Jake Johnson on Tag, Hannibal Buress farting on set, and his favorite role as an actor.
Scott Menzel: Hello Jake, what is new, my friend?
Jake Johnson: Well, “Tag” coming out on June 15th. You know, it’s a movie about a group of friends. It’s really about the friendship. I did not play childhood games growing up. Nobody was the most competitive so that’s about it, man.
Scott Menzel: (laughs) So, I’ve seen you at press events, but I’ve never had a one-on-one with you. I’ve been such a big fan since the early days of “New Girl” plus “Safety Not Guaranteed.” I really liked you in Win It All which I saw at SXSW.
Jake Johnson: Thank you, man.
Scott Menzel: I was at the premiere of that one and I still think that it is very underrated. I wish Netflix pushed that one more, because you did a hell of a job, man.
Jake Johnson: Oh thanks, man. Honestly, it is interesting that you point that one out because that one gave me a lot of philosophical discussions about this whole business, because I love that movie. That’s probably the favorite one I’ve done, and no one’s seen it. It’s just not a movie. It’s not viewed as something that people have seen. But I loved making it. I loved writing it. I loved seeing it. I don’t care when people on social media call it boring and say it looks like it was shot on a phone. They’re wrong. It was shot on film. People be like, “It looks shitty” and I’m like, “This was filmed, man.” But, I did have a big realization on that movie, where I realized, oh, this is a selfish industry, and you’ve gotta make what you love. I would love people to see this stuff. I would love everyone to like it. But I can’t spend my life trying to figure out what people are gonna like and love. Look at our country. We are not as a world and as a country unified.
And now people can go, “Oh yeah, my favorite show. I watch it. What’s it on?” “Xbox”. I watched “Twitch.” So, you’re like, “How about this asshole?” Just make what you want. If you find that niche audience, you’re lucky as can be. You might not have a billion zeros in your bank account, but if you can pay your bills, just shut up and make stuff. Shut the fuck up. And I’m like winning it all for me was that movie. That set my career in a certain projectory of okay, make what you like. And if I’m going to do a movie like “Tag,” it’s because I saw this ensemble and I was like, I honestly want to know what it’s like to work with Jon Hamm. I was like, I’ve heard things about him.
Scott Menzel: I think Jon Hamm could do anything. He really can. He started off as Don Draper on “Mad Men,” but has been in so much stuff and he is also really fucking funny.
Jake Johnson: He’s really funny. He’s a comedy nerd. But, I’d seen Hannibal’s stand-up forever. Isla Fisher I’m an enormous fan of as well as Rashida Jones. Then you throw Leslie Bibb. Leslie Bibb’s performance in “Talladega Nights” is still one of those underrated performances, that’s a home run. Plus Ed Helms and Jeremy Renner. So I was like, all right, this is a weird mix.
Scott Menzel: It is, it really is.
Jake Johnson: And I was like, I kind of want to mix it up with everybody. And I was really glad because everybody’s nice, and everybody’s fun, and everybody’s vibe was different. So it was like one of those, even though the poster looks like a group of white guys with Hannibal, and you’re like, “they’re all the same,” you couldn’t get a more different group of people together. Where I’m like, this was a weird mix, guys.
Scott Menzel: Yes, it is and I felt that way watching it. I was kind of like I don’t know about this. You’ve got Jon Hamm who’s like this handsome heartthrob. Then, I was like, “Who do we have for a pot smoker? Oh, Jake Johnson, of course.”
Jake Johnson: (Laughs) Well, what’s funny was I was originally going to play Jon’s part.
Scott Menzel: Were you really?
Jake Johnson: Yeah. So I was going to come on and play Callahan, and James Marsden was going to play Chili. So we were talking about my character, and whenever I get on a studio comedy like this, that’s not Shakespeare, I always rewrite my own character and put it more in my wheelhouse, and find zones where I find funny. So that I’m like, if nothing else, I know I can make these scenes funny to me and my people. I don’t know if the movie is going to work, but I can make these work. But I’ve got to put it in this zone.
