Jonah Hill discusses his work on the film 'Cyrus' and why 2010 is the proudest year of his life
I've spent enough time around Jonah Hill now that I relax when I sit down to interview him because I know we'll have plenty to talk about. I had just wrapped up with my John C. Reilly interview when Jonah arrived, and after one other conversation, theey walked him over to the couches where I was waiting, and Jonah settled into his chair across from me:
Jonah: Nice to see you, dude.
Drew: Nice to see you.
Jonah: How’s it going?
Drew: It’s going well.
Drew: I’ve got to give you these. HitFix mints.
Jonah: Awesome! (laughs) They look like drugs.
Drew: We love to hand those to people. I gave them to the producer of "The Wackness" the other night, and he said, "Oh no, no man. It’s okay, I’m straight." I was like, "No, they’re mints." And he’s like, "Oh, okay. You have to understand, since 'The Wackness,' people hand me things all the time."
Jonah: Dude, it’s nice to see you. This is a great… I’m so excited for this interview because we just hang and talk to you about movies.
Drew: Well, I’ve got to say, man, blown away.
Jonah: Thank you, man.
Drew: Yeah, really. Blown away.
Jonah: I read the review. So nice. Thank you.
Drew: Whatever I expected from it, it really wasn’t that at all. And I think a lot of it is you just wonder if their process of the way they work is going to survive intact.
Drew: And if it’s going to have that same intimate feel. And it’s nothing but intimate. Like the film is so small and so contained, it had to be… just because I’ve seen you guys work on the comedies and I just saw you on the set of "Get Him to the Greek." Again, improv is absolutely a big part of your bag of tricks, but it’s not this kind of film.
Jonah: It’s different improv-ing. It’s totally different, yeah.
Drew: How do you keep track of the subtlety of this movie? Because I know you guys shot in sequence and that had to help, but even so there’s so much of it... because I know you’re trying different things and you’re trying… how did you guys kind of track what you were doing and how did you track where you were with Marisa or where you were with John over the course of the picture?
Jonah: Honestly, like they gave me the script and I just understood it. Like, you know. I stalked them for like many years, you know? And I wanted to work with them and not because I wanted to do something vastly different or look what I can do or whatever, you know? I just honestly believe in what they were doing, and the same way with Judd when I saw like "Freaks and Geeks" or things that he had worked on. I was like, "This guy has got an original voice." And when I saw "Intervention," one of their short films, and then later "The Puffy Chair", I was like, "These guys have an original voice," you know? And it was the same passion I had to work with both people. And so when they finally asked me to be a part of the movie, I was like I don’t even need to read it. Like I know what you guys are doing is interesting and special and I’m willing to lend whatever clout I have with the people that will put me in a movie because they liked "Superbad." I’m willing to lend you that protection. And I think with John and myself and Marisa, in a weird way they got protection from being screwed over and making their movie more mainstream or different from their other films because I said right away, use me. If the studio’s messing with you, tell them I won’t come tomorrow. You know what I mean? Because I would never want this movie to turn into exploiting John and I being well known in the comedy world, you know? And that was something that was a huge fear of mine with the marketing. And I think if it wasn’t Fox Searchlight, I don’t know if I would have been comfortable doing that because…
Drew: There’s a wrong way to sell this where you completely lie to an audience.
Jonah: Exactly. And I think it would be so terrible for them, and for what they’ve accomplished, and for what the movie is and how proud I am of the movie. It would be like lying to my own fans, you know what I mean? Or lying to people that would go see me in a different movie, because you could make this seem like "Step-Brothers" easily, you know? And I think…
Drew: If this had been developed through the Hollywood system, it would be "Step-Brothers." It would be that kind of a movie.
Jonah: Right. Right.
Drew: But it’s really painful…
Jonah: And I love "Step-Brothers."
Drew: Of course. But…
Jonah: It’s a different movie than…
Drew: It’s a matter of degrees. And what makes this really special is the fact that it’s so sad underneath and the idea of loneliness as this thing that you’re afraid of that motivates everybody in the film...
Drew: You know, Cyrus has never not had her and…
Jonah: She’s all he has.
Drew: Yeah. The idea of anybody stepping into that has got to be terrifying. And you never showed that. It’s all the other ways that the behavior happens. I’ve got to say, I was telling John the thing that made me laugh hardest in the film is early on when you first had him into the house and you’re playing your music for him. The stare is so intense.
Jonah: Yeah. The forty-yard stare. (laughs)
Drew: It’s so crazy.
