How do you preserve the joy of creation in an entertainment landscape dominated by remakes, franchises, and superhero movies? That’s one of the questions underpinning the new Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and it’s also been on the mind of one of the film’s stars, Jake Johnson. The former New Girl star voices Peter B. Parker, an alternate-universe version of the famous hero, who finds himself mentoring super-powered Brooklyn teen Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) after being sucked through an inter-dimensional portal. The job was a labor of love for Johnson, who spent years tinkering with the filmmakers over the rhythm of every punchline. It was also one of the actor’s final jobs before taking an extended post-New Girl break, and after enjoying some distance from the grind of shooting schedules and press tours, Johnson is still figuring out what he wants the future of his career to look like. Over waters at his hotel bar, the actor, who’s never been shy about sharing his frustrations with the industry, explained his reluctance to jump back into the actor’s life.
If there was an alternate-universe Jake Johnson, what he would be doing?
I would hope he would have found my wife, or the equivalent of her. There were two paths I was on, pre- and post-meeting my wife. I wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t have headshots until I met her. I loved hanging out in casinos at all hours. Every moment was a good moment for a drink. And then when I met Erin 14 years ago, it was the beginning of, Oh, there’s a healthier life. I had a meeting with a commercial agent and it was at 9 in the morning; my plan was to stay up all night and just do it, then sleep. She was like, “Let’s go to bed early.” I got that agent and started working.
Do you personally believe in alternate universes?
Maybe I’m a small-minded person, but no, I don’t.
I’m very similar to you, but I do believe if you think about our galaxy and how huge it is, it would be really weird if we were the only planet with a species like this. If it’s so infinite and we can only see what we see, it seems wrong to say there’s nothing else out there. But, I can’t wrap my head around it and I don’t think in anyone’s lifetime, not our grandkids’ grandkids, will anyone have the answer. But, in terms of the science of this movie, I don’t understand. I’ve been asked before if there’s an alternative dimension. I hope there’s not another version of me. Just do something different. We’re doing this one. I don’t need to see another Jake in a plaid shirt, but his is red. Come on, man.
You’ve done voice-acting jobs before: a few episodes of Bojack Horseman, the Lego Jurassic World video games. How did this compare?
I did a bit in The Smurfs — I think I was in the booth for 45 minutes; we’ve been recording this for two-and-a-half years. I’ve done every scene in this movie 30 times. They would keep writing it and changing it, and then they would do the animation and they would come up with another idea. I have a lot of memories of [screenwriter and co-director] Rodney Rothman handing me his writing and then I would just record that. Or [producer] Chris Miller would be texting the guys in the room, so I would have somebody’s phone in front of me. Their thought was, Why would we ever stop working? If I was in Atlanta doing a movie, I recorded in Atlanta. If I was in Chicago on holiday and they were inspired, they rented a booth and I recorded in Chicago.
How much of it were you by yourself in the booth?
I would say about 75 percent alone. But, for the big emotional scenes, I got to record with Shameik. I built my Peter and he built his Miles around each other by being in the booth together. I always thought of Miles as the kid from the comic. I’m 40, so for me, a teenager, they’re kids. But Shameik has a natural confidence. He’s got a natural swag to him. When I was acting opposite him, you could feel that, which then changes how you react. If I’m gonna be the Mr. Miyagi to that Karate Kid, as opposed to Mr. Miyagi to a real timid Karate Kid, it’s a different Mr. Miyagi.
Around the time The Mummy came out, we did a post about your last line in the movie: “Thanks for bringing me back from the dead, dude.” I was wondering if you had any stories about that line.
Well, that movie, there was never a script that came to me. That line was a re-shoot. It was shot in Burbank. We shot the whole movie in Africa and London, but they were putting it together in post, and I was on a horse — no, it was a fake horse — and I don’t think Tom was here. I was in a close-up and I just had like a hundred different lines, because they didn’t know how it was gonna go. So, they would call ‘em up and I would say, like “This doesn’t look good.” There wasn’t a lot of thought on my part. When you do a Tom Cruise movie, you don’t do a Tom Cruise movie and ask a lot of questions. I couldn’t explain it because the logic of where I was in that movie, I’d be like, “So I’m bringing you to Ahmanet to get the ring?” And somebody would be like, “Just say the line.” You got it, boss.
In some of the interviews you did for Tag, you said you were taking some time off. How’s that been going?
It’s been good. I haven’t taken an acting job in the last 12 months. I don’t have a great game plan on it. For me, it’s all gonna be based off the talent involved. In Spider-Verse, I realized how nice it was working with super talented people. If I’m not the writer, I don’t want to be worried about the script. If I’m not the director, I don’t want to be worried about the coverage. If I’m just acting, I want to really worry about my part. What was nice about Into the Spider-Verse was I was doing my job and I could look over and be like “You guys happy?” If I got a thumbs up, I’d go home. I like that acting.
