Read any interview with the cast of a modern comedy, and you’ll almost always arrive at the same conversation: “I understand most of you have a background in improvisation, so I’ve got to ask — how much of this film was improvised?” The actor then responds, “We had a really great script that we would stick to for a few takes, and then we’d goof around and add our own spin to it.”
Actor Jake Johnson is a prime example of that, after sharpening his teeth in viral web videos and as part of the esteemed comic breeding ground Upright Citizens Brigade. Now, he’s a force to be reckoned with, stealing scenes via hilarious ad libs in films like 21 Jump Street and Get Him to the Greek as well as his current breakout role across from Zooey Deschanel in New Girl.
Needless to say, he’s been asked about improvising in his film and television work a lot. One thing he hasn’t talked about so much, however, is how a background in improv can help with dramatic roles, something that was crucial in filming the quirky time travel dramedy Safety Not Guaranteed.
“I think, for an actor, having an improv background is essential,” he explains. One example in this film was a scene in a hotel that was intended for a long hallway. When the cast and crew arrived on location, however, it was a much smaller room, rendering the dialogue irrelevant. “That scene was fully improvised,” Johnson says. “Without the confidence that something like UCB gives you as an improviser, that could’ve been a lot harder.”
That confidence extends outside of the improv realm, as Johnson’s supporting role required him to toe a fine line between flawed but likable and total asshole. In the film he plays the role of Jeff, a staff writer at a Seattle magazine who ventures out into the woods with interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza in her first major leading role) and Arnau (the charming Karan Soni).
The three intend to link up with Kenneth (Mark Duplass), an outsider who’s convinced that he can go back in time, but Jeff has ulterior motives — he’s really made the trek out there to link up with an old flame named Liz (Jenica Bergere).
While Kenneth and Darius take up the bulk of the story, Jeff’s interactions with Liz create a solid B-plot as we watch his character slowly ditch the asshole persona. When he first reunites with Liz, however, he’s pure prick.
“The character was written for somebody way fatter,” Johnson explains of his female counterpart. “When (writer) Derek Connolly told me about it, the character was supposed to be 5’1” and 300 pounds with a torn-up face.”
Not around for the casting process, Johnson was struck with guilt when he realized he was going to have to insult her so badly in the film. “I was really excited to see the actress who booked the part, and when I saw her I thought, ‘Oh fuck! This is going to be terrible!’ But the reason our director wanted it that way was that he wanted it to say more about Jeff than it did the woman, which ended up being really smart. Now Jeff’s a bigger dick, rather than there being something weird with her.”
Another challenge, aside from trash-talking a kind-hearted and good-looking woman on screen, was that the two characters’ entire arc together was shot in a single day. “All of us can have a day where you just had a hard time sleeping and you’re not at your worst, but you’re at about 75 per cent,” Johnson says. “What was scary about it was if I had a soft day or Jenica had a soft day, they could cut that entire storyline.”
Fortunately, Johnson pulled it off and his scenes add a sense of groundedness to Safety’s hectic pacing. Hopefully it’s one of many strange but satisfying projects that Johnson will add to his resumé in years to come.
“I’m very blessed to be on a network television show so that I have a solid job as long as that goes, and then in my time off I’m trying to actually pick things based on scripts and things I find interesting regardless of how big or small they’re going to be,” he explains. “My thought on it is I’m just going to pick things, fight for things and audition for things that seem interesting, and hopefully other people will think they’re interesting too. And if not I’ll have a way shorter career than I hoped.”
In the worst-case scenario, he could always improvise.