Jake Johnson Reveals His Unbelievable Tom Cruise Story

Jake Johnson
Evan Lockhart/Andrew Toth/Film Magic/Getty Images
Evan Lockhart/Andrew Toth/Film Magic/Getty Images

The Mummy is now available on DVD, iTunes, and VOD.

Jake Johnson never intended to become an action star, but in The Mummy, a reboot of the classic monster franchise and the first installment of a proposed "Dark Universe" franchise, he’s embraced the genre fully. The actor, best known as Nick Miller on New Girl, plays Sergeant Chris Vail, a former military man who plunders archeological sites for pricy artifacts. He’s the wise-cracking counterpoint to Tom Cruise’s leading man, Nick Morton, and together they're a squabbling comedic duo forced to deal with the awakening of some very ancient evil. It was new ground for Johnson, whose taste of blockbuster moviemaking was six days on 2015’s Jurassic World that required no prior experience leaping off burning buildings.

Vail takes an unexpected turn in the first third of The Mummy, out today, and Johnson is aware that discussing the role can lead to a few plot spoilers. Still the actor, who will return to LA to shoot the seventh and final season of New Girl after his press tour on The Mummy, has a lot to say about his experience. We spoke with Johnson in London about how he found himself starring in a huge summer movie alongside Cruise and how the two of actors continue to be a friendly duo off-screen.

The Mummy
Universal Pictures

Thrillist: Why were you the right guy to pair with Cruise in this movie?
Jake Johnson: The casting process of this was a really weird one because I had just finished a season of New Girl. I really value time off and I’m not an actor who needs to be busy or more famous. I believe work leads to more work, so I think there’s something really nice to no work. I had told my team I wanted to take the summer because I knew we were back in the fall. But then they said, "A guy named Alex Kurtzman wants to Skype with you." I Googled Alex Kurtzman and realized I liked his work. I emailed Olivia Wilde, who had worked with him, and she wrote me, "Lovely man, really collaborative, really smart, I’d work with him again in a heartbeat." Alex had written this part with me in mind, so I thought, "OK…"

He wrote it specifically for you?
Johnson: Yeah. And then he said, "And it’s opposite Tom Cruise." And I said, "Oh, fuck, I’m not saying no to this one, am I?" Then I got deeply scared. I told Alex, "There’s no way I’m saying no to this, but I have to wrap my head around doing an action movie with Tom Cruise."

How did you do that?
Johnson: I panicked! I know his [reputation]. He does his own stunts. I read the first act [of the movie] and it’s like, "Nick and Vail jump off a three story building as it explodes, they feel the heat on their backs." And when you read those little things somebody has to actually do that. That meant the fire would be touching us! That meant I was jumping through fire and I was like, "I don’t want to jump through fire!"

But they flew me out to London to have a meeting with Tom and I sat down with him and we had one of those legendary talks where we didn’t break eye contact. He’s just actually a charming, awesome guy. He doesn't lie and he doesn't bullshit. He said things like, "Yeah, it’s going to be really hard and you’re going to be really scared and you’re going to get hurt. You’re going to work your ass off. I think you should do this." So the answer was a very easy yes.

The Mummy
Universal Pictures

When scared you the most during filming?
Johnson: I was never a horse guy and I had to gallop on horses. They had to teach me how to gallop in the English countryside in order to gallop in this movie. We learned and then we got to Africa and Tom and I were galloping over sand dunes and that’s scary. If a horse’s leg gets caught you’re just gone. We were also on a three-story building that was built to collapse and we didn’t have any safety rig, so we just surfed down the roof of a building as it collapsed onto the ground. We jumped off a building as it exploded behind us and landed on a building that was a story below and then did a scene. We ran through an alley as it was being blown up and the machine guns were so loud and so powerful that the airwaves would move your body. It was crazy stuff.