Jonah: I’d say to this day, I’ve only been in a few movies, but to this day the hardest thing I’ve had to shoot was looking at John without laughing. I didn’t think I would ever be able to do it and it took awhile because I had to learn all the music stuff and all the music cues and then I was like,"Oh that’s what I was worried about that day?" You know that’s where my focus was. And then when it came down to like,"Oh, right, I’m going to stare him down." That was my idea, you know, just not break eye contact with him, you know? And really try to intimidate him or make him feel uncomfortable and I could not stop laughing. I mean it was the hardest thing to do. The music is so weird and the guy’s so bizarre right away.
Drew: And it’s such a crazy moment. It’s a nakedly crazy moment.
Jonah: Yeah, it’s just truly… I mean these guys and I agreed like right away that Cyrus is going to be… the character is going to be truly, truly bizarre. And truly unforgivingly sad and weird and scary and funny and strange and uncomfortable to watch. And I was like, if something ever came close to breaking that, we would kill it like right away. And I think it was just like an utter commitment and these guys let me do that and wanted me to do that and I just wanted to deliver for them because to me it was like if I was anything but those qualities and if you ever recognized me or me riffing as Jonah or you know what I mean? Then it breaks the whole movie and if any of the characters did that, it would break the whole entire movie apart, you know?
Drew: Well, even the physical side of just how you guys put Cyrus together... the haircut and everything else... it’s very particular.
Jonah: The clothes.
Drew: Was there somebody… was there a haircut that you had seen where you’re like, "Okay, that guy. I’m stealing that."
Jonah: Mark and Jay and I went to lunch probably a year before we shot the movie and I had long hair and a huge beard. And Mark like during the lunch pushed my hair back and was like, "We’re going to cut all your hair off and shave your beard and make you look like a little kid." And then we cut all my hair off and it still didn’t look right and then Mark was like, "Take his hairline back." It’s a really weird haircut, dude. And also what I did… no one will notice besides me, but I have like on one of the sides I cut like a bald spot right here on the side of my head.
Jonah: And it’s like really small and I just took scissors to it before we started shooting and just kept cutting it. And it just adds like a layer of like weirdness like we were…
Drew: Like sort of a compulsive weird thing?
Jonah: Yeah, like that he would just like rip his hair out or something like that. A guy that just doesn’t care about like his clothing, his haircut, it’s all just to serve a purpose of getting it done. It’s not like to look cool or interesting. It’s like he wants to do his work, hang out with his mom and that’s it.
Drew: And it’s interesting, there’s a total lack of… it’s not self-awareness, but it’s being concerned about what you project. Because I think most people are constantly on-guard for how they’re presented or how they’re coming across or how somebody else might perceive them.
Jonah: Right, I am.
Drew: And Cyrus has no filter at all. None of that.
Jonah: No. He doesn’t know anyone. Like the big question for me was does this guy literally know another person besides his mom? And that was what I kept thinking about while we were shooting was like well, maybe he like doesn’t know another person, so he wouldn’t give a shit because his mom loves him so much. His mom thinks like the sun rises and falls on him and like for me it was like, me personally, I’m way too concerned with what people think about me. And I think this guy has no one to impress. He hangs out with one person who thinks he’s incredible.
Drew: What a liberating character in many ways.
Jonah: Yeah. It’s really true. But to me it’s weird talking about it without it sounding douchey or whatever, but I think the guy is just so interesting. Like they just figured out so many different problems and things that were interesting about him and he’s not like a two-dimensional character, you know?
Drew: Well, it’s not a joke. He’s a character. There’s so much going on. The friction is what makes it funny or makes it uncomfortable, but it’s not a joke. I really, like I said, I think it’s a very funny drama. I don’t think of it as a comedy because to me comedy almost undercuts the stakes in this. When you say upfront, this is a comedy, you know there’s only so far we go.
Jonah: Yeah, and I think the comedy of this really comes from how badly you want these characters to succeed and with a comedy that’s often hard. I think Judd does that really well. But I think it’s hard when people hear the word comedy and just say, oh it’s going to be John and Jonah riffing date jokes with each other, you know? And I think it really comes from how weird and lonely and sad these characters are and how desperate they are to connect with someone else.
Drew: Was your process any different with Marisa than it was with John because your relationships are so different?
Jonah: No, I think the process that these guys designed and one that was new for me in certain ways was you know you’ve been on the sets of a lot of my… a few of the movies I’ve been in, you know, with my friends and the ones that people would know me for. I think I treat them the same in that I try to make the character feel honest, you know? And I just try my best to really make them feel real. And I think what’s funny is like when I go on websites or I read shit, I always think that it’s funny that people are like man, Jonah Hill is so like…all he can do is be loud and scream curse words and stuff. But they only know me from one movie. And in that movie, it was totally appropriate for that character because that was the character they wanted me to play, you know? And he was loud and obnoxious and immature and said a lot of vagina and dick jokes, but he was a 17-year old kid who was deep down like really scared and was an obnoxious guy. He’s an obnoxious kid.
