Though he made his acting debut just ten years ago, by 2007, Jonah Hill became a superstar and he hasn’t slowed down since. That year he appeared in Knocked Up, Superbad, and Evan Almighty. In 2011, he appeared in Moneyball and got an Oscar nomination. And now he’s worked with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street. His career has been blessed. We got a chance to talk to Hill about the movie and working with the masters. Check it out.
With this film, you’re working with Martin Scorsese, the king of film geeks. Did he ever say to you, “Okay, there is this 1933 film I want you to watch?”
Jonah Hill: Yeah. That was one of the most amazing things. I mean every part of working with him was so amazing. But he would bring up something and say, “You know I really like something, something.” I really like Walter Matthau and I remember one day him saying to me, “Oh, have you ever seen Elaine May’s first film A New Leaf?” I was like, no. Then the next day someone handed me a copy of the film, and that would happen often. I would watch it and then I had to be able to talk about it. That was just amazing that he would do that for me. It’s just such a cool, amazing bonus to not only be working with your hero and be learning from him about what you’re working on but being able to dialogue about things. You know I love film more than anything in my life, other than personal relationships, the fact that you can learn from your hero who knows more than any one in the world pretty much about the history of film and why things are important is just amazing.
Since you adore him so, did you feel more comfortable on set doing sensitive scenes, like the one where your character “whips it out?”
Jonah Hill: Well, I think you feel the thing is I would have done anything that he asked of me because of course you feel safe because you know that he doesn’t make ridiculous movies. His films are wonderful. They are my favorite films ever. So I of course felt an enormous sense of safety while working with him.
Jonah Hill: You can! That’s the cool part. I think he knows that people really look up to him, and not in an ego way at all. He knows that Goodfellas is my favorite film. He would sit around in between takes and he would tell you things. He would mostly start talking about Goodfellas or Taxi Driver organically if there was something that reminded him about it. Then, once that door was open I would launch into my own questions because he had started it. Once he opened the door I was like, okay, then what was this like? It was amazing. Also, Rob Reiner was there a lot, which was great. One day I got to just by circumstance sit and hang out for like an hour and a half with Robbie Robertson from The Band, Scorsese and Rob Reiner. It was like one of the greatest days ever because I just got to sit and hear these guys talk about their work. Steven Spielberg came one day while we were working and sat behind the monitors. You would go get notes and the two of them would be behind the monitors together and it was the most surreal, amazing thing you could ever imagine.
Speaking of Goodfellas, do you think there are similarities between that film and The Wolf of Wall Street?
Jonah Hill: Well, I know that Terry Winter and Scorsese did talk about how … and Irwin Winkler, had conversations about how Goodfellas, Casino, and Wolf felt like those three films were akin to one another.
Had you read the book before you started filming? What was your initial impression of Jordan Belfort?
Jonah Hill: Yeah, I had read the book a few times when I learned that I was in contention for the part. I couldn’t put the books down and I couldn’t believe that this was how they actually behaved and interacted with people. That to me was why it was an interesting story because I couldn’t put it down. I was like; no way this is what actually happened. That is what makes the movie a story worth telling because that is what these people did and this is how they got punished for it. That to me is the most interesting part that they get a slap on the wrist. That is what is really shocking to me. This is what they really did and this is how they got punished for it. That to me the most interesting part is that they get a slap on the wrist. That’s what’s really shocking to me.
Did you find yourself liking or disliking your character? They are doing horrible things, but they have a way of being charming.
Jonah Hill: Donny is pretty hard to like. I found him entertaining. He’s really more obnoxious than anything else. I had a harder time with that. Would I actually be friends with these people? No, I wouldn’t. I find them entertaining to watch and I find lots of characters in movies entertaining to watch that I wouldn’t necessarily want to spend my time with.
Was the chemistry between you and Leo instantaneous when you first met? Were you intimidated by the fact that he has this short hand with Scorsese going back several films?
