He's gone from stoner-bro stalwart to Oscar-nominated superstar, but as Tom Ellen discovers, he’s still coming to terms with the spotlight
I just met Jonah Hill. It was a total letdown.
A few months back, in an effort to expend a stationery-based gift certificate, Jonah Hill had 1,000 business cards printed, all bearing that self-deprecating maxim above. “It was meant as a joke,” he says. “It wasn’t some grandiose, serious thing.”
If a fan came up to say hello, he’d hand them one of these cards: a tongue-in-cheek memento of their meeting. “A lot of people want to take pictures with me,” Hill continues, “and I guess they think, ‘He’s going to be funny like he is in Superbad,’ or ‘He’s going to be crazy like in The Wolf Of Wall Street.’ Then they meet me and I’m just... boring. So the cards seemed like a good way to make the experience fun. But they got such a negative reaction online that I stopped.”
Businesscardgate is just one of many examples of people not quite getting Jonah Hill. Almost every article you read on the actor features some mention of him being bad-tempered or prickly; traits that are nowhere near evident in the hour I spend with him in a vertiginous Manhattan hotel room.
These unflattering profiles are possibly down to the fact that, as Hill freely admits, “I look p*ssed off a lot. I have resting b*tch face.” But they’re also because, ultimately, he finds fame difficult to deal with. “I’m just not good at being famous,” he says. “I’m proudly not good at it. Because to be good at being famous, you have to be good at being fake and full of sh*t. I don’t know if I want to be better at that.”
In person, Hill certainly doesn’t seem fake or full of sh*t, but neither does he seem so dull that he requires novelty stationery. In fact, if – like me – you are roughly Hill’s age (32) and were raised on the same diet of skateboarding and mid-Nineties hip-hop, he’s one of the most passionate and engaging people you could hope to meet. His leg bounces in excitement as he gives me directions to the Harlem mural of rap god Big L; he literally leaps from the sofa to show a text message back-and-forth that he’s having with skate legend Mark Gonzales: “Not to humblebrag or anything...”
There is a marked change in demeanour, though, when he’s on more professional ground. Discussing his career, and the film he’s here to promote – bullets’n’bros comedy-drama War Dogs – Hill is noticeably quieter, more considered in his answers. He frowns into his beard. He pulses the sofa cushion like a stress ball. He laughs less. Nervy traits that are all, presumably, part of the hangover of seeing yourself repeatedly misconstrued in print.
This is not to say he’s not excited about War Dogs. He clearly is. “It’s just such an insane story,” he says. “You can’t believe it really happened.”
The film is based on the preposterous-yet-true tale of two Miami stoners who bungled their way into a $300m contract to arm the US military during the war in Afghanistan. Hill’s character, Efraim Diveroli, is an AK-toting, coke-snorting chancer constantly on the lookout for the next big payday. Or, as Hill puts it, “a sociopathic lunatic.. I actually originally turned it down, because I’d just finished The Wolf Of Wall Street and I thought the character might be too similar [to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort]. They’re both people finding their own hustle, and disregarding moral codes to achieve it. Efraim is the full embodiment of that American dream mentality; he feels entitled to his piece of the pie."
Another reason that Hill is “psyched” about War Dogs is that it represents a refreshing anomaly in 21st-century cinema: ”This is a commercial, summer movie that doesn’t have a superhero flying around in it. That is really special. We’re literally a year away from the multiplex not having a single option that isn’t a superhero movie or a sequel or a reboot. Which is kind of depressing, but it also happens every 20 years, and the best new filmmakers are bred from that cycle. The gritty Seventies films were the result of popular, cheesy Sixties movies. In the Nineties, you had Schwarzenegger blockbusters, which led to Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. So I’m hoping to make movies that break through because they’re honest, emotional and just... good.”
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
War Dogs is all of these things, but it’s also a useful yardstick for where Hill’s career is at right now. While it contains moments of bong-hitting, Superbad-level silliness, it also tackles corruption and politics and the blood-soaked economics of modern warfare. Put simply, it’s both funny and serious in equal measure.
“It’s a fascinating thing,” he says. “People literally cannot get their heads around the idea that I do both comedy and drama. They don’t know how to talk about it.”
Maybe that’s part of the reason Hill finds fame so difficult: he’s become a difficult famous person to categorise. In the previous decade, he was a straightforward prospect: a highly efficient dick joke disseminator, skilled at portraying affable yet sexually-frustrated nerds.
Then, in 2009, he switched lanes. He turned down lucrative roles in both The Hangover and Transformers to star in Cyrus, a low(ish)-budget mumblecore drama. The critical acclaim he garnered from this role set him on a road that’s led to Moneyball, Scorsese, Tarantino, the Coens and two Oscar nominations, not to mention regular backgammon evenings with Leonardo DiCaprio (“He usually wins, he’s way better than I am,” Hill says).
With hindsight, that decision to take a stoner-comedy sabbatical seems blindingly obvious, but at the time was it not a little scary? “Not for me,” he shrugs. “But it was probably scary for other people. Like my agent. The thing is, if you do broad comedy, that’s all you’re ever viewed for. I would literally have to spend the next 10 years just doing war dramas for people to think of me as a ‘serious actor’. Comedy has a stigma attached to it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop doing it. I love it.”
Did he ever feel pressure to take the just-serious-war-dramas path, though? He throws his head back and laughs. “The pressure would be for me to do the opposite, man! Get paid a bunch of money to make worse and worse versions of the same comedies. And, look, if you want to do that... that’s OK. I’ve made movies that haven’t turned out great – I’m not going to name them – but I never went into one thinking it wasn’t going to be good. It's crazy, because if you make a bad drama, no one cares. But if you make a bad comedy... people are furious. They want to chop off your head!”
When he flies off on riffs like this, Hill suddenly eases up entirely. The nervous, media-weary ticks giving way to a zippy, often surreal, stream of consciousness. The stress-cushion has now been completely discarded. He continues: “And, actually, even if you make a good comedy, people just say, ‘Oh, that was a fun, little goofy movie.’ They put it down, almost.” He pauses and furrows his brow, mock earnest. “So, you know what? Yeah... maybe I am done with comedy
after all.” Then he throws his head back laughing again.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
In moments like these, it’s hard to imagine that fans might be disappointed meeting him. As our time draws to a close, he is relentlessly open and funny on everything from Donald Trump (“I actually liked him on The Apprentice, but the idea of him as a presidential candidate is pretty scary”), to working with his teen hero Ice Cube on the Jump Street franchise (“I asked if It Was A Good Day is about a specific day. It is not...”)
Of course, another reason that any past prickliness might have been smoothed out somewhat is that Hill is arguably enjoying the best period of his professional life right now. As soon as his War Dogs duties are over, he begins pre-production on a new film he’s written – and will direct – about the mid-Nineties skateboard scene ("No one’s ever shown skating respectfully in movies, except maybe Kids. It’s usually on some ‘cowabunga’, Bart Simpson sh*t”).
Getting the chance to immortalise a lifelong passion is something most of us could only dream about. Surely he must feel happy at the moment? “I do feel happy,” he muses, seeming almost surprised at his own answer. “I think I used to have an unrealistic view of happiness. I thought you were supposed to be beaming ear to ear every second. But I guess happiness is getting to do what you want to do. I mean...” He shakes his head, disbelievingly. “I get to direct a movie about Nineties skateboarding. This is the fruit of all my labour.”
Your whole life‘s been leading to this, I say, as a joke.
But Hill‘s eyes are wide, and he‘s not smiling. “Yeah,” he says. “It really has.”
War Dogs is at cinemas nationwide from 26 August
[Photography: David Venni]