Jake Johnson Talks 'Win It All,' Joe Swanberg & The Secret World Of Underground Casinos

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 10, 2017 3:10PM

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Jake Johnson in "Win It All." (Photo courtesy of Netflix.)

With one foot firmly in the independent film world and the other stepping further into major Hollywood productions, North Shore native Jake Johnson is enjoying the best of both worlds as an actor.

Best known from the Fox sitcom New Girl (which just wrapped its sixth season), the New Trier alumnus is maintaining his varied career path this year. In June, he'll appear opposite Tom Cruise in the much-hyped reboot of The Mummy franchise. But before that expected blockbuster hits theaters, he can be seen in the lead role of Win It All, a Netflix original movie directed by prolific Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg. It debuted on the streaming service Friday and Johnson was in town last weekend to appear with Swanberg at the Music Box for one of the film's few big-screen showings.

A charming and largely lighthearted contribution to a long line of films about hard-luck gamblers on a downward spiral (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Rounders, Mississippi Grind, etc.), Win It All stars Johnson as a gambling addict who gets in too deep when a bag full of ill-gotten money almost literally falls into his lap.

The actor, who also co-wrote the movie with Swanberg, isn't deliberately balancing indies and big-budget fare. "It just depends on the project," he told Chicagoist. "It depends on the people involved. The size of the product doesn't matter as much to me as the product itself."

He thinks the same is true of Swanberg. Though he remains far removed from the mega-film world, some of the director's recent features are noticeably more polished than the micro-budgeted DIY efforts he made his name with. His three films with Johnson—Drinking Buddies, Digging for Fire and Win It All—feature marquee talent like Anna Kendrick, Jason Sudeikis, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell and Brie Larson, and more mainstream accessibility to go along with that higher-profile casting. Win It All, in particular, seems designed as a crowd-pleaser, thanks in no small part to Johnson's appealing, charismatic performance.

But the actor isn't sure Swanberg would make the leap into blockbusters that another collaborator, Colin Trevorrow, did. Trevorrow, who directed Johnson in the quirky, sleeper hit comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, was a very surprising pick to direct Jurassic World. More than a billion box office dollars later, it doesn't seem like such a risky hire, and Trevorrow is steering the next Star Wars entry. But to Johnson, he always seemed on the franchise film path.

"Even while we were making Safety Not Guaranteed, I think in his eyes we were making a big Amblin-style [Steven Spielberg's production company] studio movie. That was just Colin's specific genius, if you will. That's kind of who he is." (Johnson also has an amusing supporting role in Jurassic World.)

"I think Joe is very different. Joe has really honed in on an indie model that is truly independent, truly grassroots. And there's a real naturalistic arc to how he does his projects that I've really taken to."

Besides collaborating again with Swanberg, a big allure of Win It All for Johnson was another chance to work in Chicago. Knowing the city brought key locations to mind for both the director and his leading man/co-writer, though Johnson told us that the secretive back alley Chinatown casino featured in the movie was inspired by experiences elsewhere.

"I was in Atlanta making a movie called Let's Be Cops. A member of the crew was a card player and he took me to an illegal game in the city, which was behind a Subway restaurant in the 'hood. It was my first experience with a hidden casino. And then because of this movie [Win It All], a friend took me to an illegal poker room in Manhattan. So I don't know if they are specifically in Chinatown, but I know every city's got 'em."

Happy for his opportunities in both big and small productions, Johnson only seems reluctant to commit to another potentially long-running television series.

"I think after New Girl...however that ends...I don't think I'm going to sign another long contract, because I like the freedom of working on whatever comes up and I also like the ability to take time off. I don't feel a huge need to be in a long commitment kind of job. I love acting and I value acting, but I also value the freedom I have."