Telegraph – Jun 2014
22 Jump Street star Jonah Hill on turning down Transformers, why he’d ‘take a bullet’ for Martin Scorsese, and what he’s learnt about money and manners.
Also at Telegraph
As Jonah Hill’s car pulled up to the Oscars this year, just before he opened the door and entered the fray, he stopped and turned to his date. “I could win an Oscar tonight!” he said. “I mean, it’s a possibility, right? It could happen!”
It was an exact replay of the year before. In 2013, he’d been nominated for Moneyball, in which he acted alongside the movie idol Brad Pitt, and this time, he was nominated for The Wolf of Wall Street in which he acted alongside the movie idol, Leonardo Di Caprio. His date on both occasions was his mother, Sharon. He even had the same acceptance speech in his tuxedo pocket, more or less. He’d written one for Moneyball, and then kept it in his safe all year, so when his Wolf nomination was announced, he dusted it off and in his words, “changed a bunch of names, and added some heartfelt things about Leo and Martin Scorsese, and the opportunity they gave me.”
“Both times I knew I wasn’t going to win because I didn’t win any of the awards leading up to the Oscars,” he says. “But I still had this calm-before-the-storm moment before getting out of the car, where I thought, it’s actually possible, there’s literally a 1 in 5 chance.”
And what did your mom say?
“She just just patted me on the back – ‘you’re just lucky to be here…’!”
We’re at a casual brunch place called John O Groats, in Century City, one of the more forgettable suburbs of western Los Angeles. And it’s the perfect place to recall a moment like that, in which it dawned on Hill just how far he has come. He has been coming here since he was a child – he grew up just a couple of blocks away, and the proprietor says hello with the fondness of an uncle.
In truth, the Academy Award nominations are just one part of Hill’s extraordinary achievement. Because Hill is not only at home doing serious drama, he also makes balls-out comedies like Superbad, Get Him to the Greek, and 21 Jump Street, which puts him in a category with Will Ferrell, Zach Galifinakis, and the whole sprawling Judd Apatow school. These Venn circles scarcely ever intersect – with the exception of Steve Carrell, Hill might be the only other actor of his generation who can straddle both worlds. And he only turned 30 in December.
Whichever way you cut it, Hill’s career has been well played indeed.
“I’m just a lucky guy,” he says. “It’s very apparent.”
So he didn’t plan it this way, in some devilish Mr Burns fashion?
“No, no,” he says, seriously. “I just work really hard to make sure I get to do all kinds of different things as an actor – that’s what’s important to me, is to get better. I’ve been really fortunate that audiences have been receptive in both genres.”
The waitress brings news of today’s specials, and Hill orders “three scrambled eggs, cooked dry, with nothing on the side”. Then he takes a moment before continuing. “It’s just challenging yourself in different ways. That’s the exciting part about being creative.”
There’s the Jonah Hill you see on Letterman or the Daily Show, when the cameras are rolling – he’s a funny knockabout guy, born to banter, and full of hilarious stories. Like the time he went out partying with P Diddy, speeding down Sunset Boulevard. Or the time he saw someone doing yoga in the aisle of an airplane. But that’s not who showed up today – the Hill before me is more reserved and self-contained, his short hair neatly combed, his shirt tucked in. He sits quietly, pays close attention, and he’s almost uncomfortably polite. It’s clear that he’s not here to enjoy himself, but to respond to questions with as though our lunch were a minefield.
And perhaps it is. Last year, Hill gave an angry interview to Rolling Stone, saying things like “I’ve done one of the biggest challenges you can do in Hollywood, which is transition from being a comedic actor to being a serious actor, and I’m really prideful of that”, and, “I could have made a billion dollars doing every big comedy of the last ten years and didn’t in order to form a whole other life for myself. Now I have fulfillment doing both.” The blowback was severe, and he had to apologize for his comments. He even went through the interview in detail with his therapist.
Today, he seems all too aware of the damage he’s done, so he has nothing but praise for his colleagues, gratitude for his good fortune, and he takes care to minimize his accomplishments at every opportunity. When I preface a question with, “so you’ve got one Oscar nomination”, he interjects: “two”. And then quickly apologizes. “I’m sorry to correct you. ‘Hill quickly corrects…’ Sorry, please continue.”
