Jake Johnson Is In A Long-Term Relationship With His Fans

The New Girl star’s directorial debut, comedy-thriller Self Reliance, pays homage to the will-they-won’t-they romance that made him famous.

Jake Johnson laughing while sitting on an orange diner booth with windows in the background.

Jake Johnson is a DIY guy. He hand-built an 8-foot-by-12-foot cabin with whiskey-lined shelves in the backyard of his Pasadena home. Recently, he added a sauna to the screened-in porch. “That’s where my fat ass sits,” he jokes, pointing to it. And on the day that I drop in, Jamie, a 70-year-old craftsman that Johnson has befriended, is refurbishing the enclosure around it.

While this might sound like the unconstrained chaos of a bachelor pad, it is very much the family home of the former New Girl star. On the desk in his cabin is a yellow legal pad with notes on the times tables, which he’s been teaching to his twin 10-year-old daughters. The labrador that Johnson’s wife, Erin Payne, insisted on adopting trails at his feet while one of their cats luxuriates in the sun. (The couple has two cats and two dogs in total. “If I wasn’t with my wife, I wouldn’t have all these animals,” he says.) Various child-sized bikes and scooters are scattered around the property.

“I’ve been with my wife since 2004, so there are certain things she runs, and there are certain [projects where she knows], ‘He’s just going to f*cking weird out,’” Johnson, 45, tells me over a White Claw in the cabin. The couple met when Johnson first moved to Los Angeles and was working at the Hollywood Park Casino. Payne, who’s an artist, was a bartender at the Cat and the Fiddle. Johnson slept on a futon and jotted ideas for writing projects directly on his walls. “So when she came in, and the down comforter had a hole in it and the feathers went everywhere, she goes, ‘This will be the last time we sleep here. I’m still going to be with you, but we’re going to go to my house,’” Johnson recalls.

He attests that the futon-dweller is still within him. “There’s really basic human stuff that I don’t do well and that I’ll forget. Even now, I forgot about this interview, so all of a sudden [my publicist] said, ‘Sam’s running five minutes late,’ and I wrote back, ‘For what?’” he says, dressed in an Adam Sandler-esque pairing of oversized athletic shorts and a well-worn flannel.

If you’re detecting some parallels between Johnson and his beloved New Girl character, Nick — the slovenly-sexy bartender who one viral tweet claims “sets the bar so incredibly high and yet so unbelievably low for men” — Johnson says you’re not far off. “I get weird and Nick gets weird. The misconception of a guy like Nick is he’s a loser, he’s a bum, because he puts his wallet in a plastic bag. But who gives a sh*t? You’re still carrying money!”

Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel in the "Double Date" episode of New Girl.FOX Image Collection via Getty Images

Over the course of his career, Johnson has grown indifferent to the conventional Hollywood measures of success. He bristled at the familiar, lovable-sitcom-guy-to-Marvel-beefcake trajectory laid out for him. “I was having sit-downs with executives and we were having discussions of game plans,” he says. “And that whole world, it felt so like it had nothing to do with me. And it had nothing to do with the younger version of me, it had nothing to do with the dream. It had nothing to do with why I feel like I’m on Planet Earth, and I felt like, ‘Pass.’”

Like Nick, Johnson is at risk of being underestimated. “The rap that I get a lot is that I have a lack of work ethic. But I work all the time; it’s just a different goal,” says Johnson. He prefers to supplement his work on series like New Girl or Starz’s Minx with indie films such as Drinking Buddies and Win It All (which he also co-wrote). His directorial debut, Self Reliance, a comedic thriller that he also wrote and stars in, will premiere on Hulu on Jan. 12. “I think the most successful people in Hollywood are the people who obsess over the win: learning from the win, and getting even bigger. But for me, I go, ‘We already did it! We made it, we had a great time, and we loved it.’”

“Whenever I’m writing something, if there’s not a love story, I don’t know what it is. Everybody always says the reason guys do everything is sex, but I think men get so simplified. Of course it feels good to have sex, but deep down, you want love.”

Johnson’s longtime friend Michael Cera draws inspiration from Johnson’s career choices. “He’s not really the kind of guy to just be a guy for hire,” says Cera. “He’s just too smart for that, and too industrious, and too opinionated.” Cera is also impressed by the smaller choices Johnson makes on set. “As an actor, you wait around for a while on standby. But Jake is like, ‘I’m going to give you my phone number. I’m going to get out of here and go have lunch.’ For me to hear that, as a child actor, I’m like, ‘You can do that?’ He reinvented the whole wheel.”

Though Johnson gravitates toward writing projects these days, the craft didn’t come easily to him. As an elementary schooler in late-‘80s suburban Chicago, Johnson was given the then-stigmatized diagnosis of dyslexia and put in a classroom with students of all ages and varying disabilities. “I remember coming home and telling my mom and she just said, ‘No.’ She told the teacher, ‘He’s not dyslexic, he’s lazy. We’re moving on. Never say that word again,’” Johnson says. He dropped out of high school during his sophomore year and, before returning a year later, he says, “I started getting into art. I used to go into the city and read plays.”

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Johnson eventually landed at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he majored in dramatic writing. After graduation he set his sights on acting, moving to Los Angeles, and scoring small parts in films like Get Him to the Greek and No Strings Attached. His mentality at the time was: “I’m not the most talented, I’m not the handsomest guy, I’m not the first choice, but I will outwork a lot of these motherf*ckers.” He won the life-changing role of Nick Miller on New Girl, now considered the millennial generation’s quirkified answer to Friends.

