Jake Johnson missed acting. During the pandemic, the actor wasn’t sure if he’d work again. Instead of waiting, Johnson co-wrote a script with a collaborator from New Girl, director Trent O’Donnell, and went out into the wilderness to shoot a movie about a mother and a son. The end result is Ride the Eagle, which is an authentic, feel-good movie with plenty of cannabis.
Cannabis plays a pivotal role in Ride the Eagle, creating a bond between the mother-son duo, Honey (Susan Sarandon) and Leif (Johnson). They’re two hippies at heart that, sadly, only reunite after Honey’s passing. She left him a to-do list and personal videos telling him what she had always wanted to tell him.
Recently, Johnson also wrapped shooting a show called Lost Ollie with the co-director behind Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Peter Ramsay, which kicked off our discussion about working with kind people such as Ramsay, not assholes.
Jake Johnson on Life and Work
Is that a big part of your decision-making, working with people you’ll enjoy being around?
It’s a huge part of it. I have no interest in working with assholes. I really care about the art of it, and I want the audience to really enjoy it, but my days matter, too. If someone is a real nightmare and I get word on that…because everybody does, in this business, intel on each other before you say yes. If there’s an actor who’s notoriously late or difficult, or there’s a director who’s way too controlling? You don’t get those days back.
It’s kind of not worth it. There’s also other jobs. If I was at the point where it was the only job, and I needed to feed my family, it’s worth it. But if you can get another job, and you don’t have to deal with an asshole, I think that’s a better move.
Do you still think with every job it might be your last job?
Every time. I think it’s reality. I think that I’ve been very fortunate in this business, and one of the reasons I made Ride the Eagle was, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to work again. I was in the pandemic, and I like acting; I love being on set. I like writing and creating. I like trying to figure out a scene while we’re shooting it. I like actors who are good and crew members who have great attitudes and work hard. I realized that might go away, and I didn’t want it to, so I was willing to pay for it myself to do it again.
Ride the Eagle is a movie that makes people want to sit back, relax, maybe smoke and enjoy. Are you a big smoker yourself?
I do smoke. I found a brand that I really like called Weekenders. I don’t know if it’s just a California company. I have a pretty low tolerance, so I can’t smoke with the best of them and be cool. I’m a one-hitter guy. I like to take a hit of pretty mild weed. My main thing is, I like to exercise when I smoke pot.
This is a ridiculous thing, but this is for High Times, so I think I’m speaking to the people who get it, but it makes me actually connect to my body. If I’m working out, and I’m not smoking any weed, it’s such a nightmare. You’re just throwing weights over your head and doing jump ropes, and none of it makes sense.
If I smoke a little bit of pot, I’m feeling the benefits of my body, and I’m feeling where I’m weak and where I’m strong. I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll trip out a little bit in the gym, and then go in my garage and throw some Francis Bebey, African music on, and blast it, and take my shirt off, and get weird. That sounds like a fun 45 minutes.”
Did you smoke at all when you write?
No. I went to NYU for writing when I was, like, 19 to 21 or 22. The school was so disciplined. I went for dramatic writing, which was about structure and the rules of writing. I had come up as a writer with this idea that there are hard, fast rules and a three-act structure, and the turn has to happen on this page.
I don’t have any judgment for people who smoke pot and work, but I just can’t do it. What I’ll do is, I’ll smoke a little bit of pot if I’m reading a script, if somebody has offered it to me. I’m doing that show Minx in fall, but the pilot of it, I wasn’t looking to do a TV show. It was right in the middle of the pandemic, and I had just finished a show, so I didn’t really want to do another.
I was going up to the cabin where we shot Ride the Eagle. As I was driving up, my agent sent me the script for Minx, the pilot. I got to the cabin; I had a couple of beers, and I took one big hit of weed, and I threw some music on. And then, after 30 minutes, I’m kind of bored of sitting there listening to music so I’m like, “You know what? I’m going to read this script.”
