Jonah Hill Crosses Creepy Characters With Comedy

Cyrus i i

Sparks fly between Molly (Marisa Tomei) and John (John C. Reilly, right) in Cyrus. But before John can win Molly's heart, he'll have to win over her jealous son (Jonah Hill). Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Cyrus

Sparks fly between Molly (Marisa Tomei) and John (John C. Reilly, right) in Cyrus. But before John can win Molly's heart, he'll have to win over her jealous son (Jonah Hill).

Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Jonah Hill has carefully crafted a reputation for playing memorable characters in not-quite-slapstick comedies.

From the creepy kid at the eBay store in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, to his role as Cyrus, the brooding, bottled-up son from hell, Hill makes awkward oddly compelling.

Hill says there are a lot of "uncomfortable elements" to Cyrus, both funny and heartbreaking. But ultimately, Hill tells NPR's Tony Cox, it's about three people — a mom, her boyfriend, and her son — "trying to find happiness."

Judd Apatow, who has directed Hill in several movies, including Knocked Up and Superbad, once offered Hill some advice that helps him keep a straight face through scenes with his often-hilarious costars. Apatow told him, "if you laugh during a take, you're destroying a moment that you can never get back."

Filming Superbad, Hill had every confidence in his castmates, whom he admired greatly. But he had no idea the movie would be so popular. "When you're making it you're just sort of enjoying it, and really focusing on making something unique, and then having it become a popular film is just icing on the cake." Now it's the movie he's most recognized for.

To put it in perspective, Hill offers this simple story: "Michael Cera and I would hang out every day — we're really good friends — and we'd walk around outside of my apartment... The Friday the movie came out, we couldn't really walk around together any longer. It was palpable, right off the bat."

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TONY COX, host:

Well, how's this for an impressive Hollywood resume: starring roles in "Superbad," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Funny People;" guest stints on "The Simpsons" and a lot more?

Actor and writer Jonah Hill has become a household name in the past few years. This summer, he's in two new movies, including "Get Him to the Greek." That popularity, however, didn't happen overnight. Jonah Hill's star began steadily rising after a slew of memorable quirky, sometimes creepy, always funny characters.

But in his latest film "Cyrus," Hill shows a dark side. He plays a bottled-up menace, the son from hell, terrorizing the life of his mom's new boyfriend, played by John C. Reilly.

(Soundbite of movie, "Cyrus")

Mr. JONAH HILL (Actor): (as Cyrus) Hi.

Mr. JOHN C. REILLY (Actor): (as John) Oh, hi. Hey, hi. Sorry. Oh, what am I doing?

Mr. HILL: (as Cyrus) It's okay.

Mr. REILLY: (as John) Hi.

Mr. HILL: (as Cyrus) Can I help you?

Mr. REILLY: (as John) I'm sorry. Is this - I think I have the wrong address, actually.

Mr. HILL: (as Cyrus) Oh, what address are you looking for?

Mr. REILLY: (as John) Is this - does Molly live here?

Mr. HILL: (as Cyrus) Yeah. Can I ask who is asking?

Mr. REILLY: (as John) Oh, I'm sorry. I'm John. I'm a friend of hers. I was in the neighborhood, and I was like, I think that's Molly's house. But I didn't want to ring the doorbell if it wasn't...

Mr. HILL: (as Cyrus) No, it is. I mean, you can definitely ring the doorbell. That's more conventional.

Mr. REILLY: (as John) Yeah.

Mr. HILL: (as Cyrus) But...

Mr. REILLY: (as John) It's just - whatever. I was shy. I was - well, I am - I'm a friend of hers. I'm sorry...

Mr. HILL: (as Cyrus) Oh. I'm Cyrus.

Mr. REILLY: (as John) Cyrus. Yeah.

Mr. HILL: (as Cyrus) Her son.

Mr. REILLY: (as John) Her son. Yeah, I know. Yeah.

Mr. HILL: (as Cyrus) Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: If you have questions for Jonah Hill about "Cyrus" or his career, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jonah Hill joins us now from Hollywood. The movie "Cyrus" is in theaters. Jonah, nice to talk to you.

Mr. HILL: You as well. How are you?

COX: I'm doing great. Man, I've got to tell you, that Cyrus character is really something. I would hate to encounter him, trying to date somebody - trying to date his mom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: But this is different for you, isn't it? "Cyrus," I mean.

