New Girl’s ability to portray a new kind of man has allowed the sophomore slump-eviscerating series to explore themes of masculinity, femininity and how post-millennial men struggle to blend the two. And while Max Greenfield’s Schmidt might seem like the obvious example of the impact this convergence has had on gender roles, the recently wrapped second season did a phenomenal job of more subtly expressing all those conflicting emotions through Nick Miller, played with expert precision by Jake Johnson.
After 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 is poised to break into the Best Actor in a Comedy Emmy category after delivering the single best comedic performance of the year.
ETonline caught up with the Emmy hopeful to talk about Nick's evolution, the popularity of his small screen love affair and the struggles he faced in bringing both to life.
ETonline: Looking back on season two, what did you think about Nick's evolution this year?
Jake Johnson: I honestly have to say that I was so happy this year looking with what the writer's gave me. I really felt like they found the character. It felt like they made subtle shifts in the character that made him more three-dimensional. Jess and Schmidt were really defined characters in season one, but it was like Nick was only three-fifths there. In the first episode of season two, Nick was right there on the page and he just got more and more and more clear to me from there. This year he felt like way less of a mystery and, for that, I really, really credit the writers.
ETonline: You were asked to actually bring a lot of heavy drama to the comedy. What excited you about that?
Johnson: I know that when Liz [Meriwether, creator] and I talk, I told her that I really love doing comedy and drama -- and I don't think that they should be exclusive of one another. My favorite episodes are when Nick has to start one place, go to a totally another place, and then end up somewhere else. I'm way better at doing that than delivering a perfect joke. So, I feel like she starting giving me more and more of that.
ETonline: How much of that growth do you think was in service of the fact he'd have to be a suitable leading man by the end of the season?
Johnson: I kinda feel like from the kiss onward, our show really came into focus. Like the episode we did for the parking spot was a very clean episode for everybody, so it was one where we didn't improvise very much, we didn't do very many outlines, it was our only episode where we actually had like a ten hour shooting day. It feels like the writers really knew how everybody would react to every situation in rank. So I feel like when Nick and Jess started dating, you know after the kiss, was when it got really fun to go to work every day.
ETonline: Do you know if it was the plan, from day one, to have Nick and Jess eventually start dating?
Johnson: I think it evolved but they knew there was potential with those two characters from the pilot. But if there was no chemistry there, there would be no point in telling that story.
ETonline: I ask because the show's approach to Nick and Jess' courtship has been almost universally -- and lavishly -- praised. Why do you think it worked so well?
Johnson: First of all, I agree that it was handled brilliantly. What's interesting to me is that men and women who approach me all really liked that story. It's funny because everybody has their different tastes with television -- there are some characters people like, some characters people hate -- but because we played the relationship so realistically, everyone could relate to some part of it.
ETonline: Does any part of you worry about what happens if things don't work out for Nick and Jess? Or is that potential actually exciting?
Johnson: If, at the end of season two, Jess was pregnant and Nick was on his knee and they were getting married, I'd be nervous because I don't think they are ready to get married and drive off into the future together. But, I definitely think they are ready to try whatever it is they are. I think they are both really immature and not necessarily ready, so I would be surprised if they didn't screw this relationship up. An honest depiction of a relationship between two people of this age [should see them] break up and see other people while they're still kind of in love with each other and try to make it work. It's all that stuff about relationships that I'm excited to hopefully do because I feel like, by putting them together, our show has actually opened up more opportunities for stories. And if it doesn't work out and Jess decides to see other people and she brings her new boyfriend to the apartment, well now Nick's reaction to him is an entirely new fun thing to explore. There are a lot of opportunities of how to maneuver this new world we're in.
ETonline: What's been the biggest hurdle you faced with playing Nick?
Johnson: I really struggled in season one because Max [Greenfield] is so funny as Schmidt. When somebody is doing something really funny, in real life and as a performer, my instinct is to join them. So I had to wrap my brain around Nick being such a killjoy at the beginning of the show. Like, I get that he is a grumpy old man, but these are his best friends. This year it felt more like Schmidt would say something like, "I'm going to the Discotheque," and Nick would be like, "Um, Yeah!" That makes more sense to me than just being like, "No, no, no!"
ETonline: Professionally speaking, this has also been a pretty big year for you. What has it been like to be placed on Emmy shortlists, be on magazine covers and have Hollywood calling you to star in movies?
Johnson: To be honest, it's pretty surreal. To be 100 percent honest, it's not something I ever thought of. In sports terms, I was not a first round draft pick [laughs]. I was not a guy who, when I moved out to LA, had the town begging to see me. When I came out here, I didn't have an agent, I didn't have a headshot, I didn't have any connections. I performed at The Improv as many nights as I could until my friend brought my headshot into his agent and I booked a commercial. Every day since then has been about just doing the best job I could hoping it led to more work. Last year, when Max and Zooey [Deschanel] were getting nominated for all those awards, I was really proud of them. I was proud of the fact that our team, which is really how I see it, was being recognized. I just figured I was going to be a member of that team, who, although I knew what I brought to the show and I knew that my castmates and the writers had respect for what I was doing, I never thought I'd be one of those guys who gets recognized. So it's been really cool and such an honor; I don't quite know how to process it aside from being thankful. It's almost like I don't want to tell anybody [because] I don't want the momentum to stop, so I'm pretending that this is normal. "Oh yeah, I'll just sit next to Don Cheadle and we'll just do a round table about the possibilities of being nominated for an award." I'm just pretending like I fit in here.
ETonline: Did it help to have Let's Be Cops [the movie he's filming with Damon Wayans Jr] to focus on during all of this hubbub?
Johnson: Yes, it's nice being so busy, but more than anything else the awards attention is just such a nice honor. But it's not what I got into this business for. So, the fact that it's coming is really awesome and I truly appreciate it, but it's really just going to make me work harder at being a better actor. And it's been great working with Damon again. I think he is such an unbelievable talent and awesome guy and I just love him. I want him back on New Girl!
ETonline: Have there been any actual discussions about bringing him back to the show?
Johnson: No. I just know that on a daily basis I say, "Don't go to another show, come back to ours!" Coach mixed with Winston and Schmidt and Nick and Jess would be amazing. But he's be a strong addition to any show, so there's going to be a fight to get him.
New Girl returns this fall to Fox.