It was the perfect head space to read a script because I can visualize it. If I’m not stoned at all, and I read something, I judge it. I think about the days, and I think about the audience’s response, and I think, is this a good move? But with the weed, I just read what I believe the writer intended. I was like, “Man, she wrote a beautiful script.” I felt like a weird uncle where I was like, “Yeah, Ellen, man! You killed it. Let’s go make your vision, man!”
[Laughs] The use of cannabis in Ride the Eagle is kind of sad because both Leif and his mom are artists and smokers. When you see she has those gigantic bags of pot in her house, you think they probably would’ve had a lot of fun together, right?
You nailed it. The reason we wanted the scene where he smokes his mom’s joint in her room is because they’re like-minded people. There are certain people who don’t see their parents and then when they do, it goes really bad because they realize, we have nothing in common. We don’t like one another.
The problem with Leif and Honey is that if they got past their fights, they have a lot in common, and they would’ve had a blast. He’s a weird drummer in a young, hipster band, and she’s a weird painter. They both like living in their own galaxies. They could have lived together, as adults, and enjoyed some time.
And so the point of the movie was, and it kind of came from the pandemic where, wherever you felt politically…like a lot of really good friends of mine who got really paranoid with the pandemic and the origins of COVID, and got a little bit deep into conspiracy theories? I felt distant from people who I loved. I thought, “Man, that buddy of mine who has always been a weirdo is now a real weirdo. I wonder if we’re done being friends?”
As I was thinking of this movie, I thought, “I don’t want to be done being friends with them. We don’t agree on this. We got into a really bad argument on the phone, but there’s so much fun to be had; let’s just not talk about that.” And so, that was the big, core feeling of it, that Leif and Honey should have hiked together and smoked a joint and enjoyed their days. And when it comes to the past, maybe don’t talk about the cult [they were in]. Maybe talk about something else, man. There’s only so many hours in a day.
You listen to music when you write, right? What was your main Ride the Eagle song?
What was the Ride the Eagle song? I’ve been really into Francis Bebey for a while now, working out with world music. The song was something in that mix that I don’t want to try to pronounce, because I’ll say it incorrectly, and then I’ll feel like a real goober. I’d be really embarrassed to be that Chicago guy trying to say an African name, just butchering it. I’m just going to say it’s something great. A beautiful song.
Were you involved much in the theater scene when you were in Chicago?
I wasn’t. I left Chicago when I was 18 or 19. And then I came back when I was 25 with a real weirdo project called Project Joke, where I made a documentary about young improviser comedians who travel around the Midwest. I lived in an RV and traveled around to all these comedy places and wrote material in front of audiences to show how much audiences truly hate unknown performers who have unpolished material. People hated me, as a performer, but for years, every time I’d get on stage, it felt like, “I don’t know why this audience hates me this much.” So, we made that project, and then I was editing it back in Chicago, and everybody hated that project, too.
That sounds very humbling.
Yeah, well that was my entire career until I was about 30. Everything was humbling. Until you’re on TV and you get on stage, nobody likes you; everybody hates you [Laughs]. But that’s kind of the game of it. You get up on stage, and until you get in your groove, you just got to suck for a long time.
Were these beatnik years when you were hanging around in bookstores and coffee shops?
The beatnik years were high school.
You were reading David Mamet and Sam Shepard in high school?
I was, yeah. Well, it took me five years to get through high school, so I had the time. I dropped out of high school when I was 15. So, at the beginning of high school, I felt like I was just going through the motions, and then I took a year off or dropped out. In that year, I had a day job with my Uncle Eddie where we hung neon signs in the city. I was up until 3 a.m. and slept until noon.
I tasted what life was like if you didn’t go back to school and you didn’t value education. And so when I went back; I wanted to care about school, but I didn’t know what I cared about. And that’s when I started finding cool writers and actors and thinking, “I can value that,” but I couldn’t ever value math because I’m just not good at it.