Mr. HILL: Yeah, I would say so. Yeah, I think that's fair.

COX: Tell us how. How would you say it's different?

Mr. HILL: I guess I would just say, in my own words, I would say it's just something different than you're used to seeing me do. I think a lot of the - you know, if you know me from anything, you probably know me from movies like "Superbad" or "Get Him to the Greek," in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Knocked Up," which are all fantastic movies in my estimation, but they're definitely a little bit broader comedy, whereas "Cyrus" is a lot more in the vein, I'd say, of, you know, "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Sideways" or "Juno." I think it's far more grounded and somewhat dramatic as well, I guess.

COX: You know, you've got the deadpan look down pat. I mean, it's just -it's great to see it. Do you like this more? Is it more challenging? Or do you like the more slapstick-variety stuff?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILL: You know, I've been lucky to be in any movie, in my estimation. And I enjoy doing all sorts of different films. I'm really starting out my career still, so I'm just now starting to branch out with, you know, this movie "Cyrus," and I'm shooting a drama right now called "Moneyball." And so, you know, I'm starting to do different types of movies. And it's still very early, as far as, you know, these are my first two movies that are anything different than what I've previously done. So I think they're all great learning experiences and challenges in completely different ways.

COX: You know, from reading your biography, I understand you -Hollywood really sort of introduced itself to you in a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILL: I thought it was funny because it sounded like I had written a biography, an autobiography of like, "Inside of Me" or "The Man Inside," "The Man in the Clown Shoes," or something like that.

COX: That is so funny. I know that Dustin Hoffman was one of the people that was an early entree to the industry for you, yes?

Mr. HILL: Definitely, yeah. I mean, Dustin straight up discovered me. I would not be on this radio program with you if it wasn't for him.

COX: And I also understand that you met some guys who, when you were trying to get really get going after - I don't know if this was before or after the Dustin Hoffman experience - and they were like, yeah, yeah, but, you know, who are you? And then seven years later, they came back, and they really did know who you were by then because "Superbad" and a number of other successful films were already under your belt. What happened?

Mr. HILL: Yeah, that is absolutely correct. Oddly enough, Dustin's son, Jake, had made a short film that I acted in seven or eight years ago. And we went to a film festival called CineVegas, where it played. And another short film was in that competition, and I saw it, and I flipped out over it because it was so original and so unique. And it was called "Intervention," and it was directed by Mark and Jay Duplass. So I started asking them questions during the Q&A and said, if you guys ever want to do something together, I would love to. But you know, they kind of brushed it off, I think, slightly.

And I kept, over the years, following their career and their short films, and they eventually made a movie called "The Puffy Chair." And once again, I ran into them and said, I would love to work with you guys and they said, sure. And then finally, "Superbad" and some other movies had come out, like you said, and Mark and Jay finally had written a script called "Cyrus," and that's how I ended up in the movie "Cyrus." So, I've been fans of them for like, seven or eight years, and at the same time we were kind of simultaneously - you know, our careers were sort of taking off simultaneously.

COX: That's funny, you know, I'm sure you had to resist the temptation of saying, what's my name?

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: You know, the way they treated you the first time. Let's take a pause...

Mr. HILL: No. They weren't rude. They weren't rude. They just weren't jumping out of their chairs to make a film together.

COX: They were Hollywood. They were Hollywood, weren't they?

Mr. HILL: They are not Hollywood.

COX: Oh, they're not Hollywood? Okay.

Mr. HILL: No, not at all. They're pretty independent, re-routed.

COX: On the line with us from Cape Main, New Jersey, is Dan(ph). He has a question for you. Welcome, Dan.

DAN (Caller): Hi. Yeah. How are you doing?

COX: Fine. How are you?

DAN: I'm doing great. The question I have is, everything I've seen about "Cyrus" just seems like it's overwhelmingly awkward for the entirety of the movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAN: Is that something that you read in the script, going in, and thought, you know, that's clever, that's funny. Or was there something more to it than that?

COX: Thanks for that call. What about that?

Mr. HILL: Yeah. That's a good question. There is a lot of uncomfortable elements to the film, you know. Dating someone, you know - dating a woman with a son, the three of you in this household together is a very uncomfortable union, you know. I imagine it feels very crowded and uncomfortable. And you're getting to know this other adult man who's moving into your home and dating your mother. There is a lot of uncomfortable nature that comes along with that, a lot of it very funny -and a lot of it very heartbreaking and sad, you know. So yeah, being uncomfortable is part of the movie, but the whole thing isn't about being uncomfortable.