The reason he’s doing this interview at all is to promote 22 Jump Street which comes out on 13th June. His career pendulum has swung from drama to comedy, and by all accounts, it’s a huge relief. After seven months on The Wolf of Wall Street, he went straight to shoot another dark drama, produced by Brad Pitt, called True Story, in which he plays a disgraced journalist, who discovers that a murderer in Africa has stolen his identity.
“They were two really heavy movies in a row, based on true stories,” he says. “So I was really looking forward to laughing. I think an audience needs to see a funny movie for some kind of cathartic reason, and it’s the same for me to make it.”
Jump Street also finds Hill in a more executive role – as a writer-producer as well as lead actor. The first movie, 21 Jump Street was a huge hit – 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a box office take of $202 million worldwide, on a $42 million budget. So it’s little wonder that the sequel follows the formula to a T. In the original, the buddy cops, Hill and Channing Tatum, infiltrate a drug ring at high school, and in the sequel they infiltrate a drug ring at college. The best that can be said is that it’s perfect for teenagers on their summer holidays, looking for something to snigger at. And it’s sure to amuse – these jokes have been tried and tested countless times before.
No doubt, standards were always going to fall from Wall Street to Jump Street, but at least it’s a fall that’s cushioned by money. And who could blame him? He famously took the Wall Street part for the Screen Actor Guild minimum of $60,000 (before taxes and agent commission) – hardly a king’s ransom for a seven month shoot. But Hill couldn’t sign the contract quickly enough.
“Oh I would have paid to be on that movie,” he says. Because Wolf wasn’t just a great dramatic role in a great movie, it was an opportunity to work with his hero. “Goodfellas is the reason that I’ve dedicated my life to film,” he says. “It’s my favorite film ever.” He describes Scorsese as “the greatest artist to ever walk the earth.” Admittedly, Hill is somewhat prone to gushing – in Hill’s book, Tarantino is “one of the best writers of all time”, Brad Pitt is “a legend” and the word “genius” applies to a long list of people, including Di Caprio, David O Russell, Bennett Miller, Seth Rogen, Howard Stern…
But he means every word – it’s not hyperbole. So naturally, he was intimidated by the Goodfellas director. The first time they met was at the Oscars, when Hill was nominated for Moneyball, and Scorsese was nominated for Hugo. He mentioned to Brad Pitt how wowed he was, to sit so close to the great man, and Pitt gave him some advice. “He said, ‘just say hi. Don’t make it weird! Just say hello and you love his movies – why not?’ So I said, ‘oh hello Mr Scorsese, Goodfellas is my favorite movie of all time, and I just want to thank you for making it.’”
The director thanked him, and that was that. But then the part of Donnie Azoff came up in Wolf – the outrageous sidekick to Di Caprio’s Jordan Belfort, a study of greed and selfishness. And Hill was so determined to throw his hat in, that he petitioned Di Caprio in person, while he was on location in Mexico. Di Caprio, had never met Hill at that time, but he was impressed, and their meeting led to an audition with Scorsese.
“And he remembered me from the Oscars!” says Hill, clearly delighted. “That’s pretty cool. And a good lesson in life – just put yourself out there, be respectful and polite. It’s not going to hurt you to be a nice person you know?”
It was another matter actually working with his hero for seven months. “Like when we’re having lunch, after rehearsal, me and Leo and Marty,” he says. “It’s like, what do I talk about? I’m not going to be interesting to this guy! It was hard to be myself for the first couple of weeks.”
But Hill’s dedication was without peer. He tells me that he “would have taken a bullet for Mr Scorsese” on that movie, and he came pretty close. His co-star, Jon Bernthal, punched him full in the face as per the director’s suggestion (“hey kid, you wanna try one where he hits you for real?”) Hill’s fake teeth went flying, and he ended up on the floor, in a daze, listening to Scorsese yell, “his face is swelling! Let’s get him some new teeth and shoot it!”
Hill also offered to swallow a goldfish, but the fish came with three PETA minders who ensured that he only kept it in his mouth for a few seconds before spitting it out. “The fish went to the bathroom in my mouth,” says Hill. “It was really disgusting.”
