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Jonah Hill.

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Jonah Hill on Moneyball, Idolizing Joe Pesci, and Being All Grown Up

In this weekend's Moneyball, Jonah Hill stars alongside Brad Pitt as a baseball numbers nerd. The film is based on Michael Lewis’s 2003 book about Billy Beane (Pitt), the general manager of a once-impoverished Oakland A’s who used quantitative analysis to rebuild a winning team. It's directed by Bennett Miller; it's not a comedy; and Hill, who rose to fame with movies like Superbad and Get Him to the Greek, isn't funny in it (that's a good thing). Writer Mark Harris spoke with Hill for New York Magazine's Fall Preview cover story, and we got our hands on the roughly unedited transcript. Herewith, Hill's thoughts on Goodfellas, his upcoming animated show Allen Gregory, and growing up.

Tell me how you came to Moneyball, or how the movie came to you. You’d been working on a script you’d written with friends ...
Yeah, The Adventurer’s Handbook. I’d written it with two friends of mine. It’s at Universal, and it was gonna be with myself, Jason Schwartzman, and Jason Segel. They’re both on television shows, so their television shows have what’s called “first position” — I learned as a producer — and those shows own them. If the dates conflict by, like, an hour, the shows win. So I decided I’d rather wait and make the movie with the guys who we wrote the parts for, which were Jason and Jason, than make some Frankenstein version of the film. But it was very sad, because we’d been working on it day and night for three years and we’d finally gotten it green-lit. I literally sat on the stairs and thought, I don’t know what I’m going to do. And then I got a call from my agent to read the book Moneyball and that Bennett [Miller, the director] wanted to meet with me. I had known Bennett socially, through mutual friends, and we enjoyed each other. I had shot Cyrus, but no one had seen it yet besides me. So I knew I could do more serious stuff, different kinds of films, but no one else did. To get the part, I showed him Cyrus, and he cast me off that.

It sounds like even you were a little surprised to get handed this grown-up drama in which you’re not the comic relief or the funny sidekick.
There’s nothing comedic, at least in my mind, about the part. I think there are sweet moments, but no jokes or wisecracks. Actually, my character has a pretty nonexistent sense of humor in a lot of ways. I knew after Cyrus, which was a good movie in my opinion, that I would get some opportunity to do more stuff. I didn’t know it was going to be on this high a level, with Aaron Sorkin and Brad Pitt and Steve Zaillian and Scott Rudin and Bennett Miller and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Michael Lewis. Nobody ever expects that. The echelon of players on the team was the interesting surprise for me.

Bennett Miller told me that he thought this character, in terms of who you really are, is actually less of a departure for you than some of your other movies. He thought you were a really natural fit.
Yeah, I think that’s probably true. I think I’m a lot different than you’d expect me to be without knowing me. Which is good for me, because as an actor I kind of like that you don’t know anything about me. I’ll even read this interview and think, They have no idea what I’m actually like [laughs]. A lot of times you’re funny as a way of not having to say, like, anything real about yourself. I think being funny is the best diversion from being honest about yourself. It’s hard to put yourself in a writer’s hands, no offense, and trust them. Bennett understood how seriously I take my career and life and friends and family. I love being funny, but there are whole days when I’m not funny at all. And I think that shocks people [laughs]. Not to sound like a bummer or anything.

Did you connect to the part of your character that’s a numbers nerd? A lot of people follow Hollywood stats, box office, etc. the way other people follow baseball stats.
It wasn’t the numbers, per se. It was the obsessiveness with what they’re doing. I take my career very seriously. My brother and dad and mom are businesspeople, really entrepreneurial-type people. I got into a pretty kooky business, but I take what I do exceptionally seriously and I know about what’s going on in the business world of what I do. Bennett and I talked, and he said that the way we talk about actors and roles and movies with each other is the way my character should be able to talk to Brad about baseball. That was the correlation for me. There’s a deep-seated passion, and I think if you’re going to create movies, you have to be able to break down what works and what doesn’t, to say, “This is what I think did and did not work about this other movie.” And that’s what my character does about players. It’s just what we do all the time — we analytically shit-talk everybody’s strengths and weaknesses. Everybody I know does that. And that’s basically what my character does: break things down in positive and negative ways.

