To the untrained eye, 26-year-old Jonah Hill may seem like another schlubby stoner plucked from obscurity by comedy impresario Judd Apatow and thrust into the spotlight. Not so.
While studying acting at The New School in Lower Manhattan, Hill began writing and performing one-man plays at the Black and White bar in the East Village. His shows soon developed a following, and Hill befriended Jake Hoffman, whose legendary father, Dustin Hoffman, asked him to audition for a role in the 2004 David O. Russell comedy “I Heart Huckabees.” Hill made his film debut in “Huckabees,” landing a tiny role in the movie.
He was then slowly initiated into the Apatow inner circle, starting out in the bit part of a confused Ebay customer in the Apatow-directed “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” This led to a larger role in Apatow’s follow-up, “Knocked Up,” as a member of Seth Rogen’s stoner crew. It was then that Hill got his biggest break. Fellow Apatow acolyte Seth Rogen had written a high school comedy film script years ago as a starring vehicle for himself. Now too old for the role, he searched for an 18-year-old version of himself and cast Jonah Hill as Seth, the star of “Superbad.” The film was a left-field hit, earling $170 million worldwide, and making an immediate star out of it’s fast-talking self-anointed “Iron Chef of pounding vag.” Hill would go on to cameo as the ghost of Dewey Cox’s slain brother Nate in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” as well a few standout supporting roles – as the creepy hotel employee/stalker of lascivious singer Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand, in the Apatow-produced Hawaii-set comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and as a thorny standup comedian the Apatow-directed dramedy “Funny People.”
Hill recently starred in the “Sarah Marshall” spin-off GET HIM TO THE GREEK as low-level label talent scout Aaron Green, who’s ordered by record exec Sergio Roma (P. Diddy) to transport drugged-out rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) from London to Los Angeles’s Greek Theatre for a career-reviving 10th anniversary concert.
His latest film is CYRUS. Written and directed by filmmaking duo Jay & Mark Duplass (“The Puffy Chair”), Hill stars as the eponymous man-child who has an oddly intimate relationship with his mother (Marisa Tomei). When a new guy enters her life (John C. Reilly), Cyrus feels he’s stepping on his territory, and wages war on the unwanted intruder.
MMM sat down with Jonah Hill to chat about his first “dramatic” role in Cyrus, Get Him to the Greek, his upcoming reimagining of “21 Jump Street,” working alongside Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Moneyball,” and much more.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Have you ever had a relationship like this or know someone with this kind of a relationship with an adult child?
JONAH HILL: I’ve had friends in that position but never to the extreme of this. I think that Cyrus, the character, might not even know anybody else besides his mom. He might not have any friends or anyone besides his mom. I have a few friends who are close with their family. I’m very close with my family but not, I don’t think, in a considerably unhealthy way. I think that my friends that I’ve noticed, it’s never to the extreme where they don’t have friends or girlfriends or people outside of that relationship, but I think, yeah, this is definitely an extreme case. I think he was just kind of raised with a lot of love but sometimes too much love can be an unhealthy thing; too much protection and coddling.
MMM: Was it difficult to play this character given the ambiguous relationship between mother and child? We don’t quite know how “Spanking the Monkey” territory it got between them.
HILL: Right. I think the point of the movie is that you’re never supposed to know how far it’s going to go and I think that’s one of the great things about it. You don’t know from one scene to the next how far I’m going to take it and how dark or unsettling it might get. I think it was just a great character. Mark [Duplass] and Jay [Duplass] wrote a great script and I think the three of us knew how to approach it. It was definitely different from the other movies that I’ve done, for sure. I can safely say that. It was a great challenge and it was really interesting to do stuff like this.
MMM: Did you guys do stuff that pushed it a lot further than we saw? Stuff that didn’t get into the movie?
HILL: No. Nothing so far. Honestly, the only stuff that got cut out was where you honestly felt too bad for me too quickly, things like when I went off on my own, when I leave and you see what I go and do on my own. It was hard. It was a hard balancing act between feeling bad for Cyrus and feeling bad for John. So that was the only stuff that got cut out.
MMM: What do you go off and do?
HILL: Well, I go off and move into this place and I kind of have these panic attacks and have a difficult time relating to people my own age. It was stuff like that, but the audience felt that it was just too [much]. You just felt too bad for me. It wasn’t good for the story because you wanted to make sure that they were equal competitors until the end.
MMM: Most people know you from roles like the one you did in “Superbad.” But what’s the difference in preparing for a role like that compared to something like this?