Jonah Hill: Yeah, of course. The first days of rehearsals, and we rehearsed for a month and a half. I was terrified. The first month was Scorsese, Leo and me in a room. This is crazy. These guys know each other so well. Leo, what’s so great about him is he understands, even though he’s made five movies with him, he has the same reverence that we all have for Scorsese — he grew up worshiping Goodfellas and all those movies. He can understand that you could be intimated and try to make it more comfortable. He did that.
Was there a moment where you could say, “OK, I deserve to be on this job. I can sleep better now.”
Jonah Hill: Well… I’ll say that after three or four weeks, I’m probably not going to get fired because they’ve shot enough where they wouldn’t want to reshoot that with somebody else.
I know Scorsese encourages improvisation on sets and you’ve worked with a lot of people, like Apatow, who also does. What’s the difference in improving for comedy versus drama?
Jonah Hill: The process of a broad comedy and a drama are completely different from one another. When you’re in a broad comedy like 21 Jump Street or Superbad, you have the responsibility to make the audience laugh every minute, or you’ve failed. With a movie with Cyrus, Moneyball or Wolf of Wall Street, you just have a responsibility to be that character as intricately and authentically as you can. That, as an actor, is way more enjoyable because you’re just getting to be this person.
But, Wolf of Wall Street… it’s hilarious!
Jonah Hill: Right, but it’s completely different. We’re not trying to make a joke. 21 Jump Street, I’m trying to be funny throughout the film. In a drama like Wolf of Wall Street, you ever say, “I’m going to say this for this effect.” Just say it because it’s natural to say.
Getting Scorsese to break up has to be pretty awesome.
Jonah Hill: What was interesting about him is he laughs when he likes something. He’ll laugh at things he finds funny, but also things he is excited about. Sometimes you’ll be doing a heavy scene and he’ll laugh. He’s just excited. He has a world famous laugh and it’s the greatest sound in the entire world.
So you’ve worked with two of the greatest laughs in history of cinema.
Jonah Hill: Who’s that?
Jonah Hill: They both have wonderful laughs. The sound of laughter is always good.
Jonah Hill: It exceeded my expectations and my expectations could not have been higher. As far as what I’ve learned, what I was able to do… a part like Donny doesn’t come along like ever in most people’s careers. That unhinged and messed up and fractured and out of control… and what Scorsese does better – and he does a million things better than anyone else – one of those things is he creates an organized chaos. He creates a safe and organized place for people to become completely unhinged. I don’t know how he does that.
Working with Leonardo, did you get a sense of his approach as an actor and was it similar or different from yours?
Jonah Hill: We spend so much time together, that usually to me, creates a bond. I enjoy that process, same thing with Moneyball, I spent a lot of time with Brad Pitt and on Superbad I spent a lot of time with Michael Cera. That gets you on the same page on what you’re all making. We talked and talked and talked and we happened to get along great. That’s great because now I’ve got a friend! That’s cool [laughs] to have a new friend. You can’t force a relationship. That could work in the opposite way if you don’t like somebody. The movies that I’ve made that have been really good are the ones where people were on the same page about what you were making and the unspoken cosmic thing.
Both Wolf of Wall Street and True Story, they have real life victims and real life consequences in them. What was the transition like from Wolf of Wall Street to True Story?
Jonah Hill: When you’re telling a real story, you have some responsibility. Both Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, the names were changed and that was a great relief because these people have families and they didn’t write the books that the movies are based on. That takes the pressure off and you can kind of do to make the character you feel necessary. True Story, was really dark. So, doing Wolf and True Story were going two dark movies in a row. I had to do 22 Jump Street just to not be bummed out for a year straight [laughs]. To live in that world for so long, I think that’s why people take long breaks between movies. True Story is about young kids who got murdered and heavy stuff. I find real life fascinating. I think movies should feel as much like documentaries as they can. The acting should feel like you’re watching a documentary. That is real life and how people treat each other and why they do the things they do and why they hurt one another is interesting to me. That is something I would love to keep exploring.
The Wolf of Wall Street is in theaters now.