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New Girl’s Jake Johnson on His Time-Travel Movie, Nick and Jess, and the Rules of True American

Jake Johnson. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Jake Johnson, best known to TV audiences as Nick on New Girl, is a reporter on assignment in Safety Not Guaranteed, investigating an oddball classified ad from someone seeking a partner in time travel. Just to be on the safe side, he takes along two interns to delegate most of the work to, including Aubrey Plaza, so that he can spend his now freed-up time reconnecting with the one who got away. Johnson took a moment to chat with Vulture about “emotional time travel,” Nick-Jess shippers, and the rules of True American.

If you could travel in time, where would you go?
I would want to go to the future, 25 years in the future, and see if the Cubs ever win a World Series. [Laughs.]

Why, so you can bet on it?
No, that’s not right. [Laughs.] In terms of betting, I’d want to go in the past because I already know their future, which is our present. But I want to avoid the butterfly effect as much as possible. If you step on a bug, everything’s off!

Your character does some time travel of a different sort: the emotional kind.
That was the pitch they gave me: We’re talking about time travel, and I’m doing emotional time travel, and they’re happening at the same time. Both stories are about going back in time. And Jenica [Bergere] did a good job. All her scenes with me were in one day, which says a lot about her performance. We had four scenes in one day, from like seven in the morning until seven at night, including the sex scene, which was crazy. But admit it — there’s some guy from your past that you’d want to see again, and you’d like to figure it all out. You’d take that assignment, too, because everyone has things in their past that haven’t gone according to plan and they wish they could have done things differently.

Although if I took that assignment, I wouldn’t get what you get.
What, you mean two interns? And three weeks to do one story? And an endless expense account? If this were a documentary about journalists, that’s exactly what would be happening, right? [Laughs.] You’d be having the time of your life!  All the time in the world to reconnect with lost loves on the side.

How much of the New Girl fan reaction do you pay attention to? Because there’s a certain segment hankering for some Nick-Jess romance.
Really, I try to stay away from it, but it’s very hard. Zooey [Deschanel] got me on Twitter, and what happens is, in Twitter world, the fans can write to you directly. And they write so much stuff about Nick and Jess that it gets hard not to want to go in that direction. I don’t know if they realize this, but sometimes they write to me as if I’m really Nick. So I got to get off that technology, because otherwise I’m just being a puppet for people on Twitter. Look at what technology has done! [Laughs.] I love that everyone’s so connected, and that’s what’s so beautiful about it, but the words “Nick” and “Jess” are trending in Mexico. These two characters are not together, they’ve never kissed, and they’ve never had a fun romance like Schmidt did with Cece. We just look at each other in the hallways and yell at each other, so what the hell are people thinking in Mexico? [Laughs.] Although I have to admit, it’s a fun feeling as an actor, because this is the first project I’ve been in where people care so much about the characters. So that’s the reason I listen to it, because it’s nice that people care. They’ll write, “Come on, Nick should pull it together. I don’t know why he’s so depressed.” But really, they should write that to the writers.

Would you ever want to write or direct an episode of New Girl?
Write it? Absolutely not. Direct it? Absolutely. I would love to eventually direct it, because it’s such a great cast.

If you do, please do an episode that explains the rules of True American.
I would if I could! I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there are no rules. I know, I know, it’s going to break your heart, but there’s just nothing. We did a lot of improvisation for that one, so the rules are pretty much what you saw onscreen — yell presidents and throw beer. And it makes no sense. You just get drunk, yell, and mess around. It’s just fun to do with a group of people.

What’s going on with you and Steve Carell for this mob movie?
The original idea was my idea, and then I pitched it to Max [Winkler], who pitched it to Rodney [Rothman], and he put his whole spin on it. So I’m very connected to it and I’m happy be onboard. It’s basically about who these guys are that Steve and I will play, how they’re just regular guys who are sick of being regular guys so they start a mafia. I happen to be the Joe Pesci to his De Niro. I’m the guy who fucks it all up.

So you’re the one getting in people’s faces if they call you funny?
Yeah, but I do that already. [Pretends to be menacing.] What do you mean I’m funny? Funny how? Funny like a clown? I’m a clown to you? [Laughs hysterically.]

New Girl’s Jake Johnson on His Time-Travel Movie