Jake Johnson Talks His Gonzo Directorial Debut, ‘Self Reliance’

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The IMDb Portrait Studio At SXSW 2023 - Credit: Corey Nickols/IMDb/Getty Images
The IMDb Portrait Studio At SXSW 2023 - Credit: Corey Nickols/IMDb/Getty Images

When Jake Johnson applied to Tisch, he submitted a play about a gorilla handler at the zoo whose life and marriage fell apart once his beloved gorilla passed away. He describes it as “wacky but funny” and says he’s been trying to recapture its unique tone ever since. With his feature directorial debut, Self Reliance, he finally has.

Premiering Jan. 12 on Hulu, Self Reliance centers on Tommy (Johnson), a down-in-the-dumps Angeleno who’s randomly scooped up one day by Andy Samberg (as himself) in a limo and offered a chance to win $1 million by participating in a dark-web reality show where he has 30 days to avoid being killed by hunters. The catch: They can only hunt him when he’s alone, so he tries to persuade his family, his ex Theresa (Natalie Morales), a bewitching stranger (Anna Kendrick), and a homeless man (I Think You Should Leave’s Biff Wiff) to keep him company. It’s a darkly funny comedy that sees Tommy get repeatedly attacked by everyone from an Ellen DeGeneres look-alike to a sumo wrestler.

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“What I crave in entertainment right now is lightness and fun with no messaging — just nice escapism,” Johnson tells Rolling Stone. “And I want to be a part of that.”

Watch an Exclusive Trailer for Self Reliance:

Prior to writing, directing, producing, and starring in Self Reliance, the Illinois native starred as lovable bartender Nick Miller on New Girl for seven seasons, and he currently plays a cheeky pornographer in the Starz comedy Minx. We talked about all that and more.

For starters, what attracts you to these down-on-their-luck everymen?
I think it’s a good engine to start a story. I started off as a writer first — I went to NYU for dramatic writing — and everything is the hero’s journey. And if I’m gonna play the part, I don’t have much interest in playing a white-collar criminal or a lawyer. They’re not people I grew up around in terms of my family and not people I’ve found overly interesting. I like the arc starting from someone who doesn’t know what they want out of life and then the adventure takes them on and ideally, they learn something along the way.

Was this inspired by a nightmare you had once or something?
[Laughs] This was actually inspired by Japanese reality shows from the early 2000s. Their culture was pushing shows that were getting crazier and crazier, and they were getting funnier and funnier, but for the person in it, it was a nightmare. There was one about a guy [Nasubi] who was a comedian who got picked and he had to live in an apartment with no clothes on and win all his food and win all his clothes from call-in radio, magazines, and newspapers. And if he didn’t win anything, he didn’t eat. And when the pandemic hit, that idea came back to me, so this is my version of a pandemic movie.

An Ellen DeGeneres look-alike (Tamra Brown) goes after Tommy (Jake Johnson) in 'Self Reliance.'
An Ellen DeGeneres look-alike (Tamra Brown) goes after Tommy (Jake Johnson) in ‘Self Reliance.’

There are some fun digs at Ellen DeGeneres in this — at one point your character is assaulted by an unhinged DeGeneres look-alike — and it also fits the theme of the film: TV as this weird, manipulative form of entertainment.  
The Ellen thing was using aspects of your life and things that you might trust against you, and the game of Ellen was that I knew I wanted it to be somebody that Tommy had liked and he’d seen with Theresa, and when we auditioned people, we auditioned celebrity impersonators. We had a couple Oprahs, a David Letterman. I’m more an actor than a director — it’s more of my passion — but I wanted to try directing, and I wanted the actors to really sing. For this part, I wanted to find the perfect person and then change the words around the person. So, when Tamra [Brown] auditioned and did her Ellen impression, I just thought it was so creepy and good, and Ellen it is.

Was the film inspired at all by I Think You Should Leave? Because you cast Biff Wiff in this, and there was also that sketch filled with celebrity impersonators punching people.
It actually wasn’t. I wasn’t aware of the show until auditioning Biff Wiff. I know Tim Robinson from a long time ago, but I hadn’t caught up on the show yet. The character of James that Biff does I think is the most important character in the movie in terms of tone. It’s psychological and dark, but it’s meant to be a fun movie. And when it’s scary, a thriller, and intense, you’re allowed to watch this movie lightly, in my opinion. It’s meant for people to laugh, have fun, and not take overly seriously — even when the movie is taking itself seriously. When we were casting a guy who was living on the streets and then gets involved in the group, a lot of the actors brought in the reality of being homeless, and it was too sad. Even though I was making an L.A. movie and homelessness is a reality of living in Los Angeles, I wanted it to be fun. And Biff was tonally perfect. He’s so fun, likable, and ridiculous.

Anna Kendrick, GaTa, and Jake Johnson in 'Self Reliance.'
Anna Kendrick, GaTa, and Jake Johnson in ‘Self Reliance.’

You’ve worked with Anna Kendrick several times now going back to Drinking Buddies. Why do you think you two have such good chemistry?
I don’t really know! I know that I love working with her and love being around her. I learned that on Drinking Buddies. She was doing prep for her movie [Woman of the Hour] too as a director, and I really leaned on her a lot. We talked about the experience of going from actor to director, and she became a real ally for me in this movie in ways that I’ll always be grateful. A lot of times you feel like you’re in deep water, so having an actor who was not only easy to work with but game for everything and would talk things out with me became wildly helpful.

What made you want to direct?
I think it was doing 150 episodes of television and studying the directors. I love television, but what I don’t love about it is there are guest directors every week. It’s an old-world part of TV that I hope kind of changes. Even if you’re doing a streamer like Minx, every week you have a new director as opposed to one director do all eight like a movie.

