Michael Ausiello is Editor-in-Chief of TVLine.

Jake Johnson took Emmy watchers by surprise earlier this year when the New Girl actor elected to exit the supporting actor category in favor of the coveted, competitive lead race (pitting him against such awards heavyweights as Alec Baldwin, Jim Parsons and Jon Cryer). But upon closer inspection, the move was something of a no-brainer. The burgeoning relationship between Johnson’s Nick and Zooey Deschanel’s Jess was the driving force behind the Fox comedy’s stellar second season, and it cemented the actor’s status as a bonafide romantic leading man. In a recent conversation, the 34-year-old Chicago native talks about entering the lead-actor Emmy race, opens up about butting heads with series creator Elizabeth Meriwether, and votes for his favorite Season 2 episode.

Related: EMMYS: Comedy Series Overview

AwardsLine: Creatively speaking, New Girl managed to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Why do you think that was?
Johnson: It’s (due to) our writers. I think it got funnier in Season 2, crazier and also more grounded. I didn’t know who my character was at all in the first season. And I would tell that to Liz. I’d be at a table read looking at the script, and I’d go, “So, now Nick does this.” And she’d be like, “Just say the lines; it makes sense.” And when I came back for Season 2, not only did I think Nick was very clear on the page, I thought all of the characters were. I think Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and Jess (Zooey Deschanel) were very clear in Season 1. And this season I think Nick is. I think Winston (Lamorne Morris) is. I think Cece (Hannah Simone) is. I think the whole show works in a much better way.

Related: EMMYS: ‘Modern Family’ Scribes

AwardsLine: Are you relieved Liz didn’t drag out the Nick-Jess romance for six seasons like a lot of other shows would have?
Johnson: I am. I didn’t want to wait. Because the way I’ve been playing Nick from the pilot was he has feelings for her. To deny that over and over for years—it just didn’t feel as honest. I don’t know if they’re going to (end up) together or not. I don’t think Liz knows. But at least (we’re) being honest about, yes, these two people live together, there’s chemistry… things are gonna happen.

AwardsLine: Why did you decide to enter the lead actor race?
Johnson: Truthfully, Max Greenfield and I were talking about it one day, and he said, “You should consider going out for lead.” And I thought, well, I’m not really the lead. Zooey’s the lead. And he goes, “No, the Nick-Jess (dynamic) is really like (the center of the show).” And we had a big conversation in our trailer about it. And I thought it was interesting, so I threw the idea out to my publicist and we all talked about it, and we all thought it was kind of a fun move.

AwardsLine: Should you find yourself with a nomination, do you know which episode you submit?
Johnson: The “Menzies” episode where Nick (meets serenity guru) Tran, but it’s more silly-ridiculous. I like the funeral episode because it shows the emotional side of Nick. But if I were to pick right now, it would probably be the “Cooler” episode. The one where Nick and Jess have their first kiss.

AwardsLine: Are you one of those actors who grew up watching the Emmys? Would a nomination be a dream come true?
Johnson: It would be an honor come true. Growing up, I remember hearing how certain actors had these accolades in front of their names like, “Three-time Emmy nominee so-and-so,” and I’d be like, “Whoa, that guy must be a very serious actor.” I never imagined one of them being in front of my name as an actor. It would be an honor.

AwardsLine: Is there an actor whose career you would like to emulate?
Johnson: It’s tricky because I’ve already done things that I don’t think they do. Like, I think Mark Ruffalo and Sam Rockwell are very interesting actors, and I really like what they do. But I don’t think I can imagine either of them in the hot tub with Tran. (Laughs.)

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