So I had started rewriting Callahan as like the rich asshole where I would’ve done that character wearing two watches, throwing money and tipping everybody. It would’ve been a different character with slicked back hair, the guy who gets everything. My definition, if I would have played Callahan, was new money. This is not a guy who grew up rich, but now he’s rich, baby. He’s the worst and loves to pay for everything, but then let everybody know, “I’ve got you man. It’s my pleasure. Here, keep the change, honey. We’re talking about 100 bucks. Relax.” “Oh, you’re the worst guy on planet Earth, but also thank you.”
And then Marsden fell out because of Westworld. And there was a second when Damon Wayans Junior was going to come in, which I was pulling the strings on. Because I was like, “Oh, man, get Damon as Callahan.” I was like, “You could have a lot of fun with that.” And I was like oh, Ed. And then something had happened and that was falling off, and then Jon came in. And when Jon came in, you’re not going to have Jon play Chili and me play Callahan, unless you’re doing experimental theater (laughs). So you’re like, conversation’s over.
And Jon’s in, he’s the wealthy, successful guy. And I was like, I don’t need two days to rewrite Chili. I know how to play this guy. This is going to be easy. My only note on that was I don’t want his name to be Chili, I want it to be Randy. So his official name is Randy. That was a joke for me.
Scott Menzel: Did you hear of this story before? The story of “Tag”?
Jake Johnson: “Tag”? No.
Scott Menzel: So, you’d had no fucking idea.
Jake Johnson: No clue.
Scott Menzel: Okay. So what the hell was the initial reaction when you heard it and read the script?
Jake Johnson: Pass. (laughs)
Scott Menzel: Hard pass? (laughs)
Jake Johnson: Hard pass (laughs), honestly. I said, “No thank you.” And I knew Tomsic a little bit. And I just said, “I don’t want to make that movie. I don’t need to make a movie about tag.” And then he said, “You know, it’s based off of a true story.” And I was like, “Okay.”
Scott Menzel: So was “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”
Jake Johnson: Sure. And then I saw the documentary. There’s a little ESPN doc. And there was a sweetness to it, where I was like oh, this is a sweet movie. This is about how do you stay in touch with people you’ve grown apart. Oh, that’s why it’s good that the cast is so weird because we’re a group of friends, but we probably wouldn’t be friends anymore. These are your 15-year-old friends that when you get older you’re like, “I don’t have a link to you. I loved that at 14 we played video games, but at 40, man, I don’t know you.” But this game is the link. And I was like, all right, I like that. And then I said, “I think the script is kinda whack.” And they said we’re going to improvise our asses off. And Jeff Tomsic, the director, is truly a collaborator.
Some people pretend to be collaborators because they know it’s cool to be a collaborator, but they’re not. Some directors are like little kids in the basement with their toys, and they just want you to be the toy, and they’re like, “And then you say like boink boink, and the other guy goes boink boink.” And I’m like, “Homey, I’m not living in your imagination.” And Jeff’s not. Jeff is like “Let’s talk this out, man.”
And so then I saw that cast, and I realistically said, well, if it’s a terrible movie, Hawkeye’s going down, not Jakey J (laughs). So I was like we’ve got so many people carrying this one that it’s not the franchise of “Tag” is Jake Johnson’s franchise. So I was like yeah, I’ll go play tag for two months with these guys and see what happens. Then and doing it, early on I realized, oh, this movie actually could be really good because the action sequences are shot in such a unique way where I’m like, I like that.
Scott Menzel: Oh, I love the camera on your face, like the Go Pro.
Jake Johnson: Yes, that cam, for sure. And then I was like, oh, that’s interesting. And then the vibe of us as a cast together is really weird. And I go, it’s either not going to work at all or it’s really going to work. And when I watched the early cut, it worked to me.
Scott Menzel: It worked for me too but it did not work for my wife.
Jake Johnson: Oh, it didn’t?
Scott Menzel: I will tell you. She was like, “No, these guys don’t fit together.”
Jake Johnson: Really? She was out.
Scott Menzel: She was out. She got about midway through, where they did the Thomas Middleditch routine, and she was like, “No, I’m done.” She was like, “No, I’m done.”
Jake Johnson: And she wasn’t there.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, the WB people were like, “Can you tell me what your wife thought?” I was like, “She was done about midway through.” She was like, “okay I am over this.” However, you were her favorite character by the way.
