He plays gruff and grumbling bartender Nick Miller on the hit Fox sitcom New Girl, which is currently in its second season, but Jake Johnson is just as adorkable as costar Zooey Deschanel. Having wrapped three films scheduled for next year — Ass Backwards, The Pretty One, and Drinking Buddies — the 34-year-old Chicago native opens up about his bromantic relationships both on- and off-screen.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: Viewers are buzzing about the will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry between your character Nick and Zooey Deschanel’s Jess, but I think the heart of New Girl is the relationship between Nick and Max Greenfield’s Schmidt. So will they or won’t they?
Jake Johnson: It’s definitely a bromance, but it didn’t start out that way. In the beginning, Nick hated everything that came out of Schmidt’s mouth, but now he enjoys Schmidt a lot more. Yeah, something’s going to happen with those two. With all their Godfather “Fredo kisses,” Nick and Schmidt have already kissed way more than Nick and Jess. There’s a lot going on with those two buddies, and it’ll be fun as the writers keep exploring their relationship.
Are you aware of gay fans?
Sometimes I’ll get a tweet, like, “You are the perfect man for me.” I’ll think, Oh, who’s this lovely lady? And it’ll be an older African-American gentleman. Gay fans can be very critical, so that support means a lot to me, because it means I’m doing something right.
You didn’t seem excited when I sent you a link to a gay blog featuring Photoshopped pictures of you.
What do you want me to do? “Hey, everybody, come look! Gay guys are putting my head on pictures of other guys having sex!” It’s flattering, but I’m not making them my screensaver.
What was your introduction to the LGBT community?
I made my first and closest gay friend in 2000 during an NYU summer study abroad program in Ireland. He was my roommate, and he introduced me to gay culture. I remember I was just getting out of the shower when we met. He was clearly disgusted by the sight of me in a towel, so he left the room in a hissy and he went around telling the girls in the program, “Ugh, my roommate’s a goddamn bear!” But we became great friends.
Even after that first impression?
When I went from playing sports to doing theater in high school, it wasn’t the most welcoming environment. It was cliquey — about 95% of those guys were gay — and I don’t think they wanted someone like me in the group, but they accepted me by my senior year and we had fun. My first few years in New York I only had a couple close straight friends, so when I met my funny but sort of bitchy gay roommate in Dublin, it was a good, familiar feeling. He called me “Ike” and I called him “Tina.”
Was it an abusive relationship?
No, he was mad that I was living off of what I considered grilled cheese sandwiches, so he insisted on cooking for me. One night we were being really loud, doing bits, and the Dublin police were called on us for a potential domestic abuse complaint. I opened the door wearing a wife beater, and my roommate’s sprawled out in the background, all flushed and sweaty after cooking my dinner. Those cops did not know what to make of it. [Laughs] All jokes aside, I don’t see anything different between someone who’s gay and someone who’s not. Who you have sex with does not matter to me. My mom raised me to know that race, religion, and sexuality don’t matter; if you like someone, they’re your friend. My personal code has always been that if someone makes me laugh, they’re OK by me.
You mentioned that your roommate introduced you to gay culture. What exactly did this guy teach you?
I know now that this is a stereotype, but he’d come home every night with grass stains on his knees and tell me that gay guys could get ass whenever they wanted. I also learned that if you act like a helpless idiot, a good gay guy will be nice and cook for you.
As a married man, what are your thoughts on marriage equality?
I 100% believe that gay people should be able to get married. I’ve been with Erin, my wife, for seven years, and we weren’t really planning on getting married until I got hit in the head and had to go to the hospital for a potential concussion. I was being a melodramatic baby about it because I thought I was dying, so Erin was talking to the nurse. The moment the nurse found out that Erin wasn’t my wife, it was like Erin lost all validity in the conversation. Afterward, we realized we needed to get married because of simple things like that. So it sickens me that some people can’t marry the most important person in their life and share those same simple privileges of marriage.
Your New Girl costar Max Greenfield played gay in Happy Endings and Greek. Could you pull off a gay role?
I’m not sure the world’s ready for that, but if given the opportunity, I think I could do something interesting with it. When I book a gay character, I’m going to do some Daniel Day-Lewis stuff and follow you around for two months. I’ll go full method and make people call me Brandon Voss.
Who would you cast as your male love interest?
Joe Pesci. We could do a weird Brokeback Mountain and just call it Mean Mountain.
Which gay celebrity would you want to play in a biopic?
Billy Crystal’s character in Soap.
Eli, your sidekick character in No Strings Attached, had two gay dads. What inspired that?
Our New Girl creator Liz Meriwether actually wrote that screenplay and wanted to give the character more depth. A Mexican busboy at a Vietnamese restaurant in my neighborhood had only seen the trailer and told me, “Your character’s like, ‘Yeah, I like pizza; go have sex with her!’” And he was right. But having two gay dads made him more likable and interesting.
There’s a great little moment at the end of the film where Eli is seen hugging and jumping up and down with his gay dads. Was that in the script?
