Variety Creative Impact Award in Acting: Jonah Hill

Hanging out in the "Wolf" den with Scorsese and DiCaprio

Jonah Hill
Jim Spellman/WireImage

For Jonah Hill, the most daunting challenge of his role in Martin Scorsese’s financial depravity epic “The Wolf of Wall Street” wasn’t getting the part. “Leonardo DiCaprio basically co-signed for me,” Hill says of his co-star, who persuaded Scorsese to cast Hill after he enthused about the part during a chance meeting in Mexico.

Nor was it the long six-month shoot with an exacting director, during which time Hill, Variety’s Creative Impact in Acting honoree, crafted a skin-crawling portrait of an obsequious, drugged-out stock market malefactor based on convicted fraudster Danny Porush.

No, the hardest part was simply making small talk on set with a director Hill calls “my favorite artist, of any form.”

“The initial rehearsals were about a month before we started shooting, and it was just Scorsese, Leo and myself. They were making their fifth film together, and had such a close, connected process, whereas I couldn’t believe I was there.

“But I was more socially scared. Because it’s one thing to talk about the movie or the character; Scorsese is so brilliant with actors that he doesn’t make it feel weird working with him. But what was more intimidating was when we were just eating lunch for the first couple of weeks, those moments when you weren’t talking about a scene. It was like, ‘what can I say that would possibly be interesting to this person?’ ”

Hill kept the conversational focus on film appreciation, and when he and Scorsese discovered a shared admiration for docu “Searching for Sugar Man,” all social awkwardness began to subside.

As for the role, it was something he couldn’t help but take home with him, and he recalls the shock of finally seeing the finished film in early December.

“I realized I had never seen myself playing a character who I didn’t think was a good person deep down, even if they were flawed. Even when I’ve played characters, like in ‘Cyrus,’ who are unlikable in some way, I felt like they had a good heart. And this was the first time I didn’t. That kind of affected me to watch.”

Hill insists he hasn’t plotted out his career trajectory in any schematic way, but in retrospect it’s easy to trace an accidental method. His breakout role in “Superbad” was the kind of success that many actors might have used as a blank check, coasting on goodwill and revisiting similar parts as long as aud patience held. In the years after “Superbad,” Hill was offered roles in such blockbusters as “The Hangover” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” yet he declined them, working on more offbeat projects, whether Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” or the Duplass brothers’ “Cyrus.”

Hill’s avoidance of typecasting has been admirable — notably, his rare unsuccessful roles, in comedies “The Watch” and “The Sitter,” have hewn closely to the “Superbad” model — and when he tackled his first dramatic role in Bennett Miller’s 2011 “Moneyball,” he received his first Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for the trouble.

“There are things in your career that are strategic,” he says. “But I’ve never thought about it like, ‘this is the kind of thing I need to do now,’ or ‘doing this will help me get to this other place.’

“Whatever is around that I feel connected to is what I want to do. Opportunities like ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ don’t come around very often, if ever. But I wasn’t saying to my agent, ‘I really want to try a Martin Scorsese movie.’ Things like that you don’t even think are possibilities until they happen.”

Yet Hill has never strayed too far from broad comedy. After his Oscar nom, he was back in theaters in full gonzo mode for megahit “21 Jump Street,” and lampooned himself uproariously in “This Is the End.” Hill tackled yet another somber role after his tenure with Scorsese, in Rupert Goold’s “True Story,” but segued from there immediately into sequel “22 Jump Street,” currently wrapping up in New Orleans and which he co-wrote.

“If I had done a third really dark movie in a row, it might have been too much, emotionally. It sounds pretentious, but after being in the headspace of someone who’s in such a dark place, you need some light. That’s why comedies exist, right?”