You could go back to that line in The Mummy. When you’re there, like everybody else, you have an opinion but that opinion … No one’s being mean. Alex Kurtzman, he’s one of the nicest guys. Tom was so nice. But that was a hundred-million-dollar movie and that re-shoot game was millions of dollars. They were behind the eight ball. The studio wanted something. Everybody was yelling about something and you just sit there and you’re like … I think I was literally wearing shorts and flip flops. Because I did a bunch of re-shoots where I would just be a mummy from here up. [Motions to upper body.] We were getting close-ups and then I’d just be like, “She’s coming.” And they’d go, “Great.” They’d watch the monitor, and then be like, “Now say, ‘The rock.’” Do I need to do something like that again? I had that experience, it was neat. I don’t know if I need to spend 12-hour days just saying somebody else’s lines.
You’ve done it once, that’s enough.
I don’t want to be away from my kids. And then those hours are so heavy. It’s all so tricky. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to think about your professional life in terms of 40 years. How old are you right now?
Could you imagine being 62, sitting in this place, interviewing a 22-year-old actor? A 20-minute interview, it’s a remake of Hulk, he’s the new Hulk or she’s the new Hulk, whatever it is. That starts becoming so boring. Every press tour feels the same. Every movie’s the same. The set actually ends up feeling very similar. Regardless of what you’re doing, you find a buddy. You hang out. You find somebody in the crew you get along with. Hit your mark. Do your lines. And then with all the awards, you go to those things thinking, Am I honestly gonna be on a red carpet at 55? Another round of me taking photos. There’s enough photos of me. We’ve done it.
But what else do you do? I’m sure if you retire, then you’re like, I’ve got to take the trash out every day?
I’m like, what does it really mean? This press tour is happening while I’m in the middle of it. They asked me, “Will you help out and push Spider-Verse?” And I genuinely love this movie. I hope there’s a bunch more, and I really want to keep playing Peter. People ask me, “Did you ever want to be a live-action Peter Parker?” Are you kidding me? These actors live in a gym and wear really uncomfortable tights for 14 hours a day. And it’s not like you’re doing some very fun acting. Shooting is a real drag. Then you do press for five months? I don’t think I could get it.
I feel like there’s a danger in zooming out too much, though. If you have too much perspective, you might never get out of bed in the morning.
That’s the problem. But if you don’t zoom out at all, then what do you do? I do think there’s something that’s happened to actors that it’s not okay to zoom out, but then why are you so afraid of … Bill Parcells had a great line about football. Curtis Martin told him, “Coach, I’m a little bit hurt but I’m not injured. I’m thinking about taking the rest of this game off, but I can go if you need me.” And his coach said, “If I’m you, I wouldn’t leave the huddle, because you never know who might replace you.” Meaning: If that next running back runs 80 yards for a touchdown, they’re not bringing you back in. I think actors in this industry have such a fear of not taking the job because there are other guys and gals who’ll do it. But then all of a sudden you have a bunch of actors who are just doing nothing on screen. There’s no thought. There’s nothing happening. I’m like, everybody take a year off. Think about what you want to make.
There’s a lot of valorization out there about “the hustle.” But sometimes it’s just a treadmill.
You have to look at how we’re doing entertainment these days. I mean, Murphy Brown’s on again. It’s what I like about what these guys did with Spider-man. This is a new version of it, introducing new characters. Otherwise, we’re just literally doing old shows again. That is the direct result of people who’ve been in the hustle so long that they forgot why they want to make things. They just want another show to keep getting an income and to keep working.
What do you make of all these streaming places?
My coworker brought up a good point, that we’re about to be at a place where paying for all the different streaming services is as expensive as a cable package would have been.
I can’t tell if it’s really good for the business or bad for the business.
Well, your Netflix is not my Netflix. We’re in this weird AI world where if they think that I would hate a show and you would love it, they can find a way that I will never see it. But then I’m missing out on something I might actually love.
Rob Reiner was talking to me about when he did All in the Family. He was like, “We had three networks, and we were on” — let’s say Tuesday, 8 o’clock — “say my character had a joke that was really funny at the five-minute mark. I knew that at 8:05, America would be laughing together. If we had an episode where we were talking about race, and Archie’s gonna say something that’s really offensive at 8:17, but at 8:22, the neighbor is gonna put him in check, at 8:16, we all felt the anxiety because culturally, America was all about to see something and we didn’t know how America would react.” That’s gone.
I was talking to an executive, and they were describing the way they see the future of entertainment is different companies are just gonna own their own world of content. Let’s say you’re under AT&T and I’m under Disney. Well, I have my own independent movies, action movies, love stories, everything. You’ve never heard of any of the titles or any of the people on ‘em. If that is the world of entertainment, then really that steps up the importance of knowing what the fuck you want to make. Because if you’re just gonna be in one of these major companies’ portfolio — if you’re “creative indies with an improv flair” — if I’m on one of those sets and the director sucks, what am I doing? It feels like the business used to be, we’d all try to do this one thing. Now, it’s like office buildings. I happen to really want to work on the 37th floor, office suite 602. I better either be having a great fucking time in there, or stay home. It’s not like what your writing will get a million eyes and change culture. It’s gonna be a few people who will like it regardless, because the buzzwords brought it to ‘em. You’ll be like, “I made it. I love it. What do you think? Oh, you loved it too? Good, I’m on the 37th floor.”