No, that moment was documented after we wrapped. I was walking home, I saw those two guys carrying balloons, and we all just jumped in each other’s arms for a while. Because I felt when we were shooting the movie that they really were my dads, and all three of us still talk every day on the phone — we conference call, and I call them both Dad. [Laughs] No, that was actually one of the first things we shot on that movie. What was really great about that scene was having the famous and amazing Ivan Reitman direct me and say, “Jake, run into your dads’ arms, jump up and down, and be excited.”
Speaking of gay dads, in Fox’s short-lived animated series Allen Gregory you voiced Joel Zadak, a cool jock who bullies the titular nerd with two fathers. Were you ever on either end of bullying?
No, neither. But I would like to tell kids who are being bullied today that I know they’ll be stronger because of it, so don’t give up, even though I know it’s hard. And to the bullies, I just want to say, "Fuck you. I get it, you suck, but stop making other people hate life as much as you hate yourself. I’m older, so I realize that the only reason you’re making fun of others is that you’re insecure. Guess what? You are right to be insecure. You're terrible. So stop it and leave other kids alone."
You played the principal in 21 Jump Street and had great lines like “I’m one more black gay kid getting punched in the face away from a nervous breakdown.” That movie might be the most homoerotic straight buddy comedy ever, right?
Oh, yeah. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are fun dudes, so I just know that they were doing absolutely anything in the moment for a laugh on that movie.
Are you aware of its recent gay porn parody, 21 Hump Street?
That’s incredible. I was not aware of it, but I’m sure you’re very aware of it.
Should I send you my copy?
You also played Jesus in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas and shared a memorable scene with Neil Patrick Harris. What was NPH like?
Well, we were both surrounded by a bunch of bare breasts, so meeting NPH in that situation was a little strange. But even in that weirdo environment, he couldn’t have been nicer, cooler, or more professional. I saw very quickly what makes him so special. I respect him a lot.
Did you base your portrayal of Jesus on anyone in particular?
Uh, yeah. I based him on Jesus.
You have a few movies coming out next year. Is there one in particular that the gay audience should look out for?
In Drinking Buddies, which stars Anna Kendrick and Olivia Wilde, I have the biggest beard on my face that I’ve ever had. So you will get to see a cub with a bear’s beard.
Are there any gay storylines coming up on New Girl?
June Diane Raphael will be back as Dr. Sadie, Jess’s lesbian gynecologist friend, and there’s a big storyline with her that involves a lesbian couple, fertility, and getting older. Kay Cannon, who wrote Pitch Perfect, wrote the episode. But Liz Meriwether is so open and doesn’t see a divide between the straight and gay communities, so she’s all about gay characters just naturally being a part of the landscape of our show. And if we continue to move forward with the show, I can guarantee there will be a lot more gay characters.
You recently told Essential Homme that you considered Nick “a guy’s guy” and never wanted him costumed in “anything that could be considered metrosexual.” Do you have any metrosexual traits, or are you just as butch as your character?
I have my metrosexual moments. I recently tried to pull off a low-cut V-neck to show off my Tommy Selleck chest hair. Zooey was like, “That’s awful.” Then Max said, “Yeah, V-necks are dead.” I was like, “What? When did V-necks die?” Since New Girl started I also work out a lot more, and I’m a way healthier eater. I definitely don’t drink as much beer as I used to. Now I’ll drink vodka on ice.
I don’t consider you overweight, but your character is the butt of a lot of chubby jokes on the show.
Yeah, after the episode where I had to dance naked to Jamaican music, every fourth line was about Nick having bad metabolism or eating too many cookies. What’s funny is that the network actually asked me to lose 15 pounds, and I did. I basically got told I was too fat for Fox. I was so excited when I booked the pilot, so my wife and I went out to get Mexican food and celebrate. In the car, I was already thinking about what I was going to order. I was going to get chips and guacamole, a blended margarita, a quesadilla for the table, and a chicken burrito for me. I knew she was going to get tacos, so I figured we’d do a little mix and match on that. Then I got a call from my manager, who told me I needed to lose 15 pounds before we started shooting. So when I got to the restaurant I had chicken salad with no dressing.
New Girl is really the first time you’ve been seen as a love interest or romantic lead. Does that put pressure on you to stay in shape?
Yeah, absolutely. No Strings Attached was actually the first movie where I had a girlfriend, but I was way fatter then. I thought I looked great, but people still write me on Twitter and say, “Hey, you were looking rough in No Strings Attached, bro.” So if I gain weight now, it would be really noticeable and really embarrassing.
There must be perks to being slimmer.
I didn’t get fired for being fat, which is a pretty damn big perk. [Laughs] I guess it’s nice to not have your gut hang over your pants when you reach for something in a high cabinet. A guy who’s a little fatter than he should be is constantly pulling his shirt down, which isn’t a good look. But I’m still never going to be confused as an actor-model. Even if I wanted it, no one will ever say, “Let’s get Jake Johnson for this photo spread!” I’ll never be shirtless and riding bareback on a horse to sell cologne.
Describe your celebrity fragrance anyway.
It would smell like day-old beer, stale cigarettes, and weird late-night food, but it wouldn’t be cologne; it would be a perfume for women who want to smell like they just had a terrible one-night stand. It would be called… Do You Remember?
The Advocate, December 2012/January 2013 issue, extended online version.