Despite stereotypes to the contrary, being a good friend can be good for an actor's career.
Case in point: Jake Johnson. The “New Girl” co-star has done well by his pals, and they in turn by him, ever since the Chicago native moved to Hollywood.
The latest example of that is “Let's Be Cops,” a buddy cop comedy that hits theaters Wednesday about two friends who aren't really part of the LAPD. Instead, the pair are longtime friends and roommates whose Hollywood dreams haven't panned out. Johnson's Ryan, a onetime Purdue football star, can claim performing in one cringe-worthy commercial as his biggest success. Justin, played by Damon Wayans Jr., is a timid video game designer who is allowing his one great idea to get ruined by a zombie-obsessed corporate committee.
After the duo dress up as LAPD officers for a party that turns out not to be a costume party, they walk dejectedly down the street — where, to their surprise, they're showered with unfamiliar respect and female attention. Hooked on the feeling, Ryan takes the charade up as many notches as he can — he even buys a used police cruiser on eBay — and drags the reluctant Justin along on increasingly risky, fake police adventures.
“Damon and I are legitimately good friends,” Johnson says of his fellow “New Girl” cast member. “So when this movie was coming together, we both read the script. The studio was interested in each of us, but they wanted me for the part he ended up playing and him for the part I ended up playing.
“They weren't ready to commit to either of us. So Damon and I called each other, came back to them and said we'd love to do it together, improvise and open this one up.”
The studio agreed and the result of that teamwork is Johnson's first co-starring role in a major studio production, on the heels of his romantic lead debut in last year's well-regarded indie dramedy “Drinking Buddies.” He is predictably charged up about it — although not quite as irresponsibly as Ryan gets over unlawfully law enforcing.
Johnson jokingly exploited his cop uniform at the movie's Atlanta location while shooting last year. It backfired enough that he never did it again.
“I thought it was an obvious thing because we were on a film set, but a woman whose car was parked right near where we were shooting had her car alarm go off right as she was getting in,” he recalls. “She was just getting flustered because she could see that there was an entire film crew that couldn't shoot because of the noise.
“So, jokingly, I walked up — with everybody watching, so I thought it was, like, a really easy moment — and I go, ‘Ma'am, is that your car?' Then she turned around, her hands were shaking, and she's like ‘Officer, officer! I'm sorry!' She was having a real anxiety attack and I had to be like, ‘Lady, I'm just joking. I'm not going to arrest you.' But in that moment, I realized that this is to be taken very seriously.”
And yes, Johnson wasn't the only one in disguise. Except for three days of pivotal establishing shots, “Let's Be Cops,” which looks about as unmistakably Los Angeles as “Chinatown,” was actually filmed in Georgia, making “Let's Be Cops” just another example of runaway production. But Johnson's desire to work in his adopted city could not be more sincere.
“I really hope that we all get to start making movies back here. This is Hollywood! Leaving doesn't make any sense to me,” he says. “It's also the perfect place to shoot because the weather's the same every day. We lost about 2 1/2 weeks of shooting in Atlanta because of rain. We'd hang out inside for two hours, we'd lose the light; we were like, why are we here?”
That kind of loyalty continues to work out well for Johnson's career. He appeared in the indie comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed” a few years ago, and now that film's director and writer, Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, have brought Johnson along on their leap to big-budget filmmaking, next year's dinosaur spectacular “Jurassic World.”
He'll also headline the next feature from “Drinking Buddies” director Joe Swanberg, “Digging for Fire,” which is loosely based on a bizarre incident that happened when Johnson and his wife dug up the backyard of their L.A. home.
Friendships were what got Johnson established in Hollywood. After writing plays at the University of Iowa and New York University, he landed commercial gigs out in Los Angeles. He did not get to play a recurring character, however, until some pals brought him onto the cable comedy series “Derek and Simon: The Show.” One night, when he was partying with that show's Derek Waters, Johnson told a story about the soul singer Otis Redding. Out of that 2004 monologue — which is described as having “some history, but there was a lot of the alcohol talking,” according to Johnson — grew the show “Drunk History.”
Fast-forward to his role on the hit Fox show. Johnson is already working on the next season of “New Girl” this week.
“Jessica Biel is in our first episode,” he mentions. “She and Zooey (Deschanel) are battling over a man at a wedding. That's all I can say.”
Johnson and Deschanel's characters are still broken up but still living together, he sadly reports. But even though they may no longer be lovers, it's probably safe to say that they'll still be good friends.