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G2: Film & Music: 'HAVING A BAD DAY DOESN'T REFLECT WHO I AM AS A PERSON': Jonah Hill has gone from playing the 'angry nerd' in comedies to Oscar-nominated performances. This week the 22 Jump Street actor ran into trouble for a homophobic outburst. Hadley Freeman meets the prickly star

June 6, 2014

Hadley Freeman



At first, I was really looking forward to meeting Jonah Hill. Sure, he will probably never be my favourite actor of all time, but I have yet to see a film in which I haven't enjoyed watching him (admittedly, I've never seen his one absolute turkey, The Sitter).

I thought he was one of the funniest things about Knocked Up, in which he played Seth Rogen's angry, nerdy friend, and his deleted scenes from that film, which you can find on YouTube, confirm him as the movie's hidden gem. I adored him in Superbad, playing Michael Cera's angry, nerdy friend, and I thought he was hilarious as the nerdy fanboy in Get Him to the Greek. I admired his determination to break out of Judd Apatow's gang of stoner bro comedians, making him pretty much unique among that Knocked Up crew, and stretch himself with comedy-dramas such as Cyrus and The Wolf of Wall Street and straight-up dramas such as Moneyball.

But I also liked that his two Oscar nominations (for Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street) hadn't made him too snooty to rejoin his old gang for movies such as last summer's This is the End, in which he amusingly played a phoney nice guy who becomes a killer zombie. Finally, the reason I would be interviewing him was because he was promoting the sequel to 21 Jump Street, his buddy cop film with Channing Tatum, which I had - contrary to my snobby expectations - enjoyed enormously.

But then I started to research him and instead of looking forward to meeting him, began to dread it. "He does this weird psycho staring thing at you," warned a colleague who had interviewed Hill a few years ago. An infamously bad-tempered interview he gave to Rolling Stone last year, in which he came across as obnoxious and, most damningly of all, a fan of the word "prideful", compounded this image of Hill as a pain. Even his friends seemed a bit unsure of him. Apatow once described him as "an angry nerd". When one journalist asked Rogen for tips on how to interview Hill, Rogen replied: "He is serious, he is, which I'm not . . . I don't know [how to approach him]. It's a good question." Was Hill actually kind of a douche?

"Hey, thanks so much for coming," says Hill sweetly when we meet in a hotel room in London on a sunny afternoon. He has been giving interviews all day, but he is perky with enthusiastic emphases. Any surliness of yore has been smoothed out with, I suspect, some media training, and instead of crowing about how "prideful" he is of his achievements, his big word now is "lucky": he is so "lucky" to have done the work he's done and he is so "lucky" to get any work now. But not all the training in the world can prevent the occasional weird outburst.

We'll get to that in a bit. First, let's talk about the matter at hand - Jump Street! So, Jonah, I say, you must have been quite a fan of the 1990s TV show to make two films based on it.

"I was not, actually," he says. "My agent called me when I was about 22 and she said: 'Would you be interested in turning 21 Jump Street into a film?' And I said: 'That's a horrible idea!'" He makes a bark of a laugh.

Later, he thought better of this and decided, wisely, that rather than remaking the 90s cop show (which its star, Johnny Depp, later described as "borderline fascist") he would make something "that had the vibe of a John Hughes movie meets Bad Boys" and that's just what he did with the first movie (Hill produced and came up with the story for both Jump Street films).

In the first film, Tatum and Hill go undercover at a high school to find the source of a new illegal drug, and the movie is smart on how school cliques have changed in the past 15 years. In the sequel, Tatum and Hill go undercover at a college to find the source of a new illegal drug, and the film is utterly clueless about college kids. There's a bit of, er, repetition, don't you think?

"I feel like the movies only work because we're really self-aware. Like, in the first one we really make fun of how it's such a terrible idea to turn a TV show into a movie, and in this one we make fun of ourselves for doing a sequel. So I think that self-awareness helps the audience go, OK, these guys aren't taking it seriously, it's about just having fun so let's just laugh," he says. Which is sort of true, but the real reason the first one works is because it is funny, whereas with the second one it feels as if they tried to have their cake and eat it, but instead fell asleep face down into the icing.

But there are more interesting things to talk about with Hill than 22 Jump Street. How about those Oscars? Two nominations by the age of 31 - that has to feel good.

"Oh yeah, I feel so lucky," he begins dutifully, and he talks about how being nominated for an Oscar "brings more opportunities" blah blah blah, and it's these "opportunities" that are "exciting" blah blah blah.

Come on - it's got to be a little more exciting than just getting more jobs. Where was he when he heard he had been nominated this year?

