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Jonah Hill Sits Down for His Most Revealing Interview Yet. No Joke.

Featured

Jonah Hill Sits Down for His Most Revealing Interview Yet. No Joke.

Jonah Hill has cracked enough dick jokes. Maybe it’s his Oscar nomination. Or his upcoming turn in Martin Scorsese’s next movie. Or the fact that in about six months, five days before Christmas, he will turn 30. “You’re catching me at a very emotional time in my life,” says Hill on a gray spring morning in Lower Manhattan, where he keeps one of two homes (the other, in Los Angeles, he spent years designing). “I’m growing up. My friends are growing up. I’ve gotten to live a bit of a rock star life, and now I’m contemplating if that’s what I’m still interested in.”

Goodbyes can’t help but drum up elegiac introspection, and Hill’s current project is a doozy of a final hurrah. In This Is the End, Hill, playing himself, parties like there’s no tomorrow when Armageddon strikes during a bash at James Franco’s house. Along with his real-life pals Seth Rogen (who co-wrote the film’s script with his writing partner Evan Goldberg), Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson—not to mention ill-fated party monsters like Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, and Aziz Ansari—Hill fights to stay alive against all odds: fire and brimstone, snarling Beelzebubs, and a dwindling supply of fresh water (and, worse, candy bars). “It definitely feels like the closing of a certain chapter with this film,” says Hill of This Is the End, which reunites him with the coterie of comedians who were there during the nascence of his career. “Like, literally, we all die.”

It wasn’t even a decade ago that a 23-year-old Hill, wearing a Bruce Lee T-shirt and ill-fitting, pre-stressed jeans, penetrated mainstream cinema in the Rogen- and Goldberg-penned outlier orgy Superbad. As Seth, Hill embarks on a mission with his best friend Evan (played by Michael Cera) to score alcohol for his crush (Emma Stone) while spouting pearl necklaces of wisdom such as, “Nobody has gotten a hand job in cargo shorts since ’Nam,” and, “I’ll be like the Iron Chef of pounding vag.” Porky’s for the new millennium, Superbad turned Hill and Cera into unlikely leading men overnight. “One day we could walk around and the next day we couldn’t walk around,” says Hill, whose acting credits at the time were limited to small parts in David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (costar Dustin Hoffman, the father of Hill’s friends Jake, Becky, and Ali, set up the audition), as well as Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. “There was a huge billboard above my tiny apartment with me on it. In that moment, Michael and I realized that we were kind of famous, like, everywhere in the world.”

Cera and Hill met at a party celebrating actor Henry Winkler’s 60th birthday. “He could not have been less interested in me, which I later learned is his stock first impression,” Cera says jokingly of Hill. Two years after their first super-awkward exchange, Hill and Cera were touring the world promoting Superbad, which found Hill indulging in his newly discovered fame: getting wasted with the cast of High School Musical; attending Edward Fortyhands parties (competitors ducttape 40-ounce bottles of beer to each palm until they’re emptied) with Rogen, Baruchel, and Jason Segel; and courting countless drunken advances from thonged throngs at nightclubs.

When the Apatovian bacchanal tapered off, Hill’s nagging professional hangover left him questioning his career. “All I ever wanted to be was, like, regarded,” he says. “A genuine fear of mine was that I was going to be known as ‘The Guy from Superbad’ for the rest of my life.” Around that time, director Todd Phillips approached him to play “any one of the three main parts in The Hangover,” says Hill, who declined the offer, along with another to play Shia LaBeouf ’s sidekick in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. “They were both really big decisions, and ones that most people didn’t understand,” he says. “I knew I could be a dramatic actor, but I also knew I couldn’t go from Superbad to Schindler’s List.”

