Based on the graphic novels written by Greg Rucka, the ABC series Stumptown follows Dex Parios (Cobie Smulders), a sharp-witted army veteran with intelligence skills, whose disastrous love life, gambling debt and a brother (Cole Sibus) that she takes care of create complications when it comes to her unapologetic style. She’s a great PI, but going after hardcore criminals sometimes puts her at odds with the police, including Lieutenant Cosgrove (Camryn Manheim) and Detective Miles Hoffman (Michael Ealy), and her best, and seemingly only, friend Grey McConnell (Jake Johnson), who has his own demons to deal with.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Jake Johnson talked about why he found Stumptown so appealing, the cast’s diversity, the mystery of his character, the running bartender theme in his recent work, how they designed his character’s bar, the experience of working with Cole Sibus, whether he’s rooting for Grey and Dex to get together, and what he enjoys about the one-hour format of this show. He also talked about how cool it was to be a part of the animated feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and how he’d be game to reprise the character for more films.
Collider: This show is probably my favorite cast of the new season. Since you don’t fully know what you’re signing up for, when you sign on for a TV series, what was it about Stumptown and this character that that made you want to be a part of it?
JAKE JOHNSON: It’s funny you said that about the cast because I feel the same way. I signed on after they had already done the pilot, so I was in a unique spot, in that I’m a fan of Cobie [Smulders], I’m a fan of Michael Ealy, and I was excited to work with Cole [Sibus]. And then, seeing his performance in the pilot, I thought he did a great job. I was excited to know that Grey’s story with Ansel meant that we’d get to do a lot of scenes together. Camryn Manheim is incredible, and Adrian Martinez and Tantoo Cardinal are just people I think are good. I was really excited about the possibility of working with this cast. I was personally really excited to play a secondary character. I didn’t want to be a lead, at this point in my life. I like being supporting, and I like having somebody else carrying the show. So, everything lined up. And then, when I had a conversation with (executive producer/writer) Jason Richman about the direction of my character, he said, “When you meet him, he just seems like the bartender guy, who’s really sweet and who’s really there for her, but there’s a lot to him that you’ll keep discovering.” There have been conversations we’ve had about things that we’re gonna keep quiet as the show grows, that just makes the character very exciting and very surprising, and I’m excited to play that. I’m excited to play the tone of it, and I’m excited to feel like what a one-hour drama feels like, as opposed to a movie, and indie or a sitcom.
With all of the talk about diversity in film and television, this show is really the perfect example of that.
JOHNSON: Totally. It’s really funny you say that because we did the cast photo, and we have seven series regulars and everybody can carry a story. I was like, “This is the most unique seven that I have seen on a TV show, maybe in my life. I was joking around about it and I was like, “I don’t even know how to judge this.” It’s a weird show. I don’t quite know the easy judgment of what the tone is, but I like that about it. I don’t know where it’s gonna go.
Are you surprised about how much has been made of the running bartender theme going on in your work?
JOHNSON: It’s really funny. There are certain things that myself, as Jake Johnson, just doesn’t care about. One of those things is where a character works. I’m really interested in storytelling, I’m really interested in tone, and I’m really interested in arcs. I couldn’t care less what my character wears, or what their pretend job is, or what their pretend car is. So, if I happen to do a job and a character drives a car for nine years, and then I do another one and he drives the same car, it’s just nothing that I’ll ever think of. Yeah, Grey is a bartender, and Nick (on New Girl) was a bartender. I think it’s fun, and if it’s a way in for the audience to connect to Nick Miller, great ‘cause I loved played Nick Miller. If that gets you to watch Stumptown, then god bless, and pretend it’s the same bar.
I love that your character has his own space with its own vibe. How much fun is it to have such a cool space for your character? Do you have any favorite aspects of the bar? Have you hidden any personal trinkets around that set?
JOHNSON: No, I haven’t.When they were building bar, I was able to go and check it out. The bar they had in the pilot, I thought it was more a little bit too modern and slick and nice. My character is somebody who doesn’t really have a lot of money, and he bought this bar, so my big push for the whole thing was to make sure the look of the bar feels the way you see the character, and that this is a bar who somebody that’s never owned a bar before and has no experience could put together. Rather than favorite places of it, I asked them to build it twice as big as they thought, so we could put cameras in everywhere and cross cover stuff. I like shooting in bars because you can fit a bunch of people in there. You can get a bunch of extras and have a bunch of looks. But in terms of trinkets in there, I don’t care. I’m just being honest.
I love the relationship between Grey and Ansel. What do you most like about that dynamic, and what has the experience of working with Cole Sibus, as a scene partner, been like?
JOHNSON: I’ve gotta say, in all honesty, I love working with Cole. He is so different than anybody I’ve ever worked with. He’s a very warm, affectionate human being. As a person, in my personal life, I’m different, but at work, I’m not the most touchy guy. I go to work, and I don’t feel like acting is that different than another job, so I just go there and I do my job and I leave, and if I can get some jokes, great. And Cole is not that guy. When we come into work, we hug each other and we tell each other that we love each other. There’s just a lot of affection and warmth from Cole to the cast and crew. It’s infectious, and he’s created a warmer and more vulnerable environment at work that I really appreciate from him. And then, as an actor, he’s really honest and he’s really in it. Rather than do a lot of little pieces, we’ve asked to do longer takes together. When he and I are sitting in the shot and we’re actually acting, he’s a hell of a fuckin’ actor, and it’s really fun to work with him.