HILL: It’s extremely different but it’s funny because – I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think you prepare for it differently in that a lot of the rehearsals and so forth for the bigger comedies like “Get Him To The Greek” or “Superbad,” you have to be real and genuine but it’s also in a broader comedy. So you’re really concentrating on making the audience laugh every few seconds or however often you can and mixing that with emotion and story. But this was really just about making sure that every moment felt real and true to the character, and if there was ever anything that went against that, even an unlikable aspect of Cyrus as a character, we nixed it. It was just about making you feel like real life, as much of real life as possible and not going for joke or going for something else unless it truly seemed it like might’ve happened in the reality of the situation.
MMM: You’re going back and forth promoting this movie and “Get Him To the Greek.” Is it weird getting into those two different headspaces when you talk about the films?
HILL: Well, it’s actually really refreshing because I’ve been on like many month long “Get Him To Greek” press runs. So this is actually really nice, talking about another movie that I’m really excited about. So, yeah, it’s different. It’s a totally different movie. That’s the thing. It’s cool because you get a change of pace and whatnot. They are completely different. “Get Him To The Greek” is more in the vein of “Superbad,” definitely, and “Cyrus” is something completely new for me. So it’s truly exciting to get to take that leap and make this kind of movie and it’s exciting to talk about it because I think that it turned out great.
MMM: Your career has really blown up in the last several years. Did you always expect success to come so quickly?
HILL: I don’t know. I never expected any kind of success. I come from a family where it’s very engrained in all of my siblings and I by our parents to just work really hard. So my intention was just to work really hard. I’m very aware that making movies is a privilege and not a right for anybody, especially not me, but for any actor. For me I’m really thoughtful about my choices and really just am lucky. I’m lucky that I’ve made choices where the movies have turned out good, in my opinion.
MMM: One thing that ties this film to “Get Him To The Greek” is that you improvised in both of these films. Can you compare and contrast that experience since one is more humor driven and one is more drama driven?
HILL: Yeah. The improvisation in “Get Him To The Greek” was far more improvising jokes within the character and the improvisation in “Cyrus” was really just improvising in emotion. It was really just improvising a conversation within the character. You’re in this character and you’re improvising what an actual conversation would be and not having to worry at all about whether you can connect this joke. “Superbad” and “Get Him To The Greek,” the bigger comedy type movies, it’s really like a chess game in that you’re trying to pay something off. So you make a move knowing that three moves down you’re going to have to steal someone’s queen or whatever. You have to connect three moves down. So you’re setting yourself up or you’re setting up someone else hoping that they’re going to land what you’re setting them up for. Whereas in “Cyrus,” it’s this really unique character, someone that I’ve never played, and it was really just about improvising to make things feel real and to really make those moments feel authentic.
MMM: Mark and Jay are really known for their pretty light scripts, almost skeletons –
HILL: Right. The script for “Cyrus” was honestly almost unbelievable. It was so good. Mark and Jay are like the opposite of most writer/directors, where usually most writer/directors are like, “We wrote every single word.” But Mark and Jay, they improvise the whole thing. We did improvise a lot but the script in my opinion was remarkable.
MMM: I know you shared a scene with John C. Reilly in “Dewey Cox,” but can you talk about working with him on this?
HILL: We had that brief scene in “Walk Hard” and I respect John so much. Him and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, to me, are the epitome of people who can be as great in a dramatic film as they are in a comedic film. John has really proven that over and over again in both genres. To me, I really respect John. We didn’t know each other that well from “Walk Hard” because we just met that day. We really became close during this movie. He’s just such a great guy and so beyond talented.
MMM: Speaking of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, you’re going to be working with him on “Moneyball.” Can you talk about that?
HILL: Bennett Miller saw “Cyrus” and gave me my chance at another dramatic movie which is “Moneyball.” It’s based on the book and stars Brad Pitt and myself and Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Wright. We started rehearsals. It’s the same thing with John and Marisa [Tomei], to me those are two of the best dramatic actors there are. I think that I got my intimidation over with the first time on “Cyrus” and now the next kind of dramatic thing, or well, it’s still extremely intimidating. I haven’t met or hung out with Phillip Seymour Hoffman yet but I’ve been rehearsing with Brad and we have a reading soon with Phil and everyone there. So I’ll let you know how it goes.
MMM: Did you and Marisa talk about you as her son or talk about how to develop the two characters together?
HILL: We hung out, us and Mark and Jay, and talked about the movie. We didn’t rehearse specifically per Mark and Jay’s request because we wanted everything to kind of unfold how it would really unfold. Everyone just kind of understood what was going on. I think that it was a very clear script and if you watch “Puffy Chair” or any of Mark and Jay’s stuff you get their tone and you get what they’re going for and everyone just kind of got it. For me, Marisa is such a good actress and we both knew that we had to adore each other. It’s not hard to adore her. She’s beautiful and talented and great, but we didn’t really talk about it, like, “You’re my mom. Is that weird?” We didn’t say anything like that. Everyone knew the program and kind of just figured it out.
