Interview: Jake M. Johnson and Karan Soni


[From Mar. 9th to 17th, Flixist will bring you live coverage from deep in the heart of Texas at South by Southwest Film 2012. Keep an eye out for news, features, interviews, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]

Following my group’s roundtable discussion with the writer and director of Safety Not Guaranteed, co-stars Jake M. Johnson and Karan Soni were led into our room. We talked about the basic chemistry between Johnson and Soni, whether or not Johnson’s character was a douchebag, Soni’s life before he chose to become an actor, and even a special hotel suite Johnson has dedicated to him.

As always, the transcription is truncated so as to not spoil anything in the film. If you haven’t already, read my full review of Safety Not Guaranteed here.

First of all, I didn’t think your character was a douchebag at all. When you said that last night [at the premiere], in reality, you were like the least douchiest douchebag that I’ve seen in film in a long time, so I wanted to let you know that. Your characters were so well-drawn and so well-imagined. Did you feel like it was easy because of the script, or did you feel like you had to put a little more of yourself in it.

Jake M. Johnson: I thought it was easy because of the script, and it was easy because of our director, Colin [Trevorrow]. I think Colin was pretty pinpoint accurate with this one where he knew all the characters, he knew all the arcs, he knew who we were, so sometimes you’ll say as an actor, you’ll say to the director, “Who do you think here…” and as they’re answering, you know they’re kind of lying, or not lying, but making it up. “You know, I think he can do a lot of things,” and you’re like, “Ugh, why did I ask? I wish he knew.” Colin is one of those directors who, every question, “This is what I wanted. This is how I want it.” And then if you do something else, he’ll go, “That’s good, but I’m going to use this other one, so this is how I want it.” So he was editing as he was directing.

Did he edit it as well?

JMJ: He was part of it, yeah.

Karan Soni: He’s done some editing before, professionally.

JMJ: It made it easier with a great script and a great director.

Was it fun seeing it last night at the Paramount [Theatre], that pretty theatre?

JMJ: The theatre’s gorgeous.

KS: What a cool theatre. It’s like old school.

JMJ: When I walked out on stage, I didn’t realize there was a balcony. That balcony is huge! It was great. The SXSW audience is… I don’t want to say Rock and Roll, but when we were at Sundance, it was a great audience, but it was more like an earnest audience, and they liked the tender moments. They laughed hard, they were into it, but they were more, “Aww…”  In this one, there were more hard laughs and clapping. There were moments where my character says to Jenica’s character, “This is going to sound crazy…” I heard some guy go, “Oh no…” It was a really fun audience.

Do you think your Jeff character was overall noble? He was trying to help him [Karan’s character, Arnau] get laid. Or was he just straight selfish?

JMJ: I think it’s probably somewhere in the middle. I think that Jeff has been obviously, he created a game plan for his life that he felt… the Escalade, and the job, and the cool clothes, that was going to have him win. And I think when she rejected him, he realized his strategy was wrong. And rather than at that crossroads, make the decision and say, “Oh I was wrong, I should do something else,” he rather said, “Fuck you, I’m right, and I’m going to prove I’m right by taking this kid out and teaching him that I’m right, and you’re [Arnau] going to be my Army of One. You are going to live like me.” And when he’s alone in the go-kart, you actually see him, it’s his realizing that he wasn’t right and he’s sad about that. But I think… it’s a combination. I also think that Jeff really likes Arnau and wants to be his friend because I think Jeff’s a lonely guy. So part of it is, the scene where we’re in the hallway and he gets Arnau to get the courage to ask the girl out, he doesn’t get why people would think he’s being jealous. He’s like, “This is the answer. You pop your collar and you put these glasses on and you go kiss her. That’s just what you do. That’s what you should do.”

That’s what usually works.

JMJ: Yeah, it’s worked for him. So yeah, but I don’t think he’s a noble guy.

You had such amazing chemistry. What was it like working with each other on set?

KS: It was great. I think me, Jake, and Aubrey, we didn’t get to work with Mark [Duplass] as much, the both of us, but the three of us kind of lived together, basically, in the hotel, we had the connecting doors, and we would get dinner and lunch together. We had the kind of same sense of humor, I think, and that was really important. It was instantly… it felt really fun and jokey.

JMJ: Movies like that, sometimes, at their best, and it’s embarrassing because I’m 33, but they sometimes feel like camp. When they’re good, they feel like your cast mates are your friends, the crew’s your friends. We went to Seattle in this really great hotel which, by the way, if you want a discount on a room, there’s a Jake Johnson Suite. There’s a hotel bar and the bar manager and I got along one night, and John Hodges, one of our producers, said “You know, it’s a shady little hotel. You should give Jake Johnson his own suite.” I now have… at the Sixth Avenue Inn, for I think $59 a night, you get a room, there’s a headshot I have with a full mustache, a Chicago Bears sweater, I got the Ditka sweater… my first headshots, I wanted to look like a Linebackers Coach from 1985. Believe it or not, I didn’t get a lot of work from it. They got a little thing on the wall, there’s a plaque, and it’s called the “Jake Johnson Suite,” and if you ask for that room, you get a discount: You get free parking, you get a cheeseburger with a salad, honey mustard, and a Stoli on ice. Like every night, it was a cheeseburger, a sald, and a Stoli on ice. If you contact the Sixth Avenue Inn… oh, the password, you have to say a password. It’s “Stoli.” To all the readers, they are personal friends of mine now. That’s kind of what this movie was, there was a bar on the second floor of the hotel and we would shoot, and our hours were weird, and then we’d all hang out. Our crew was small, and everyone in Seattle has such passion for filmmaking, and that’s not to take away anything from LA, but sometimes in LA, we’re all like specialists. So everybody and crew comes in, everybody’s good, but it’s a job. And in Seattle, it was like…

KS: Everyone just does everything.

