Jake Johnson Doesn’t Get the Sex Symbol Hype

The actor shines as a charming-but-sleazy ’70s porno mag entrepreneur on HBO’s Minx.

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jake johnson portrait
Courtesy of Getty Images. Treatment by Ashley Peña for W.

Jake Johnson has seen your tweets. You know, the ones that commented on his decidedly very ’70s look in the new HBO Max series Minx, in which he stars as a porno rag entrepreneur. It’s quite a different role than that of New Girl’s Nick Miller, the sitcom job that catapulted him to fame in the 2010s, but one that Johnson was really excited to take on. Still, he’s not quite sold on the idea of being a sex symbol, even if he is sort of playing one on television. “If you saw the world through my eyes and you lived through my life, it's a comedic turn,” the actor says.

Johnson’s role as Minx’s Doug sees him as a groovy, sleazy-but-lovable publisher of an erotic magazine for women, developed by his prudish adversary-turned-collaborator, Joyce (Ophelia Lovibond). When the job came his way, the actor, who had recently become disenchanted with his work, was instantly jolted by the depiction of Doug, a character whom he says reminded him of his uncles and his dad. “What I learned during New Girl was how important [series creator] Liz Meriwether was to the process, the true voice of the show,” Johnson explained to W over the phone, just before the first episodes of Minx dropped on HBO Max. “[Minx creator] Ellen Rapoport has a very clear point of view that made me laugh.”

Below, the actor discusses stepping back into the ’70s, the one movie that always helps him get into character, and why he had fallen out of love with acting, just before falling back in love with it.

Minx an interesting take on the era. Most people would probably focus on porn made for men, but Minx goes in the other direction. And it seems like a lot of recent shows, like Pam & Tommy, are analyzing media-within-media. Did that draw you to the role?

If I’m being totally honest, I don't get offers to play characters like Doug. Doug is the kind of guy I grew up around, in terms of my uncles and being in Chicago and my mother having junk shops my whole childhood. When I read this script, as opposed to thinking about what’s happening in TV right now, I just thought, man, if I get to sink my teeth into Doug, that would be such a blast.

What do you like so much about him? He has a reputation for being kind of a sleazy guy.

What I like about him is that he’s really complicated—he’s good and bad at the same time, he’s selfish and selfless at the same time. I think he’s really funny, and I also think he’s really dark; there’s a lot of range for drama with him. He can do almost anything in terms of a story, and people would say, well, that makes sense for Doug.

There is something charming about him.

I don’t think he knows if he’s exploiting people. There are people who use people; I think Doug is just trying to make his business work and if there are casualties along the way, it happens. You know, my dad was that type of character. So there’s something about those people that I get. As Jake, I would feel bad if somebody got knocked off the boat, but I think somebody like Doug thinks, well, we’re way faster now.

His costumes are so evocative of the era: wide collars, tight pants, colorful shirts—it’s all very ’70s. But is any of it comfortable for you to wear?

Beth Morgan, the head of wardrobe, is brilliant. The clothes are not comfortable. This was one of the first jobs for me where someone put so much thought into the clothes. I would get texts from Beth Morgan at night, three weeks before an episode, and she would say, I think he would wear these leather pants and here’s why. She was choosing clothes to define a character. I’ve never thought of that. As a human being, as a man, I hope my clothes don’t define me because if they define me, then I dress like I have the personality of a hobo.

Do you think in the ’70s, when men were dressing a little flashier and wearing tighter pants, that they weren’t as concerned about how that reflected their masculinity?

I think when a man is really vain in 2022, there’s something about it that’s off-putting. But there was something about that era. I didn’t live through it, but everybody who I’ve talked to talks about how truly open sex was, and there’s something about being vain then that was directly relating to how much sex you had. It makes sense, everybody should be dressing up and trying to look really good because they’re all sleeping with each other. Nowadays, you dress up and look really good for Instagram likes.

Are there any of his outfits that you really enjoyed and would maybe want to incorporate into your personal wardrobe more?

No. I enjoyed them all, but that’s because Beth Morgan was on fire and it was a great script. My shirt would be unbuttoned to my belly button, and 60-year-old dudes would look me up and down and be like, those are some nice pants, and I’d be like, I appreciate it, bro.

You mentioned that during the pandemic you had to re-fall in love with acting. Why’d you fall out of love with it in the first place?

The dream, originally, was to be a writer—I wanted to be a playwright. I went to NYU and I had a play produced by the ensemble studio theater. I did not like the way the director directed it or the way the actors acted it. I had the idea I was only gonna act in my own stuff. With a friend of mine, we started writing two-person shows together; we did UCB and all the fringe festivals. I started getting more and more work as an actor, but my whole desire was always producing, writing, creating, seeing the whole picture. When I would take jobs, I was worried more about whether the whole cast had chemistry together, or if the script worked.

During the pandemic, I realized that for the last 15 years, I’ve really just been an actor. And if I’m honest, I’ve always loved acting. It took the world to stop for me to admit it, because I always thought actors were the least interesting of the bunch. You show up late, you’ve had coffee, you have cucumbers on your eyes, you can’t remember your lines because you had to exercise ‘cause you’re too chubby for your jeans. I felt like, oh God, no, that’s not me. And then I looked in the mirror during the pandemic, and I’m like, yes, that’s you.

Let’s get into some of the Culture Diet questions. What’s the first thing you read in the morning?

I’m a slow starter in terms of reading. I’ll definitely go to the news to see if there’s anything breaking that’s going to change my routine. I now fully understand that the government can change my routine. I don’t read fiction until later in the evening. I’m not a wake up, have coffee, and read a book guy.

What books are on your bedside table?

Shadows of Pecan Hollow by Caroline Frost. I’ve been reading a book of short stories called Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola, which I enjoy quite a bit. She’s a really talented writer.

What about television?

I’m up to date on Succession, which I think is just brilliant. I’m rewatching The Larry Sanders Show. I’ve got an old DVD I always watch called Fishing with John. John Lurie goes fishing with different people and they just create 20 minutes of madness.

What’s the last movie you watched?

I revisited Boogie Nights so many times during Minx, and truly remembered how wildly spectacular that is. I used to play it in my trailer to remember the certain energy and bounce to that movie. When it would be early in the morning and I’m putting on tight pants, it would instantly make me happy to be at work.

Do you listen to any podcasts?

I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts. If I’m driving, I will, but it feels insane to listen to a podcast at home. A friend of mine gave me a nickname, “Jake five years ago,” because five years after something is really popular, I seem to discover it. The podcast thing hasn’t hit me yet.

What’s the last album you’ve had on repeat?

I’ve been listening to Francis Prève, and this guy called Moondog who made movie music in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. I play William Onyeabor’s “Fantastic Man” all the time because it’s about a guy who thinks he looks fantastic. And Fleetwood Mac has been nonstop for me.

What’s the last thing that you do before you go to bed?

I’m not consistent, but I try to meditate at night. A lot of people say you shouldn’t meditate before sleep because it keeps you up, but it knocks me out. I really like dreams, and I know everybody does—it’s like saying you like sweets—but it’s something that I do value. I don’t talk about them a lot and I’ll never be the guy who tells a friend about them, but before I go to bed, I try to set an intention that I’m hoping to enter that world, and I’m really hoping to remember the dream when I wake up.

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