Most of us know Jake Johnson as the daffy but lovable Nick Miller from Fox’s New Girl, but the TV star was recently tossed into the big leagues when he was cast across action movie veteran Tom Cruise in The Mummy reboot. So how did he go from playing sweet, slightly addle-brained bartender, to undead action star battling an omnipotent ancient evil? Well for one, he pumped some iron. Cruise took him under his wing and taught him how to stunt train and how to get hurt “but not injured.” Johnson tells us what leaping from burning buildings with Tom Cruise is really like and how he feels about Nick Miller finally “getting the girl.”
ROGUE: How did The Mummy come about and how did you research the role of being undead?
JAKE: Well I did do some method acting [laughs]. It was really fun and challenging. It was different to get to do a job where I have prosthetics and hair and makeup for hours. When you look in the mirror with your fake cheeks sunken in and black teeth, you are instantly in character because you don’t look or feel like yourself. My character is dead, the way Alex [Kurtzman] and Tom [Cruise] wanted it done is very stilted and they wanted to feel the character going through the pain after being cursed, so it was a wild ride.
I heard Tom made you do your own stunts?
Absolutely. No joke, when I signed up to do the movie, I didn’t know anything about the movie, I hadn’t read the script yet, so I didn’t know what I was getting into. When I saw what I had to do--all the stunts with Tom--the panic set in in because we all know Tom Cruise does it all and I didn’t want to do it all. But I didn’t have a choice for halfway, so we trained for about four months to get there. Whenever he wanted to train, I would train, if he wanted to do something, I would do it. I wanted to experience what it was like to do a movie through his lens. We became really good friends. In terms of big Hollywood movie stars, when you are in the room alone with him, he is kind of the best. I had a blast. I was honored to be part of it.
What was one of the craziest stunts you had to do?
We jumped off a building as it exploded and we had to leap through fire and land on a building that was a story below. We were on a three story building that was built to collapse, so it collapsed three stories and then we fall off onto the ground and I get pulled into a hole. Tom wants things to be practical & realistic, he never wants too much CGI, he’d want the ground to be the ground. So we would land on plywood which is not as hard as concrete, but it’s not a pillow or mattress! No safety wires either. So after a couple of takes I was getting a little bruised up. It hurt. I told him that I must be doing something wrong because I am in physical pain. Not with broken bones, but it’s hurting. He said, ‘Here’s what you just got to understand, every stunt you are going to get hurt, but we are going to be careful so you never get injured.’
That doesn’t sound very reassuring--
No! [laughs] After work he would send me to a physio guy who would make sure my muscles were all in the right place. Then you’d stretch and take ice baths and stuff like that. We were always just kind of beaten up a bit. But to his credit, he never lied to me. He said it’s going to hurt, but it’s not going to injure you. Nothing prevented me from doing it the next day. It was just like, this hurts, and he’s like ‘yeah--you fell two stories and landed on your ass. It’s not going to feel good!’ I asked what happens if I accidentally fall off the roof? His advice for me: don’t fall off the roof! I didn’t want to stop Tom’s art, there is an art to what he’s doing. There is a method to his madness. I didn’t want to be the thing that slowed down the Tom Cruise vision. Tom’s the last of his kind and in the world of film, he should just be celebrated for what he’s doing.
How was it working with Tom, you can just tell that you guys had fun doing it--
I was really just nervous to work with Tom at first, because he’s Tom Cruise, and I didn’t know what it was going to be like on a human level, but very quickly I realized I liked him. He was so pleasant, charming and funny. We’d even do some comedy bits--do the Top Gun hand shakes and he’d heighten the joke perfectly! He really became somebody to me, I really loved working with him. He is from a very different generation than the generation of actor I grew up with because my generation that I’ve seen and am part of sometimes unfortunately, is more apathetic or pessimistic--we see the business for what it is--the goods and the bads--and we are playing the game and happy to play it. But Tom loves it. He’s enthusiastic and he adores filmmaking. To be around somebody who has a love for this business, which is greater than my own, was a real surge. I am an energy sponge, so whenever I’m around somebody like that, it does make me love it more.
Did learning that form of physicality inform your art as an actor with that added to your catalog now?
