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Exclusive Interview: Jonah Hill for "Funny People"

By Paul Fischer Friday July 31st 2009 08:17PM
Jonah Hill for "Funny People"

Jonah Hill has come a long way since we first met when he was an unknown appearing in "Accepted". These days he is a movie star, writer and producer and having the time of his life.

In this exclusive interview with PAUL FISCHER, Hill talks about "Funny People," "The Adventurer’s Handbook" and for the first time, the new "21 Jump Street" movie.

Question: How surprised are you at what has happened, from the point where we first met to this point?

Hill: I don’t think I ever could have imagined what has happened, that that would happen. But I saw it happen to enough friends, oddly-- like Seth, and Michael. Well, Michael and I were at the same time, basically. But – Michael Cera. Jason, and I never could have dreamed it would turn out this way, but I definitely knew that if I worked hard, at some point something great would happen. You know? Whether – I never knew that it would be on this level, or that all my friends would get to do it together, and how lucky I would be, you know? But I knew that from people I would talk to and ask advice from, that if you work really – it’s all about just working hard. Maybe I’d become a writer on The Simpsons, or maybe – a writer on SNL. Like, or maybe I’d write a film one day. And I knew that writing was the key to all of it. And if I worked hard enough, something good would happen. And I just can't imagine myself any luckier, how it actually turned out, you know?

Question: So, are you surprised that it’s performing that you’re known for now? I mean, I know you’ve written Adventurer’s Handbook, and so on.

Hill: Of course. Yeah, yeah. No, and – I mean, no one knows that I’m a writer or producer or anything like that. And that’s completely okay with me. You know? I mean, I honestly just feel grateful. I mean, that’s the only emotion I can kind of put out there, is gratitude. Because I just never thought that it would end up to this extent, you know? All I wanted to do was get to make movies that I enjoy. And that – to make films that I would want to see. And I’ve been lucky enough to be getting that opportunity, and I never in my wildest dreams realized it would become this way, you know?

Question: Funny People is a movie that deals with struggle, and success and failure. Could you identify with the themes of this film when you read Judd’s script?

Hill: Yeah, I mean, first of all, I thought Judd’s script was beautiful. When I read it, I immediately – he called me a year before or something, and was like, “I’m going to make a movie, and I want you to be in it.” And I was like, “Thanks.” And then he sent me the script, and we discussed it a bunch before then, and I’d given input about things. And when I read it, the thing I connected with the most was – that really hit me emotionally, was – how far will you go to become successful? And, how much of yourself will you give up? How much of your integrity and morals will you give up to just – you know, at what point do you stop being a great person, and start just worrying about success? And that really hit me. Because since all of this insanity has happened, I’ve watched my friends and I – you get confronted with that. You know? I could spend – I’m lucky, right now. At least for the next year or so. You know, that could all go away at any moment. But right now, if I wanted to, I could spend 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, working, and not focused on my family and my friends, and being a good person.

Question: How do you avoid that?

Hill: You have to balance. You just have to – at a certain point, you can't say yes to everything. You can't – at a certain point, I have to make decisions that might hurt my career, to go be with my family or my friends. Or if they need me, and I want to be with them, and – you know, you just – I’m so lucky for where I am. And most importantly, you realize – because all this will go away, or hopefully won't. But if it does, that your family and your friends are the only people that actually matter. Because if this all does go away, no one stops you on the street tomorrow or – you know, cares that you exist, the people that you love and – and care about, will. You know? So, that’s what I really connected with, when – I got sad when I read the script, watching how Adam’s character kind of let his personal life dissolve, and the only really – thing he had, was his success. You know? And that’s so sad to me. Like, I have a really close family, and really close group of friends. And the thought of that really connected with me emotionally. And it was like, “Wow. I need to, like, really concentrate on balancing all of this appropriately.”

Question: Were you gratified when you did the stand-up material in this movie, that this is not what you have to do to sustain a living anymore?

Hill: Yes. I felt even luckier. I mean, most things remind me of how lucky I am. I know I say it a lot, but most things remind me – you know, Seth and Adam and I would sit backstage, and go, like – be nervous, and waiting to go on. And then we’d go, “Oh, my gosh. Like, at the end of the day, we never have to do this again after this film.” Because first of all, it’s a completely different skill set, in my mind. You know? You watch people like Louis C.K. go up, and you’re like, “Wow. This man is a professional stand-up comedian. He is the Michael Jordan, or – you know, he’s a professional at what he does.” And we make movies, you know? So, it’s just – it’s just a different skill set. Adam and Seth happen to cross over and be able to do both remarkably well. But – you know, that’s why the greatest stand-up might be in a movie, and might not be good in the movie, even though he’s hilarious, and a wonderful stand-up, and vice versa. So, I just felt fortunate that things were going well enough where I didn't have to be on the road doing stand-up all the time. And I’m not good enough, I don't think, to even do that. So, you know. But I think for the movie, I was proud that the few moments I had doing stand-up in the movie felt authentic.