COX: You know...

Mr. HILL: It's about three people trying to figure out who they, you know, how to find happiness.

COX: There some uncomfortable moments. You're - he's right, you're right as well. Certainly, that scene when the character played by your mother, Marisa Tomei, the - Marisa Tomei's character, playing your mother, is in the shower, and you just sort of walk in there - and the look on John Reilly's face, its classic.

How about another phone call? This one is from San Francisco. This is Shannon(ph), Shannon, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SHANNON (Caller): Hi. Hi.

COX: Hi.

SHANNON: Thank you so much for having me on. I have a question. I guess I'm just curious, in all your films, at least your comedic films, it's seems like youre - kind of play that straight-man character. And to hold the poker face with some of the actors that you work with, it must be extremely difficult. I'm assuming, in most of those - just like Judd Apatow movies...

COX: Mm-hmm.

SHANNON: ...that it's just so, I mean, it's kind of - the comedy is so absurd. I'm just wondering how you hold that; if there's a technique or a skill that you use, or if you're just comfortable working with the other actors.

COX: Thanks, Shannon.

Mr. HILL: No. You know - yeah. Thanks, Shannon. That was an interesting question. I - oddly - see it slightly differently. I kind of felt like "Get Him to the Greek" was really the first time had played the straight man, quote-unquote, because I felt like "Superbad" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Knocked Up" were very eccentric, odd characters, I would say. And "Get Him to the Greek" was sort of like the most average-Joe type character, I guess you could say, Ive played.

As far as keeping a straight face, that is very difficult because you're -clearly - working with people that are hysterical. So - Judd Apatow once said something to me that always resonates with me when I'm shooting, which is, if you laugh during a take, you're destroying a moment that you can never get back. So you know, you're taking a moment that was unique and original to that circumstance, and you'll never be able to re-create that the way you did spontaneously the first time.

COX: That's interesting.

Mr. HILL: So that always resonated with me, but I just honestly try and be real, and try and be the character that I'm playing. So if someone says something funny, it's okay to laugh in certain circumstances. And if you're not supposed to be laughing, you just have to really try your hardest to keep a straight face.

COX: Well, you know, Jonah Hill, you mentioned "Superbad," and that was one of your first big, leading roles. You played Seth, the man on a mission to a party and get the popular girl, of course. Now, we have a clip here of your character - who was trying, shall we say, a bit too hard to impress the lucky lady.

(Soundbite of movie, "Superbad")

Ms. EMMA STONE (Actress): (as Jules) Seth, hi. There you are. We were just talking about you.

Mr. HILL: (as Seth) Here I am.

Ms. STONE: (as Jules) That's weird. So, you're coming to my party tonight, right?

Mr. MICHAEL CERA (Actor): (as Evan) 'Cause it's like, fully on.

Mr. HILL: (as Seth) Yeah. Why, should I not come? Cause I could...

Ms. STONE: (as Jules) No. I want you to come. I just - you said something earlier about like a fake ID or something, right?

Mr. HILL: (as Seth) Yeah, I'm gonna get one, fo sho, fo sho. I'm getting that, fo sho.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Fo sho, John - Jonah Hill. Talk about that movie, how it catapulted you in terms of your career goals, and talk a little bit about Seth Rogen - because I guess this is a script that he wrote and, you know, you and him have this sort of synergy going a little bit, don't you?

Mr. HILL: Yeah, well, you know, even listening to that clip is very nostalgic and interesting. I think it's strange to make a film that ends up becoming really popular because when you're making it, you're with people that you believe in and people that you like spending time around. And in the case of "Superbad," we just all really liked each other, and really thought what we were doing was unique and original, so we didn't expect much of it in regards to success, you know what I'm saying?

COX: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HILL: So when you're making it, you're just sort of enjoying it and really focusing on making something unique. And then having it become a popular film is just sort of icing on the cake. And then now having it - lasted a few years after it's been out, and having people quote it and so forth and, you know, it's clearly what I'm most recognized for, you know, at least what I find from walking down the street and so forth. It's just interesting. It's a unique experience that I can't really describe except - you know, Michael Cera and I would hang out every day. We're really good friends. And we'd walk around outside of my apartment and then we remember the - I - we talk about it. The Friday the movie came out, we couldn't really walk around together any longer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILL: You know, it was...

