08/20/2013 10:04 am ET

Jake Johnson On 'Drinking Buddies' & Where His Career Could Go Next


Don't expect Jake Johnson to use his next hiatus from "New Girl" to star in some run-of-the-mill Hollywood sequel. Johnson told HuffPost Entertainment that he prefers making movies like "Drinking Buddies," because those films remind the 35-year-old of why he became an actor in the first place.

Out Aug. 23 after a successful on-demand bow last month, "Drinking Buddies" focuses on a pair of co-workers at a brewery (Johnson and Olivia Wilde) whose co-dependent friendship threatens their romantic relationships (with, respectively, characters played by Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston). The film, directed by indie auteur Joe Swanberg, eschewed a traditional script in lieu of a more freestyle approach.

"The process was so weird in such a good way. I'm not a 40-year veteran, but nothing feels like a Joe Swanberg movie," Johnson said at the South By Southwest Film Festival in March when "Drinking Buddies" debuted. "The point I want to make clear is that this movie is called an improvised movie a lot, but our director was the captain of the ship […] I really hope someone has the courage to give Swanberg $20 million [to make a movie]. Whatever that movie is, I want to be in it and I want to see it."

Johnson, who spent the summer filming "Let's Be Cops" with Damon Wayans Jr. in Atlanta, spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about how "Drinking Buddies" made him a better actor and where he hopes his career goes from here.

Joe said you were one of the first actors he spoke to about this project; what do you remember about that meeting?
We just kind of talked about the movie and it was really loose. It seemed more like, "We'll see if it happens." What I remember about it, though, is that Joe's a really outside-the-box thinker. I was always intrigued by the fact that he wasn't playing the Hollywood game at all. He was talking about something different from everything else I was used to -- from how he wanted to make the movie to the process to the execution.That really interested me.

"Drinking Buddies" zigs when a lot of people expect it to zag. Without a traditional script, how much discussion did you have about the story outcome?
To be honest, I actually didn't have a real agenda. I wasn't sure what I wanted to happen. What I really like about Joe's vision is that he wants everything to be honest. So, I just wanted to keep everything honest for the character. Outside of that, I didn't really care. Deep down, as an actor, there is a lot of stuff I don't want to worry about. If I'm writing something or producing something, I want to worry about it -- but as an actor in this, I didn't care what happened in the movie. I wanted to trust that Joe had a vision for the whole thing, and he did. A lot of the other stuff on movie sets and around movies is not the coolest. The development of it all is a real drag. The second a good director calls action and you get to live in this make-believe world with other actors who are equally committed to living in this make-believe space is pretty special. On a movie like this, as long as Joe gave me a lot of opportunities to live in that world, I was happy to do it. Whatever the outcome was, I was kind of OK with it.

Working with Joe on this film, do you think you became a better actor?
I do. As an actor, the game of the industry we're in is that everything starts becoming a bigger strategy. You start getting involved in this almost rat race, and there are certain milestones you want to get to because you feel like you should. You got into this business for something, and now that you're being viewed as this type of actor you can achieve these higher levels of success. All this fucking hoopla gets in your ear. Doing a movie like "Drinking Buddies" reminded me why I started acting, which is because I actually really like what happens between action and cut. I like being in a scene that can go on for four minutes, and I like connecting to another actor. I like portraying a character, and I like trying to get laughs and trying to create dramatic moments. So "Drinking Buddies" did make me a better actor and helped me to remember why I'm doing this.

About that connection to other actors: From this film to "Safety Not Guaranteed" to "The Pretty One" to "New Girl," you have this way of creating such great chemistry with your scene partners. This might sound silly, but how does that happen time and again?
That connection as an actor is something that's very important to me. There is a type of acting I like -- there's a theory about it, and this is going to give you a long answer. There's a guy out of Chicago who was one of the guys who started the Second City Theater named Del Close. Growing up, he was a real idol of mine. His theory about being a good improviser is never try to be cute, never try to be a scene stealer and never try to shine. The real goal is to connect to your scene partner and make them look good. If you make them look good, you'll look good, and the whole scene will work. So, I think our business has it really backward. I think we really reward quote-unquote scene stealers and people who aren't going with the flow of a project. They're more just trying to take the moments and take the attention. That's not what I do; that's not what I strive to do. I think when I'm in a scene with somebody, I want them to be really good. As an actor, I'm also watching them. I want to see them do something impressive. I want to connect with them and be part of it.

You mentioned the rat race of the industry, but you've managed to avoid that by making a lot of indie films like "Drinking Buddies." Does being on a successful show like "New Girl" allow you to take chances like that?
That's really interesting. I'm kind of at a crossroads right now actually, in that this last summer I did more of a studio movie ["Let's Be Cops"]. I loved working with Damon Wayans Jr., but it really made me miss movies like "Drinking Buddies" or "Safety Not Guaranteed." And coming back to "New Girl" was a real reminder of how lucky I am to be on a popular network TV show. I think as I progress -- and I've already kind of talked to my agents, managers and team about it -- I'll be very happy to go back to movies like "Drinking Buddies" and "Safety Not Guaranteed," and if it happens to be a bigger studio movie, it's got to be the right one. As an actor, you act in order to make a living. Then, when you can make a living, you start acting because you want to do what you love to do. I need to remind myself of that a lot. "New Girl" is how I make my living, and if I'm going to do a movie it's because I really, artistically, want to do it.

"Drinking Buddies" is out in limited release on Aug. 23.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

'Drinking Buddies' Photos