'Ride The Eagle' Made Jake Johnson Realize How Much He Missed Acting [Interview]

Ride the Eagle is a buddy comedy between the living and the departed. New Girl and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse star Jake Johnson co-wrote and stars in Trent O'Donnell's film, which is about a son following his mom's (Susan Sarandon) final wishes, and their bond growing stronger after death. Despite the tragic storyline, Johnson wanted to make a movie that was more uplifting than heartbreaking.

As he told us: "F*** man, give me an hour and a half where I could take a hit of weed and just enjoy myself. I'm not looking for anything too heavy. Give me a glass of wine, let me chill out, man."

During a recent interview, Johnson talked about making the movie during the pandemic, his process as a writer, and some memories from making New Girl.

Johnson: We're rocking similar hair these days, man.

If you mean you're rocking your morning hair, too, then yes.

Yeah. I mean, that's why I threw the hat on [Laughs].

Hey, not a bad look.

I agree, man.

I don't know if you get this when you just let it all out, people are like, "What do you do with your hair?" However it starts the day, right?

Yeah. Well, the problem with hair, I mean, obviously I think we're similar guys, I don't have a lot of thoughts on it, so I'll do this or I do that, and then people go, "Well, what do you do with your hair?" I'm like, "I think I'm doing it." What I'm doing with my hair is what my hair is doing.

[Laughs] That's a good note to start. Ride the Eagle is a very kind but honest movie. Is that a tough balance to strike? 

Well, first of all, I like those adjectives to describe it. And no, it wasn't tough because, so we wrote this movie, Trent O'Donnell and I. There was no studio, there were no executives, we paid for it. There was nobody we needed to get approval, so we didn't have to convince anybody. If we tried to pitch the tone, I don't think anybody would buy it. But because we were making it, we thought like, we wanted to make a nice movie.

There is such much stuff I've been seeing where everything is so brutal or terrible, and the news is so terrible. I'm like, "F*** man, give me an hour and a half where I could take a hit of weed and just enjoy myself. I'm not looking for anything too heavy. Give me a glass of wine, let me chill out, man." We wanted it to be that tone. And in terms of the honesty, neither Trent or myself can relate to the story that Leif goes through in terms of like we're both close to our families and what have you, but we wanted to play everything honestly. I don't like to do things that you can't connect to in real life, so we tried to make it feel very real to us.

What's your writing process usually like? Anything that helps you concentrate? 

The reason I don't write all the time is because I get really obsessed about it and it starts becoming an all the time thing. I like to find a song that I'll just play on repeat so I can almost get in a meditative state, so that I don't have to think about anything, and I can just get into the world of it. And I'm a big believer in doing drafts. I tried to get the first draft of this done, the first 100 pages in two or three weeks, a mad sprint, so that we could keep rewriting, and keep rewriting, and send it to people, and get notes, and get notes, and get people's reaction. We grinded pretty hard on the script because we only had 10 or 11 shoot days.

This wasn't a movie we could improvise, we couldn't shoot two person scenes together. Everything I did with D'Arcy in the movie, we weren't together, so we needed to get each side of it, even though it feels really improvised and it feels really loose, that had to all be faked.

Why do you think it comes off as improvised?

Well, because we wanted that, so it was a very clear goal. I made movies with Joe Swanberg for years, some indies, where a lot of those scenes were improvised. It could be me and Olivia Wilde sitting on a couch, and we knew what the scene was about, but we were allowed to find it organically. With a scene with me and Anna Kendrick in Drinking Buddies, I'd be like, "Man, that's really nice," and it was just improvised. It's the way you get that human connection is because there's a human connection.

I like that in projects. We just couldn't do that because of COVID, so I was like, "Well, it needs to feel real with D'Arcy's character and my character, like they're just finding each other, and they like each other," but I didn't know how to do that without being in the same room, so we just rehearsed a ton. She's a producer on this and she started off as an actor, but one of the main reasons we made her a producer was the amount of work she did in prep with us, the amount of rehearsals, the amount of rewrites, the amount of notes, so that on her side, she could make it feel like I was right next to her without me being there, and vice versa. So, the grind of the movie was the rehearsal and the prep.

