Jake Johnson in Minx. Courtesy Katrina Marcinowski, HBO Max

A north-side native who spent his youth frequenting Wrigley Field and following the gospel according to Del Close, Jake Johnson is Chicago to the core. The Evanstonian has drawn from his background onscreen in the past, bringing a little midwest grit to New Girl’s Nick Miller and teaming up with Joe Swanberg for Drinking Buddies and Easy. For his latest project, HBO Max’s excellent Minx, in which he plays a 70s porn publisher looking to cash in on the feminist movement, he’s chosen to hone in even further and pull from his gritty Uncle Eddie and all the bar-loving, joke-telling neighborhood guys he knew growing up. 

The Reader sat down with Johnson to talk dirtbags, beaches, and his love of junk. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve said that your Minx character, Doug Renetti, is in part inspired by your Uncle Eddie. Tell us about him.

My Uncle Eddie lived with us during my high school years and he had, by his own accord, a checkered past. He was a big storyteller and big salesman, and always had a new idea. You never know if he was lying or telling the truth, and he would hustle you at cards or chess. But he had an unbelievably sweet heart and was a very complicated character. 

When guys like Eddie have been portrayed in TV and film, they’re viewed as characters who want to take shortcuts and hit it big with some lucky scheme. They’re always betting on horses. In reality, a lot of them are actually unthinkably hardworking individuals. They’re just not your traditional nine-to-fivers. 

A lot of the best ideas come out of crazy characters that can be outside-the-box thinkers, and that’s how I view Doug. He’s not as progressive as the show in terms of how he would talk, but in 1971, it was really outside of the box to listen to a woman’s issues.

In movies, those guys always end up being the bad guys who need to learn a big lesson in life, but in real life, those were the guys that I could really lean on. 

You went to New Trier High School and also spent time in Evanston. How did growing up around the Chicago arts scene inspire you? 

My brother and I were obsessed with the ideals of the Second City. We had heard the teachings of Del Close talked about and we tried to weave them into our house rules when we did our bits. 

Going to all those little theaters, the Annoyance and iO and Steppenwolf, those little pockets of theater throughout Chicago was just so exciting, especially in the 90s. All this talent had come through there. It felt like there was a way into TV and movies through the Chicago scene. I just wanted to attack it badly.

I remember seeing Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey on stage at Second City at a free improv and then I remember seeing them on SNL. There’s a bar across the street from Second City called the Old Town Ale House and we would sit and drink there. They have the seat Belushi used to party in and talked about Farley and Murray, and you would think, “All those people I watched in movies were right here at one point, and I’m here now.” It made being a professional actor somewhat more realistic.

Your mom owned junk stores. Where were they? 

She had a couple on Clark Street and a few on the north side. 

My mother makes stained glass windows. She taught herself how to make them and she got pretty good at it. She likes to find old furniture and strip it and paint it, or find old treasures and fix them up a little bit. We just spent a lot of time in the shops together and in other shops looking for stuff and going to flea markets and antique shops. 

You really come across a bunch of characters because, you know, our delivery system was essentially me and whatever homeless guys my mom would give $50 to. If you ever read the play American Buffalo by David Mamet, those are the characters that inhabit junk shops. There will always be somebody coming in with some story who wants to sell something, or they’re looking for something specific. You spend your day having wild talks with real characters. 

Did being around those types of people inspire your love of acting?

One hundred percent. I loved being around engaging, funny, Chicago-style loud characters who really made me laugh. Somebody who might have had one too many drinks, but everybody would crack up when they started talking. Then, when I’d watch a movie or a TV show, a lot of those characters weren’t as funny as the characters I’d just been around, so I just thought, “Whatever that thing is that person brought, I want to do that.”

Last question: You’re in Chicago for the weekend. What do you do, or have to eat, drink, whatever?

The problem is, as I’ve gotten older, my body has changed, so I can’t eat cheese the way I used to, which screws with my pizza. If I have too much beer, I get hives. Everything’s a terrible mess. 

These days, if I get back to Chicago, I always try to get to the lake. Outside of Chicago, no one talks about how amazing Lake Michigan is. People talk about the ocean, but when they mention the lake, it’s as if it’s nothing. But when you’re at the beach in Chicago, it’s the same as if you’re in California. It’s a blast. I try to just make beach days happen as much as I can.