Instead, Hill phoned brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, whose indie film The Puffy Chair he’d loved, to let them know that his star power could probably finance their next film. Over Mexican food at a taqueria in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, they discussed Hill playing the lead in Cyrus, the story of a creepily overbearing son whose mother (Marisa Tomei) has trouble incorporating her new boyfriend (John C. Reilly) into their fold. On the strength of Hill’s depiction of the titular character—a cross between Kevin McCallister and Norman Bates—Cyrus landed on many critics’ year-end lists after its 2010 release. “Jonah astounded me every day,” Tomei says. “I’m not even being hyperbolic—he just dazzled me. I could see that he could really take on anything.”

Director Bennett Miller saw the same thing, and cast Hill as an assistant GM in Moneyball, Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2003 book of the same name about the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s 2002 attempt to put together an all-star roster. With costar Brad Pitt by his side, Hill earned the type of acclaim normally reserved for people who haven’t spent screen time getting high and hitting on Russell Brand. Following his Screen Actors Guild nomination, Hill racked up nods for a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar. “You always see those videos of people sitting with their family members, waiting for the news, but I was just kicking it in bed watching TV,” Hill says, recalling how he found out about his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Much like the overnight metamorphosis that followed Superbad’s release, Hill’s world was flipped upside down when actor Jennifer Lawrence and Academy president Tom Sherak uttered his name in the company of Kenneth Branagh, Max von Sydow, Nick Nolte, and Christopher Plummer (who eventually took home the award). “They said my name and then my phone almost exploded,” he says. When Hill arrived at Sony Pictures Studios to film promotional videos for 21 Jump Street with costar Channing Tatum a few hours after the announcement (Hill, the film’s executive producer, spent five years writing the action comedy’s script), “There were camera crews everywhere—it was like a crime scene,” he says. “I thought, What the fuck is this? My agent was like, ‘They’re here for you, Jonah.’ I kind of thought I was at the height of people knowing who I was before that. I thought it couldn’t get any crazier.”

We’re sitting at the back of Café Select, one of a handful of restaurants that Hill frequents when he’s in New York. He knows the staff that assiduously refills his dewy glass of iced coffee. He happily takes smiling photos with fans who stop to say hello as if they were old friends. He returns every compliment with enthusiastic thanks. He even insists on covering the tab when we’re ready to leave.

Describing Hill as a well-liked guy is sort of like calling testicular cancer a mild annoyance. Those with whom he has worked were so ebullient when asked to comment on the actor that only a small sampling of their unanimous praise can be printed here:

“The whole last awards season, when he was nominated for Moneyball and I was around for The Help, I would see him at every show and we would basically just screw around and be tipsy and ridiculous. But he’s also deeply feeling, unbelievably witty, and has lots of layers. When he brings that to a character, it’s magic.” —Emma Stone

“Jonah is a very smart actor. He can draw from many sources because he is aware of the history of film and also attuned to what’s new. I guess you could say he’s hip.” —James Franco “Jonah came in to read for The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I felt an instant soul connection to him. It was comedy love at first sight. He is a brilliant, hilarious person who makes you happy to go to work every day. Who wouldn’t want to chat with Jonah between takes? That’s why I got into this business.” —Judd Apatow

“He’s super fucking funny. A few years ago, some of the Jersey Shore kids invited us to go drinking with them after the MTV Video Music Awards. We got insanely drunk and I honestly don’t remember most of the evening. But there was a picture of Jonah and me in People magazine the next day that kind of summarizes the time we had.” —Seth Rogen

“We’d spend just about all day together while we were shooting 21 Jump Street—hours upon hours—but when I’d go home at night I’d still catch myself thinking, I wonder what my little buddy is up to. He is one of the smartest and most driven people I’ve ever met, and I admire him more than he knows.” —Channing Tatum

“He has that quality of affability, along with a remarkable wit, daring, inventiveness, transgression, and truthfulness.” —Martin Scorsese

Hill’s eyes get misty when he hears this, and I half-expect him to cop Sarah Silverman’s joke about using his lacrimation as personal lubricant. He does not. “I am the luckiest guy. I have the best family and friends in the world,” says Hill, who was raised the middle of three kids in Los Angeles by his mother Sharon, a onetime costume designer and fashion stylist, and his father Richard, a business manager for music acts like Madonna and Guns N’ Roses. “I always pride myself on staying close with all the friends I had growing up. But the people I make movies with also hold such a special place in my heart. It really moves me that they’d say such nice things.”