Unfortunately, probably not [laughs]! I mean if I were a more evolved human it would’ve, but I will always go back to my ways because I’m 38, I’m an old dog. It's very hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But there’s a catch to it, I do have a gym in my garage now! I don’t work out at the same intensity that I was for the movie, but if there’s a sequel and Tom calls me to do it, I can't have taken a year off without doing any deadlifts or squats, he’d kill me. So I’m not pushing it to his level or trying to recreate a role like that, but I got to maintain a little, I got to keep it going. I can't have him leapfrogging past me like I'm a total grandpa.
Tell me about Win it All, the movie you wrote and star in that was recently released on Netflix.
Win it All is my third collaboration with director Joe Swanberg. Who is a brilliant director and human. His idea is filmmaking should lead to happiness and it should lead to happiness while you’re doing it. It shouldn’t be something you do for some little kid dream or some ego fulfillment or to get some paycheck to live in some Hollywood hills home and be a huge star. It should quite literally be for happiness and enjoyment and the people watching it should experience some sort of joy. It blew my mind because I didn’t see my work that way before. I saw it as having a vision of what I want to do in this business and I will get to my goal even if it’s not pleasant. But when I worked with Joe, I was like, oh shit, this is it! This was a movie that I deeply wanted people to watch at home and have a drink or smoke what you smoke. The day’s over and I want to give you an hour and a half of fun, you are not going to regret that you watched this one.
When you are on set and you have written it together, is there any sort of improvisation that happens?
Always. We would let the cast study the script and then after we’ve done the scene a couple of times--we would never would want things word perfect, so we tell them to loosen it up. I think if you are trying to capture something some writer did months ago that’s one form of art, but it’s not an art I’m not interested in, because it makes the day less about the magic. I like being on set and collaborating--we cannot get away from the story, but there’s got to be some spontaneity, there’s got to be some fun--somebody’s got to do something in this scene while we’re rolling that’s going to inform a reaction and that’s where I’m at my happiest as an actor.
You also get to improvise on New Girl--let’s talk about the next season, what can you say about its future?
At the end of season 6, Nick and Jess get back together. Nick realizes that he has been into Jess all along, duh. So as we go to season 7, who knows what will happen, I have no idea. I think the best of Nick and Jess is when you keep them close but you never put them together. For my two cents that always seemed obvious. Even though the audience wanted them together, you don’t want to watch a show about them together. It’s about these two people who obviously need to be together, but they just don’t see it yet because they are young and dumb. With season 3 we got in some story problems, because they were together and now what’s the show without the tension? But I like how the writers have handled it over the last few years, where it’s gotten closer, built up, so I don’t know what season 7 would look like.
It was going into the Mulder and Scully territory...
Yes, I think that’s the fun of it. In Cheers, which is one of my all time favorite shows, I never wanted Sam and Dan to be together. I wanted them to always want to be together. I don’t need a story to end where you know exactly what happens and everything is perfect. We’ll see where our writers take it and what they do story wise. I love playing Nick and I will be forever sad when the show ends. I love doing scenes with Max, Lamorne, Zoey, and Hannah. We’ve created this weird, awesome dynamic language between us. With Max, we’ve worked together so much, and hang out together so much on set that he will know exactly what I’m going to do for a scene before I start, and I will do the same with him. It’s a really unique thing.
Your character has evolved over the seasons. They’re trying to grow him up. Where would you like to see him go next?
I think what makes Nick funny, in my opinion, is that he is a crazy person. He’s stunted so that’s where his comedy comes from, that he just sees the world in a weird way and he’s never not going to. That’s who he is. The problem is they also want him to be a love interest, and at a certain point he’s got to tighten his shit up. If he’s going to be with Jess, they eventually got to figure it out. It’s a tricky thing because I love the ‘Nick and Jess’ of the show, but I love Nick’s comedy, so I never want the writers to say Nick’s growing up and getting serious. Because what makes him funny is that part of him that is stunted. Let’s keep Nick ridiculous while being a “grown up”--I would like to see him do that.
Photography by Benjo Arwas
Styling by Melissa Triber
Grooming by Stephanie Kim
Written by Heather Seidler