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It was as if Jake Johnson had just seen a ghost.
It’s starts with the old Hollywood story: a guy hits it big, and all of a sudden, people from his past come out of the woodwork, then adds a 21st century twist: When Johnson’s Fox sitcom, New Girl, became the breakout hit of the TV season, his Facebook inbox was inundated with messages from a wide range of past friends and passing acquaintances.
The kind words — if not all the overtures at reunions — were welcomed and appreciated, even as conversations reminded him why they hadn’t kept in touch in the first place.
“We weren’t even friends in high school, why are we doing this?” Johnson recalled thinking, as he laughed about his sudden surge in digital popularity.
“What would we possibly talk about?” he wondered. At best, Johnson said, they’d exchange life updates, followed perhaps by “Hey, congrats on the two kids,” and, in very specific situations, “Good for you man, you’re an accountant, good for you.”
There was one message, though, that Johnson couldn’t wave off quite so easily.
While he had never reconnected with the girl that was his first childhood love — his Winnie Cooper, as he called her, never joined the website — a few days before speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Johnson received a friend request from her brother.
“She’s in a bunch of his photos,” the actor explained, his voice softening from nostalgia of young love. “I saw her and I was like, ‘Look at you, all grown up. Look at you not being 16. You’re doing great.’”
A happily married man, Johnson’s wistfulness was short-lived. Yet he also got to experience a different, more desperate version of those events with his role in the new Colin Trevorrow-directed comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, in which he plays a journalist who returns to an old lakeside town to seek out a first teenage love.
Johnson’s character Jeff’s plot line runs parallel to the main story, in which Mark Duplass features as an eccentric inventor named Kenneth who is trying to build a time machine. Jeff sees a classified ad Kenneth places in the lakeside town’s paper seeking a partner for the adventure, and convinces his editor to allow him to take two interns on his quest to chronicle the odd time traveler’s quest.
Jeff quickly dumps the assignment on his intern Darius (Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza), and seeks out the old flame, a redhead named Liz (Jenica Bergere) whom he stalked down online.
“Facebook kind of is the closest thing we have to a time machine,” Trevorrow said. “I think in any other generation, that girl that you were in love with when you were 16, you were never going to see that girl ever again. And now you can probably find her in four minutes.
“The downside is that, there might be certain people that you don’t ever want to see again, because they represent a time and a place for you,” the director continued. “I recently on Facebook came back in contact with the first girl who made a man of me when I was young and I have memories of that time.”
Jeff is a cocky, closed-off, booze-hound of a man-child, so he is somehow shocked when Liz doesn’t look exactly as he remembered; she’s 20 years older (he conveniently ignores the fact that he has aged, as well) and, to his eyes, heavier than in her youth. As it would turn out, the description of the character didn’t quite match up with Bergere’s attributes — she’s far slimmer and more attractive than the dialogue suggests — which made for an uncomfortable experience for Johnson after the film was made.
“When we were in these scenes, there was one line that was like, ‘Yeah, the years haven’t been kind, they like took a shit all over her,’ there were a couple of them that were like, ‘she’s fat,’” Johnson remembers, laughing. “And then we were at the screening at Sundance and she was a row behind me. I have not been that embarrassed… Because it’s not also accurate. It would be less embarrassing if she was really fat and ugly. It would be like, well you know what this is coming in, so it sucks, but… It was very weird.”
Perhaps it was unintended, but the casting actually provided a further opportunity to explore the depths of both Jeff and the uncomfortable realities of watching ourselves age in ways more intimate than ever before. No longer can we squint at a mirror and lie about what we see; there is too much photographic evidence of our declines to get away with such delusion.
“I actually love how that works because the way that she actually looks is very attractive, we shoot her and she looks beautiful in the movie, it tells us something about his character,” Trevorrow says. “The minute we see her, you learn something more about, Jesus, this guy!”
For Jeff, his disillusionment slowly melts as he gets to know Liz all over again, though another twist in their relationship makes his arc a particularly rocky one. He is, as Trevorrow describes him, a guy in his mid-thirties who hadn’t ever taken a risk for love, allowing instead digital photos to guide his bed-hopping on a weekly basis. Redemption and emotional maturity are hard-earned rewards, in large part thanks to the real-world archetype that the director and actor teamed to construct.
“The first take on the first day, I imagined Jeff to be a little more likable and be a little bit more stoney, like a guy who smokes some weed, is doing this trip as a fun adventure, but he’s kind of a d-bag, but the kind of d-bag that listens to Nickelback and smokes grass,” Johnson remembers. “And we did the first take and he pulled me aside and said ‘good good, I think you’re thinking of Jeff as a stoner. He’s not. He’s a guy who does too much cocaine at parties.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, totally. Oh, I know this guy! This guy’s the worst!’”
More than likely, he was able to find quite a few of them on Facebook.
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