burns strong. In fact, he asked the “New Girl” writing team to have his character hail from Chicago. “I love when [the city] is represented in TV and movies,” he says. He returns several times a year to visit family and friends — “I always get an Old Style at Old Town Ale House, and I make sure to swing by Wrigley Field” — and adds that he’s a “die-hard” Cubs, Bears and Bulls fan. Like most of the city, he’s thrilled about the return of hometown hero Derrick Rose. “He’s an easy player to cheer for,” says Johnson, an avid hooper who plays in a weekly men’s basketball league. “Great work ethic, and I like that he doesn’t recruit players to Chicago. Win with what you have.”
While “New Girl” continues to thrive, Johnson also has his hand in other projects, including two 2014 movies: “Neighbors,” starring Zac Efron and Rose Byrne, and “Let’s Be Cops.” “It’s an action comedy with Damon Wayans Jr., Rob Riggle and Andy Garcia,” Johnson says. “It was a blast working with Damon. I can’t wait to see the movie.” Though he’s found his fame in front of the camera thus far, he’s eager to get back behind the scenes. “I’m very interested in producing things. I like watching ideas become projects,” he says. “But I just want to keep working and making things that I can be proud of.”
“New Girl” airs Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. on Fox.