“How is it fair and equal that guys have a dozen places to see titties, and gals have no way to see dong?” The line arrives midway through Minx, a 10-episode dramedy on the pleasures and perils of setting up the first erotic magazine for women in the San Fernando Valley. It doesn’t start that way — writer Joyce (Ophelia Lovibond) wants to start a publication called The Matriarchy Awakens, full of academic, deadly serious articles about feminism, birth control and abortion. It just so happens the only man interested in backing it is Doug (Jake Johnson), a prolific publisher of porn magazines who sees a market for Joyce’s writing, but also recognises that it needs to be made more palatable with the help of certain…visual aids. When the show follows up his earlier question with a penis montage — a sequence in which a line of men disrobe to audition for the issue’s centerfold spread — it strikes you that he has a point. What was true of magazines in the Seventies still holds true for the television landscape today. Pam and Tommy’s talking penis and Euphoria’s decision to include 30 dicks in a single episode aside, male nudity onscreen is still a rarity.
“It was that line that meant something to me,” said Johnson during our conversation over Zoom. “Doug has been described as a sleazy character, but he’s right about a lot of stuff, including that if you’re a true capitalist, it shouldn’t matter if something objectifies men or women, just that it sells something. The idea that only men have desire and want to see naked women is missing the other half of the financial equation — that women also have money, and they want to buy things, and they want to see men looking cute with their clothes off.” The actor was also compelled by the idea that his character, a straight man, wasn’t put off by the sight of other naked men, and that script didn’t have him making jokes to paper over any awkwardness. “When a guy pulls his pants down, Doug just sees dollar signs, and I thought it was hilarious,” he said.
Doug’s unkempt hair and aggressively tight leather pants might be new, but he’s exactly the kind of man that Johnson has gravitated towards throughout his 15-year-old career. You know the type — down on their luck, yet fundamentally decent. He’s played versions of this character in New Girl, as the grouchy bartender Nick Miller, who’s a lot kinder to the people around him than he is to himself; and more recently in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), in which his older, more jaded Peter B. Parker ruminates over a failed marriage before turning into a mentor figure to newbie Miles Morales (Shameik Moore).
“I don’t want to play a scientist who is trying to unlock the code to a scientific formula,” Johnson said. “I don’t mind watching that movie, but I don't have an interest in spending 14 hours a day playing that character. That wasn’t the kind of person I was obsessed with as a kid.” Instead, the actor looks for roles that reflect the men he grew up around in Chicago, versions of his father and grandfather. “Now that I’m older, I get to explore them and dress like them and have other people write situations about them, and then I get to live in them. Unfortunately, if somebody is looking for a wide range of character types, that’s not me.”
He makes it sound simple, but Doug’s a study in contradictions, a decent man in a sleazy profession, one that’s not a misogynist, but also isn’t above engaging in sexist banter with other men when he thinks it will help him get what he wants. It’s a push-and-pull that also reflects in the relationship he develops with his longtime friend and assistant Tina (Idara Victor). The chemistry might be effortless, developed over late nights and shared dreams of striking it rich, but there’s a hint of a backstory that suggests they’ve gone down this road before and it hasn’t ended well.
An affinity for love stories runs deep throughout Johnson’s filmography. His secret to nailing a good one are simple — find a great writer who knows how to do romance, then find a co-actor who wants the lead pairing to matter as much as you do. “For New Girl, Zooey Deschanel used to text quite a bit. We would talk about wanting the Nick-Jess storyline to matter, try to build that chemistry together in between takes and figure out ways to make the audience care about these two ending up together.”
A crucial element that Johnson swears by is the art of the slow burn, a lesson he picked up from watching long-running television sitcom Cheers as a child. “Shelley Long (who played Diane Chambers) taught me how to do TV romance. I learnt how to slowly string out chemistry episode after episode after episode, and drop bread crumbs instead of the whole loaf. When it’s a slow burn, it’s really earned. That’s really satisfying to watch and satisfying to do,” he said. The actor brought these ideas to New Girl, which mines the will-they-won’t-they tension between Nick and Jess, but also builds them a romance that has genuine friendship and mutual support as its foundation.
Despite playing one of television’s most endearing faces for years, Johnson’s beginning to prefer roles in which he doesn’t actually appear onscreen. Or rather, in which he doesn’t have to think about what he looks like appearing onscreen. Films and shows in which he’s voiced roles include The Lego Movie (2014), Smurfs: The Lost Village (2017) and Bojack Horseman. “I’m 44 years old and balding, so any chance that I don’t have to be on screen, I think that’s a positive,” he joked. “Being able to just focus on the material and not having to think about whether the waist of the pants that the wardrobe department gave me will fit, that’s an upside to voice acting.”
Ahead of his next release, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which he describes as “a good one, a really fun movie,” the actor plans to keep playing men who are kind at heart, though he insisted they’re not completely upright people. “When we expect somebody to be all good, then we get really disappointed when they’re a little bit bad. But the reality is that everybody I’ve ever loved in my life has shown both sides. And so do my characters.”