COX: Yeah.

Mr. HILL: ...it was very palpable, right off the bat. You could see that this film - and people are responding to it. So, you know, everyone involved - Greg Mottola, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who wrote this film - a lot about what was going on in their youth, and Mike Cera and Judd Apatow and Bill Hader and Shauna Robertson, who was one of the producers - everyone involved, really - it was like a giant family. And the expectations were so low about that little film. You know, in Hollywood scale, that's a very small studio film. And all the extras thought we were making like, a straight-to-DVD movie because they didn't know who Michael and I were as the -

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILL: ...and Chris Mintz-Plasse, of course. And you know, so it is a really special film to look back on. And even hearing that clip, I kind of half get nostalgic and half cringe because I'm a young guy and a young actor, so I feel like, you've kind of grown since then, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILL: ...and you...

COX: Well, everybody has to start somewhere - right, Jonah?

Mr. HILL: Oh, no. No, I love the movie.

COX: Okay.

Mr. HILL: I'm saying I cringe at myself, like my voice and how I play certain scenes because, you know, it's like having your school plays be a really popular movie...

COX: I feel you.

Mr. HILL: ...if that makes any sense.

COX: Absolutely.

Mr. HILL: So you can kind of look at the awkward phase of your life...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILL: ...and have it be remembered in film history forever.

COX: Absolutely. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

All right. If you're up for it, Jonah, were going to sneak in another phone call. You ready?

Mr. HILL: Sure.

COX: All right. Here. Here it is. This is Darren(ph) from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hello, Darren. You're on TALK OF THE NATION with Jonah Hill.

DARREN (Caller): Oh, how are you guys doing? Thanks for taking my call.

COX: You're welcome.

DARREN: I just want to say I appreciate your work, Jonah. Excellent actor.

Mr. HILL: Thank you.

DARREN: I just had a couple of quick questions. How do you take on a script? I mean, what do you do to choose a script? And how do you get into character for each role?

COX: All right, Darren. Thank you very much.

Mr. HILL: Yeah, Darren, thanks. As far as choosing scripts, I probably agonize over these decisions more than any person who's lucky enough to be in movies does. I really feel a responsibility because I feel so lucky to be in films, and because I feel like making movies is an absolute privilege - and not a right - for anybody.

I really agonize over these decisions because I really would hate for the people that would actually go pay good money to see me in a film be let down by what they're seeing. So I really think about what my own taste is, mixed with: Is this of the quality that I could look back on 80 years from now, and be really proud of? So I really put a lot of thought in - I would say agonize over those decisions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILL: And as far as getting into character, I use - I tend to use music a lot to get into character. I make playlists and CDs for each character of music they would like. I just try and think about what their lives have been like up to the point that I'm playing them. And certain things - sometimes, I'll videotape myself if I have specific memories that I think that this person would have, or specific instances that took place; sometimes, I'll videotape myself talking about that memory and watching it over again. And I like doing stuff like that. I like having sort of like a diary, a video diary for each character.

COX: Interesting. You know, this has been a great conversation, Jonah Hill. Unfortunately, our time is up. But before we go, I have to ask you really quickly, and get a brief answer from you.

Mr. HILL: Mm-hmm.

COX: I know that you're reviving "21 Jump Street." Are you going to be the character played by Johnny Depp?

Mr. HILL: No, I'm not going to be the character played by Johnny Depp.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILL: That seems to be a frequently asked question. I think it'd be hilarious if I became successful and immediately decided I was just going to play every, like, Johnny Depp role.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: That would be pretty funny.

Mr. HILL: And I'm going to be doing - I'm going to be rebooting "Pirates of the Caribbean" and playing Captain Jack.

COX: Okay.

Mr. HILL: No. Actually, "21 Jump Street," I was approached to...

COX: The music comes on.

Mr. HILL: Oh, is it coming on?

COX:Unfortunately.

Mr. HILL: Okay. "21 Jump Street" is going to be great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILL: I'm not playing Johnny Depp, so...

COX: All right.

Mr. HILL: The film is just about young-looking cops that go back to high school.

COX: We appreciate it. Jonah Hill is an actor and writer. His latest film is "Cyrus," which is in theaters now. He joined us from Hollywood. Good luck to you, Jonah.

Mr. HILL: Yeah, farewell. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

COX: Thank you.

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