You probably know Jonah Hill best for his role as the high school misfit Seth, in 2007’s hit comedy Superbad, even though he first hit the acting scene in 2004. Since 2007, he’s increased his profile as a comedic actor in numerous high profile projects like last year’s Cyrus and Get Him to the Greek.
Now that he’s established in comedy though, Hill is ready to challenge your expectations yet again. The actor has shed the excess pounds that made him famous, and he has taken on his first big dramatic role in Bennett Miller’s sports picture Moneyball. In the film, which is based on true events, he plays Peter Brand, a young number cruncher, who helps Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), recruit baseball players on a budget for the Oakland A’s.
Recently I sat down for a roundtable interview with Jonah Hill when he was in Boston promoting Moneyball. For a guy who plays bold characters, Hill is surprisingly soft-spoken. He’s also incredibly down-to-earth, and possesses a diverse set of creative interests. Below are some of the highlights of our conversation.
Q: So your character in the movie is pretty much made up. Compared to everyone else he’s kind of fictional…
Jonah Hill: He’s an amalgamation.
Q: Correct, did you find it easier to play that kind of character compared to the other cast members who had to really play that role?
JH: I mean I can’t speak for them, I can only speak for myself. I think it was a load off to be playing an amalgamation of people because I didn’t have the pressure to please one person. And you know I imagined someone was making a movie about me, and to have an actor to play me, it would all just be very nerve wracking, so you know I definitely felt relieved.
Q: How did you approach this role differently since it’s not broad comedy like we’re used to seeing you?
JH: It’s a drama, yeah. How did I approach it?
JH: You know, I’m an actor. I never did stand up. I’m not a comedian. I trained as an actor, and for me, I’m a cinephile, so I love all different kinds of movies. The reason you all know me at all is because of comedy and because of comedy films. I’m very proud of all those movies, so to get the chance to have a dramatic role that I’m really proud of, especially in such great company, obviously, was just a dream. This whole experience was really surreal. I just approached it in the same way as an actor.
You know in comedy, John Reilly when we were making Cyrus, John C. Reilly told me, some advice he gave me was ‘You’re the same actor in a comedy and in a drama. It’s just in a comedy, the situations might be absurd and the character might be absurd, but with drama the situations might be dramatic and there are more everyday grounded problems. You don’t change, the situation in the movie you’re making changes.’ So you just approach it the same way.
Q: You’re getting into writing with 21 Jump Street. Is that something you really want to take seriously?
JH: Yeah I started as a writer before I started acting. I’ve written screenplays before. I created an animated show that’s going to be on after The Simpsons called Allen Gregory on Fox, between The Simpsons and Family Guy. So writing is a massive, massive part of my life. It’s weird, there’s a James L. Brooks quote where he’s a director, and a producer. A prolific director and a prolific producer, and obviously a prolific writer.
I’m paraphrasing ‘If someone woke me up at 5 in the morning and shook me and said what do you do? I’d say I’m a writer.’ I’d often think what I would do in that situation. (Says groggily) I’m an actor and a writer…I love them both. I think I get better as an actor learning from writing and I think I get better as a writer, knowing what I know as an actor. A lot of writers don’t really know what it’s like to be the person that’s actually up there saying these things and I think that is a benefit that I have.
Q: Speaking of the underdog thing, obviously you’ve lost a lot of weight. Do you think that adds to the underdog thing? It’s not just ‘Surprise I’m in a drama, but surprise I’m no longer the guy you’ve known.’
JH: (Laughing) Right. I think that’s a fair question. I honestly didn’t think about that. And when I think about the experience, I try not to, because it would be terrifying or just self-centered I guess, you know? I just wanted to be healthier and took that really seriously, and tried for that goal, and in fact I was able to accomplish that goal. Just to be healthier. I think it’s only affecting me positively so far. It’s just now some different types of roles are coming my way.
It’s great, as an actor, you don’t want the same thing. I hope I’m not the same thing now, in five years from now. I hope in another five years, that I do another weird movie that you didn’t expect from me. I like challenging people’s expectations and to me, becoming healthier can only lead to positive things in my outlook. And I don’t know, it’s cool, I don’t like to think about it too much…except in interviews (Laughing). I understand the question, it’s totally fair. It’s just just that I try not to think about myself too much. My job at the center is about thinking about yourself.
Q: You know you live in Hollywood right?
JH: (Laughing) Hollywood is a state of mind. You could live in North Dakota and be a Hollywood dude. I love my loved ones so much that I think it would be awful to subject them to me talking and thinking about myself.
Q: How about directing? Do you want to direct?
JH: Yeah I think I would love to direct. I think Ben Affleck is a real hero to people in my position because he hasn’t lost his esteem as an actor while beautifully transitioning as a director. It comes as no surprise since he won an Academy Award for screenwriting, but he’s a real inspiration. That movie The Town was mind blowing to me. I think it was my favorite movie last year.
Q: If you went into directing would you want to start out with something you wrote yourself?
JH: I’d imagine so. I was attached to direct a film and I didn’t write it. And it was a really great script, and at the end of the day, when it came time to pull the trigger on whether I was going to go forward with it, or act in a different movie, it just wasn’t personal enough to me yet. For me in my position as a writer, it’s beautiful. You can make two or three movies a year, if you work really hard and if you’re lucky enough. But as a director, it’s two, three years, sometimes four, where you’re just into that. So you really have to love every frame of it. To me it’s just going to have to be something very special to me. I directed my first music video. I think that directing commercials and music videos are great, because they are short term commitments to getting better as a director.
Moneyball opens in theaters tomorrow, September 23rd.