Later today he’ll head uptown for a taping of Saturday Night Live. Kristen Wiig, the enduring sketch-comedy show’s most recent silver-screen crossover, is hosting. Wiig called the day before to see if he’d be willing to appear in her opening monologue, a this-is-your-life spoof for which she’ll retread the hallowed corridors of NBC’s Studio 8H. Along the way, she’ll stumble into a broom closet and catch Hill locking lips with an eight-months pregnant Maya Rudolph. Hill couldn’t be happier to oblige, especially since Vampire Weekend, headed by his good friend Ezra Koenig, is the episode’s musical guest.

As if on cue, Koenig and his girlfriend Nadja walk into the restaurant. “Ezra! Ezra!” Hill yells excitedly into cupped hands to get the musician’s attention. “This is so crazy! I was just talking about how you and I come here all the time! You have to see these crazy photos from this shoot I just did,” he says, swiping through the BULLETT outtakes on his iPhone. “Blood in Blood Out!” Koenig says when he sees a picture of Hill making the hand sign from their favorite movie about Chicano street gangs. They chat for a minute and then wave goodbye, making plans to catch up after tonight’s show.

Hill has hosted SNL twice, in 2008 and 2012. It’s his first appearance, however, that has stuck with him. He’d been dating someone at the time who “didn’t have any respect for how big a deal it was for someone to host SNL,” he says. “Not like, Hey, I need you to make a big deal about this. But just what a personal achievement it was, how scared I was, and how much I needed her support in that moment.” A week before the broadcast, Hill and his then-girlfriend were invited to dinner with the show’s creator Lorne Michaels. “She was texting the whole time,” he says. “Lorne was talking to us and she couldn’t even pretend to give a shit about being there. It was just incredibly rude.” He forgave her, though, and to commemorate his hosting gig the two got matching moustache-shaped tattoos inked onto the inside of their index fingers.

More fighting followed and, during a run-through on the day of the show, she called to say she’d flown back to L.A. and was reuniting with her ex-boyfriend. “I was dressed for a sketch, which ended up getting cut, where I was meant to play a white Madea from the Tyler Perry movies,” he says. “During the 30-minute break between the dress rehearsal and the actual show she tells me she never wants to see me again. I immediately start crying and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I’m wearing a grandma muumuu and there’s mascara streaming down my face. It was the weirdest, saddest moment. Bill Hader and Andy Samberg came in and were like, ‘Get your shit together. You’re fucking awesome and you’re about to host SNL.’”

A bros-before-hoes outlook on love suits Hill, who, though currently single, would eventually like to settle down and have kids. Fame, however, has hindered his ability to meet women. “The idea of celebrity is incredibly seductive and it brings out the evil in people,” says Hill, who used to only date girls with whom he’d gone to high school “because I knew they liked me before I was successful.” He’s confessed to past threesomes and to bedding a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, but he admits, “It’s not sustainable in a way that will give you any real gratification. It won’t have kids with you because it’s just an idea.”

The idea of family has been weighing heavily on Hill, who just wrapped the filming of True Story throughout New York State. The movie is based on the twisty real-life relationship between Michael Finkel (Hill), a disgraced journalist who tarnished his name when he falsified information in a 2002 article about an Ivory Coast cocoa plantation laborer, and Christian Longo (James Franco), a onetime FBI Ten Most Wanted fugitive who, for years, lived outside the U.S. under Finkel’s name. “That was the most challenging time in my life, and it’s still so fresh,” says Hill, whose Finkel strikes an unlikely friendship with Longo. “Most of the movie is about my character losing everything he cares about and his obsession with a guy who killed his own wife and infant kids. I would start to get happy on set for a second, or think about something funny, and immediately feel guilty because these people died.” Things got so difficult for Hill while filming True Story that his mother flew out and sat with him on set every day. “She didn’t leave,” he says. “Marty told me that his mom would be on set all the time and cook for everybody, and that always resonated with me.”