When you started as an actor did you ever imagine having a conversation like this?
Johnson: I made a very conscious choice when I got into the acting game that I didn’t and I don’t want any sort of a strategy. I’m not a believer in "The Secret" and in envisioning stuff for yourself and making it happen. I like the absurdity of life and having no strategy and no game plan. I don’t want to form a plan like, "Now that I’ve done an action movie that leads to my drama and then after my drama I’ve got to do a romantic comedy." I want to take each experience, whatever presents itself at that moment.

So never in a million years would I have guessed that I’d be in a movie with Tom Cruise. If I would have thought it I would have found a way out of it because it was legitimately scary. I had moments during shooting like, "This can’t be worth it. I could die. What am I doing? For The Mummy? What the hell happened?" And then you would hear, "Action! Jake, let’s go!" and I’d do it.

So some of your screams are real.
Johnson: All of the screams are real.

The Mummy
Universal Pictures

Was the comedy dynamic between you and Tom natural?
Johnson: You know, it was. That was something Alex wanted when he brought me on. He wanted their relationship to feel real and like friends. I was blown away -- and I am blown away -- with how nice and fun Tom is. It’s hard to [talk] about Tom because he’s so famous that I feel like it seems like I have a PR person in my ear telling me to say that about Tom. But I’ve made a very clear choice that I want to be honest with how I’m doing this. He was perfect to work with. He was so kind and so nice.

Here’s a story that is very anti-Hollywood, but very Tom. He wanted me to work out with him and get in shape for the movie. People have told me in the past, including New Girl, that I need to lose weight and stay in shape. But they don’t tell me how. It’s like, "Hey tubbo, fit into these slacks!" Tom said, "I really want you fit for this movie." I literally thought I was going to have to call Max Greenfield to do Crossfit. But Tom said, "You’ll be training with me and my trainers. If you want I’ll put you on a food plan with my chef. The food is great." And the food was great.

He [also] said I could use his gym whenever I wanted. One day I got to work to work out and one of the [assistant directors] goes, "You can’t go in right now because Tom is working out." I thought, "That sucks, I got here an hour early to get this in, but he’s Tom Cruise." After, when we were shooting later that day, he said, "What happened to you? I thought you said you were going to work out this morning?" I told him I was told not to bother him and he got really pissed. He said, "Let me make something crystal clear: I don’t care what anybody on the crew says to you, they don’t know what I’m saying to you. And I’m saying to you that you are always welcome. I don’t care what I’m doing in there. You’re not other. You’re my castmate. Come in." He’s the best.

Are you guys staying in touch post-filming?
Johnson: We e-mail each other. We’re kind of pen pals. He’s a perfect co-star. He’s really ideal for what I look for. I don’t need to carry a movie like this. I like having a Michael Jordan. I like somebody who wants it all on their shoulders. I’m like, "Yeah man, I want to help you win."

This portion of the interview contains spoilers for The Mummy.

So you didn’t have concern about the arc of your character and the fate he meets early in the film?
Johnson: No. I would have done this movie if my character died in the first act and then didn’t come back. That would have been a much easier job, like "I worked with Tom Cruise for three weeks and now I’m done," rather than four and half months with Tom Cruise. This version of the ending, where my character is with Nick, wasn’t in the script though. When we were in Africa, Tom shot the scene both ways and he said he really liked the Nick and Vail dynamic and felt the audience might like it as much as we did. He wanted a version where he brings Vail back to life. That feels exciting. But I didn’t really have any expectations.

Since Vail was included in the ending of The Mummy, does that mean you’ll be in more "Dark Universe" films?
Johnson: I have no idea. It’s uncertain for everybody. I don’t think anybody knows. The fun thing about the "Dark Universe" from what I’ve seen -- and they don’t tell me very much -- is they have ambitions of what it could be, but no one knows what it could be. I would love to play Vail more. I love the character. I think there’s really something to him. But I don’t understand how it would work in other things. But I always don’t understand how it won’t, so let me know! If they want me, they’ll tell me.

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Emily Zemler is a freelance writer and journalist based in London. You can follow her on Twitter @emilyzemler.