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SXSW 2012: Jake Johnson, 'Safety Not Guaranteed' Star, Is Ready To Break Out

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Jake Johnson
Jake Johnson

If Lizzy Caplan is the early frontrunner for It-Girl of 2012, then consider Jake Johnson her male counterpoint. The 32-year-old actor, who has broken out on the hit Fox series "New Girl," has a brief appearance in this weekend's "21 Jump Street," and will next be seen onscreen in "Safety Not Guaranteed." The indie romance -- which earned rave reviews Sundance Film Festival back in January, and was equally well-received at SXSW in Austin when it screened on Sunday -- gives Johnson the type of meaty supporting role you might expect to see Bill Murray inhabit in a Wes Anderson movie.

Directed by newcomer Colin Trevorrow (from a script by Derek Connolly), "Safety Not Guaranteed" focuses on three Seattle magazine workers (Johnson and two interns, played by Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni) who travel into the Washington suburbs to investigate a classified ad promising the person who replies the chance to time travel. (If this sounds familiar, that's because you might remember the Internet meme the film is based upon.) The ad writer, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), proves be in an interesting eccentric, and the film focuses on his relationship with Plaza's Darius, something that's handled with great care and a complete lack of cynicism.

On a parallel track is Johnson's Jeff, a grumpy reporter on the cusp of a mid-life crisis. He hopes to reconnect with an old flame, all while reminding Arnau (Soni), that youth is wasted on the young.

Moviefone caught up with Johnson and Soni at SXSW this week to discuss their outstanding new film (FilmDistrict will release "Safety Not Guaranteed" on June 8) and which Bill Murray character Johnson was hoping to replicate with Jeff.

Your character, and the relationship he has with Karan, reminds so much of "Rushmore."
Jake Johnson: Yes! You're the only person who's brought it up. This moment [raises his hand up] was my [homage to the end of "Rushmore"]. I'm saying, "I respect you." Herman Blume, that character to me -- I've never seen a better character. I understand the great characters he's played -- but for what I think is funny, I've never seen a greater character. From start to finish in that movie, I think he is pitch-perfect. How mean he is, but how funny he is; how sad he is -- everything. This character, Jeff, I thought: this is obviously not in the same league as Herman Blume, but there's something there that has that same kind of "Fuck you" bite. The way he jumps off the diving board! Everything. I asked Colin, at the end, can I do one take where I do the [hand up]?

Karan Soni: People love it, every time.

This film does a great job of balancing real melancholy with genuine humor. It's a tight-rope walk that gets increasingly more narrow as the film moves along. Was that in the script, or did you guys have to really work on establishing that tone as actors?
Jake Johnson: I'll tell you, there was a lot on the page. To give credit where credit is due on it, there's a lot going to our director, Colin, where he would allow us moments as actors to connect. The scene where my character goes to Karan's character to get him to go be with girls. On page, it was good, but it didn't show who these guys were. It was Jeff kinda still being a bully. Like, "Come on!" He literally like shoved him in the room and closed the door.

Karan Soni: [In the film] it was more gentle and more like real friends.

Jake Johnson: In the script it was less that Jeff and Arnau really liked each other. In real life, Karan and myself really grew to like one another. There was no denying that we really had fun with each other. Because the movie was the three of us and then [Aubrey and Mark]. When they were doing the two of them, we spent a lot of time together. In the moment like that, we were like, "If I'm Jeff and you're Arnau, and we're near these guys, I'm not going to shove you in."

Karan Soni: It felt wrong. We shot that toward the end of the shoot, anyway, so by then we already knew each other.

Jake Johnson: Colin really let us, in certain moments, go. In other moments it was really tight.

The film has this break-neck pace that really provides some great energy to the proceedings. Was the shoot incredibly brisk?
Jake Johnson: We had 24 shooting days.

Karan Soni: 30 locations.

Jake Johnson: The woman who played my girlfriend in it, Jenica Bergere, her entire thing was in one day. She flew in at night...

Karan Soni: She worked all day.

Jake Johnson: She got in 7 at night, we met in the hotel. Rehearsed with Colin. Sat in my hotel room, drank some wine. We literally read the lines; Colin tried to tell her what the tone of the movie was. The next morning, 7 a.m., we drive to this house; we shoot from 7 until 7. Literally the next morning, she was gone. It's insane.

That is insane, especially because your chemistry with her feels so developed over the course of the film. Were you worried it wouldn't work?
Jake Johnson: It started tripping me out, because that was the story. When Colin told me it was one day, I was really mad because it's a story that I really cared about. Let's say we have a bad day -- then Jeff's out of the damn movie! I'm like, '"Oh, man!" If that doesn't work -- if they put it together and they're like, "That day, Jake was being really broad." Or, let's be honest, I didn't sleep the night before and had a bad day. We all have them! If that day happened to not work, I thought, "I've never had this where literally an entire story would be cut." I go to Colin, "I don't think this is realistic, man. I think we need two or three days." He was like, "Not only is it realistic, it's the way we're doing it. We have no choice. Just bring it that day and stop crying about it."

Were you surprised how well the film came together?
Jake Johnson: To be perfectly honest, the other movies I've done, I've been involved in post-production more. Not giving my opinion, but just being around. I've seen cuts. Family-friend screenings. But because of "New Girl," I couldn't on this. I was in Seattle when I found out "New Girl" was back. I did this movie, then a month later, I started "New Girl." I've been going non-stop -- I'm still going, I've got four episodes left. So I kinda stopped thinking about it, which was the best thing I've ever done. I went to Sundance, and I hadn't seen it. I hadn't seen any cuts. I hadn't seen any footage. Colin and I hadn't talked a lot about it. So I got to watch it with an audience. I had that moment of -- apart from my opinion, because my opinion doesn't matter, because I'm in it -- "These people seem to like it! What do I think about the movie? What these people think!"

Karan Soni: For me it was the complete opposite. It's my first movie. I just graduated college. I had this dead, free-time. I would think about it a lot. We didn't hear a lot about what was happening. When we shot it, it was so fast, it was hard to tell what was going to be what. How it was going to piece together. All I knew was he was very confident in his job. He'd be like, "Got it." And I was like, "What?"

Jake Johnson: He was super confident.

Karan Soni: He's like, "Got it -- one take. This is gonna look great." You could see the wheels turning but I was like, "I hope they're good wheels turning." You just don't know! I was like, "I'm just going to be onboard with him." It was either gonna be a hit or a miss; I don't know what his vision is. But I personally love it, it's right up my alley of movies. So i feel like if we ever work with him again, I'll be like, "Anything you say!" I'm never gonna question him.

Jake, you mention "New Girl." Jeff is a total opposite of Nick, which is probably good for you at this point in your career. Do you have to worry about finding diverse roles now that you're on a popular television show?
I'll be honest with you, I never thought about it because I've just been a grinder actor. The jobs I've had, I've been able to do such weird stuff. I kinda thought that's how it's always going to be. I just auditioned for the "New Girl" pilot because Liz Meriwether said, "You should come out for this." I never thought of it going; I never thought it was going to get picked up. Now that I'm on episode 21, I'm starting to think -- I love the show, but I'm like, "I have to start thinking about this stuff!" When I go out and people know me as that character -- I just view it as one job, it's a long job -- but I'm like, "Oh, you guys only know this! You haven't seen anything else." I didn't realize that one becomes the most prominent. So, strategically, I hadn't thought of it. I hope this one hits and then I get to be like, "Guys, I can do two things!"

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