Jake Johnson: (laughs) Okay, good.
Scott Menzel: So, there you go. Kudos to you.
Jake Johnson: I haven’t seen the Middleditch scene.
Scott Menzel: Even though Jon Hamm is the more attractive one.
Jake Johnson: She wanted me? (laughs)
Scott Menzel: You were the best character. So there you go.
Jake Johnson: (laughs) Okay, good. That’s really funny. Yeah, so we’ll see. I don’t know what my wife is going to think, but I’m going to find out at the premiere.
Scott Menzel: The ridiculousness of this movie, what was the hardest tag sequence to get through?
Jake Johnson: In terms of breaking, like not laughing?
Scott Menzel: Yeah, because if I took away anything from this movie, it is that everyone in this movie had a lot of fucking fun.
Jake Johnson: Yes, I think that’s true.
Scott Menzel: Everyone had fun. So when you are filming this, and getting these scenes down, which one was the most difficult? What part of this movie was the most difficult for you?
Jake Johnson: Difficult because I liked it so much, or difficult because I didn’t like it? Because those are different things.
Scott Menzel: Let’s do both because this will probably be our last question anyway.
Jake Johnson: Okay. So difficult because I didn’t like it is some of the action in this, because they shot it like it was an action film and it was shot like an action film. What I mean by that is you take your time with it. So when I’m doing a Tom Cruise movie, if we’re shooting for 16 hours, “Yes, sir. Tom, where would you like me to stand?” “Jake, it’s going to take some time.” “You tell me. Whatever you want, boss.” I didn’t think that was going to be the case with “Tag.” This is throw a couple cameras, pop off the comedy, and do a crane shot. But some of it, the director was like, “So now, I’m going to push-back.” I’m like, “Enough with your cute push-backs homey, we were talking about tag.”
Now, in the end, some of them work. It was two months. Jon Hamm has a really funny thing that he would say over and over, where he would just say, “One job. As an actor, we have one job. Just come here and be an actor. Don’t worry about the schedule.” And I really liked that, so I would use that as my little mantra.
What was really hard to shoot, because it was fun, was the director, his strength was that he would really push you to open it up and had fun, and he would set-up on comedy scenes, because he used to do “Broad City” and all these Comedy Central shows, really basic coverages. And by that I mean if we are shooting the scene, if you’re doing it cute, and you’re trying to be a Sundance director, you might have a dolly shot that comes up and pulls back on you. It looks good. It’s not that easy to get a rhythm when you stop and start on each line and do an insert on my eyes, and you’re like, “You’re now going to figure this out on your computers. But if you just put a camera here and here on both of us, we can figure it out on set with you.” And my favorite is when we figure it out on set.
As an actor, I don’t care to be someone’s tool in editing, and the way the lighting hits my face, it will never be great. God didn’t grace me with the Jon Hamm beauty. He graced me with this beauty.
Scott Menzel: (laughs) God, you’re so fucking awesome. You’re so transparent. I love it. You just don’t get that anymore.
Jake Johnson: So certain scenes, when we would shoot, we did a sequence where we were all doing bits. In the middle of the scene, Hannibal Buress rips a fart. I’ve never in my life had that happen in a scene, ever, on camera, in the middle of the scene. I die laughing, like a 10-year-old. Everybody laughs. Ed Helms goes like, “Did you just fart during the scene?” And Hannibal is like, “Yeah, I had to fart. What are you going to do?” And then he starts going, “It was a choice. I improvised.” Which I’m dying, I’m dying.
So then Tomsic, who’s the director, is laughing, too. Finally, “All right, guys. Let’s go. Let’s get back in it.” We get back in it, shooting the scene, and he farts again. I explode laughing, and he has the nerve to tell me, “Be a professional. Keep it together.” I’m like, “No, Hannibal. You can’t fart and then tell me I can’t laugh, you need to keep it together.” He goes, “That was my improv choice. You’re ruining my choice.”
And that day, I then got in a fit of laughing where I’m like, this is just fun. I like these guys. We’re clowning around. You cut this ten-hour day. If you can’t find a funny minute and a half, you’ve got to get a new editor, man, because we gave it to you today.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, exactly. Man, it was a real pleasure.
Jake Johnson: Thank you.