Your character never gets to explode or even have a big emotional outburst. Was that frustrating?
What’s funny is, we shot a scene where I destroy a room during the final game. It was pretty intense, where I kind of lose it and destroy my video room. It’s not in the film. It was supposed to be the moment of explosion for my character, who’s so pent-up and small the whole time. But Bennett, in a really wise and tasteful choice, thought that it’d be better not to have that happen. When I watch this movie, or Cyrus and Superbad … I don’t think it’s me. Get Him to the Greek was the one movie where I kind of felt like I could see myself in the character. I was playing me a little bit. But when I watch this movie with loved ones, they … I don’t feel like I’m anything like that guy. I thought that was really cool. I don’t feel anything like that guy. The way he moves, the way he speaks. He doesn’t say a word or breathe without thinking about it, and I say everything — I have no filter of any kind.

Did the work on the set feel different than the comedies you’ve done?
It was polar opposite of any other movie I’ve worked on. On comedy films, especially the ones I’ve made with people I know well, there needs to be a certain lightness on set to make people want to be funny. There’s a lot of sitting around and joking. I would say Moneyball was a very focused set. Meaning, quiet. I didn’t have friends around — on comedy movies, I do, because it adds to the vibe. And this was such a quiet contrast. It wasn’t unhappy and tense; it was quiet and focused. Bennett is an exceptionally focused individual. All the rehearsals — most of the movie, it was me and Brad and Bennett, the three of us sitting around figuring things out. I had such a great time. That being said, off the actual set, Brad would do a lot of practical jokes on me and vice versa. That thing about him doing that kind of stuff? It’s true. When we were hanging out, we’d have a great time. But on the actual set was very focused.

Had you had any occasion to meet Brad Pitt before this movie?
Brad and I had met through a mutual friend in Milan. That sounds weird, right? A group of friends were going to a Radiohead concert and we had met there a few years back. Just that one time. He was super cool.

The chemistry between the two of you really works in a surprising way.
We rehearsed a lot, Brad, Bennett, and myself. And Phil … uh, Lip. Philip. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Which in this article is gonna make me sound like a dick that I said Phil.

I think you’re allowed to call him Phil since you actually made a movie with him.
That’s his name, right? [Laughs.] I hate that, when you read an interview and someone says, “Brad” or “Phil.” It sounds pretentious and weird. But whatever. That’s what he calls himself. We all got close. It’s easy to get along with Brad, and I think it’d be difficult not to get along with me unless you were a jerk or something. We got close. Also, Brad’s been with this movie for a long time. It’s something he’s so passionate about. He stuck with it through many incarnations of the film. So you really want to do him proud. You don’t want to be the puzzle piece that messes up the puzzle, so I felt a real dedication to making Brad and Bennett proud. And part of that was making sure that we had a palpable connection.

Was it strange for you knowing that you were playing a part that Demetri Martin was originally going to do when Steven Soderbergh was the director of the film?
No. I mean, I know Demetri. I haven’t seen him since I got this part. I feel for that circumstance, which is getting a really cool part and then the movie falls apart. It’s happened to me before. And I think he’s a really funny, talented guy. But he wasn’t in my head.

Was there a completed script when you got the part?
By the time I was asked to do the movie, there was a draft of the script, but it was far different than the movie is. I’m a big Michael Lewis fan and obviously, when they told me who was going to be working on it, I was excited. With Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, you felt in good hands. And with Bennett, you just trust him. To me, Cyrus was the big getting-it-out-of-the-way movie. It was with John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei, two really heavy, serious, brilliant actors, and it was intimidating as hell for me. I was really nervous. But I had just gone through that, so my nerves were out of the way. So I just thought, Let’s go, I can do this!