MMM: Do you feel that a movie like this with you and John C. Reilly is redefining the notion of a leading man, men who can just look like normal people?
HILL: “Cyrus” would be a weird movie if it was starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney. It just wouldn’t be appropriate for the film. There are all sorts of people in life. If you’re going to do some movie about the best looking guy in the world obviously I wouldn’t play the lead character in that movie, but if you’re going to make a movie about life or any sort of movie that’s just a story, there are stories about people that look all sorts of different ways. There are very few people that I’ve had in my life, having worked with Brad now, that look like Brad. I think that people want to see movies about people that they can identify with.
MMM: When you go back to your neighborhood do your friends treat you the same now?
HILL: Yeah. All my friends are my best friends from growing up and my family is obviously my family from growing up.
MMM: You didn’t adopt anybody as your family along the way?
HILL: I didn’t. I didn’t trade in and get new parents when I started making movies. That’s my social circle. I would be really disappointed in myself if I ever acted any differently and I would have plenty of people to inform me if I was acting any differently. I’m pretty proud and really prideful about my career and I really take it seriously and I’m also really prideful in my behavior, in my morals in doing that and achieving that.
MMM: What about your celebrity social circle? I’m sure people envision all the [Judd] Apatow guys hanging out all the time.
HILL: Well, I mean John Reilly and I will go shoot pool or eat dinner sometimes or see a movie. Seth Rogen and I are friends and Michael Cera and I are friends. Jason Segel and Paul Rudd. We’re all friends, yeah, but it’s more like I have my best friends in the world where we hangout, and Michael Cera and Seth kind of overlap into that, too, because we’re really close. But it’s like I have my best friends in the world, this big group of fifteen guys or something like that and a couple of girls where we’ve all been friends since we were literally little kids. We’re all like brothers and sisters and our girlfriends are all in that circle and it’s very much like what I’m sure your life is like. There’s really no difference to me except that every once in a while I’ll go eat dinner with someone who also happens to act in movies. Judd is a friend and Seth and Michael, those guys, and they’re great.
MMM: What about Russell Brand?
HILL: Russell is great. Russell and I will hangout and we’re very different, obviously. But deep down he’s a great guy. Our differences, he’s eccentric and funny and if he came in here he would make all you guys laugh and be Russell. We traveled together a lot for work and we’d hangout, and for me, I couldn’t hang with someone who was just constantly on. It would be frustrating to me because I’m a pretty genuine guy and I think that you’d just get annoyed with it. So when we’re just sitting and talking we’re just sitting and talking like this and that’s just the way that it is.
MMM: I know you’ve written a few screenplays, some picked up, and you wrote a script where Seth was your older brother. Can you talk about that?
HILL: Right, yeah. That was called “The Middle Child” and we ended up not making it because right after I sold it [Sony] made “Step Brothers” and even though they’re different in tone it was like two comedic actors that were playing brothers. It would’ve just been weird to make it right then. It would’ve seemed derivative of the other one.
MMM: I understand you got your start doing theater in New York City. Do you see yourself doing any more theater here in New York?
HILL: Yeah. I’d be open to anything. Directing is sort of my big goal and that’s why I got into this business. I think I’m going to make “Moneyball” and “The Sitter” and then “21 Jump Street” and then I think I want to find my first movie to direct. That’s kind of what I’m looking at.
MMM: I’m very curious about “21 Jump Street.” Can you talk about the tone of that and who else is in it?
HILL: That’s a good question, what the tone of it is, because I wouldn’t know from just hearing about it and I would assume that it was a spoof movie or something like that. It’s completely not. Basically they asked me if I wanted to help bring “21 Jump Street” into a movie and I was like, “No. Why would I do that?” Then I sat down and thought about it for like a month and really thought, “IF I’m going to do this, it’s a big property and I’d need to find my version of that.” Really what it came down to is that I love the “Back to the Future” element of the movie where you get to relive a certain time period in your life over again. So basically the big idea that I cracked that made me want to be involved was, like, what if there were these cops, these guys that had been to high school and they were like normal and insecure, not confident high school students, who then grew confidence and became police officers and then get sent back to high school and immediately revert back to being the way they were in high school. Insecure. So you kind of have this John Hughes element to it and you have some cool action sequences in it as well.
CYRUS opens on June 18th in New York and Los Angeles and expands to more theaters on June 25th.