On tonight’s episode of Fox’s Breaking In, five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson guest stars as himself, a childhood friend of Christian Slater’s Oz who needs his Contra Security team to investigate interference on his race-day radio frequency that cost him a win. Slater and Johnson, who have a bit of history themselves, phoned EW for a quick chat.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Christian, I know producers were looking for a case that would bring Michael Rosenbaum’s Dutch more into the fold, and this one requires his expertise. But how did Jimmie’s name come up?
CHRISTIAN SLATER: When I heard about the possibility of doing something with NASCAR, the first person I thought of was Jimmie Johnson, who I recommended immediately. We met at a Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien taping [in 2009], and we actually did a race. Conan had it all set up. I don’t think I was actually supposed to even participate. They didn’t have enough helmets for all us. [Johnson laughs.] We partnered up, and then we beat him. So I liked Jimmie from that moment on.
JIMMIE JOHNSON: The two of us were on a golf cart, and Conan was racing this desk golf cart thing. [Slater laughs.] It was a close finish if I remember right. Kinda like this last weekend, oddly enough. [Johnson won a race at Talladega on Sunday by .002 seconds, tying a NASCAR record for the closest finish.]
CS: Yeah. It was definitely a photo finish, and Conan thought he won.
JJ: That’s right. He was celebrating. [Laughs]
CS: He was all happy, but when we reviewed the videotape, we had just squeaked by him. It was perfect.
Jimmie, I have to admit I wanted Mark Martin to win on Sunday, so I may have cursed at you through the TV.
JJ: I’m a huge Mark Martin fan myself even though I compete against him. I’ve always had mad respect for him, and to work alongside him as a teammate and see his commitment, he’s a stud. I want to see him win as well.
In the episode, Jimmie, the radio frequency you use to communicate with your team during races is compromised. As someone who owns her own scanner, I love that fans can actually listen into team communications during races. Do you find that unnerving?
JJ: It’s something that we’re just used to. Since I have been in the sport, it’s just the way it is. At times, I say things and regret it immediately because it dawns on me that there are a lot of people listening [Slater laughs], especially kids. You hit the button and scream and yell, and then you get off the button, and you’re like, “Oh man, I just broadcast that to a ton of people.” [Laughs]
CS: I mean, in the heat of the moment going 180 miles an hour, I don’t even want to think about the things I would be saying.
JJ: I’ve gotten out of the car and my wife’s looked at me a few times like, “You didn’t have to say that.” And I’m like, “I’m sorry. I was in the moment.” [Both laugh]
I think fans know what they’re getting into. That’s why they’re listening.
JJ: One of my team members reads this whole 30-second disclaimer before the race starts just saying, “We advise that you’re 18 and older to listen. You may not hear things that you want. This is property of Hendrick Motorsports.”
With five consecutive championships, is sabotage something that ever crosses your mind, Jimmie? NASCAR prides itself on the access fans have to the drivers.
JJ: During driver introductions at some tracks I’m cheered greatly, other tracks they’re not a fan and you hear the boos. I’ve had fans do all sorts of gestures and motions at me [Slater laughs] when we ride in the back of the vehicles around the track. There’s some exciting moments there. And then I’ve expanded into the social media world with Twitter and Facebook, and there certainly are people who jump on there and want to express a dislike for me at times. You see it in all shapes and forms. But the cool thing about it is it’s sports, and I get it. When I go to a sporting event, I’m cheering for my team and booing for the others. It’s just part of it.
A question for both of you: If you thought your career was being sabotaged, who would be the first person you’d tell a security team to look into?
JJ: In real life? Last year, I would’ve said Denny Hamlin, who we were racing for the championship with. [Laughs]
CS: For me, I don’t know. Jack Nicholson?
JJ: Charlie Sheen?
CS: Charlie Sheen maybe. You know, it’s a very highly competitive business we’re in.
Jimmie, did you offer the Breaking In writers any tips on how to make the episode’s dialogue sound more authentic?
JJ: When we were on the shoot, they were looking for some other lines, so there was some terminology that came out — some funny terms like wedge and rubbers in the right rear and left rear, things like that. I’m not sure what will make air, but we had some good laughs.
“Rubbers in the right rear” sounds like great comedy.
CS: That’s screaming for comedy right there. Oh my god.
Christian, I know you’ve driven the pace car at a NASCAR race, and you’ve also been the grand marshal and given the command to start engines.
CS: Gentlemen, start your engines! Yes.
I’ve always wondered which makes celebrities more nervous.
CS: Certainly the pace car situation was pretty intense. I’m seeing all these guys behind me. I felt like I was in the lead of the race for at least three laps. That was kind of cool. Being the grand marshal was fun because they handed me a microphone, and the microphone was live for several moments before I actually got to say, “Gentlemen, start your engines.” So I was able to start singing Sinatra and entertaining the crowd a little bit.
CS: Oh yeah. They were like, “No, no, don’t sing! Don’t sing! Your mic is live! It’s live!” [Both laugh] I’m like, this is great! I can hear my own voice reverberating throughout the stands. I had a blast.
Jimmie, do you have a favorite celebrity grand marshal? Do you actually even hear the command to start engines?
CS: Come on, he’s got to say me. We’re on the phone right now.
JJ: [Laughs] You killed it.
CS: “That was the best one EVER.”
JJ: We don’t hear them. I’m in the car, my helmet is on, we’re doing radio checks and getting the window net up. I usually hear about it after the race or the following week. You hear about guys that have done a good job. There’s been some poor ones that I’ve heard about as well.
CS: What’s a bad version of “Gentlemen, start your engines?” How do you mess that up?
JJ: I think if you come in real soft.
JJ: Everybody wants the emotion and that hard screaming, yelling. I’ve heard Adam Sandler has done good ones because he’s just going bonkers up there making all kinds of noises and fans love that.
CS: [Laughs] You’ve got to get into it. Saying it and then hearing you guys start your engines was a real adrenaline rush. I loved it.
Last question, totally unrelated: Christian, I’ve missed Oz’s Captain Kirk chair from the pilot. Will we be seeing that again?
CS: Oh yeah, that’s a staple. We just don’t want to overdo it. We want to use it sparingly.
It’s actually yours, right?
CS: Yes, that was a gift for my 40th birthday from my buddy.
JJ: You’re 40?
CS: Yeah, well 41. [Both laugh] Can you believe? I know. Shocker. I’m amazed. I’m two Jacksons and a Washington right now.