One of the reasons Hill thrived on that movie was because Scorsese encouraged him to improvise. On Django Unchained, Tarantino was a stickler for the script – “if you said ‘a’ instead of ‘the’, he’d be on you right away,” says Hill, “because he wrote the screenplay.” But on Wolf, Scorsese gave Hill space to experiment – which is how we get priceless scenes like that in which Hill’s character, Donnie, tells Di Caprio, about his marriage to his cousin: “if anyone’s going to fuck my cousin, it’s going to be me. Out of respect, you know?”
Improvisation was always a forte of Hill’s. Di Caprio has praised his skills as “second to none for any actor I’ve worked with.” And it was improvisation that got Hill into the business in the first place – a charming story that involves another giant of American cinema – Dustin Hoffman.
Hill knew the Hoffman family well as a boy. It’s not that he came from a showbiz family – though his father was the tour accountant for rock bands like Guns and Roses. It was that he went to school with Dustin’s children, a famous academy called Crossroads in Santa Monica, that caters to artsy, creative children. Teachers use their first names, and students are encouraged to discuss their feelings. Hill had struggled at his first, more orthodox school – “we came to a mutual agreement that I should leave,” he says. But at Crossroads, he flourished. They made short films there. They went on school trips to Indian sweat lodges. And Hill made friends with the likes of Jake, Max and Rebecca Hoffman. He and Jake are close to this day – and he once dated Rebecca.
“I’d do these prank calls when I went to my friends’ houses,” he says. “It was my contribution, it was just something I loved doing.” And at the Hoffman house, it became a regular affair – Jonah would get on the phone, and the family would put him on speaker in the next room, as they stifled their laughter. He’d typically call hotels as a celebrity’s assistant and make outrageous requests. One of his favorite calls was as Tobey Maguire’s assistant, in which he demanded a large aquatic tank to be assembled in the hotel room “because Tobey likes to travel with a baby seal”. It went on – Tobey likes to take jogs late at night, with packs of young children in tow, like the Pied Piper. Hill recorded his best calls on a CD and distributed them to whomever was interested.
“I still use prank calling as a method to test out my characters,” says Hill. “When I was creating Donnie [in Wolf], my accent coach told me I’d have to practice for 2 hours a day with my fake teeth. So I’d call up department stores and just talk about products in their catalogue.”
His break came when he was 18, after a couple of terms at acting school, when he was working a dismal summer job making packing boxes in a warehouse. Dustin Hoffman called him one day in the middle of a shift. He said he wanted to introduce Hill to some people in Brentwood. And as Hill told Howard Stern, “I go to my boss and I say, ‘I gotta leave. I got to go meet Dustin Hoffman.’ And he said, ‘yeah, sure, and I got to meet Christopher Walken at Starbucks.’”
He arrived at a house in Brentwood, used by the director David O Russell, who had assembled the entire cast of I Heart Huckabees for a reading – not just Dustin Hoffman, but Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, Jason Schwartzman and Lily Tomlin. And they were all listening to one of Hill’s prank call CDs. “I’m 18 years old,” he told Stern, “and I’m just – what the fuck? How did I get here? I was literally folding a box an hour ago.”
The next day, Hill auditioned, and won the part – two simple scenes in the movie. And straight away, he dropped out of college. “I wanted to get my life started,” he says. It was a bleak couple of years, but then Hill met Seth Rogen and joined the burgeoning Apatow movement in comedy.
“We were in a movie theater, and Seth was sitting in front of me,” he says. “I knew we had a mutual friend in Jason Schwartzman, so I just said ‘hello, nice to meet you, we both have this friend in common’. And a week later we met again at the audition for 40 yr old virgin. It was a one-line part for me.”
Superbad soon followed – a Seth Rogen script, produced by Judd Apatow – and Hill’s life changed forever. He talks about Superbad as the college experience he never had – on set, he learned about filmmaking, and on the promotional tour, it was all drunken fraternity-style shenanigans.
It was after Superbad, that Hill made the choice that has defined his unique career. He was offered no end of high school comedies – what he describes as “Booby School Six – hey, I have a boner, let’s go to high school!” And Hill decided to turn them all down and take the most actorly, creatively demanding route possible. In one week, he turned down both Hangover and Transformers – franchises that went on to make billions of dollars – in favor of a quirky little indie called Cyrus, in which he played a clingy son who tries to disrupt his mother’s new relationship.