You've said this movie reminded you of what you missed about acting. What did you miss most? 

Well, it was during the pandemic, I realized I had kind of taken acting for granted pre-pandemic. I had been working consistently for too long, and I'm not smart enough to remember the past, so I just kind of assumed this is what life is now. And then when the pandemic hit and I hadn't worked for about five months, I was like, "F*** man, I'll take any job. I just want to work." I didn't know when Hollywood was, or if it was going to open, so Trent and I wanted to do this to see if Hollywood changes, we can at least do these kind of movies. I could then just make more and more movies like this. And making this movie, it reminded me that worst case scenario, I'll act with my dog, but I am going to be working.

Pretty sweet gig.

Depends if the dog's good or not.

[Laughs] Did you see yourself as a writer or actor first?

Originally I first was acting in end of high school, I started acting, and I really liked that. And then I was living in Evanston, Illinois, and I started going to like cool book stores and stuff like that. It was the '90s when you could like sit in book store, and I felt so cool and like a beatnik, and I was reading like Mamet, and Shepherd, and John Patrick Shanley. I thought all those guys were so cool that I wanted to be them. So then, for a lot of years I just pretended to be a really cool playwright, and then from that I started acting in my own plays, and then I started doing more acting. So, it's always been kind of back and forth.

Trent and I talked a lot about New Girl yesterday. That show is a good watch on a rough day. 

Yeah, it's a good show.

When you mentioned those authors you were reading, I thought, "That's Nick Miller's taste, he's definitely a guy who reads David Mamet."

That's hilarious. Yeah, New Girl was a great experience. I mean, honestly, we wouldn't have made Ride the Eagle if we hadn't have done the show ogether. It was the amount of hours that Trent and I have spent on set together working together, it was so easy for us to transition and do this. I wouldn't have done a movie in the pandemic the way we did it with someone I didn't totally trust, and you only really trust somebody creatively after like working with them for so long.

Obviously, it's still a very difficult time, but how'd it feel getting out there to shoot when you hadn't been around people in a while?

Well, Trent and I drove up to the cabin area in Yosemite early on for prep to like look at everything and scout it together, and see if we wanted to film up there. He was the first person apart from my family that I didn't have a mask around because we had both been tested. We were driving up, and I was wearing the mask in the car, and he said, "If you're negative and I'm negative, why are you still wearing a mask?" I remember taking it off in the car and being like, "Wow." It was the first time in like seven months I was hanging out with somebody, and it felt normal.

So, those early hangs with Trent while we were working reminded of me of how fun it is to hang with people outside of family, because even though we were working, there's a lot of bulls***ting going on in working, which was fun. I mean, Trent and I were really close. We will always be close because of the New Girl time. It was a special time.

And he also revealed to me that he had been dying his hair all throughout New Girl, and I don't believe he had told me. But yeah, he dyes his hair, he's totally gray. I don't think he would have told me that if it wasn't during the pandemic. I guess he grayed at 13, so I was like, "Okay, nice to know, Trent."

[Laughs] That's a nice piece of trivia.

Yeah, it's a nice shout out for Just for Men because I guess he's the biggest Just for Men customer.

Did you relate to Nick Miller as a writer at all?

I really connect in a lot of ways. I think the part of Nick's writing that I don't know if I relate to, but I remember cry-laughing on set one time. I don't remember the season or any of that, but I was on a bed, I remember it being with Zooey and Max, and I think Lamorne was there too, and they were discovering what was in Nick's book. And it would be like, just like pages of crosswords, and he spelled rhythm wrong every time.

I think one page was like a Chinese food menu, and any time Nick's brain was revealed to be true mashed potatoes. Like, there was an episode a guy named Rob Rosell wrote that there was a whole sequence in there that in Nick's room was a glass of milk that he had left, and he had filled it to the top like an infinity pool, and Schmidt couldn't understand why he had left milk in there, and to Nick it was very obvious [Laughs]. So, I don't know if I relate, but the thing I love most about Nick is when he just made terrible decisions and he was just an idiot. I think in the end he gets successful as a writer, I remember that, but my favorite was when Pepperwood Chronicles was one of the worst things out in America.

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Ride the Eagle is available on VOD on July 30, 2021.