How much improvising was there?
Bennett was very encouraging if you wanted to improvise. He’s amazing with actors. He really pushes you, and he has a magical ability to get you to test limits and try things while staying within your character. There are movements I do, the littlest gesture, that come as a result of Bennett pushing me to find it in myself. He just clocks little things in your brain that you’re thinking about. He can break down a word, not in an annoying way. He really taught me something. Judd Apatow’s thing was always, it’s not about the actual written word — it’s about how to take that idea and expand on it and make it something different, right? But what Bennett would do was help me say the words, but make them mean something completely different; he helped me express what I was feeling through the words, even if my feelings didn’t match the words.

He told me he says that he thinks really good comic actors almost always turn out to be good actors, period.
In a comedy, it’s not always over-the-top silly. You’re trying to do a version of real life while lacing in humor and jokes. In drama, you just take out the responsibility of trying to make everybody laugh every 45 seconds. Even in comedy, mostly I’m trying to play an actual person. Mostly it’s human, real-life stuff, where I’m trying to play an actual person.

Bennett and Brad did this press conference recently where they were, like, “Jonah, do you only want to do serious movies now?” Honestly, I don’t ever think about it like that. I just think about what’s going to be a good movie. I want to look back on my career when I’m an old man and be able to show my grandkids a stack of good movies, whatever they are. I go for what I think could be a good movie, whatever genre that would be. And if you mix drama and comedy, that’s kind of the coolest thing ever, like James L. Brooks movies — they’re funny and honest and dark and weird and sad. Or Martin Scorsese movies. Goodfellas is my favorite movie ever. To me, it’s one of the funniest comedies ever and one of the darkest movies ever at the same time. My favorite scene in any movie is Joe Pesci in that movie saying, “Am I a clown? Do I amuse you?” In a split second it goes from being hysterical to being one of the darkest, tensest moments ever. That’s a performance that … I would like to do something like that. To me, the benchmark of what I’d like to do is to give the kind of performance Joe Pesci gave in Goodfellas.

Did you have that performance in mind when you were making Cyrus, because there are moments in which your character is right on the edge between funny and menacing.
Yeah, big time. I was thinking about that quite a bit during Cyrus — a guy who can go from light to dark and heavy so quickly. How Pesci is so fun and vibrant and charismatic and then, all of a sudden, he just flips.

Let’s talk about some of the other stuff you have going on. You’re also starring in David Gordon Green’s comedy The Sitter.
Yeah, I did that directly after Moneyball.

I’m guessing that was an abrupt transition.
It was pretty crazy! But that’s what I love about my career. I went from being super-focused in a dramatic way to being super-focused in a really fun, crazy, silly comedic way. For me, it’s just about keeping up those eclectic choices. If you’re a fan of mine — or if you’re not — there’s a lot of different stuff you could be seeing. It’s not like I did three Sitters in a row.

How did your upcoming animated show, Allen Gregory, come about?
Comedically, I am a product of The Simpsons. I went to the school of The Simpsons. It’s how I learned about comedy, and a lot about life. I think that show has had, at times, the most brilliant writing ever. I truly believe that it’s influenced anyone interesting in the last twenty years. So, when I was 6 or 7, my parents asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I said, “I want to live in Springfield.” So my parents explained that that was not a possibility, and so I said, “Well, then, I wanna work on The Simpsons.” And they said, “Who’s your favorite character?” And I said, “Homer.” And they said, “Well, there’s a guy who does the voice of Homer, and there are other people who write what Homer says.” And I said, “That’s what I want to do.” So I had a pretty firm idea that I wanted a job as staff writer on The Simpsons when I was 6. And then in high school the first stories I would write were spec episodes of The Simpsons. Not with a screenwriting computer program or anything, just, like, in Word. Like a book! So, years later, Fox asked me to be a voice in a pilot they were working on, and I thought, Well, I’ve always wanted to create my own animated show, and if I’m the voice in someone else’s vision, then they already have me so why would they want me to create something else for them? So I politely declined.