Drew: That’s his armor. That’s his battle.
Jonah: Yeah, That’s like who he was. So it’s funny that like you can see this movie and think wow, you’re doing something really different, but I’m just playing a different guy, you know what I mean? And it’s like if I was playing Michael’s character in "Superbad," I would have been a lot more subdued and quiet. But with this movie, a lot of the improvising wasn’t to come up with jokes. It was to come up with really harsh, real moments. And the thing I love most about this movie and I’m so proud of it is that it accomplishes what I love in movies. I think my favorite person working today is Paul Thomas Anderson, right? Hands down. And what I love about his movies and what I love about some other things like "Larry Sanders" or the British "Office," not that you would compare those three together, but you get a really gut-busting audience laugh and the very next millisecond it turns really, really dark and heartbreaking.
Jonah: And I think this movie accomplishes that really well, where you can get a huge laugh like it would be in a big comedy, and the next second be almost like have to look away from the screen or not be able to know what you’re watching, you know?
Drew: Are you going to get a chance while you’re up here to see "Four Lions"?
Jonah: What’s that?
Drew: Do you know Chris Morris, the English…
Jonah: Oh yeah, from…
Drew: From "Brass Eye."
Jonah: Yeah, from "Brass Eye," yeah.
Drew: That’s his film.
Jonah: Oh my gosh. Awesome. I want to see that.
Drew: It’s the "Strangelove" of terrorism. It’s crazy.
Jonah: It’s great?
Drew: Yeah, I saw it yesterday and I sat through most of it like this. (hides behind his splayed fingers)
Jonah: I can’t wait to see that.
Drew: They go for it. They totally go for it.
Jonah: That’s incredible..
Drew: And it’s exactly the same thing you’re talking about which is that what I said to John. There is a discomfort that sets in and it’s not because you’re horrified by the people. It’s because you’ve been right there. And I’ve had those moments where you keep thinking, this has got to be a fucking nightmare because there’s no way this is really happening to me and it’s this bad. And there’s no extricating yourself once something like that begins.
Jonah: My perfect movie as a fan should be watched through the cracks of your fingers, you know? And I think I love the movies I’ve been a part of and I think people like them too. I, like you say, I care too much about what people think of me and I go on the Internet and I read shit about myself and it drives me crazy.
Drew: They should bar every single person that has a SAG card from the Internet just so you guys don’t have to put up with it.
Jonah: It just drives me… honestly I don’t care because everyone has their opinion but it’s like I think if people saw this movie they’d be like well, that guy can do that one thing and he can also do this other thing, you know? And honestly I don’t give a shit though, for myself, you know?
Drew: Matt Robinson, when we spoke on "Invention of Lying," he was like, "Somebody is going to put Jonah in something that they don’t expect him in, and he'll be amazing. Wait and see."
Jonah: Right. That’s very nice, yeah.
Drew: And he really believed that. And now, I think that this is that film. I think for a lot of people it will just open the range of what you can play. "Oh, okay, he's an actor, and it’s not just somebody casting Jonah to play Jonah."
Drew: It’s casting Jonah because he brings so much to the table.
Drew: So I hope that really works for you on this one, man.
Jonah: Thank you, man. I appreciate that.
Drew: The big question now is how they sell it.
Drew: And I hope they sell it on the real merits of what it is and I trust Fox Searchlight. I think they’re smart.
Jonah: That’s what I was saying to you is like if it wasn’t Fox Searchlight, I don’t know if this movie could be honestly brought out to an audience because it’s too hard. If I was a rich guy… if I was a rich corporate guy and I had a movie with funny moments that had John and I in the trailer, I don’t know what I would do. If I was a corporate person and not someone who cared about creative entities. So a company like Fox Searchlight is very, very strong and if you watch their trailers, they sold movies like "Sideways" or "Little Miss Sunshine" that did have big huge laughs in them but were also very poignant movies. And I think Mark and Jay are true film makers. I think they really have a voice and the movie’s interesting and weird. Now that’s what I would say. Like if you are going to see "Superbad," then don’t go see the movie, you know? But you will still laugh. I mean it’s still funny. But there’s just other stuff in it, you know? And I think my biggest fear is I don’t want to lie to the 16-year old kids who would go see me in a big… oh we’re going to see "Get Him to the Greek" and get what they want.
