Leif smiling Ride the Eagle 2021 movie

In every role Jake Johnson takes on, he tends to be A Mood. From Nick on "New Girl" to Peter B. Parker in "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," Johnson is all about relatable roles. Appearing in major films like "Safety Not Guaranteed," "No Strings Attached," "21 Jump Street," and the "Jurassic World" series and starring in 146 episodes and seven seasons of "New Girl," Johnson also directed for the series "Hoops" and "Stumptown."

Now he’s teamed up with "New Girl" director Trent O’Donnell for the new film "Ride the Eagle," which deals with themes of life, loss, and accountability. Co-written by Johnson and O’Donnell, this dramedy might be just what the doctor ordered after a dismal pandemic.

During an exclusive interview, Looper spoke with Johnson, who dished on "Ride the Eagle" and working with co-stars Susan Sarandon and D’Arcy Carden. He also touched on playing Nick on "New Girl," working with a young Olivia Rodrigo, and having scenes with Taylor Swift and Prince. He also revealed some news for fans of the "Spider-Verse" and "Jurassic World" franchises.

Being your own acting partner

Leif with Nora Ride the Eagle movie

"Ride the Eagle" is sort of a one-man show for a good chunk of the film. What was it like acting with yourself?

It was challenging, because the thing that I love the most about acting is connecting with other actors. I really do love being in a scene with somebody and having not a lot of knowledge of who they are outside of the job. I like acting with people where whatever we’re creating feels real. My friend, Billy Bungeroth, who produces this, called acting "human tourism." You get to be a new person, and the person you’re with is new and it feels real, but what I will give credit to is the dog in the movie, Nora. I actually felt like she gave me a lot back.

So she doesn’t talk in it, but she’s a really special dog, and she’s connected. She was a retired guide dog, so she really knows how to connect to people, so I didn’t feel alone in the scene. I don’t like being alone in a scene because then I do a kind of a lame move, but I then try to connect more to crew members. I have a hard time fully believing in the make-believe if I’m alone, but with Nora, I could kind of connect to her, and then she and I were it.

I love that. It’s so funny because whenever I get screeners, I can’t check DoesTheDogDie.com, and then I’m stressed out for the whole movie.

Wait, there’s a website called DoesTheDogDie.com?

There is, yes! And I always check it if there’s a dog in a movie, and if the dog dies, I will not watch it.

That is really fun. So that culture I didn’t know, but there’s a big percentage of people that have been hitting me up when I post about this saying, "Please let me know that the dog doesn’t die because I won’t watch without it, and please put a spoiler in this for anyone who just wants to watch the movie." I don’t want people to know what happens to the dog because part of the movie is you have to wonder, but it’s really wild.

Honey, it’ll be all right

Susan Sarandon’s performance as your mom is fantastic. Did you ever get a chance to actually work with her, or were those bits filmed separately?

Those were separate. We were able to talk to Susan a lot. Susan as an actress is a national treasure, as we all know, and I realized in doing this process with her why — and it’s because of her intellect. She is somebody who wanted to … When we approached her with the script, we sent her all of Honey’s artwork, because Honey’s artwork is a big part of the character. What and why she creates her art matters in this story, so we commissioned a painter, Aaron Payne, to do the artwork. We broke down who Honey was, but we didn’t give any notes to the artwork. We wanted that to be part of trying to lure an actress to play it, but when Susan came on board, she just had great questions, and she needed to basically make sure that Honey isn’t the bad person in this, and she’s not.

We wanted to make a story where she made a mistake as a mother, obviously. She was in a cult, and she did abandon her son. She chose the beliefs of the cult, which was more about communal living and the community would raise the baby rather than what we as storytellers think she should have done. But Leif, as an adult, had opportunities to forgive her because she kept trying and he didn’t. So, the main thing that I think Susan wanted to know was that they were both in the wrong, and we felt the same way. So it was, yeah, she was in the wrong, but she’s not a monster.

Right.

She just chose a path that didn’t work well with her son, and then her son chose a path that didn’t work well with her.

D’Arcy Carden: Winning the costar lottery

Audrey smiling on the phone

I love that Leif’s interactions with Audrey in the film are all on the phone. What was it like developing that love story without being in the same room, and did you and D’Arcy Carden film those scenes together, like on the phone, or were they done separately? And what was that experience like?

