Jake Johnson's Eyes Don't Lie

The 'New Girl' actor knows how to spark chemistry in HBO's 'Minx.'

jake johnson
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist, Styling by Annie Psaltiras

After he finished up his run on New Girl, Jake Johnson had gotten used to the kind of characters that would get sent his way. The scripts would always describe these type of guys as "late 30s; has not reached his potential; in between jobs; and is just not quite ready for adulthood." On the Fox sitcom, Johnson had spent seven seasons perfecting a dude exactly like that, turning law school dropout, bartender, and detective fiction author Nick Miller into a bonafide internet sex symbol.

That's not really who Jake Johnson is. He doesn't overly bond with his coworkers. If everyone else is going out to karaoke, he'll probably go home. He's trying to drink a gallon of water a day, which forces him to pause our interview once to use the bathroom. ("It's a living nightmare," he says.) He's a married father of two with a black Labrador named Nora, who lost her job as a seeing eye dog because she's afraid of statues and skinny men in uniform with mustaches. Before we start getting into our Zoom conversation, he boots Nora out of the room because she's so needy she won't leave us alone to chat.

So when Johnson got the call to play Doug Renetti in the new HBO Max show Minx, he was thrilled that he wouldn't have to act out another quarter-life crisis. Johnson is also not really a kindred spirit with Doug, who runs a small empire of porn magazines in '70s Los Angeles and teams with an excitable young feminist to create one geared toward women. But he does recognize him. "Doug reminds me of my uncles and parts of my dad," he tells me, leaning into his camera with his scruffy hair almost sticking up on end. "These salesmen, who you're not sure if they're on the good team or the bad team. They have tons of heart and morality, but in the same sense, they're really shady. And you're like, 'I don't know if I can trust this person.' Those parts don't come my way very often."

jake johnson
Johnson and Nora. | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist, Styling by Annie Psaltiras
Johnson and Nora. | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist, Styling by Annie Psaltiras

Dressed in a wardrobe of bell bottoms and chest-hair baring shirts, Johnson steals every scene he's in, oozing dirtbag energy that bounces off of Ophelia Lovibond's Seven Sisters, country club primness as Joyce. In the pilot, Doug convinces Joyce to spice up her plans for a magazine full of serious scholarship about women's liberation with some full-frontal male nudity. You buy what he's selling. "It was really important to me that we always be working against the cliché of the pornographer: We didn't want him to feel too sleazy or too craven," Minx creator Ellen Rapoport tells me. "Jake is just so talented and he has this real emotional honesty to him. I really feel like he's incapable of a false moment. Although, I told him that and he pointed me to times where he felt like he wasn't good, which is just so perfect."

Rapoport had no idea that casting Internet Boyfriend Johnson would add another angle to her show about female desire. "I did not know that there was so much thirst for Jake Johnson until I started reading Twitter two weeks ago," she says. "I'm so happy people like his chest hair and open shirts. I would have opened them more if I knew there was such an appetite for them."

When Johnson was cast in New Girl in his early 30s, he was on the verge of thinking his career might have been over before it really began. "I was at the age as an actor, where it was becoming the thing of, 'So it didn't work. But you are in commercials.' I was in Get Him to the Greek," he says. "I was at that point where I was like, 'Maybe that's what it is. There's a few credits. Maybe I get a job.'" He threw himself into the work with the intention of making it stick, and it did. With Nick, Johnson perfected a kind of lovable sad sack that would follow him. His depressed, out-of-shape Spider-Man, Peter B. Parker, in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse gained him a whole new set of fans. During the early days of the pandemic, he recorded voicemails for kids as Peter. ("We've been doing the next one, and everything that I've seen is so top quality," he says about the upcoming two-part Spider-Verse sequel.)

portrait of Jake Johnson
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist, Styling by Annie Psaltiras

He was playing yet another bartender on the ABC series Stumptown when Minx was originally looking for its Doug, but when the Cobie Smulders show was canceled, Rapoport jumped at the opportunity to bring Johnson into the fold. The cancellation was something of a blessing for Johnson. He loved working with the people on Stumptown, but he didn't find his character very challenging. Doug was different.

Johnson knew guys like Doug growing up in Chicago, where he was raised by his mother. "My father was out of the house when I was 2, and he essentially came back when I was 18," he says. "He owned a car dealership on the South Side of Chicago, and he was in commercials with Chicago Bull athletes. He was a drinker, and whenever we would see him, he was loud and funny, and flirted with waitresses, and was sweaty. My Uncle Eddie lived with us because he got arrested in Florida, and they brought him back to Illinois. He hustled me over chess. He got at me to do cons of my little 14-year-old suburban friends. They were these bigger-than-life heroes to me. I knew I was never like these men, but they were so cool."

By the time Johnson was in his 20s, he knew he didn't want to emulate that lifestyle, but he also had insight in how to play one of these types. Whereas other actors might play up Doug's "skuzzball" qualities, that was too simple for Johnson. "I want to play Doug the way I saw those men," he says. "Because I didn't have a male role model, that was the goal."

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist, Styling by Annie Psaltiras

Rapoport deferred to some of Johnson's ideas about what Doug's life would look like. He wanted Doug to drive a luxury car—because he cares about comfort—and thought that he would be a proficient cook himself after a life alone, so the pots and pans in his apartment would be clearly used.

Whereas Nick Miller's goal was to be with Zooey Deschanel's Jess Day, Doug is not a lovelorn character. "I believe Doug wants to win capitalism," Johnson says. "And I think at his core, he has a big chip on his shoulder for being slighted." To that end, Rapoport says that Doug's relationship with Joyce is, at least for now, staying platonic, which isn't to say that Johnson doesn't have chemistry, sexual or otherwise, with Joyce and basically everyone else in the Minx offices.

I asked him what his secret is to projecting that on screen, and he explains that it's something he picked up when he and his brother were obsessed with the teachings of improv guru Del Close growing up in Chicago. The key is listening. "I'm actually trying to hear what they're saying—One, as a character, and then it's two, as a person." he says. "The beauty of acting is that your eyes don't lie." The audience then mistakes that intensity for "oh, he's in love with her."

In Minx, he's maybe not in love with the woman sitting across from him at a diner as he takes a sloppy slurp of soup—he's in love with the idea of another financial windfall. But it's those eyes that make you believe that someone who wants to publish a magazine called The Matriarchy Awakens will consent to putting dicks in her pages. And that's how even a mercenary pornographer becomes a Jake Johnson dreamboat.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.


Editors: Kerensa Cadenas and Leanne Butkovic


Photography Director: Drew Swantak
Photographer: Cole Saladino
Photo Assistant: Zach Solomon
Stylist: Annie Psaltiras
Fashion Credits: Jacket by Levi’s, pants by Vince, boots by Scarosso, striped sweater by Vince