On Saturday night of the New Yorker Festival, David Remnick sat down with a sweaty Jonah Hill, who made a point of assuring the audience that he was ill, not recovering from a drug binge. Across the 90-minute conversation, Hill charted his rise in Hollywood, and explained the secret methodology behind much of his character work: making prank calls to Best Buy.
In college, Hill was in the habit of making and recording prank calls, sometimes for an audience. He recounted the time he impersonated Tobey Maguire's assistant during awards season, making a request for a hotel to house the star in along with several dog-sized aquatic animals. He continues to make slightly more mundane prank phone calls today in the effort to develop roles.
“What’s interesting is that I still do it now all the time,” Hill said. “I do it to get into character. I’m now recognizable in some ways, so I can’t really try out a character in real life, [and] the closest version of trying out a character in real life is playing a version of it over the phone.”
“Customer service is the best because they talk to you with real patience,” he continued. “I’ll just ask about different products, and complain about different products in the way that I think the character would complain about those products.”
“I usually buy something at the end,” he noted, before changing topics. “I feel bad.”
From there, the interview moved to Hill's career arc. He’s long since transitioned from his breakout in Superbad to distinguished dramatic roles, but people still think he’s that goofy nerd (and also offer him pot all the time, even though he doesn’t smoke anymore).
“It wasn’t, like, this big drastic thing for me, it was more drastic for other people,” Hill said of the switch. “People have a hard time with change especially in their consumption of things, right? So, if I’m a product, I’m this one thing, and then I started to try other things, I think [that’s why] people had a challenge or issue with it.”
Of course, the most prominent of his dramatic films is Wolf of Wall Street. It was Hill's childhood dream to meet Martin Scorsese, and yet working with the director still managed to exceed his expectations.
“A lot of times when [directors] are incredibly technical, their movies lose a lot of humanity,” Hill said of Scorsese. “He’s the most technically gifted, and his movies have a complete sense of freedom at the same time. It’s like a controlled chaos.”
For his role as Donnie Azoff, Hill wore a set of prosthetic teeth, which changed the way he spoke and added a noticeable lisp.
“I had to learn how to re-talk with them, and then it helped it just sound like this very specific way of speaking, which I really liked, and which we ended up using,” Hill explained. “I don’t have many props, but I still have those teeth.”
“You can use them to call Best Buy,” Remnick joked.
“I did!” Hill exclaimed, excited and totally serious. “That’s how I got used to talking with them on.”