Things look a lot better for Jake Johnson than they do for his New Girl alter ego, Nick Miller.
As the freshman run of the hit Fox comedy draws to a close, Johnson is readying for the June release of Sundance darling Safety Not Guaranteed and a hiatus spent working on other projects — while Nick is putting all of his stock in a rooftop tomato garden and an awful ex-girlfriend who stages an ominous return in Tuesday’s penultimate episode of the season.
“I feel like Nick, at the beginning, was very solid and grumpy and kept everybody together,” Johnson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And now when I watch episodes, I’m thinking, ‘This guy is an idiot, he’s not keeping anyone together.’ But I think it’s more fun this way.”
While fun to watch, it’s also a touch depressing. The most recent episode capped off with Nick and Caroline (guest Mary Elizabeth Ellis) reconciling while a newly single Jess (Zooey Deschanel) justifiably lost her cool.
“I don’t think she knows she’s the worst,” Johnson says of Caroline, Nick’s kryptonite. “A big part of Nick really has it together and is really smart, but she brings out the worst in him. Everything about Nick that’s bad works with Caroline. So, in one sense, it’s very comforting for him. The reason nobody else wants him with her is because together, they’re the worst — the hard thing is that Mary Elizabeth is the best.”
As for Nick’s more likely long-term romantic prospect, Johnson says that his screentime with Deschanel got a significant boost after the fan response to their romantic tension earlier in the season.
“Personally, I love the Nick-Jess stuff as an actor,” he says. Johnson actually asked EPs Liz Meriwether, Dave Finkel and Brett Baer about more scenes between the two characters, but they were concerned about hitting the audience over the head with a will they/won’t they dynamic.
The audience, as it turns out, does not care about their heads.
“At the Paley Festival, every other question from the crowd was, ‘How come there’s not more of Nick and Jess?'” Johnson says of the March panel discussion. “The next script we got was, ‘OK, these characters are back to being in love with each other.’ Part of me thinks that the people spoke, and the writers listened. In my little conspiracy theory world, that’s what happened.”
The trajectory of Nick and Jess and everything else on the series is something that eluded Johnson throughout the season. He actually had to learn a lot about his character in front of an audience.
“You show up to the network table reads, where you have [Fox entertainment president] Kevin Reilly and Katherine Pope from Chernin and all these heavy-hitters sitting across from me, and a lot of times you are reading the lines for the first time,” he says, laughing. “So you’re just thinking, ‘Please don’t fire me when I’m terrible… I will be better on set.’ It’s so scary. And I’m not one of those guys who has gotten comfortable and cool with it. Each one is equally as terrifying.”
Less terrifying but equally unusual for Johnson is his new fame. As the season wore on, and after a well-received appearance in the successful 21 Jump Street reboot, he’s now the object of public stalking.
“I was in a Walgreens yesterday and there was a couple that followed me down every single aisle,” says Johnson, who was also approached by a complete stranger during our conversation. “Every time I looked up, they would look away, like private investigators pretending to look at their phones.”
Johnson may act in another independent film this summer if the timing works out, but he also might lay low and work more on a pitch he and Max Winkler recently sold to Warner Bros. “I really love writing and developing and creating,” he says. “New Girl makes it a little bit tricky because the hours are so intense. My brain turns into mashed potatoes in a hurry, so, for me, when I’m doing the show I can’t do other projects.”
And Johnson seems content to get back to work on his recently renewed series, with an enthusiasm he’s not embarrassed about.
“I’m not just saying this to sound like Tim Tebow,” Johnson insists, “but I am really excited to see what the writers come up with for season two.”