Not long ago I sat down with Jonah Hill for a one on one interview to talk to him about taking on the slightly more serious role of Cyrus or as I’ve been calling him “The comedic Norman Bates” in the Duplass brothers latest film Cyrus. Hill’s appearance on screen is often times extremely humorous but it is mainly due to his intense and straight-faced performance. He approached the role as much more of a drama and admits that he never really understood his character, but played him by “feeling sympathy for him.”
The best way I can describe your character is a comedic Norman Bates. How does that sound to you?
Jonah Hill: (Laughs) I don’t know. I don’t know how comedic he is to me. I think the movie is funny and there is a lot of funny stuff in it, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy because when you think of me in a comedy you would think of a different kind of movie than this movie actually is. I am so known for these specific movies, which I love and adore and am so appreciative to be in, but I definitely think this is a different kind of thing. I definitely think Cyrus is creepy and manipulative and often times scary and he loves his mom.
I don’t know how you can keep that stare for so long. It is amazing.
JH: The forty-yard stare. I do a lot of them. In this movie, that is part of the main character things that I thought about Cyrus. I am very cautious because when I was younger my parents would always say, “Don’t stare at somebody.” I thought it would be interesting if Cyrus was always just kind of really, intensely staring at other people because it is something I never do. It is something that is rude, but this guy is in such a small world he might not know that that is really, really rude to do to somebody.
I’ve been calling is a Rom-Com that kind of redefines the genre. Do you think of it in that genre? How do you think it separates itself from other films in that genre?
JH: I just look at it as a very raw, realistic, human, emotional movie. I think it is funny at times. I think it is heartbreaking at times; dramatic at times. I think it is harsh at times. I think it is entertaining and it is a funny movie with a lot of sincere, heartbreaking, honest moments in it. I think it is a very difficult movie to define. If you were going to say Get Him to the Greek or Superbad, which are two other movies I have starred in, I would say raucous comedy with heart and this movie is a lot harder to define.
The nice thing about this movie, is for however insane the characters are they, respond to one another in a realistic way…
JH: Well in this movie, Mark and Jay, wouldn’t ask you to start crying if it wasn’t what you, as the character, felt like if it didn’t actually go there.
Was it mostly the direction that caused that realistic feel?
JH: Yeah. I wouldn’t do that anyways. Whether it is a big comedy or a very grounded comedy/drama, like this movie, I think you have to go for what would actually happen. No matter what kind of movie you are doing you have to play it real and really authentic to who the character is. If you are in the moment and it doesn’t feel like the character is going to start crying, you don’t have to start crying because it says so in the script, or I wouldn’t have.
Were you a fan of the Duplass brothers before you met them?
JH: Definitely for years. I’d say I saw their first short film eight years ago and I’ve really wanted to work with them ever since.
Did you go out for this role? How did you become involved in this film?
JH: I think they wrote it for me.
Wow! How do you approach a role like that? Were you nervous or just excited that they wanted you in the role?
JH: It was excited because no one had given me an opportunity to do a movie like this. I always knew I could do it, but I didn’t know if I’d get that chance. Mark and Jay took a chance on me, and I took the chance on them by being a young and staking all my success on these two guys who hadn’t made a movie that was larger than, like, fifteen grand. But, I wanted to work with them desperately and I love John Reilly and Marisa Tomei. I think I was on before Marisa, I believe.
They say in all the acting classes and acting books that you have to like or love the character you are playing. You have to find something you like or love about them. I couldn’t find anything I liked or loved about Cyrus and I tried. I knew I wanted to play the part because he was interesting and weird and nothing like me, and that would be a challenge. But, my way into playing him was not through enjoying him as a person, but through feeling sympathy for him. That was kind of how I approached it. I realized with all his manipulations and dishonesty and flaws, it wasn’t his fault. He is a product of his environment and the way he was raised, so I felt bad for him. That was kind of my route into playing him.
Was it nice to work with John C. Reilly, someone who is able to work in both dramatic and comedic roles?
JH: Yeah. I think John is a definite hero of mine. My ultimate hero, acting wise, is Bill Murray because Bill Murray is someone who does both comedy and drama flawlessly. John Reilly is also someone who does drama and comedy flawlessly. I think Adam Sandler is a hero of mine… Ben Stiller, Sasha Baron Cohen. These are guys who do both flawlessly. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Dustin Hoffman. I mean look at Dustin Hoffman. Look at Midnight Cowboy and Tootsie, a dramatic role and a comedic role and they are brilliant.
You’ve had a chance to work with some of the people you just mentioned, what’s that like…
JH: Yeah. I was a writer for him [Sasha Baron Cohen], but still. I was a producer on Bruno. I’m about to work with Philip Seymour Hoffman on Money Ball. I haven’t really worked with Dustin Hoffman, but he discovered me. He put me in my first movie. But, I haven’t worked with Bill Murray.
Do you ask them for advice when you work with them?
I feel so appreciative and lucky to be around these people that are heroes of mine. I ask them questions, and luckily, they have been so giving in their experiences and what they have to teach. To me, the best part of my job is getting to learn from people that know more than me. Every movie, there is someone who is more experienced or someone I look up to that I can really learn from.
Philip Seymour is in the next film you’re in right?
JH: Yeah and Brad Pitt.
That is pretty cool. Are you excited?
JH: I am! I’m nervous, but I’m excited! That is kind of the same feeling as going into this movie.
Do you prefer being in front or behind the camera? What is the difference for you?
JH: They are very different. You are exercising different creative strengths. I don’t know. It is funny because I try and go back and forth. I try to take a writing job or a producing job after doing an acting job and I always end up missing the other one. You know? I am really lucky in that way because you get your fill of one and then you go, “Okay cool. I get to do this other thing and not worry about the other thing.” It is when you are doing both that it becomes a great, insane creative process.