How did you go from being a D student in school to going to NYU?
So, I wrote a play about a guy. It’s embarrassing because I don’t understand, deep down, why it was so important to me, but I wrote a play about a guy who was a caretaker in the San Diego Zoo to the famous gorilla. The gorilla was named, I believe, Bongo, at the time, and she was the big star. I read about how certain gorillas in zoos or certain animals are the star of the zoo.
My character in this play was the caretaker of that gorilla. He was a married guy. When the gorilla dies, he falls apart in a way that his wife can’t understand because she keeps saying, “Well, I’m alive.” But when the gorilla dies, a part of him dies, and it makes his relationship fall apart.
It was an obsession of mine, that story; I wrote it a million times, and I submitted that to NYU, and I got in based on that play. The head of the program, Mark Dickerman, would always talk about my little gorilla play. I think I got in because it was a really weirdo play, but he was interested in that.
When’s the last time you read it?
So long ago. It’s probably dog shit. I do know I’m still really obsessed with gorillas, and there is still something about loving, non-sexually, I’m not getting in that territory, but just having love for something that isn’t of this world and having it really mean something to you. I would love to do a romantic comedy, at some point, where it’s not me and a female or a male who’s around my age. I would love to read a script one day that has that idea that I had in the gorilla, but is better executed. Where somebody who’s in love with a ship and he doesn’t know why he’s in love with that ship, but he is. But then you craft the romantic comedy, and nobody gets it but him.
Is it nice as an actor to think of a story you want to get offered, but then having the capability of writing it yourself?
So there’s a difference. I think I’m a pretty good writer, but I don’t think I’m necessarily a great writer. The script I read for Minx is better writing than what I do. When I read that, I felt like, “Man, that’s a beautifully crafted story.”
If I were to write a story about a guy and a gorilla…when I go deep into my stuff, it gets weird. I know that. As an actor, you can fake it and be less weird in someone else’s project because I’m saying their words. But if I made a movie about a man who falls in love with a gorilla, I guarantee the critics aren’t going to like it.
It could also be a Sundance hit.
Maybe, man. I’d be there, and there’s going to be a lot of mixed reactions, and a lot of people on social media are going to go, “What the fuck is this weirdo doing?” And the only person who would finance it is me. I’d have to shoot in my backyard.
The episode of Mythic Quest you were in is fantastic.
That’s just such a nightmare, that idea of you making one compromise that leads to other compromises, and then it’s just a life of regret.
Totally. Honestly, I didn’t think about that too much in it. In watching it, I really felt the pain that Doc feels, and I felt the story that Rob was telling. But the truth is, in making it, I didn’t think of that. What I always try to do with characters is, I try to see it through their point of view. I thought my character was right. You make that compromise, because it’s Disney. If you have an opportunity to blow something up, it’s foolish not to.
I was 100 percent sure, in my own head, that she was the bad guy. And so when I watched it, and I saw what it really was, it made me sad for my character where I felt like, “Ahh, he’s such a loser. He blew it.” But I didn’t think of that beforehand. I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t think about it while we were shooting. The writing of that was written by a woman named Katie, who she crushed it and Rob is a brilliant dude.
All I’m trying to do is make Doc right. If he’s in a scene where he’s doing something where he’s the bad guy, I need to believe Doc is right. I need to believe everybody else is wrong because I don’t want to play him like a bad guy. I want to play him like he’s doing things for the right reasons. So, that’s what Mythic Quest was for me. I love the way it turned out.
The final scene in the store, it’s so sad.
So sad. Well, she’s so good, Cristin [Milioti]. I didn’t know her before. She’s such a good actor. I just watched Palm Springs for the first time. I thought it was great. I think she and Andy were so good, and I really felt like, man, she’s got that thing about her as an actor where I really don’t want her character to get her feelings hurt. I’m sitting on my couch alone, and I really like this character, even though she fucked her sister’s fiance. But that’s her as an actor. That’s a hard thing to keep a character like that as likable as she does.