Like the first season of True Detective, which only had one director.
Exactly. And that’s why that thing was so special. In television, every week you have a new captain, and some are better than others. Some know how to steer the ship, and some don’t. I don’t think I’m a natural director, but I’ve worked with so many different ones that I saw what I liked and what I didn’t like. And, in terms of this movie, it’s a very specific tone, and I knew what I wanted it to be. It’s a movie I’m proud of, but I didn’t think I could explain it to another director and have it make sense.

Do you watch any reality TV?
A ton, yeah.

My kids and I watched Bizaardvark after that and I remember being like, “I knew that fucking kid was good!” And when [Olivia Rodrigo] really blew up, I’ve gotten really into her albums because I’ve got 10-year-old girls so I’ve heard ‘em all, I was like, “What a blast!”

Are you a Bravo person?
No. I was really into Survivor for a while. I really like The Amazing Race and MTV’s The Challenge. Those early Japanese ones are what got me into it. I like shows that are trying to push the contestants beyond their desire to keep going and then you see what happens after. I love the show Alone. We started a podcast during the pandemic, We’re Here to Help, and we actually had Johnny Bananas [from The Challenge] on. So, I guess I’m a Johnny guy.

I spend some time in Chicago. What are some of your favorite things to do there?
It’s changed as I’ve gotten older. I used to love the bars when I was in my twenties, like Old Town Ale House. I used to love going to the free midnight shows at Second City. But I’m unfortunately mid-forties with kids now, so the lake’s really fun! Hanging out with grandma and their cousins is great. [Laughs]

Speaking of drinking, I read that the whole Drunk History show was inspired by you?
I got drunk with Derek Waters and told him a story about Otis Redding that I believed to be true at the time, but to age my group of friends, it was kind of pre-internet. So, if you told a story back then, it was your word versus theirs. The next day, Derek called me up and said, “Hey … can I come over and get you drunk and have you tell that story, and we’ll get our friend, Jeremy Conner, to film it?” I was a commercial actor at the time and didn’t want my commercial agent to see me drinking, so I was like, “No, man! I’m a professional actor!” But he was like, “I have this idea of Otis Redding sitting behind you and being like, ‘Shut the fuck up, man!’” I said no, but our other friend agreed to do it, and we shot the thing.

Zooey Deschanel, Prince, and Jake Johnson in 'New Girl.'
Zooey Deschanel, Prince, and Jake Johnson in ‘New Girl.’

I have to ask you about New Girl because me and my friends still rewatch it. It has to be one of the most rewatched shows on TV.
I think you’re right on that.

We just had the SAG strike, and streaming residuals were a big part of it. Does the New Girl cast get paid for this?
No. No, we’re not.

That’s crazy to me because this is still a wildly popular show on streaming.
We’re part of the unfortunate new world. But just to talk finances, the game has so fundamentally changed. Back in the day, if you did a big TV show and everyone knew you from it, it was really hard to get other roles. Now, if you haven’t done a big show that people know you from, it’s really hard to get roles. So, I can do a show called Stumptown for two seasons — we only filmed one, but we got paid for two because it was a pandemic killer — but because of New Girl, they’re willing to pay me a huge fee to be on it to try to connect to that show. Without New Girl I’m not getting that. We don’t get the residuals the way we used to, but there are so many other opportunities now. I feel really kind of mixed. I wish we still got those old checks, but they don’t advertise on those shows the way they used to. It’s not the clean line that old TV and syndication used to be, and I hope the new deal helps with that.

You’ve talked a lot about working with Prince on New Girl, but I wanted to ask you about filming that weird wedding episode featuring Taylor Swift, a wedding, and a badger. What was that like? She’s become a way bigger deal since then.
She was already big then. She’s exploded even bigger, but when we worked with Olivia Rodrigo, she was just a kid.

She was one of the big Pepperwood Chronicles fans in Jess’s class.
Yeah. So, the Olivia Rodrigo one was really weird because I remember her and those girls. It was me, Zooey, and the girls, and they were such sweet kids. And some kid actors are just good. I remember doing those scenes, and Zooey and I used to have a joke that we were fake managers and how when a guest star would come on, one of the bits we would do with each other was that we would playfully compete over who’s gonna sign them. And Zooey’s bit was always that she’s a sweet manager who takes 10 percent, and I’m a little bit of an asshole who tries to take 25 percent. And I remember when Olivia Rodrigo and those girls were on, I was for sure trying to scoop them up because I was like, “There’s money in these kids!” They were just good actors.

My kids and I watched Bizaardvark after that and I remember being like, “I knew that fucking kid was good!” And when she really blew up, I’ve gotten really into her albums because I’ve got 10-year-old girls so I’ve heard ‘em all, I was like, “What a blast!” But with Taylor Swift, she was already a whole thing. When she was in the hair and makeup trailer, we couldn’t believe she was doing our show. When she was on the set, the air changed. She was an air-changer.

I will never forget Jerrod Carmichael calling you a “sex god” during a Hollywood Reporter roundtable. Had you ever been called a “sex god” before?
[Laughs] No. Definitely by no one who’s ever had sex with me. Jerrod and I have a funny relationship because we met years ago. I used to have a production company with 20th Century, and I had seen early stuff he’d done when he was younger and really coming onto the scene. He, Max Winkler, and myself all sat in a Mexican restaurant and were talking about doing a live sitcom. I remember talking to him and thinking, “This guy is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met in this game. Whatever we can do with this guy, he’s the one!” He went and did his own thing, but we’ve always kept in touch, and every once in a while we’ve done the random lunches, walk-arounds, and talks. So, when we did that, we’d known each other a little bit. If we’d just met and he’d called me a “sex god,” that would have been different!

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