Drew: Exactly. And "Greek" is such a different thing. It sounds like Nick’s done now. He’s pretty much putting the bow on it.
Jonah: Yeah, it’s awesome. Dude, you’re going to love it.
Drew: Really proud?
Jonah: So proud. This year for me... honestly if I could like… when I look back on my career, I don’t know what will happen or whatever, but this is the year for me where I’m just.. to have "Greek" and this movie is like the perfect dichotomy of what I enjoy as a viewer of movies. And I think I have a small movie that I think is so interesting and different and I have a movie that’s a big, huge, fun weekend movie that delivers on how hard it should kill. And that I love equally.
Drew: I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be seeing you at another festival in say a couple of months.
Jonah: I hope so. That is the greatest place on Earth.
Drew: Bringing Russell to Austin seems like a dangerous idea.
Jonah: Bringing Russell anywhere is a dangerous idea.
Drew: But dude, I’m very happy that it has kind of come together the way it has and that these are the films this year because I know they’re both personal in different ways for you. There’s a lot of you in them.
Jonah: Yeah. Thank you, Drew. I really appreciate that.
Drew: Yeah, it’s great to see that not only can you put that much in, but then the films then nail it. And the people you’ve chosen [inaudible]
Jonah: Yeah. But I’ll tell you something about Mark and Jay, right? The scene with John and I on the stairs, right? We shot that the day before in his apartment, like a scene that was that place of the movie to wrap up our relationship and it didn’t work. It just didn’t work. John and I gave it our all. Mark and Jay gave it their all and for whatever reason it wasn’t the right scene. It didn’t work and it was fucking scary because that’s the wrap up scene of our characters in the movie. And your biggest fear as an actor is that your directors or writers won’t go the distance to make sure their movie works.
Drew: Right. They won’t tell you, we didn’t get it.
Jonah: They’ll just go… or they’ll be fine with it. We’ll think they didn’t get it, they’ll be aware, deep down, that they didn’t get it, but a certain laziness or not pride in what they’re doing will just not give them that drive. And Mark and Jay went home that night and wrote that scene that we did on the stairwell and we shot the next day. And as an actor, that’s all you can ask for is to have that faith in the people you’re working with and Nick Stoller, I think, is going to be one of the biggest comedy directors ever. I think Nick Stoller is the hardest working dude. If trust is what you’re looking for, which for me is what I’m looking for, he’s a guy that I would not read a script and just do his movie, you know?
Drew: And here’s how I judge people, it’s not just by them but it’s by how I see their collaborators respond to them. Obviously Mark and Jay and then their…
Jonah: I feel equally about both Mark and Jay and Nick that they just deliver… sorry to cut you off.
Drew: But I was just going to say they have their editor who I know is such a key part of it and the fact that it’s the same guy. And that’s a big part of it. That, to me, speaks really well of them as collaborators. And with Nick, watching him with Rodney and watching how they work on a set, you know that that’s collaboration. It isn’t about my vision, my ego, my whatever.
Jonah : But the same way Mark and Jay are like that with the actors, so is Nick. And if anyone has an idea, Nick’s like okay cool. Or Mark and Jay are like okay, cool.
Drew: I saw how much room you were giving Sean [Combs, who has a major supporting role in '"Get Him To The Greek"] ]that one day, and he was rising to it.
Drew: Like the more room you gave him, the more he pushed back. The more he was responding and starting to really play... that’s the environment that’s being created. You can’t have that unless there’s trust and…
Jonah: Well, my theory is and what I learned from Judd was... one of the billion things I’ve learned from Judd... but you know one of the main things I learned from him is if you cast someone, right at the start... I’m saying like the first day, first rehearsal, you go at them hard and start improvising hard at them. So you don’t say a word of the script, because if they can’t cut it, you need to know then. And so I went at Sean hard and if he wasn’t up to it he would have been like "Ah, ah," you know, not knowing what to do.
Drew: It would have been terrifying.
Jonah: And it would have intimidated him. We would have had to get someone who could do it, and luckily Sean is going to blow people's minds again.
Drew: He blew my mind on the set. Funniest line that night was his.
Jonah: Yeah, every time he says a line it gets like a thunderous applause. He just destroys and it’s one of those things that Nick did that you’re just like, it worked. You know? It’s like Mark and Jay putting me in this movie. Hopefully it just works.
Drew: Here’s a real sign of how scary Cyrus is as a character, even after that stair scene and the reconciliation and how sweet it all ways, I was still afraid on the way home. Lke he's going to kill and eat him. Cyrus is that scary, and "Cyrus" is that good.
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