I lived above Jarrad Paul and Andy Mogel, they’re really talented writers, and we’d write in each other’s apartments a lot. They had written a script I really liked called Himmelfarb. I walked in their apartment and said, “We’re going to create an animated series together.” And after three or four weeks, we had Allen Gregory, which is going to follow The Simpsons this fall. And the significance of that is so beyond even a childhood make-a-wish/what-the-fuck kind of occasion that I cannot believe it’s real.

You must be a good multitasker.
I don’t sleep very often! I come from a very hardworking entrepreneurial background, and I would hate myself so much if I looked back on the golden opportunity that people like Judd Apatow gave me and felt I wasted it. I’m not going to be in Tahiti having a money fight with someone! I hate it when I read a Hollywood interview where someone complains how hard it is. That’s all bullshit. We’re so lucky to do this. I just want to work as hard as I can while there’s opportunity to work.

Is it strange to think that if it’s a hit, unlike a movie, this show could be a part of your working life for a long time?
It would be so joyous. Jarrad and Andy and I have a wonderful connection. And the whole writing staff — there’s fifteen of us, all young, energetic, crazy, fun. Fox calls us the traveling party.

But you’ll also be running what could turn into a big business enterprise.
It’s funny. I always say that Superbad and all the early Judd days was my college. For myself and Seth [Rogen] and Michael Cera, that was college because a lot of us didn’t go or only went a little. And this show, I feel, is like my law school. We’re a little older and busier and more stressed out, but we’re still trying to have fun. If I could be with these people for however many years, it’d be so cool. And I’m so proud of the show. This is the first thing where people can really come down hard on me if they hate it. I can’t pass the buck; I can’t blame anyone else.

That doesn’t make you nervous?
No! Fuck being nervous, man! It’s amazing! If you believe in it, who cares? It’s so easy to judge stuff, but, you know, put stuff out there! When Conan left NBC, he gave this beautiful last speech on his show. I literally was crying, because it was, “Don’t be a judgmental asshole. Put something out there, and then even if everybody hates it and it sucks, you say, ‘Okay, I’ve got something else — how about this?’” It’s so easy to judge. So I’d rather put myself out there and be judged than be too scared to put anything out there.

Do you think that if you weren’t acting, you’d be writing? Is that the other road for you?
Yeah, writing and directing. I want to be a director really badly. I think that’s going to be my next endeavor. I’m definitely actively pursuing directing projects — but for me, to take a year and a half or two years off from acting and writing, especially since I’m feeling so good about acting right now, it would have to be something really special. So special that I can’t not do it.

I have to ask: You’ve lost so much weight, you’re so transformed physically. And it’s happening at a moment when, as you said, you have three very different representations of yourself going before the public. So is your new body sort of the fourth project — the new Jonah Hill?
[Laughs.] I put it like this: Bennett says that with Moneyball and this physical transformation, it’s like saying, A, I did this movie that you didn’t think I could do, and B, I did this thing with myself that you didn’t think I could do. So that’s two very strong statements that I’m a serious person out there looking to do serious stuff. But for me, it’s a lot deeper than that. I met you guys — meaning everyone, media, audiences, strangers — when I was 21 or 22 years old, with Superbad. And I was a kid — I was drinking beer, smoking weed all the time — and when I read interviews with myself at that age, it’s horrifying! You know, if you had a public record of yourself at 21, you’d sound like an idiot. You think you know everything about the universe and you’re the wisest person in the world. Now I’m almost 28, and I’m growing up in front of strangers. So for me, who I was then is a lot different than who I am now. So being healthier came along with maturity. And it’s hard, because a lot of times people want you to be the guy you were when they met you. And I love doing funny movies, but I want to mature, literally, in how I treat myself. I’m not living in a frat house with a bong plastered to the table. What’s cool for me is that I can do a movie like The Sitter and say, “If you loved Superbad, it’s that vibe.” But the fact that people my dad’s age come up to me for Cyrus, and maybe now for Moneyball, feels really good. But all this stuff [points to his body] is just part of maturing in body and in mind. I just want to be a good man and to make my family proud. And, you know, I want to live a long time.

Photo: Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images