Interview: DRINKING BUDDIES Star Jake Johnson on Improv and Chemistry
In the charming and grounded new indie dramedy, Drinking Buddies, Jake Johnson juggles his live-in girlfriend (Anna Kendrick), commitment issues, temptation, and whether a friendship with his co-worker (Olivia Wilde) at Chicago-land brewery is built to support something more.
A completely improvised film that went off of writer/director/ragey car guy Joe Swanberg’s page and a half outline, Johnson tells us about the week he spent with Swanberg and Wilde sampling beer and developing chemistry, why his majestic face fur went missing for the film’s poster, and why he couldn’t pass up the chance to headline Drinking Buddies.
One of the stars of New Girl, we also ask Johnson how the show plans on avoiding some of the missteps that tripped up other shows that “went for it” with their will they/won’t they couples, the underrated writing staff, and the return of Coach.
What drew you to Drinking Buddies? Was it the deft way that the story avoids cliche, the chance to use some of your Upright Citizens Brigade improv skills?
Jake Johnson: You know, what actually first drew me to the film was shooting in Chicago. My brother had just had his son, my nephew Luke, and I wanted to be near him for the summer if I could. So, I found out about this little movie shooting in Chicago, and I talked to the director and said I was interested in doing it and lets hear about the pitch. And then what he kinda pitched me just seemed like a very unique experience. And, as an actor at this point in my stage, the kinda early on beginnings of my career, the idea of doing something that felt truly unique was something that I didn’t feel like I could pass up.
People say improv and it can mean many things, how much of this was…
Johnson: This was actually improvised. There was a page and a half outline. That was all that we had. All the story stuff was put together, but there was no script. So we had to make up all the words and what our characters did. And he allowed each of us to even name our own characters to kinda emphasize the point that we were creating them. And then he just had the story figured out.
There is great chemistry on the screen with this film. I know you filmed over the course of about three weeks, but was there any time to rehearse and develop that chemistry?
Johnson: Olivia (Wilde), Joe (Swanberg), and I spent a week together in Chicago beforehand going to Revolution Brewery in Chicago and Three Floyds in Indiana; making a batch of beer in Joe’s basement. So we spent about a week together beforehand just really hanging out and all getting to know each other, cause none of us had ever really hung out.
I’ve gotta ask, you’ve got a pretty stellar beard in the film, but it’s absent from the poster. What’s going on there? Why are they hiding the beard?
Johnson: Well what happened was we shot the movie over the summer before Magnolia bought it and then after the movie ended, I had to go back to my TV show and my TV show didn’t want the beard, so I shaved it and then Magnolia bought it and wanted to do a photo shoot for the poster.
So there’s no conspiracy?
Johnson: (chuckles) No.
You mentioned before how you are still sorta in an early stage of your career. Are you taking an active role in building your career by trying to pick films that are a certain way, or are you just picking whatever is interesting to you?
Johnson: You know, at this point, I’ve been kinda picking whatever is interesting at that moment. I think a Hollywood career is like the Muhammad Ali saying, “Everybody’s got a game-plan for a fight until you get punched in the face”. So the idea of trying to plan seems so silly.
For example, Safety Not Guaranteed, the thing that drew me to that was Colin Trevorrow is an old friend of mine, and this was his first film and he asked if I wanted to do it and I said yes. I never in my wildest dreams would have expected that to be this cult hit that it’s turned into. And then [it] felt like after doing that, like it was a great strategy to do that next to the first year of New Girl. But New Girl was just something that, when I was doing No Strings Attached with Liz Meriwether, we had so much fun on set coming up with bits together that she had a pilot for her TV show and asked me if I wanted to audition for it so that we could have fun and then that show took off.
So there’s very little real strategy. It’s just more, at each moment trying to figure out what I actually want and being presented with… and then of the stuff that I’m being presented [with], what actually seems like a good time. And there are real mistakes along the way that I’m starting to realize.
You’ve got Let’s Be Cops coming out in the future. That seems like a little bit more of a broad comedy than Safety Not Guaranteed and Drinking Buddies.
What can you tell me about that experience, what’s that film like?
Johnson: Yeah, that was different. That’s one of those… it’s a studio movie. We didn’t have as much freedom to kinda do what we wanted. That was an attempt to see, like, what do these studio movies feel like? And the upside of that movie for me, was to work with Damon Wayans Jr. Who, you know… I said yes to the movie to work with him and I think he’s the same way. Where we decided to kinda do a movie together and it was a real blast to work with him. I think he’s so funny and fun and I think we have really nice chemistry in that movie together.
And he’s coming back for an arc this season on New Girl, right?
Johnson: Yeah, he is, we’re really excited. He’s coming back for a bunch of episodes.
Speaking of the show, How’s the New Girl team working to avoid some of the missteps that have been made by other shows that kinda canned the will they/won’t they dance and kinda went for it like you guys did?
Johnson: You know, I don’t know, that’s really on Liz and our writing staff. We really have what I believe to be one of the most under-credited writing staffs on TV. I think it’s kind of a joke that Liz Meriwether personally hasn’t been credited with… Whatever awards they’re giving out, she should be getting them and our writing staff should be getting them. Because I think that they’re doing such an amazing job with this show, keeping it really broad and silly and funny and yet also having real moments that people care about.
I think that the nice thing about what they’re doing with our TV show is that both young people and older people both like it and that’s a really unique thing.
I know you have a background as a playwright. Are you actively looking to write something for yourself in the future, go back to those roots? Maybe try your hand at scripting an episode of New Girl?
Johnson: You know, what I’m actually doing rather than that is, I started a production company through 20th Century Fox called The Walcott Company with a partner of mine, a guy named Max Winkler (a TV and film director who also mimicked his father, Henry, as a young Barry Zuckerkorn in season 4 of Arrested Development) and Mary Lee.
And what we’re looking to do is find writers or directors or actors who have really good ideas and help them develop those ideas into television shows. So that’s been the way that I’ve been kinda dealing with that itch to go back to writing, and that’s helping other people achieve their dream shows.
Drinking Buddies is available on VOD and in theaters now. Check out our review of the film here.