Jonah Hill is everywhere.
He showed up on the MTV Video Music Awards, bantering and handing out a statue with Niki Minaj. He then took the stage at ESPN’s ESPY Awards, where he was dwarfed by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ power forward Kevin Love.
Hill’s picture has been snapped at the Toronto Film Festival for the world premiere of his new film Moneyball, getting into theaters now. Also at your local multiplex: the trailer for The Sitter, a December release in which he plays a college student unprepared for watching his neighbor’s three wild kids.
Meanwhile, the animated hit Megamind, featuring Hill’s voice, has been popular on home video over the past few months; on TV in October comes Allen Gregory, an animated comedy for Fox about a seven-year-old genius forced into attending regular school. Hill co-created the series, for which he provides the lead character’s voice.
That’s not even mentioning the various projects on the not-so distant horizon.
He’s managed to make time to get to a Philadelphia hotel suite, albeit for a brief stop. The purpose is to discuss Moneyball, but, really, how can you ignore everything else, all the work—and all the weight the slimmed down- actor has lost?
So, let’s get those 40 or 50 shorn pounds out the way first, OK?
Why the dramatic transition?
“I just decided to be healthier one day,” says the 28-year old actor, matter-of-factly. “I made a phone call to a nutritionist and take the weight seriously. I don’t have an exceptional story, like I found an ancient book at a bus stop. It’s not an easy endeavor but it’s an important one.”
This is just one of the dramatic events—both personal and career-oriented in nature—that Hill has experienced over the last year. Another is a co-starring role in the high-profile Moneyball, the much-anticipated adaptation of Michael Lewis’ acclaimed baseball business book.
The book (subtitled “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”) and film focuses on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the once-highly touted baseball prospect who rose to general manager of the Oakland Athletics. After losing to the well-heeled New York Yankees in the 2001 playoffs, Beane and his small-market A’s find themselves in dire straits, with three key players going to other cities in free agency and the team struggling with one of the lowest payrolls in the game.
Beane recruits Peter Brand (Hill), a lowly assistant with the Cleveland Indians, to help him figure out how to replenish his team with cheaper players who can replace the production of the departing All-Stars. The new, statistics-crunching system they devise puts them at odds with the team’s veteran officials and old school scouts, as well as cantankerous manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Despite praise and healthy sales, the book was not the most obvious candidate to become a film, because of its focus on business practices and statistics. Still, Hollywood spent years in the pursuit of turning it into one, with co-producer Pitt attached as lead. Steven Soderbergh had planned a mix of dramatization, interviews and real game footage, but that plan eventually fell through. Director Bennett Miller (Capote) ultimately picked up the bobbled Moneyball, aided with a script penned by Oscar winners Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network). Hill was brought on to replace the originally-cast Demetri Martin.
Hill, a baseball fan, had already read the book when he was tapped to take the part of Brand, a fictional role based on a composite of different people. Unlike others, including studio executives initially nervous about Moneyball’s commercial prospects, he never had a problem seeing the source material transformed into a movie.
“I saw the story of my character clearly from the book,” says Hill, dressed in jeans and a Navy sports jacket. “I saw my character as someone who never had the light shined on him before. Then, somebody said, ‘You’re valuable and your ideas are valuable. And I am going to give you the power to do something really great.’”
Making Moneyball was a departure for Hill, who has been associated mostly with comedy—often improvisational—with the Judd Apatow crew. “I was preparing to play someone with specific skills, and I had never played anyone with any skills before,” Hill explains, chuckling. “I had to get a statistics tutor and learn an incredible amount about baseball and what the culture was like in it. I did a lot of research and put a lot of heart and soul into it and tried to create a character that I thought would serve the story well.”
Hill related to the character Peter Brand in several ways. “My character is partially based on Paul DePodesta, who worked with Billy (Beane) and went to Harvard,” says Hill. “He was a genius at statistics. He could have been on Wall Street. He didn’t have to be living in a crappy apartment and doing a low-level job. He could have been a billionaire. He said that ‘a lot of my friends are doing that, but I wouldn’t be happy because I love baseball.’
“That was my real connection to this part. I love movies. I don’t know if I could do anything else. My heart probably wouldn’t allow it.”
Hill said he also connected to Brand because of the opportunity the film offered in terms of proving himself. “I’ve been lucky enough to have this happen to me four times, and without that, I don’t know where I’d be,” relates Hill, who grew up in the Los Angeles area and studied acting at The New School in New York.
The actor, who recently directed his first music video for Sara Bareilles, ran down the list of people who really impacted his career, giving him much-needed breaks in the business.
“Dustin Hoffman told me I should be an actor, and helped me get an audition for I Heart Huckabees (his first film), and I had a couple of lines. He was my first Billy Beane.”
