While New Girl was originally positioned around the "adorkable" Zooey Deschanel, it quickly (and smartly) became an ensemble in season one, boasting a stand-out performance from eventual Emmy-nominee Max Greenfield. And while Greenfield has still been the Schmidt in season two, the writers and fans have rallied around a different actor since September: Jake Johnson.
Thanks, in part, to New Girl positioning the character as a love interest for their central character, Nick has evolved and unfolded with the most significance this season, but the real revelation has been the deep reservoir of comedic talent Johnson had to draw from. There's no doubt that Jake has always been a solid actor, but in creating alternate personas, seeking advice from wise Asians, struggling with anger issues, mourning his father, falling for a stolen trenchcoat,and swooping Jess off her feet, Johnson delivered the year's best comedic performance from a lead actor (something I believe The Emmys will concur on later this summer).
I caught up with Jake Johnson at last night's ATAS New Girl panel to talk about the evolution of his character, the outpouring of love from fans on Twitter and what's next in Nick's on-going romantic saga with Jess.
ETonline: I have been really blown away by your performance this season. When the show started, did you ever imagine it had the potential to ask so much of you as an actor?
Jake Johnson: No. Not one bit. And I feel the same way. What the writers have given me this year has been unbelievable. I feel very lucky and fortunate; the writing has been so good that at every table read, Nick has been so clear on the page. It makes my job very easy. And a lot of actors say that, but I've never experienced it because every job I've had before this was a movie. I watched all of season one where I tried to figure out Nick and the writers tried to figure out Nick. It wasn't until I came back from hiatus and realized they'd figured him out. It's a lot more fun to play a character when he goes through these dramatic twists and turns. He's so scared and courageous and dealing with his dad dying and going after the girl. It's been a lot of fun.
ETonline: From Julius Pepperwood to swimming with Tran, there have been so many stand-out moments for me. Do you have any personal favorites?
Johnson: Truthfully, because shooting a TV show takes over your life so much, that once it's over, I try to get it out of my head until I come to an event like this or it airs and people start Tweeting me about it. Twitter is cool for that reason because they'll remind me of an amazing moment.
ETonline: Or send you a million GIFs of Nick in action.
Johnson: That's right, that's right [laughs]. People on Twitter have been so amazing also about letting me know what they do and don't like. I'm not somebody who talks about the ins and outs of my day job with my wife or friends, so Twitter is a forum where I can actually hear from people who think about this show as much as I do. I don't want to be the guy who is constantly talking about his job in his personal life, so when I check Twitter, I get to hear from people who have thoughts about our show that are, often, deeper than my own [laughs]. Those Twitter people are smart.
ETonline: Last night's episode ended with Nick and Jess, post-coital. And what I loved about that is the camera lingered a little too long, reinforcing that this won't be the start of a traditional TV relationship.
Johnson: I'm a broken record about this, but I think our writers have handled it in a very smart way. Liz [Meriwether, creator] especially knows what this relationship needs. It's very 2013. They're not characters you've seen before and this is not a relationship you've seen before. My instincts are a little more old school. Like, I assumed if they were going to have sex, it would be in the season finale. So when I saw it at the end of Virgins [last night's episode] I was like, "Whaaaaat? They're having sex now?" But, I never understand it at the time. That whole kiss game they played, I didn't quite get it when I was reading it, but when you see the way it plays and how the audience reacts, I realize Liz just understands a 2013 relationship. I've been with my wife for 9 years, we started dating before text messaging [laughs], so I missed all of that. Liz is so a part of it, she sees it and I think the way they've handled it has been perfect. It's been an absolute work of brilliance, and I hope the writers get the credit they deserve.
ETonline: What can you say about where the next two episodes take Nick and Jess?
Johnson: People are going to think this means they're together now, but this is New Girl, so who knows what they're going to do. I'd be very surprised if they don't break up and date other people again next season. I also wouldn't be surprised if they just dated from here on out.
ETonline: Well, it's not like Nick is hard-up for women to date. I mean, Olivia Munn, Odette Annable, Lizzy Caplan....
Johnson: I know, I know. It's just so unbelievable. It's unreal who he's dated. But I think it's because Nick's got a good heart and women can see that.
ETonline: What are you excited for fans to see in these last two episodes?
Johnson: I'm excited for them to see Rob Reiner come back [as Jess' father], and I'm personally very invested in the Nick and Jess stuff, so I'm excited for fans to see how that concludes. Because we don't end this season in a grey area. We make a choice. I think it's an interesting choice. I like it, but I like everything they're doing.
ETonline: Lastly, in season three, if you could pick, what would you rather: to play Julius Pepperwood again or have another scene with Tran?
Johnson: Tran. He's my favorite. All jokes aside. I am trying to get Liz to make Tran one of Nick's best friends.
ETonline: Well, I mean, he already kind of is.
Johnson: Yeah, but my dream would be, at the end of New Girl's run, when you're looking at IMDB, the actor [Ralph Ahn] who plays Tran, would be in 41 episodes [laughs]. Even if there's just lots of small moments, I want Nick's best friends to be Schmidt, Winston, Jess and Tran. And when you say that, no one misses a beat or thinks it's weird.
New Girl airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on FOX.