'Safety Not Guaranteed' Roundtable with Jake Johnson and Karan Soni
I recently had the chance to participate in a roundtable discussion with Jake Johnson and Kara Soni, co-stars in the new indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, premiering in select cities June 8th. Read on for selections from the discussion.
Johnson and Soni had the following to say about how they came to the project:
Jake Johnson: What I found interesting about this project from the beginning was Colin Trevorrow, our director, and Derrick Connolly, the writer. I had known them a little bit, and I knew how talented each of them were. I had seen the Youtube clip, like most other people in America. I thought it was really funny. So when they said they were doing a movie based off that, I was interested. Then I read the script, and I thought the A-story with Aubrey and Mark is so good, and also the Jeff and Arnau story has got so much heart to it, and so many turns, that I felt like I couldn't pass it up.
Karan Soni: My interest in the project was, “Yay. Someone wants to hire me. I will do anything.” Then, I really liked the ad situation. A lot of people my age answer Craigslist ads and do all that. It was fascinating to see someone pursuing such a weird ad. I feel like I personally wouldn't have the guts to answer and add like that, but I want to watch the movie of the weird people who do want to follow this guy. So it was interesting.
Safety Not Guaranteed is based around an internet meme from 2007 stemming from a quixotic classified ad. The fellow cast members had this to say about how the movie draws from the meme, and the future of films drawing inspiration from the web:
Johnson: I will say this about the internet. Everybody I know, working or not working, whenever we talk bits, no one's talking about the bit in the newest movie or the funny thing they just saw. It's always some ridiculous thing on Youtube, some crazy video. So I don't know if it's going to be the minor leagues to ideas, but it'd be really funny if it was.
Soni: The movie takes that ad, but then makes a real story out of it, with real characters, instead of a caricature, like a jokey movie.
Johnson: It's a credit to Derick Connolly, the writer. He really fleshed out a a bunch of three dimensional characters. I think he got four of them in an hour an a half, which is pretty... We didn't improvise all that in the script.
On working with first time director Colin Trevorrow:
Johnson: I knew Colin personally a little bit. We had met through a good friend of ours, so when this came together, I was curious, because I have been fortunate and worked with a lot of different directors, from small parts to bigger ones. Colin's attitude on set was very funny, because he was unbelievably confident. You would do a take, and you'd do two takes of it. As an actor, I wouldn't know, and he would go, “I feel really good. We're moving on,” and I'd be like, “I know you say that, man, but we're not going to be in Seattle again. We are on this street. Should we just do another take?” He would go, “We would only be doing it for you, because this is the one I'll use.” The joke on set would be, “Either Collin's right, or he's a damn idiot, and none of this is going to work.” I didn't see the movie until Sundance, and when I saw it, all the things that he had said, were actually in the movie, and it really works. So I have a lot of respect for Colin. I had a lot of respect before. Now after, I have even more, because he has a very singular vision. He knows very specifically what he wants, and he's kind of bullheaded in getting it.
Johnson: We were definitely allowed to improvise, but it wasn't an open canvas improv. He knew exactly what he wanted. So it's not that you'd improvise jokes. You had to improvise on story. The scene where Karan and I, I'm telling him to go in the room, and I put the sunglasses on him. That, we improvised a lot of that, because it was close on page, but we hadn't quite found it. Karan and my relationship in real life, we got really close. We were right next to each other in the hotel and we hung out every day. So Colin as a director said with this one, “Do it again, do it again,” until we found that stuff in there. In other takes, we would do word-perfect from the script, do two takes, and we'd move on. So every day was a bit of a guessing game with him. Really, I hold him in the highest regard.
Jake had few comments on playing comedy, and how not to over play it:
Johnson: I think there are certain actors who just go for the jokes, and they're going to sacrifice the character for it. Then there are other characters, like Jeff and Arnau, where both those characters are funny, and together they're funny, but we had to rely on fact that the script is funny, the moments are funny, the situation's funny. It's when you have an actor that starts jumping out, trying to squeeze the huge one-liner in, you all the sudden don't feel like two guys in an Escalade talking about time travel. You feel like, “Oh, this is a guy at Chuckles Comedy Store with a mic in his hand.” It takes away a lot from acting. So I feel like the line is you as an actor know what's funny and what's not funny, and you hope you hit on it, but once you sell out that character, you get in a lot of trouble.
The character of Arnau was Karan Soni's first role in a feature presentation. Working along with veterans like Jake Johnson and Mark Duplass was a huge learning opportunity for the young actor:
Soni: I learned a lot. From Mark, I didn't get to do a lot of acting scenes with him, but I got to watch him a lot on set, and he was a producer as well on this. He just commands such a respect from the crew and everyone that he' working with, that it was really kind of amazing to watch how much the crew and people respect him, like he's worked on so many movies with them. He literally can get down and dirty and work in any situation and never complains about anything. That was really great to watch and be like, “I'm never going to complain as an actor, because this guy is willing to do anything.” From Jake, I learned a lot comedy in a weird way, keeping things real and not playing for the joke. I think Jake as an actor, he really focuses a lot on, “What's the reality of the scene?” He's not really focused on, “How can I be the funniest in this? How can I deliver the funniest?” That's I think the best kind of actor to act with, because you're not constantly insecure of, “He's stealing the scene from me,” or, “He's going to be funnier.” It's more these characters, this is the reality, and we're just going to play it that way. So that was really fun.