Hill labels “the second Billy Beane” Judd Apatow, the man who cast him in SuperBad, Get Him to the Greek, Walk Proud: The Dewey Cox Story, Funny People and The 40 Year-Old Virgin.
“My third (Billy Beane) was the Duplass Brothers,” adds Hill referring to the filmmaking siblings who cast the actor opposite John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei in the edgy, offbeat Cyrus, which Hill considers his first drama.
“And the fourth was Brad (Pitt) and Bennett (director Miller) who gave me this opportunity,” explains Hill, relating to Moneyball.
At first, Hill was a little uncomfortable with Moneyball because of all the “A” List names involved.
“It was incredibly intimidating from going from my first big drama (Cyrus) to a movie with Brad Pitt,” recalls Hill. “But I had to get over that, because I was given this great opportunity—because I had to prove myself in this arena. I could either let my nerves get the best of me or I could say, ‘You know, they believed in me, don’t let them down, just do a great job.’
“What’s so funny now is that I feel the same way I did when I was promoting Superbad four years ago. When I made Superbad, I was introducing myself to the world. I was saying, ‘Hey, I’m Jonah. I am in this comedy movie, I’d like to make more comedy movies and you will accept me.’ Now, my making a comedy is expected. Now, here I say, ‘I am Jonah. I am in this different kind of movie. It’s a drama. Please accept me.’ I am doing the same thing—it’s a reintroduction in a way. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.”
On the set of Moneyball, Hill has to adjust to Hoffman’s acting style in particular. “Phil’s character hated Brad’s character and my character. And Phil is just such a phenomenal actor that sometimes it wasn’t fun to do the scenes with him, because it felt like he was mad at you. At times I would have to check with him to make sure he really wasn’t.”
Hill’s inspiration for getting into show business was watching The Simpsons on TV when he was a kid. He told his parents he wanted to live in Springfield where The Simpsons lived. When his parents told him that wasn’t realistic, he told them “I want to write what Homer says.”
Asks Hill: “How many six-year-olds wanted to be a prime-time animated sitcom writer, not a fireman or whatever?”
Then, when Hill was older, he saw Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mobster classic GoodFellas. It was Joe Pesci’s volcanic Oscar-winning supporting performance as Tommy DeVito that led him to consider acting. Later, Hill was impressed with Midnight Cowboy and Groundhog Day and considers Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray, the films’ respective leading actors, his idols.
“Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman are my heroes,” claims Hill, whose father was a tour accountant for the rock group Guns N’ Roses. “Those are the two people I look up to the most, because they can do comedy and drama seamlessly. You don’t balk when you hear Bill Murray is in a comedy or drama. You accept they are going to be great. I will never hold a candle to either of those guys, but those are the people I hold in the highest esteem.”
In addition to the aforementioned projects, Hill is making a “Ghostbusters-type comedy” called Neighborhood Watch with Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn which will be in theaters next summer, and is contributing his voice to How to Train your Dragon 2. He’s also taken a cue from his formative years when he wanted to be a TV writer, co-scripting and co-starring in a big screen version of the late 1980s-early 1990s Fox series 21 Jump Street, slated for theaters in March of 2012.
The 21 Jump Street project, he explains, has been in the works for five years, since he was handed a DVD boxed set of the TV show that starred Johnny Depp and others as young-looking cops going undercover to stop crimes committed by teens.
“When they asked me to adapt it, I told them ‘I think you are talking to the wrong guy,’” says Hill, whose dream acting project is to play Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. “Somebody who looks at an old TV show and wants to make it into a film is not for me necessarily. But I watched it and the movie isn’t a spoof on the 80s.
“I did like the side of young-looking cops going back to high school. This is something that made me want to make the movie and push forward for the next five years. If you were 25 years old and someone said you can go back to high school, you would say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing! I know all the answers.’ Then you would lasso back all the insecurities you had when you were 15, 16 or 17 years old, and that idea I found really funny and honest and raw.
“And that’s been the main train driving it through. It’s a really funny action comedy—John Hughes meets Bad Boys. It will be R-rated.”
But 21 Jump Street, which also features Channing Tatum, Elle Kemper and Ice Cube, is slated for theatrical delivery next March. Warming up in the bullpen right now, however, is Moneyball, which Hill sees as more than a baseball movie.
“I’ve shown the movie to tons of movie fans that are not baseball fans or sports fans at all,” says Hill. “They adore the movie. The filmmakers use baseball as a beautiful, aesthetic backdrop to the story that is really moving. It’s about underdogs and being undervalued. That’s it.”
Batter up! Here’s Irv’s review of the film: