When Jonah Hill earned an Oscar nomination for 2011’s Moneyball, it seemed to inspire a career epiphany in him. “To have this kind of recognition — it means I should do more dramas,” Hill said the morning he got the nod. “I don’t know if there could be a bigger sign.” Since then, Hill’s career hasn’t taken as sharp a left turn as you might have expected from that statement — he did appear in this summer’s comedy hit This Is the End, after all — but it all seems to have been leading to his role in this week’s Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street, where he plays the amped-up sidekick to Leonardo DiCaprio’s amoral financial huckster. The outrageous character is destined to be one of Hill’s most iconic parts, but this month offered the actor another milestone, too: Last Friday, he turned 30. The day before his birthday, Hill called up Vulture to discuss the film.
Is this where you thought you would be at age 30?
First of all, I’m excited to turn 30. Career-wise, I never could have dreamed that I get to do the things I’ve gotten to do so far, especially this film. I mean, Martin Scorsese is the reason I make movies in the first place. He’s my favorite director of all time. It is interesting that I’m having a milestone birthday five days before this film comes out, but yeah, I never, ever in my wildest dreams thought that I would get to work with Martin Scorsese.
You actually pitched the idea that you should audition for this movie, instead of simply meeting with Scorsese. What did you want to prove?
I heard that I was in contention for it, and then Leonardo DiCaprio and I were in Mexico at the same time because we were both there promoting films. I asked if I could meet with him before I was scheduled to meet with Scorsese, and I said to Leo, “I have to play this part. I’m the only actor who can play this part.” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “Because I recognize who this person is and he’s a lot of what’s wrong with society. He’s someone who cares about money more than he cares about anything else, and that’s all he cares about — and he doesn’t care who he has to hurt to get it.” And Leo was really great. He called Scorsese and told him that he had met with me, and when they told me I was going to fly to New York and meet with Scorsese, I said, “Well, can I read for him also?” Because I’d rather show him what I planned to do instead of just talking about it.
And how did it go?
I hadn’t been on an audition in six years. [Laughs.] So not only was I terrified to go on an audition again, but I was even more terrified that I was going to audition for my hero. But I’m so glad I did, because Ellen Lewis, the casting director, and Scorsese were so great, and I got to show them what I wanted to do.
Can you draw a straight line from Moneyball to Wolf of Wall Street? Is that the movie that made it possible for you to appear in this one?
Well, I’ve learned so much during my career. I spent all of my twenties making movies — which is a really lucky way to spend your twenties — but when you’re an actor starting out, any job you get, you do. I was lucky that when I first started getting jobs in my early twenties, I got to make movies with people I really loved and respected, and I was making the movies that I would have loved to see when I was 20, 21 years old. And then as time went on, I understood that I love all different types of movies and I want to play all different kinds of characters. Once Superbad had come out, I was given a lot of opportunities, but I waited for a movie called Cyrus that I felt was really, truly original and different. The Duplass brothers took a chance on me with that, and it led to Moneyball, where Bennett Miller took another chance on me, and then Moneyball led to The Wolf of Wall Street.
Some critics are saying that the film glamorizes this kind of over-the-top, wealthy lifestyle, that it’s more celebratory than cautionary. How would you reply to that?
I think that’s interesting. I’ve heard that happens a lot with Scorsese’s films, like Goodfellas. Here’s what I’ll tell you from my personal experience: My parents were really lenient about this sort of thing, and I remember seeing Goodfellas when I was 10 or 11 and saying, “Oh my gosh, that looks amazing! I want to be a gangster.” Or I remember seeing Kids when I was a young skateboarder, and saying, “Oh, I want to be in New York City skating in Washington Square Park.” Both of those films I watched again as an adult, and I realized that as a kid, I’d completely overlooked the third act of both films! If you watch either of them, it’s about downfall, it’s about showing that this sort of life leads to a really bad place. So I can see how it would be if I watched Wolf of Wall Street when I was 14. I remember telling Leo while we were shooting that there will be kids who see this movie and dream of being a stockbroker, but when I watch Wolf of Wall Street now, that’s the last thing I want to do, to lead this excessive, wealth-fueled, drug-fueled life. I’ve seen that excess lead to a really dark place.
The film’s centerpiece scene is probably the long sequence where you and Leo take quaaludes. That got a crazy amount of laughs at my screening. What was it like when you saw it for the first time?
Honestly? This is a ten-minute sequence, and the first time I saw it — and I’ve seen the movie four times now — there was a round of applause. That’s never happened to me before. I mean, I haven’t made that many films, but I’ve seen that happen at every screening I’ve been to. Leo’s brilliant, physically, in that scene, and I’m so proud of how it turned out. Every time someone I know has seen the film, that’s the first thing they mention.
There’s an interesting subtext to your character, who wears these false teeth and preppy clothes as part of his desire to assimilate, to sort of play down his Jewishness.
Sandy Powell, who’s probably the most brilliant costume designer there is, we collaborated more than I’ve probably collaborated with any costume designer ever on building Donnie as a character. One of the things that was apparent is that Donnie wanted to look Waspier and more upper-crust than he actually was. He was trying to portray an image of almost country-club Waspiness that was a complete veneer, and he has teeth that are actual veneers! He’s trying to be something that isn’t real, and that’s really what all these guys do: They’re selling something that isn’t real.