Jake Johnson Likes to Play the Hollywood Game, Especially When It Changes

If you were bored enough — a stultifying job, living with Mom after a bad breakup — you, too, might climb into a mysterious limo carrying Andy Samberg. You might even consider the offer: outwit assassins for 30 days and win $1 million.

It’s a risk that Tommy, played by Jake Johnson, is willing to take in “Self Reliance,” the dark comedy on Hulu that he also wrote and directed.

Johnson, 45, was antsy during the pandemic when he decided the time for this project was now.

“When you get on this roller coaster, you don’t know how long you’re going to be allowed to play while you’re here,” he said in a video interview from the studio he built for podcasts and Zoom calls in his Pasadena, Calif., home. “You should take chances and experiment. And if you have a relationship with an audience, you should be presenting new options.”

Johnson is best known as an actor in movies and television, particularly the sitcom “New Girl,” which ran for seven seasons and is one of the reasons Anna Kendrick and Samberg agreed to come aboard “Self Reliance.”

“Having somebody as funny as him start the movie, it sets the tone in the way that I want this movie to be viewed,” Johnson said before talking about losing at chess, carpentry mishaps and out-of-this-world restaurants. “And that is: sit back, have a glass of wine or smoke a joint or whatever you like to do and enjoy it. It’s a ride.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.


When I had kids, they become such a dominant part of my life. They transform every day, every thought. So the idea of living without them — I don’t even know what living is.


I get a lot of self-worth from staying busy. Right now it’s the podcast I’m most excited about. Our show is called “We Are Here to Help,” and Gareth Reynolds and I try to help callers. We just had one where an adult woman’s mother and stepfather kiss her on the lips when they say goodbye.


This studio was a master closet. I said to my wife, “What if I knock that bookcase out and build the walls out and turn that into the closet and turn this into an office?” I found this great carpenter who is better than me so that I can watch him work. All of that gets really exciting, and I spend all my time thinking about it. I did some drywalling, sanded everything down, the plaster went everywhere. I was like, “I have to learn a new technique.”


I played with my Uncle Eddie when I was younger, and Eddie was an old hustler who used to con me. Then Mike Cera challenged me on Chess.com and just embarrassed me. I’ve got an 8-year-old nephew who’s a bit of a prodigy and in the comments section talks trash while poorly spelling words. That is as humiliating as it gets — to have somebody say, “You suck, Uncle Jake,” spelled wrong while checkmating me.


I’ve got a bunch of different buddies who I’ll take random hikes with. We get up to Griffith Park or go around Pasadena, just two hours to work up a sweat and chat — hearing where they’re at and their perspective. I’d rather be walking up a hill than sitting around eating a sandwich with somebody.


Newness I find really exciting. When there’s a new phase and everybody’s panicking and going, “It’s all Marvel movies” or whatever, I’m like, “Now there’s a big change to the game and a lot of us are going to fall off the cliff and die. But there’s movies to be made if you want to keep playing.”


Right now my daughters are learning division and multiplication, and we’re doing a lot of it at home. There are tears and there are fights, and then there’s growth. They take a jump forward, and all of a sudden they’re both crushing something and I don’t know how they got there. That stuff gets me through a lot of days.


When everybody goes to sleep, there’s a few hours where everything is quiet and you can just flip around and watch whatever you want to watch. And that chunk of time — what my buddy Steve Berg would always call “the getting weird time” — I love it.


We have coffee at the same time in the morning. We get in some really wild discussions and we’ll be like, what is happening? And I’ll be like, “We’re drinking straight concentrate. We are drugged right now, my dear.”


We’ll drive to deep Alhambra or somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley, find some crazy little hole-in-the-wall shop where the menu’s not even in English. Then you get some dish and every once in a while you’ll take that first bite and you’re like, “Holy [expletive], in what galaxy … ?”

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