You make these handcrafted movies, but what’s it like for you on the bigger jobs?
I don’t mean this like I’m brain-dead because I do understand that they’re different, but they feel the same; they’re just bigger. So, for example, doing The Mummy with Tom Cruise, which is a ridiculous, huge movie with a ridiculous character, and we’re flying his helicopter from the hotel to the set, and he’s flying it. Everything, especially for a stoner, it’s all an out-of-body experience. Every moment is funny, like working out with Cruise and blasting ‘80s tunes and then getting on a jet and going to Africa.
But at the end of the day, it’s acting. At the end of the day, it’s being in a scene with this guy named Tom, or it’s being in a scene with D’Arcy Carden in my backyard or Luis Fernandez-Gil in Ride the Eagle. At the end of the day, it’s the same, exact thing.
The trick is, you’d have to block out all the other stuff. That’s why I’m not interested in green-screen acting. A lot of these big superhero movies, the actors are brilliant for pulling it off, but a lot of the acting is on a green screen with wires on them. They’re doing this unbelievable performance for the audience.
That’s not as much my bag. I don’t feel that excited about that. I like to see a set that looks 360, meaning everywhere you look, it’s real. I like walking in and having the experience. With the Minx pilot, they built a publishing house from 1972. I like being able to open up a desk and seeing matches from the ’70s. I like living in the make-believe, and when you’re doing a project, and they’re fully committed, whether that would be really big or small, as long as it has that commitment to make-believe. I love to do it. I really don’t care if it’s Disney or if I’m paying for it. But, it’s got to have that thing where we’re all committed and trying our hardest and enjoying the weirdness of our industry.
As someone who previously worked in construction, when you have a tough day, do you think, “Well, I could be working construction?”
Every job is hard, but this industry is so much easier than hard jobs. So, when I did construction, I was never highly skilled. I would have to do the demolition and the cleanup or the insulation. Or if I had to put drywall up, everything I always did would be corrected by somebody else. And then I’d have to get a lecture about how my walls were uneven. Those jobs were genuinely hard because you’re physically tired and nobody cares how you feel.
The jobs that I have now, even though they may be hard, they do care how you feel. So, it’s fundamentally different. I have a harder time relating to actors who start earning their money at like 10, who’ve never worked day jobs. Because it’s different. Even if you have a long day on set, it’s a different job.
Do you still use any of the skills from your construction days?
Okay, I’ll tell you what happened though, which was funny, in this pandemic. Before I did Ride the Eagle, when I thought everything was drying up? Where Leif, where my character lives, you know how he lives in that tiny little backhouse? I built that during the pandemic.
I built it because I had no work to do. I can’t sit around all day. I’m not that person. I like to work. I like to have activities. I decided I was going to build a little, 8×12 office, but I realized that my skills stopped at a certain point. Now, YouTube is the great equalizer. I can get that apprentice experience that I never got in person.
When you’re on a construction site, and someone’s trying to teach you? The way these people would talk to me would be so fast and weird, where they’d go, “I don’t know what you’re not seeing here, boss. We got a 2×6, you gotta throw it up to the wall, over there you got the trip but if you go out of that trip, boss, one more time, I take the whole thing down, guy.” And I would go, “What?” “You got a 2×6, throw it up 12 feet on the trip,” and I would go like, “I didn’t hear one thing that guy Ron told me.” And then I would always be looked at as the goofy stoner. Because they would go, “How many times I got to tell this dunce? The 2×6 goes 12 feet to the trip,” and I’m like, “Missed it.”
The beauty of YouTube? I would rewind. The guy would explain something, or the woman would explain something, and I would go, “I might need to hear it five times.” But with YouTube, it’s not embarrassing to go back. I’d be like, “I don’t understand. I don’t understand.” All of a sudden I realized, if I had YouTube back in the day, I might’ve been good at construction.