Nick was openly insecure yet unreformed (he “kisses you like a coal miner greeting his wife,” the show said), a combination that went on to endear him to Gen Z viewers discovering the show. After coming to Netflix during the pandemic, it became one of the platform’s most streamed titles, and on TikTok, the “Nick Miller” hashtag has over 1.4 billion views. Johnson was asked to lose 15 pounds before filming, a mandate that gravely misunderstood how the actor’s alleged flaws would become what viewers thirsted after most.

Johnson’s Nick and Zooey Deschanel’s Jessica were New Girl’s Ross and Rachel, and the two were scrupulous about what they could bring to the pantheon of great television romances. Studying The Office’s Pam and Jim; analyzing how to capitalize on the chemistry that was so overwhelming from the start that the writers stopped putting them in so many scenes. “Cheers was my favorite show of all time, the Sam and Diane game of it all. The Wonder Years, I loved Kevin and Winnie. So whenever I’m writing something, if there’s not a love story, I don’t know what it is,” he says. “Everybody always says the reason guys do everything is sex, but I think men get so simplified. Of course it feels good to have sex, but deep down, you want love.”

But Johnson didn’t always feel the love for Nick during the show’s initial, 2011-2018 run. “The first season blew up and the second season was huge. The town thought it was cool and I was young enough to still care what the town thought. All of the sudden you’d be like, ‘Dude, I got invited to the Golden Globes!’ We’d all be like, ‘Dude, that amazing actor just said they watched!’ Then our show fell off a cliff and all those same people stopped liking it,” he recalls. “But we still made it for four more years. So now when I would go to a cool party and it would be funny comedians, they were ripping on New Girl. Like, ‘Oh, Schmidtty and Nick, what are you up to now?’ You’d have to be like, ‘You’re like an alternative comedian, you have a cool beard, and this show’s not a cool dude show. OK.’”

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The experience led him to seek out his internet trolls, DMing them to ask, “What does this mean, ‘If you saw me, you’d want to punch me in the face’? I would go, ‘My question to you, Steve, is why do you keep watching? … You have so many options, it’s like you’re running down the street and taking a right-hand corner, just to find my stuff,’” Johnson says. “They would literally start writing back stuff like, ‘I never thought you were going to read it.’” He says the exchanges “would always end in a nice human thing.”

It didn’t help that Johnson had signed on to movies he had no true interest in, like the Tom Cruise-helmed 2017 reboot of The Mummy. (Johnson went so far as to fly to London to tell Cruise face-to-face he was backing out, but the actor managed to persuade him.) “I don’t think I’ve ever respected somebody I’d worked with more, I loved doing that [movie] with him. So when the movie did badly, my agent called and goes, ‘It’s really not doing well financially. There’s not going to be any more sequels,’” Johnson says. “But I cried out of happiness, actual tears. He was like, ‘You good?’ I’m like, ‘I’m great, man!’”

Not that Johnson was averse to the work itself, or even the Tom Cruise-level workout regimen Cruise required of him. He just couldn’t shake the belief that his efforts were better spent elsewhere, like this winter’s Self Reliance. The film follows the recently dumped, down-on-his luck Tommy (Johnson), who finds himself participating in a dark-web competition show hosted by Andy Samberg that requires him to be hunted by assassins for 30 days. The real meat of the film is the love story between Tommy and Maddy (Anna Kendrick), another oddball loner sucked into the orbit of the game.

Johnson’s cabin is where the story went from a concept for a television series to a fully storyboarded feature film. “I had note cards of every scene [on the walls],” he says. “This is where the DP, AD, and I would geek out and talk about Lawrence of Arabia or have a storyboard artist come and work.” He sold the movie to Hulu, and premiered it at SXSW to much fanfare. But Johnson, who says he “doesn’t know how to shut [his brain] off,” worried that there was more work to be done. During screenings, he says, “I was like, ‘I wish I could get up on screen and do a couple of jokes.’ I was emotional, like, ‘I f*cking f*cked up.’” So Johnson went back to the script, drafting two new scenes to weave in the levity he felt was lacking, and persuaded his producers, Hulu, and Samberg to let him restart production.

Johnson saw getting the movie right as his duty to his fans. “I’m in a long-term relationship with this audience. Like right now, new TV show pitches are starting to come and I’ll hear something and I’m like, ‘Is that going to be what’s going to reconnect with this base?’” He also keeps in touch with his base via the mega hit call-in podcast he co-hosts with comedian Gareth Reynolds, We’re Here to Help. “If I’m taking a job and not considering my ‘partner,’ I’m a bad husband,” he says. “You’re in a dance here, buddy.”

Soon after, Johnson’s real-life partner comes knocking on the cabin door. He’d offered to pick his daughters up from school, but that was before he’d been reminded of our interview, so now she’s back on the hook. As she leaves, the labrador creeps in, a walking symbol of the give and take of acceptance in romantic partnership. Some guys carry their wallet in a plastic bag, but they let you adopt as many animals as you want. “My brain at 45, it sometimes just forgets,” he says. “That’s why she wasn’t mad at me. She’s like, ‘He’s not doing it on purpose.’”

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