“I don’t like to talk about movies I didn’t do because other actors did them and did a great job,” Hill says uncomfortably. This is the territory that got him in trouble before.
But surely, it was difficult to turn down such huge opportunities? Did he ask for lots of advice, and then have to go against it in the end – was it Hill against the world?
With Transformers it was a bit like that,” he admits. No one knew then, that The Hangover would become such a hit, of course, but Transformers was a Michael Bay movie – it had blockbuster written all over it. “Everyone said I should take it, but at the last minute I didn’t because I knew it wasn’t right for me. Money’s not a motivating factor for me. I don’t think being really wealthy will give me long term happiness.”
Was there ever a moment when he rued his choice, when he saw just how huge The Hangover became?
“I think in anyone’s life there are moments where you doubt your decisions,” he says. “I don’t think it would have hurt me to do those films, it just wasn’t what I was interested in creatively. With Cyrus, I just believed in the directors so much. I knew it would lead me down a path of where I was trying to go.”
And it was. One of Hill’s co-stars on Cyrus was Catherine Keener, and it was Keener who introduced Hill to Bennett Miller, the writer/director of Moneyball. And Moneyball led directly to The Wolf of Wall Street.
But the money thing has touched a nerve. You can see Hill’s wheels turning.
“You know, all the movies that have been really special, that people really respond to, are things I would do for free. One time I got offered a movie for a lot of money, and I called up – I won’t say his name, but he’s a really iconic figure and he allows me to ask for help, from time to time. He said, ‘you know why they’re going to pay you that much money? Because there’s no other way they could get you to do it.’”
Now, he has the best of both worlds. “I’m in the place to do my best work,” he says. “I feel the most creative, and I don’t feel the pressure to take things for any other reason other than they’ll be a challenge.”
And yet, there remains a fragility about Hill. He has described himself as “an incredibly sensitive person” and it shows. On the set of True Story, he felt so down, so weakened by the dark themes of the film, that he called his mom to come and cheer him up. She spent two months on set with him. And at the roast of James Franco, he was the butt of some brutal jokes concerning his weight. He has since said, “I felt that I’d got roasted the hardest”, and he might be right. His greatest tormentor was the comic Jeff Ross who said, “When Jonah’s agent called and said Quentin Tarantino wanted to put him in a spaghetti western, Jonah was like, ‘you had me at spaghetti’”. Another Jeff Ross ringer, about Hill’s dramatic weight loss for Moneyball: “Jonah almost didn’t come tonight, because he couldn’t find a tuxedo that changed size every three hours.”
As much as he laughed on the night, the jokes seem to have left a scar. Hill once revealed to Howard Stern that he didn’t really take drugs, that food was more of his crutch. And it’s still a touchy subject. When I mention Hill’s weight, he cuts me off. “It’s not something that’s worth discussing. Not because I’m sensitive, it’s just… it’s ridiculous that it’s something people would think about. I make movies, and that’s all I want to talk about.”
But he needn’t worry. Hill’s career has far outpaced most of those on the Roast stage that night. He has ascended to another tier of celebrity altogether – “I see Leo socially often, we play backgammon. Brad Pitt a lot more, but we’re definitely friends, I spoke to him on the phone recently.” He insists that his comedy friends are not jealous at all because “when you like someone, you want them to be successful”.
In any case, Hill’s ascent continues. True Story is expected to come out later this year, co-starring James Franco. And he’s back working with Di Caprio on The Ballad of Richard Jewell, the story of a security guard who saved many lives at the Atlanta Olympics, but was then attacked by the media as a suspect. “Billy Ray’s writing the screenplay right now. He wrote Captain Phillips. He’s incredible.”
Is there a lesson to this exquisitely crafted career, something that Hill can distill for the rest of us? He shakes his head. “That’s not for me to say, that’s for other people. I would never put it in those terms.”
Perhaps then, there’s a lesson he’s learned along the way?
He sips his iced tea. “Well, one thing I learned from Mr Scorsese, was that you might have a vision of something but if it starts out differently in the moment, then don’t stand in its way. We make plans in life, and life changes those plans.” He shrugs and smiles. “I’ve given up the idea that we have control over anything. It’s about making the best of whatever’s happening. You have to improvise.”