“Marty” is, of course, legendary auteur Martin Scorsese, who directed Hill in the forthcoming The Wolf of Wall Street, another reality-rooted tale based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir about corporate greed in the gogo ’80s. The genesis of their relationship started in, of all places, Cancun. In April 2012, Hill flew to southeastern Mexico for Summer of Sony, the studio’s annual event to toast its successes and promote its upcoming projects. Hill used the occasion to announce that he’d begun writing the sequel to 21 Jump Street. While there, he also arranged a meeting with Quentin Tarantino, who cast him in a small part in his slavesploitation bonanza, Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Between drunken, late-night ocean dips with Tatum, Hill sat down with DiCaprio, who had already signed on to topline The Wolf of Wall Street, to discuss possibly collaborating on the project. Hill insisted that he was the right choice to play Donnie Azoff, an amoral and hedonistic entrepreneur inspired in part by Danny Porush, who was incarcerated in the ’90s for a $200-million “pump and dump’’ stock fraud. The role called for Hill to change his voice, appearance, and thought process—to totally disengage from his own solid moral code. “Even though it’s about excess, it’s really about the darkness of money and greed and drugs and power,” Hill says. “I knew that I was being considered among a list of other actors, but not my contemporaries—Andrew Garfield or Joseph Gordon-Levitt—people who are usually up for the same stuff as me. I was hearing names like George Clooney.” When Hill was done selling himself, DiCaprio said, “‘Now it’s up to Marty.’ And then we partied. And then Channing and I partied. It was a blast.”

Hill was in New Orleans shooting This Is the End when his agents phoned to tell him that Scorsese had agreed to meet him. “I said, I don’t want to meet him. I want to audition for him. I want to show him what I can do.” He flew to New York and told Scorsese what he told DiCaprio: “I’m meant to play this part. That’s just the way it is.” He read three scenes, one of them twice, and left without getting a single note from the director. “That walk home was the craziest walk of my life,” he says. “I was like, Fuck it. Even if I don’t get this, Scorsese called me in to meet with him and I didn’t pussy out.” Two weeks later, back in New Orleans, Hill received a call from a blocked number. “It was Leo,” Hill says. “‘Marty just called me,’ he said. ‘Let’s do this shit.’”

It’s taken some time, but Hill has finally achieved the regard he so desperately sought at the beginning of his career. He’s currently editing the script for a movie he’ll soon direct, about which he’ll only say, “It focuses on what it’s like to work in a field where immaturity is not only allowed, but also encouraged.” Hill, however, can still get pretty wild, especially around Tatum. “We bring out the crazy in each other. There’s almost like a one-upping of each other’s insanity,” he says. “But I’m no longer like, I don’t give a fuck! Let’s party! Where the molly at?”

Earlier in the week, Hill ate dinner at the Beatrice Inn in Manhattan’s West Village with SNL’s Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Seth Meyers. Once a storied, smoky den of debauchery for Olsen twins and deep-pocketed frat brothers, the Beatrice was shuttered a few years ago and recently reopened by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter as an upscale restaurant. “I used to have the greatest time there at the height of being single. I was like, I remember sitting at this very table, making out with a stranger, and now here I am, eating swordfish,” he says laughing. “It grew up as we grew up, I guess. I used to want to be an actor, then a dramatic actor, now a director. But more than anything—more than being a movie star who acts like a rock star—now I just want to be good.”

Photography by Naj Jamai.

 

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