Jonah Hill charms audiences and muggers

The baseball movie "Moneyball" featured Jonah Hill playing a  different sort of role from those in his earlier films -- and he took no small pleasure in exceeding some Hollywood insiders' expectations.   Michelle Miller sat him down for a few Questions-&-Answers:

As both sidekick and star, Jonah Hill has earned laughs for his comedic timing, in "Superbad" -- and Oscar kudos for his serious chops, in "Moneyball."

In his latest film, "The Wolf of Wall Street," out on Christmas, Hill finds himself a sidekick of a different sort: a partner in crime in a story about a real-life Long Island brokerage firm that defrauded stockholders of millions. 

"It's a rise and fall film," Hill told Miller. "You see the repercussions for excess and treating people badly."

Hill is Donnie Azoff, the first employee of stock swindler Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

DONNIE AZOFF (Hill): "How much money you make?"
JORDAN BELFORT (diCaprio): "$72,000 last month."
AZOFF: "You show me a pay stub for $72,000 on it, I quit my job right now and I work for you."

Hill called the character "invasive": "Goes up to Jordan, basically demands that he's going to work with him. I think a lot of the movie's about that kind of persuasiveness and that kind of -- refusing to take no for an answer is really what these guys did.  And they use that for evil instead of good, you know?"

It’s a characteristic theme for the film’s legendary director Martin Scorsese, one of Hill’s idols.

 "He'd be giving me direction and I would step outside of myself for a minute, I'd be like, 'Whoa, okay, so Martin Scorsese's giving me direction right now.  I'm acting for him. This is insane.'"

For Hill, it’s the latest lucky turn in a life that began 30 years ago in California. Growing up, his father was an accountant for the rock band Guns N' Roses, but he didn’t take his work home with him.

"It wasn't like I was going to Guns N' Roses concerts when I was four years old or anything," Hill laughed. "And it's not like Axl Rose is like, 'Oh, I'm gonna go party with my accountant tonight!' My dad's, like, an accountant, you know? He's a great, wonderful guy. My mom is more eccentric, I would say, and more artsy. I think that's a really cool balance to have between my parents.

Miller asked Hill if he was a funny kid.

"Yeah, I think I was funny.  You'd have to ask everyone else around me," he laughed. "I tried to be, you know?  It's been an interesting thing that has gotten me into trouble, and out of trouble.

"One time, my friends and I were getting mugged in high school.  There were these kind of gangbanger guys and they were mugging us. I just started making jokes about how uncomfortable being mugged is. Like, 'You see it on TV, but it's actually quieter and more uncomfortable and just more bizarre than you'd imagine it to be.'  And the guy started laughing, and then they eventually gave us our stuff back and just left, you know?" 

The teen who charmed a mugger had no qualms about moving to New York City to write and attend college.  At the Black & White Bar in the East Village, Hill read his own works.

"When I performed, it was the first time that people were like, 'Oh, you should keep doing this.'" An actor was born.

But it was a more established actor, Dustin Hoffman, the father of a high school friend, who gave him a break.

"Dustin ended up being the person who got me my first audition and encouraged me to take it seriously, to try and do it," Hill said.

A small role in "I Heart Huckabees" led to another one in the hit comedy, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" -- and to a friendship and collaboration with the film’s director and writer.

"Judd Apatow created this amazing thing where he would find young people with young voices that had some talent but didn't have a lot of formal training or education in making films.  It was like a film school basically."

Hill has appeared in a string of movies produced by Apatow -- comedies known for their raunch and heart, including a starring turn in the coming-of-age classic, "Superbad."

"It really felt new and different and, like, you hadn't seen anything that explicit and that honest about these two kids' stories," Hill said.

But could the actor who aced a high school role graduate?  Hill says that when he was cast opposite Brad Pitt in the baseball drama, "Moneyball," he knew he’d face some doubters in the stadium.

"You sit there and go, okay, everyone's saying like you're not gonna be good in this movie or you don't deserve to be in this movie.  And then you get to say, 'Hey, well, here's what I did.  Why don't you just look at it instead of having all these expectations before you walk in, you know?'"

Under-promise, over-deliver?

"Yeah, yeah, that's true!" he laughed.

The film earned him an Oscar nomination (he took his mom to the ceremony), and the right, he says, to have fun with people’s expectations.

Which is why he signed on to a movie adaptation of the '80s TV series, "21 Jump Street."

"I said, 'Well, you know what?  People are gonna think this movie is gonna be the worst movie ever.  So if it's a decent movie, I'm gonna look really smart,'" he laughed.

It was more than a "decent" movie -- "21 Jump Street" was a hit.

Miller caught up with Hill in Puerto Rico working on its sequel, "22 Jump Street."  Like the last one, Hill has roles on both sides of the camera, also writing and producing. 

"It's kind of on me, in a lot of ways, if it fails," he said, "so you have to elevate to do the best work you can." 

Hill turned 30 on Friday, and he says his next move is to hit the pause button. The man with a lot of options is taking his time to consider them. 

"I think what's interesting about right now is that it's the first time I've decided I don't have a next job," he said. "The unknown is kind of really exciting to me at this point."

"So not a worry in the air?" asked Miller.

"'Not a worry?' Oh, I worry about everything constantly. I just meant I don't have a job. And that's okay, yeah."


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