Karan Soni is of Indian descent, and his character Arnau is a quite Asian American who socially awkward and inexperienced in dating. Some may see the character as filling a stereotype.. This is Karan's response:
Soni: I think it's interesting that people find it stereotypical, because I really connect with the character a lot. So I guess I'm part of the stereotype then. I don't really think the character's stereotypical. I think whenever you see a person of color playing a character like that, they automatically assume a certain amount of things. Like in my personal experience, I know a lot of people who are going through med school right, and a lot of people who's parents forced them to do those majors. I'm very lucky that I'm not part of that, because I wanted to do something creative in my life, but I can name hundreds of my friends who are in med school right now. They always call me, they're like, “Dude, how's LA. How's this life?” So to me, that was my main draw from that, a lot of what I was like in high school. I think it's not Jake's character is a white guy helping me out. I look at is as Jeff [Johnson's character]. I'm acting with this guy who's this big, over the top kind of personality. What's interesting as an actor and someone working on this is how different those two characters are. What's really fun is to play against that. I personally don't relate to where his character comes from, because I didn't grow up with people who were popping their collars, driving Escalades. I grew up with people who actually went to business school and med school, doing all that kind of stuff. So I think it's interesting when we lean that way. I don't really think of it as “White guy helping brown guy,” but I guess you can look at it that way.
In the film, Jeff and Arnau have an arc together, where Jeff tried to bolster Arnua's success in dating, in ways counter to the growth Jeff seems to be experiencing:
Johnson: What Collin told me about Jeff and one of the things that I really liked about him, is he said, “At the end of this movie, Jeff hasn't actually grown.” There is the moment where you think he has the opportunity to grow, but he doesn't grow. So he knows that he really likes this kid, and it's not working out for himself, but he doesn't think, “Maybe it's because I've done something wrong.” He thinks, “I just somehow didn't win, but this kid should just do exactly what I did, and he's going to win.” I liked playing a character that had all those ups and downs, but in the end, has very little growth. There's something about that that I find very fun.
Soni: Movies tie things together too perfectly. They always have the music with the montage of the character when they go back home. I really like this character. You don't know what ends up happening with him. I definitely think the moment when he pushed me and all that, it's not perfectly tied together. I think he's drunk, first of all. He's coming from this huge event that happened in his life, and he's just thinking in that moment. So maybe's he's recreating that with me, but in that moment, he doesn't really think everything through completely. It's kind of an impulse.
Jake is probably best known as “Nick” on the Fox sitcom New Girl. He had the following to say about the differences between portraying TV and movie characters.
Johnson: It's interesting, because the difference that I've seen is, in a movie, you see the beginning, middle, and end of a character, and that's what you sign up for. What I've realized, I really realized it post production of New Girl, in doing press for the season finally, is I have no idea who this character is. I don't say that with any disdain for my character, Nick. I actually say it with affection. But, in TV, I don't know how the story ends. So I don't know what's going to happen. In a movie, I read the ending. I read Jeff's final line. So you can prepare, like, “Oh, I can go that far left, because I'm coming right. We're going to end in the middle.” With Nick, I read the pilot and I signed on, and then they'll have a thing where I fall in love with Dermot Mulroney. Now I'm like, “Now I'm confused.” So the thing with TV which is different is you just have to dive head first and trust Liz Meriwether, our creator, that what she throws in front of him I'm going to be able to pull off. In a movie what's really nice is you get to start something, have a middle, and then finish is. It's tricky. It's an interesting balance.
Jake and Karan had these closing thoughts:
Johnson: This is coming of doing a TV show. I did this, then I shot New Girl from August until April. It's really fun to do a whole project in four weeks. Every day was a different location. I think we did 24 locations in 26 days. We shot all around the Washington area. Each day, we would pull up to a new location. It was a very small crew. The people in Seattle, I hope they keep getting their tax incentive breaks, because they are so fun to work with. Here in LA, everybody's a specialist. So, like, the caterers are the best damn caterers in the country. But there, the caterer on our movie was the producer on the last movie they all did. So everybody kind of does everything. So it gives this feeling of you're actually just making a project together, rather than “You are the actor, and this is where you stand. You're not the lead, you're this person.” It's just, “We're all doing a movie together, and we're doing it fast, and we all care about it.” I think that's what I took away the most on it.
Soni: It felt kind of like theater. It doesn't feel like there's a hierarchy on the set. What I took away was taking risks. I had some ideas that I wanted to so, but I was like, “I don't know if I should do it without asking him...” So I just did them. Then Colin would just not say anything, and then he used it in the movie. So that was good. So just doing it, and stopping when they tell you to stop.
Both actors are keeping busy and will be on the following projects over the coming months:
Johnson: I'm doing a movie that starts in a couple weeks called The Pretty One, with Zoey Kazan, which I'm very excited about, and then back to work on the show.
Soni: I worked on an NBC pilot called 1600 Penn. as a small recurring kind of weird character. It just got picked up for mid-season. So hopefully I'll get to come back and do that. So that'd be fun.
Safety Not Guaranteed opens in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland June 8th, with additional openings in other cities starting June 15th.