We don’t get to see someone like him on TV very often.
Having worked with him for a bit now, how do you think he’ll inspire audiences, and how does he also inspire you?
JOHNSON: I think he’ll inspire audiences, and especially people with disabilities, because there’s no training wheels on his part. We’re not writing him a part and he’s not treated on set any differently than anybody else. He’s a 22-year-old man, and he’s an adult and he’s got a job, and we expect him to do it and he does it. When the emotions are expected to be sad, he delivers that. And if it’s funny, he delivers that. And if we’ve got a long walk-and-talk and we’ve gotta hit our marks, we do it. What I love the most about Cole is that he just steps up and does his job, and he’s good at it. I really respect that about him. I know how hard acting can get, and he’s good at it.
And in terms of what I respect the most and what I’ve taken the most from him is just a vulnerability and an openness to it. For example, he, Cobie and I were doing a scene, and in the middle of the scene, in between set-ups, he kept initiating a three-person hug, between me, Cobie and him. The first one, you do it and it’s a little goofy, but by the third one, I realized, “I’m hugging Cobie a lot,” and that’s okay because I actually have a lot of affection for her, but I just never would have done that without Cole. And then, when you shoot the scene, you now, in real life, just have more affection in your eyes for these people. And so, what I’m learning from him and what he’s doing is that he’s bringing people together, on a human level, which really does help, as actors.
Obviously, on a show like this, with relationships like this, there are definitely going to be fans who are rooting for Dex and Grey to get together. Do you personally find yourself rooting for them to get together, or the longer you play that relationship, do you feel like it would just be a bad idea?
JOHNSON: After doing New Girl for seven years, I’ve really learned that shows naturally change and they evolve. They start off as something and you have a specific vision, but then each season is a different thing. As the writing staff changes and new directors come in and actors change, the show changes. And so, as of right now, I don’t see Grey and Dex making it work. I feel like they’re more the three of them together with Cole. They have a little family, and I think that family works. Any idea of them being a couple would really mess a lot up. But I do think they have a lot of love for each other. I get that there’s love and affection between the characters. As you learn more about their backstory, that really helps. But what I really liked the most about Grey is that there’s a lot about him that you’ll learn, and it’s not what you would think. He’s a guy with two very clear sides that not everybody sees. He shows only what he wants to show, to certain people. I think that’s gonna be a really fun play, and I think it’ll be fun for the audience. So, with that in mind, I don’t think he’s a good fit for her, and I don’t think she’s a good fit for him. I think they’re both pretty damaged human beings.
What are you enjoying about this one-hour format of the show, as well as the blend of genres?
JOHNSON: When New Girl ended, I knew I wanted to do TV again and I knew I wanted to stay in Los Angeles, which limited my search. I wanted to shoot here because I’ve got a family here. I didn’t want to live in Atlanta or Vancouver. I wanted to live here. And so, I was looking around at the landscape of what was here, and at what would shoot for nine months out of the year, and a lot of it was just sitcoms. I really battled the decision of maybe doing another sitcom, and I realized that I just couldn’t do it because that tone of a sitcom is such its own thing, and it’s really unique and really fun, but I just didn’t want to play that game again, right now. What I really like about Stumptown, in terms of tone, is that it reminds me of the feeling growing up and watching NYPD Blue. I’m excited to play scenes that aren’t necessarily just about the emotions of the people involved, but there’s a story and a mystery, and we have to act our way through it. There’s suspense and action and fun and romance, and all of that, but rather than just getting the comedic situation and hitting bits, I’m having a lot of fun on set, not doing jokes. It’s not just about being in shot and trying to get a laugh, but seeing how we can move forward a story. I don’t know how long I’ll enjoy this. I might really end up missing sitcoms, but as of right now, it’s feeling like a real breath of fresh air.
It feels like everybody knew that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse would do well, but how cool was it to see such a huge response to that movie?
JOHNSON: It was awesome. Chris Miller and Phil Lord are two of the most talented people working in Hollywood. While working with them and working with our directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman), I knew that we had a real all-star team. But the reaction for me, and it happened for Shemeik [Moore], too, ‘cause we did a lot of our press together, was watching the reaction from people of color, finally having a Spider-Man that was theirs, and women finally having Spider-Gwen, and a spider person that was of their gender. And then, in terms of our conversation about diversity earlier, that’s really great, but white guys are still here, too, and it was great to be able to play Peter as a 40-year-old. They just did a perfect job of it. Sometimes we go really far in one direction, and then go really far in the other direction, and it’s really nice to have Spider-Verse do it with everybody there. That’s that best mix. Spider-Verse was just a dream job. I don’t think I’ll ever have one as good as that one was.
Are you hoping that you’ll get to be involved with more films?
JOHNSON: I wouldn’t mind doing another one. I love animation. I’m doing a 10-episode show on Netflix, called Hoops, and we just finished recording all of them. So, yeah, I would love to do more. It’s obviously up to Chris and Phil, and the creative team, but playing Peter B. Parker was a career highlight. I love the character. I love what they did with it. I liked that Peter was 40. I liked being a depressed superhero. It was just great. And so, if I get the call to go back in, I will jump in, head first.
Stumptown airs on Wednesday nights on ABC.