JMJ: Yeah. Everybody loved it. It was just a different energy and it became a really fun thing to do. And I hear they just got their tax incentive back for films in Washington state, so everyone’s going back to Seattle, which makes me really happy.

Are you anything like your character?

KS: I was a lot like my character, I think, in high school, but not in college, so I tried to draw a lot upon that stuff. But not anymore. I’m more street smart than him now, because I’ve been on my own for a little bit and I’m pursuing acting, so that’s something… that’s very risky. I don’t think he would do that. But in high school, I was very by the book, and I was like, “If I do all of these things and steps, I will end up here and do all these things.” But that changes.

In high school, were you planning on pursuing acting?

KS: No, not even in college, but in high school… I went to high school in New Delhi, India, but I went to an international high school. I always wanted to go to college abroad just to experience it, and we had this program where we had to pick seven subjects and you had to do one science, one math, one English, whatever. And you had an extra one. You could do one of the arts, which no one took because they’re not encouraged… one person would be painting. You could take another science, which was very popular, or another math or whatever. So I did all the sciences, and I was trying all the classes, and I couldn’t do two. I did physics and I tried chemistry, and the only one left is drama in this time slot, and I was horrified. It was 15 girls, me, and this really stoner guy sitting in the corner of the class, and we would just have to do plays, and there was no choice but to be the lead in everything because there were no guys in the class, so I kept getting thrown into it. I really got into it, but I never thought it’s a career. I never thought that, because Bollywood is very different, there’s no Actors Access or LA Casting, so it’s like you know a producer, or you’re famous because of your father, so you end up in movies. It’s just another world. When I came here, I saw there are working actors and stuff like that, then I tried to get into it more.

What made you want to become an actor?

JMJ: What made me want to become an actor? I was a big fan of early SNL. When I was growing up, I saw the reruns of [John] Belushi and all that. Belushi looks like a weird version of my uncles and my Dad combined, so his look and Bill Murray’s look looked like family members of mine, kind of like… I don’t know, I related to them and I had a really hard time in school. Believe it or not, I was not the best student. I had a very hard time paying attention and I didn’t do well in any of my classes, so I didn’t feel like I had that many options, and there weren’t a lot of things that I thought I could do on a regular basis, so I started doing acting without the full strategy of what was going to happen. But I also really wanted a weird adventure, and then I moved to LA and I booked a commercial and I made $25K by being a pop-up ad. I literally had a big mustache, I had to wear a red sweater, and it was an hour’s worth of work, and I was working at a casino at the time, and then the checks kept coming, and I felt like, “I’m in love!” I think I’m going to do this until Hollywood’s like, “You have to leave now.” I’ll be doing it until… and then The New Girl happened. You know, doing a bunch of indies is great, but it’s a grind in terms of… When we said we didn’t make a lot of money in Safety Not Guaranteed, that’s not an actor being like, “We didn’t make a lot. We made $500K.” We really didn’t make a lot of money, so you know, the advice is if you’re going to do it, you better love it. Especially if you go to LA, it’s going to be a grind for a lot of years. Honestly, there are so many talented people I know, people I have come up with who are HUGE talents, HUGE, like… kill it on stage, kill at every job they have…. They’re dead broke and deep in their 30s, and their talent level should have them being big stars. You need to work hard, you need to be good, but it’s also you need to get lucky. You need to be in a thing, you can be in a great movie that no one sees, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean anything. People have to see it, they have to like it, it’s got to become a thing.

KS: I didn’t understand what independent movies were before doing this movie. I didn’t… I went to school in LA and watched all these movies, but I didn’t understand how many are made every year, how hard it is to make them. When I started hearing the conversations, “Oh festivals. Distribution.” It’s just very scary.

JMJ: I used to think that if you were in independent movies, that meant you’re a movie star. That meant you had a pool. I really did. I thought, “Oh! That guy’s in a movie! He’s a millionaire.” You’re not even a thousandaire. You’re getting a hundred dollars a day, and then a bunch of people are putting their hands in your pocket, and you’re like, “How can I even survive?”

I was watching [Inside the] Actors Studio with George Clooney, and he said he hasn’t made any money off his last few films because he’s made his last few films.

JMJ: You make your money on either a TV show or a big studio movie, but those are so rare that, as an actor, especially with a movie like this, you do this because you genuinely like the script and you want to do it. And you want people to see it so that you can have something where you can stand behind and say like, “Oh, we made that.” You can never take that away, and you hope one of those hits big and people like it so that the other ones you make can get bigger and bigger and bigger. We made this movie for well under $1m. Everything about this one was running and gunning, 24 shooting days.

KS: 32 locations. Did not know what that meant, but now I do! It means a lot of running around.