Question: The success that you’ve had, in a relatively short period of time, I guess, has enabled you now to adapt a book and make your own movie. How daunting has that process been?

Hill: It’s been amazing. I honestly enjoy it so much. I wrote it with two of my best friends, Max Winkler and Matt Spicer. We’ve been working on it for three years. Before we sold it, we’d been working on it for, like, two and a half years, or two years. And – you know, it’s been wonderful. You know, they come to – when I’m shooting a movie, we write in the trailer. So the second I’m done shooting a scene, we write in the trailer. And we just work incredibly hard, and it’s really gratifying that someone wants to turn it into a film, you know? And the people we wrote it for said yes, and the director we wanted to direct it said yes, and the studio we wanted to make it with bought it, and want to make it. And it’s just – it is really the fruition of my dream. It really is. Whether it’s terrible or great, it’s at least my terrible or great movie.

Question: Well, writing an original screenplay and adapting a book are two completely different skill sets.

Hill: Well, this one – we didn't take the story from the book. The book was just –

Question: Like, a blueprint?

Hill: The book – The Adventurer’s Handbook, the actual book, is just like – what the happens if you get eaten by a snake? Like, how do you survive? And then we created our own story.

Question: What can you tell me about that story?

Hill: The story – the way I would say it to you is basically, it’s about four best friends who get thrust into an adventure.

Question: So it’s like, a Stand By Me.

Hill: Right. And Stand By Me was a huge influence on it. But basically, the main kernel came from – when we would watch Indiana Jones, or Goonies, or all these adventure movies we loved, especially growing up – these people always seemed to be suited for it. Or, somehow they were good at it. But we thought it would be interesting – what would I do if I was in that situation? I would not be good at it. I’m not suited for it at all. And neither would Schwartzman or Segal. So we created these characters based on people we knew from our lives, and from all these different ideas that we had. And we wanted to make a movie that, what if four normal people were in Indiana Jones? Or – you know, what if four people that have no experience in this, and no adventurous qualities about them. And it’s very realistic, and we’re really proud of it. I honestly could not be more proud of something.

Question: But it is a comedy.

Hill: Yes, it’s an adventure comedy.

Question: And you’re in it, too, right?

Hill: Yes.

Question: Are you one of the four best friends?

Hill: Yes. We’ve only cast three of the four, which are myself, Jason Segal, and Jason Schwartzman.

Question: You don’t have the fourth one yet.

Hill: And now we’re figuring out who the fourth person’s going to to be.

Question: And when do you think you’ll begin production?

Hill: April of next year.

Question: So it’ll be, like, a summer movie the –

Hill: The following year. Hopefully.

Question: Wow.

Hill: It’s pretty exciting, honestly. And I’m working on 21 Jump Street, also.

Question: Are you the Johnny Depp role in that?

Hill: No. There is no – like, it’s not like we’re basing them on the actual people. I’m not Johnny Depp, as – but I read an interview recently that Johnny said he wanted to do the cameo that we had written for him, on MTV.

Question: Oh, cool. Is it a parody?

Hill: No, it’s not like a spoof movie or a parody. It’s just – what I connected with is, they – Sony asked me if I would be interested in adapting it for them. And I thought, like, “Why are they asking me? Why?” It really didn't make much sense to me. Then I watched all the shows, and what I really connected with was the second chance. The chance of going to high school again. And it was almost like that Back to the Future of like, what if you could re-live your high school years? You know, what would you end up doing? And – basically, the story is about two cops who get reassigned to this unit that infiltrates drug dealers in high schools, because they look young and are able to fit in in high school, and go undercover. The way I describe it is, it’s not a parody at all. It’s – the way I thought of it and pitched it was sort of Bad Boys meets a John Hughes movie. So it’s like, a really authentic high school movie, with really great action.

Question: Are you using some of your own comedic sensibilities to it?

Hill: Yeah. It’s very – I mean, it’s a comedy as well, you know? But Bad Boys, I look at as an action comedy, you know? And John Hughes movies are really funny to me, and poignant. So, the goal would be to make a really great high school movie, and a really great action movie, and smash them together.

Question: How close are you at finishing that?

Hill: We’re going to hire a director. That’s our next step.

Question: Are you producing on this?

Hill: I’m executive producer, yeah and on Adventurer’s Handbook.

Question: How old are you now?

Hill: Twenty-five. Yeah. I’m trying. I’m working hard.

Question: So, you’re going to be a studio mogul very soon.

Hill: My first movie I produced, was associate producer on, was the Bruno movie that just came out.

Question: How did you get involved in Bruno?

Hill: Well, Seth and Evan had worked for Sascha on Da Ali G show. And then he was looking for a new writer, and – for Bruno. And I heard that he was looking for a new writer, and he was a fan of Superbad, and I had met him and he was wonderful. And so I basically begged him for the job. [LAUGHTER] And I came in and auditioned for three weeks to get the job, and finally I get it.

Question: How hard is it, writing for a mockumentary like that?

Hill: I honestly just worship the guy, you know? I mean, any time he said a joke that I had written, I can't describe the smile that came to my face, you know? Him and Judd, I really looked at as the two people who taught me how to write. And Seth and Evan, as well. You know, really let 'em into their worlds, and I had to work hard, but they allowed me to learn from them. I’ll be forever grateful for that.

Question: Where did the comedy come from within you when you were growing up? What was the spark?

Hill: Honestly, I would say it was from some traumatic experience, or I wish I had a better answer, but from the second anyone had any memories of me, I – I would make jokes.

Question: I don't know, maybe it was something in another life or something. But I had no – I had a wonderful family. I love my – I’m really close with my family and friends. And people have been relatively nice to me. Teachers never liked me that much, but – but – you know, I asked my parents. I’m like, “Did something happen? Is there some, like, dark memory I can't think of?” And they’re like, “Honestly, from the second you could talk or move, you were just funny. You just wanted to be funny.”

Question: Was it a way of being accepted?

Hill: Maybe, deep down. But, I mean, I’ve had the same friends since I was young. And I’ve always dated girls that I’ve gone to high school with, or elementary school, you know? It’s not like I was ever a stud or anything. But I definitely like – always – it wasn’t like girls wouldn't talk to me, or anything like that, you know? And it was – I had a relatively – not a super-painful childhood. And I’m really grateful for that. But I guess it must have come from – maybe in the womb, or something, I was treated poorly, or something. But – my parents said, from the first memory they have of me, I did something and they laughed. And they said, from that – they just saw my face, and like – from that moment on, I just – I love the idea of, like, making the people around me happy, because I’m only around people that I really care about.

Question: Now, apart from the movies that you’re producing and writing, is there anything just acting-wise that you’re circling?

Hill: I did this movie with the DuPlasse Brothers, who come from an independent film background, with John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei, that I did a week after Funny People wrapped. And it’s kind of like, my first – it’s almost in the tone of, like, Little Miss Sunshine, I’d say. More than than our other movies.

Question: A dark comedy.

Hill: Yeah. it’s my most dramatic performance to date, and I’m really excited for people to see it.

Question: Working with Marisa Tomei is not bad, either.

Hill: And John, yeah. I mean, those are two of the most respected actors there are, really. And I absolutely loved the experience, and I loved the directors, and –

Question: Did it give you an inkling for maybe doing more drama?

Hill: Yeah, I mean, it was – I’d say 90 percent a dramatic role. The character was really messed up. And I loved it, you know? I loved it. And I didn't do it just to do it. I’m not one of – I don’t want to do something like, “I have to prove myself as a dramatic actor.” Because I don’t give a shit what people think about me. I just want to do movies that I think are going to be good. And I read the script, and the script was so good that I was just like, “I would love to do this movie.” I would never do something just because it was dramatic, you know? That’s a mistake. It’s like – I’m not desperate for people to see me in a different light. I like the light that I’m seen in. So it’s like – I did it because I thought it was wonderful. And if another script was great that was dramatic or comedic, I would do. You know?

Question: And when do we see you direct?

Hill: I wrote a movie that I’m going to direct, I think in – either next year, or the year after.

Question: So, you wrote another movie.

Hill: Yeah.

Question: Do you have time for these friends and family?

Hill: [LAUGHTER] Well, I write with my friends. That’s how I do it. We sit – they come to work, and when I’m done shooting, I immediately write. I just try and – I’m so lucky to be in this position, and I know it could go away at any second, that I want to work so hard that no one could ever say that he blew this opportunity, you know?

Question: What’s the movie that you’ve written that you’re going to direct?

Hill: It’s called Is This It? It’s a very small movie. If I was going to direct – because people know you from other things, I would want it to be so small, that if it was terrible, that you couldn't get heat for it. It’s just, the guy directed a small movie and it didn't work, or it was great. You know?

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