It was tricky — so D’Arcy, the chemistry of those two, needs to be important because that’s the love story. I’m a big believer that love stories on film have less to do with the dialogue and more to do with the chemistry because people are smart and they can feel it. They can feel when two people have it, and a lot of times what audiences do is they think that the actors have that chemistry. Well, a lot of times, it’s the fictional characters who happen to have it with each other. And so, with D’Arcy, we just weren’t sure.

She and I didn’t know each other, so we did a lot of Zoom rehearsals, and we would rewrite based off those rehearsals, and we would take her notes and suggestions, and she was such a gamer, and she was so in, and she had such a great … Apart from being talented, I hate talking about people’s attitudes being good when their talent is good, but she has both. She’s the whole package. So we recorded her stuff, and I was on the phone, and we tried, but it was tricky, and then my stuff, we don’t get reception up in the mountains, so all my side was trying to remember her performance, and then our director Trent would read the lines.

Sticking with a timeline

Leif holding Honey's letter in woods

You co-wrote this movie. What were the biggest points that you wanted to hit, and how do you feel about the final product?

I wanted to make sure that we had a structured film. I went to NYU for dramatic writing, so I don’t like meandering stories as a writer. When I’m offered a script, if the central A story is not well-crafted, I can’t get past it. I don’t like movies where, and then this happens, then this happens, and then this happens, and it’s random. I wanted to make sure that this was really tight and structured in its way, which I’m pretty proud of. I wanted to make sure the messages that Honey was doing were stuff that I actually believe in. Even though "eat what you kill" is ridiculous, I think what that really means … Like my brother and I always say to each other about our businesses, he’s a lobbyist in Chicago and an entrepreneur. So what we’ll say is when we talk about our businesses, "Eat what you kill," and what I really mean by that is no one’s going to give you anything.

How to ignore your critics

Lief outside cabin with Nora

If you want something in your life, don’t wait around for someone to hand it to you. Go out and get it. In terms of the art, do what you love. If I’m trying to act and be the kind of actor that I think the internet wants me to be, or what I think a fanbase wants me to be, then I’m doing dogs*** work. If I’m doing stuff that it’s because I love it and I happen to connect, then that’s great, but if I’m doing stuff and people don’t like it, well, then I’m really sorry. But I’m trying my hardest. So all those themes and the structure meant a lot, and I’m really proud of the movie. We wanted to play with tone. I like a movie that feels like different stuff. I like that there’s some laughs, there’s some heart. I like that there’s some tension and fear. So for me, it’s a really successful indie.

Where will Peter B. Parker go next?

Peter B. Parker holding drink

We’ve had a lot of "Spider-Man" content in the past two decades, but "Into the Spider-Verse" stands out as the most innovative. Do you know if you’ll be appearing in the sequel, and would you be down for the sequel if you don’t know?

Yeah, I believe I’m in it. We haven’t started recording, but all signs are moving towards yes. And yes, I would be heartbroken if I wasn’t in it. I loved playing Peter Parker, or Peter B. Parker. I think the way that the character is written and the way that Peter B., with the stage of life he’s in, is just a character that I’m very interested in. And after that first movie, I would really like to know what happens next. I want to know what happens to him when he leaves to go with Mary. What happens? Is he done being Spider-Man, or does he know that in his universe? Is he a parent? So I’d be really sad if it doesn’t come to be, but I believe it’s happening.

That’s good to hear. What was the most exciting part of taking on that project?

The material. I’m not a huge Marvel superhero fan in my personal life. I don’t watch a lot of movies. So the real exciting thing was when I got an email from Phil Lord, who I am a huge fan of. I think he is a … It’s not a term I use lightly, but I think he’s a genius and he’s brilliant, truly, and he had a part for me, and the movie at that time was called "Cabin Fever." And he said he was writing an animated movie for me, but I wasn’t famous enough for the studio just to give it to me, so would I be willing to meet and rehearse? And, he was trying to be respectful, and I wrote, like, "Phil, anything you’re ever in. Yes, I’ll fight for it." And then, as I got deeper in, I was like, "Oh, I didn’t even realize this was to play Peter B. Park… Yes, of course, I’m in." So, it was working in something that is under his and Chris [Miller]’s passion.

Trusting the writers

All of the Spider-Verse Peters on the ceiling

Is there a "Spider-Man" comic book storyline that you would love for "Into the Spider-Verse" to take on in the sequel?

I’ve never read a "Spider-Man" comic.

Is there a scene you’d like to see that’s not from the comics?

Honestly, no. I want to see what happens to Peter, and then I also selfishly, one of the reasons I like to act is selfish. I like doing the work, and I liked being in the scenes. I would like to perform with Shameik [Moore] again. Shameik as an actor I find really talented, and we really bonded making this movie and doing press together, and I miss the guy. I haven’t seen him. We haven’t talked. We texted a couple of times during the pandemic, but I miss that guy. I want to mix it up with him. I want to sit in the booth for a bunch of hours, stare at each other and say these words, and feel Miles because Miles is a real character. I can feel him. So rather than the storylines, I trust the writers on it, people who know this stuff more than me, but I just want to get in there and feel these characters again. I want to do the scenes.

The origin of Olivia Rodrigo

Nick with Olivia Rodrigo and other teenagers in Jess' office

Olivia Rodrigo has blown up in a major way since her guest episode on "New Girl." What was it like working with her in those scenes, and did you have any kind of inkling of how huge she would get?

Well, it’s funny that you say that right after Peter Parker, because I do believe I was her mentor. [Laughs] No, I didn’t know, but I do know, which is funny. So we did that scene, and there were, I think, three teenage girls in the scene, and they were all really good. They had a little bit to do. They were all pros, but most teenage kids are pros. Kid actors are unbelievable, but since watching that, my kids got me really into "Bizaardvark."

So I’ve seen every episode of "Bizaardvark" multiple times, and so I know her as an actor, and I’m like, "She and the other woman in it, the two leads of it, those two girls, they’re talented." They were doing straight-up sketch comedy on a Disney channel, but some of their bits were really good. So, I was always waiting to see her at some event to say like, "Hey, I’ve watched every episode of ‘Bizaardvark.’" And I didn’t know she was a musician. I didn’t watch the "High School Musical" stuff that I’ve now realized blew her up because now my kids are into that. But hey, good for her, man. I listened to her album. I like that it’s kind of like ’90s grunge.

The Prince of pop and the pop princess

Taylor Swift in New Girl looks surprised

For sure, it was so exciting to get that kind of album in 2021.

I’ve got to tell you what I really hope, because now that I’ve gotten into a lot of my kids’ age group music, I also miss Taylor Swift. Her new album is great.

Yes!

"Cardigan" is a killer song. I like that these pop stars are getting into like that guitar, rock a little bit. It’s like, "Yeah, let’s bring this back. Let’s get away from five people dancing on stage to one thing, and let’s get away from just that kind of music and go back a little bit of rock with these pop stars."

Definitely. Speaking of Taylor Swift, she was also in "New Girl," as was Prince. Can you talk about your experience working with them on set?

Well, I was also both their mentors. [Laughs] Taylor Swift came in, was in and out fast. She was great, she was really nice. Prince was the same. The thing about "New Girl," looking back, is the people who came on that show, I think it’s always going to be, you’re going to keep tapping into the talent resource that we had there, which was shocking. But I feel lucky that I got to experience it with them. I think it’s really funny that Olivia and Taylor were both on it, and now they’re kind of the biggest musicians in the world. I don’t have much thought on it besides those are good memories.

Nick Miller: The mood of the decade

Nick shrugging

I rewatched "New Girl" twice, I think, during quarantine, and Nick becomes more relatable with every episode, if that’s even possible. Did you find yourself falling into any Nick behavior during the pandemic, and is there a particular Nick mood that you related to the most?

I try to bring a lot of myself to characters, especially a … When I get offered something, one of the questions I ask is that, do I, specifically as Jake, relate to this person, and what about this do I like or dislike about them? And Nick, because we did so many episodes and we were there for so many hours, and we were all new to the game while we were doing it, and Liz Meriwether’s way of writing then, I don’t know if it is now, but at the time they viewed the set as a lab. Meaning you didn’t just show up and say the lines. You said every line, and you improvised every version, and you tried everything. So you were forced to bring yourself to it — not your true self, not the self that you are as like a parent or like a family friend, but how you find yourself funny.

Finding the funny

Nick and Schmidt smiling

So Max Greenfield is nothing like Schmidt, but that is what Max finds really funny. We text each other. He texts me as Schmidt, but that’s not him. What he finds funny when I’m texting with him, we act like those characters because that’s what we all know can make each other laugh. So, what I find funny about Nick, at least now a few years removed, is how people keep connecting to Nick now, but I did not think they were connecting to Nick while we were filming "New Girl." So it’s something I find really weird about the character, and I’m curious about what the future will hold with that specific character because while we were filming, he wasn’t what critics cared about. He wasn’t what fans cared about. Winston too, while we were filming it, Winston and Nick weren’t that like …

Well, we weren’t like s*** on, but it wasn’t that big of a deal, and now Winston’s a huge deal. It’s just funny. It’s just not how it felt when we were filming. Time is a weird thing with a sitcom. But for me, there’s nothing I really take from Nick in terms of the pandemic. I was in it, so I don’t enjoy it the same way. It was a different thing, but the game for me will be how time continually and continuously changes the perception of the show and the characters.

New Girl isn’t so new anymore

Winston and Nick in high school talent show

Nick and Winston were always my favorites, so maybe I’m the outlier in that, but I loved you guys. How did you feel about Nick and Jess’ ending and his significant character growth at the end of the show?

Well, I know Zooey Deschanel and I felt like the characters hadn’t had a true resolution, and we all asked Fox if we could get at least … That’s why our season 7 is a shortened season, because I believe it was going to be canceled after six.

They gave us seven more to conclude it, and I was happy. I wasn’t excited Season 3, the whole season when Nick and Jess were together, I thought the show worked at its best when Nick and Jess couldn’t figure it out, or they might’ve always wanted to be together. But I liked when it was really the ensemble together, and everybody’s interacting with everybody. But the end thing was for sure the Nick and Jess I wanted together. And in terms of his growth, did he have a lot of growth in the end, Nick?

I think he did! He got his crap together, and he ran a bar. He became an author. I feel like that’s growth.

I guess that’s true. I guess he did.

The Tran of it all

Tran bathes Nick

It’s Nick growth, at least.

Yeah, it’s Nick growth. That’s right. I think Nick will always be … If there’s a reunion, I’m definitely not wanting Nick to be mature and grown-up. I want Nick to get into some really weirdo s***, man. The fun about Nick for me was it was a regular sitcom, but then Nick would be talking to old Future Nick. He would believe it, and then it would keep having these callbacks. Nick had a friend, Tran, in the park.

Part of the origins of this movie with Nora was because Trent O’Donnell, who directed and co-wrote this with me, was a major part of "New Girl." He did about 70 episodes of the show. So we kind of knew we could do scenes with me and Nora because Ralph [Ahn], who played Tran, he never talked. But those scenes felt like scenes. So as long as Nora can connect, which I knew she could because of the guide dogs, I was like, "We could do scenes." So I don’t think I would’ve made this movie if I hadn’t done Nick and Tran scenes.

But what I like about Nick as a character, it’s he could go have a full relationship with a guy in the park who doesn’t speak. There are not a lot of sitcom characters who come across as normal, and he’s a mental case in the best of ways.

The future of Lowery

Lowery in front of computers

Can you tell us anything about "Jurassic World: Dominion" — and what were the most exciting and daunting aspects of taking on such a beloved franchise?

Well, unfortunately, I’m not in the third one.

Really?

Well, I was written in, so it’s announced that I was, but what happened was the pandemic hit.

I think the publicist … they don’t want the "Jurassic World" information out. [Laughs] No, I was in it. So, Colin [Trevorrow] had written a great part. Lowery came back. It was a great conclusion. I was excited to do it. The pandemic hit, and at that time, there was a two-week quarantine. It was a bunch of stuff that I couldn’t get out and leave the family, and we kept trying to make it work. And in the end, the dates just didn’t work out for that one, which was heartbreaking because apart from being in that movie, Colin’s a very old friend.

We did "Safety Not Guaranteed" together, and years before that, we did a bunch of like YouTube shorts. He tried everything he could to make it work. I tried everything we could, and the math just didn’t … Hopefully, what happens is as they’re cutting the movie, they realize they can do a quick reshoot, and we’ll pop something off really fast now. So as of now, it’s not happening, but Lowery never dies — he just multiplies. So maybe there’s another chance he can find his way in.

Fans can check out "Ride the Eagle" in select theaters, on demand, and Digital on July 30.