"I was in bed in Los Angeles. This time was really cool because Leo [DiCaprio] called and conferenced me in with Martin Scorsese, because all three of us got nominated, and we all were celebrating on the phone together. For me to get to be a part of that phone call was one of the most special things I could imagine," he says, sounding a little more heartfelt for a moment.

It is notable that he has only been nominated for his dramatic roles and never his comedic roles. Does he think he would have been nominated if he had stayed in comedies?

"No, probably not," he replies, probably rightly.

Apatow and Evan Goldberg - who co-wrote Superbad and co-wrote and co-directed This is the End with Rogen - have griped in the past about the Academy's prejudice against comedy. What does Hill think about that?

"Ha, Evan's hysterical," says Hill, a bit dismissively. "If that's something those guys are upset about, that's totally their right. But for me, it's just not something I think about." Which presumably he doesn't have to, seeing as he has been nominated twice.

Was part of the appeal of moving out of comedy the prospect of getting more industry respect?

"I just made a conscious effort to do different things instead of the same thing over and over again, which people will get tired of anyways, as would I," he says. "Cyrus was the movie that changed everything for me as that got me Moneyball, and Moneyball got me The Wolf of Wall Street." He is, he thinks, ambitious: "Yes, I would say so."

He still talks with a film geek's awe of Scorsese, referring to him twice as "my hero" and smiles beatifically when he remembers his first day of shooting The Wolf of Wall Street.

"I'm in slow-motion on drugs and you see me with the big shades on. Leo leaned over at one point and was like: 'You're being shot on drugs in a slow-motion in a Martin Scorsese film.' I was definitely aware of the surrealness of the moment." Like a lot of Hill's anecdotes, it's a sweet story, but also a slightly odd one. Does DiCaprio really still get off on being in Scorsese films after having starred in five of them?

Hill was born and raised in Los Angeles. While at college in New York he became friends with Dustin Hoffman's children. They introduced him to their father, who got Hill a small part in I Heart Huckabees. This, in turn, brought him to Apatow's attention, and Hill's progress has been steady and painless ever since, having paid his dues by writing jokes for Sacha Baron-Cohen in Bruno ("I didn't even know there were British Jews, and then I found out they all work for Sacha").

The only real criticism he has suffered has been about his weight: I remember seeing him grimace, understandably, when someone cracked a joke about it at the Oscars the first time he was nominated. Today, he insists he "doesn't pay attention to stuff like that".

Hill was raised as a Jew, but describes himself as "not super religious. I like the parts of Judaism that are about being with your family and being a good person more than the specific rules. And lox. I really like the lox."

Goldberg once said that Hill refused to say a joke in This is the End because it went against his religious beliefs. Hill scoffs at that: "No, no. I just didn't think it was funny!"

Time is almost up, so I ask some fact-checking questions. I'd noticed on Hill's imdb.com page that he was born Jonah Hill Feldstein, and his parents and brother still go by the family name. So I ask why and when he dropped his original surname. This is when everything goes weird and his palpable self-control breaks down. For a full 15 seconds Hill is silent aside from his breathing: it's so heavy, I think at first he's having an asthma attack. Eventually, he laughs ruefully to himself.

Is this a difficult question?

"Can we just not?" he whispers.

I didn't realise this would be awkward.

"Just . . . don't," he hisses.

Right. Well, um, what does he think he'd be doing if he wasn't an actor? The forced perkiness instantly reappears. "I'd probably be married with kids now. It's hard for me to focus on relationships with my job now, but otherwise I would probably have focused solely on that."

I turn off my recorder and Hill instantly changes again: not into the on-message Hollywood actor, not into the outraged fury, but into someone who seems genuinely friendly and funny. He makes fond jokes about his mother and the neighbourhood where I grew up. I wish he had allowed himself to be this Hill/Feldstein/whatever during the actual interview.

Maybe Goldberg and Rogen wrote an exaggerated version of Hill as his character in This is the End: the guy who turns from nice to enraged zombie on a dime. Or perhaps Apatow had it right when he described him "an angry nerd". About a week after we met, Hill was caught by tmz.com telling a paparazzo to "Suck my dick, you faggot", which seems to suggest, at the very least, certain anger issues. He has since apologised.

"Having a bad day doesn't reflect who I am as a person, you know? It's about learning what to show people about your life," Hill said to me at one point. It's still a learning process, I suspect.

22 Jump Street is released in the UK today and in the US on 13 June

Captions:

Jonah Hill (left), in The Wolf of Wall Street (top), and with Channing Tatum in 22 Jump Street

Jonah Hill in This is the End, 2013 (top), with Brad Pitt in the 2011 film Moneyball (centre), and in Cyrus, 2010


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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