For someone who has achieved a high degree of fame in his 20s, Jonah Hill managed to stay out of the tabloids and gossip columns—until now. This past weekend he unleashed a homophobic slur at a paparazzo while he was walking with a friend in the Larchmont Village area of Los Angeles.
Losing his cool, the 30-year-old star lashed out at a photographer who was teasing him about his flowered shorts. “Suck my d—k, you f—-t,” Hill told the man who had been trailing him all day.
Ironically, in this week’s Variety cover story, Hill was asked how he’s been able to avoid attracting negative press all these years, something he attributed to his good upbringing and working nonstop.
“Since ‘Superbad,’ I haven’t taken a break. I go make movies, so I don’t’ have the time to be a mess,” he says, “At least not yet. Maybe my 30s will be the era where I become a mess.”
Hill appeared on the Howard Stern show Tuesday morning, apologizing for what he said and expressing remorse. “I said a disgusting word that does not at all reflect how I feel about any group of people,” Hill told Stern. “I think I am pretty good at making movies, but I am not good at being a famous person.” He later visited “The Tonight Show” pay further penance, telling host Jimmy Fallon, “My heart’s broken and I am genuinely and deeply sorry to anyone who has ever been affected by that term in their life.”
The controversy comes at an inauspicious moment in Hill’s career. He wants nothing more than to be taken seriously in Hollywood as he expands his role as an actor, writer and producer. He’s gone from headlining broad laffers like “Superbad” to essaying dramatic turns for directors Martin Scorsese and Bennett Miller. Not only did he steal scenes in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Moneyball” from stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively, he garnered supporting actor Oscar nominations for both performances.
And, he’s not done adding hyphens. Having set his sights on directing, Hill is quietly pitching a project he hopes to shoot next year based on a true-life story, details of which he insists on holding close to the vest.
“I think Jonah is going to have one of the great careers, because he can do anything,” says Judd Apatow, who directed the actor in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Funny People,” and produced his first hit as a leading man in “Superbad.”
Apatow describes Hill as a hilarious, thoughtful, complicated person who also manages to be humble about his accomplishments. “He has worked so hard, but he is also the first person to call and say, ‘Can you believe this is happening? It’s crazy.’ ”
One of Hill’s proudest achievements is that he’s hosted “Saturday Night Live” three times, and has created a recurring character — a precocious 6-year-old named Adam Grossman, who loves Benihana. He’s also had a hand in writing some of the most shared recent “SNL” skits, including a parody of Spike Jonze’s “Her,” in which he falls in love with his own voice.
“I can’t even wrap my mind around the idea that I have a recurring character on ‘SNL,’ ” he remarks. “What a weird childhood dream.” In 2011, he created animated show “Allen Gregory,” for which he wrote the pilot and voiced the lead character — a pretentious 7-year-old. Despite its rejection by fans and critics, Hill savored the opportunity for collaboration, and enjoyed staffing a writers’ room in which he could bounce ideas off others. “I never want to be on my own creating something,” he says.
And Hill has proven to be as inventive a business impresario as he is an actor and writer.
His biggest feat to date as a producer has been shepherding the movie adaptation of ’80s TV show “21 Jump Street” and its sequel, “22 Jump Street,” which hits theaters June 13 with something the first film lacked — high expectations.
The first reimagining of the Johnny Depp-toplined series, in 2012, became a surprise hit, starring Hill and Channing Tatum as undercover cops in a high school. With the first film garnering rave reviews and more than $200 million in worldwide box office, a follow-up was inevitable. But everyone involved knows the risks in revisiting a hit. There’s a meta scene in the new film where Nick Offerman’s character, Deputy Chief Hardy notes, “Nobody gave a shit about the ‘Jump Street’ reboot, but you got lucky.” He goes on to warn that second assignments are always more expensive, and never as good as the original.
Hill, who also receives a “story by” credit on both films, believes the sequel, set at a university, still has a lot of potential.
“We always thought college was funnier and a more ripe arena than high school, because all the rules are off,” Hill says.
When his agent, WME’s Sharon Jackson, first suggested to him the idea of bringing “21 Jump Street” to the silver screen, Hill admits, “I thought it was a terrible idea.” But the more he turned it over in his mind the more he warmed to the notion. “I realized that if I could make ‘Bad Boys’ mixed with the heart and humor of a John Hughes movie, it would be really interesting.”
Unlike many in Hollywood, Hill is not an actor who takes a producer credit in name only. “If I sign on, it’s because I really care and want to see it through,” he says.
His first step in putting “Jump Street” together was recruiting his pal Michael Bacall to write the screenplay. Together, they spent two months hashing out a thorough outline. Hill also was instrumental in hiring directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who had made the animated comedy “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” but had never helmed a live-action movie. The challenge proved irresistible. “Our goal was how punk rock would it be to make a good movie out of such a terrible idea,” Lord explains.
Hill also is proud to take credit for hiring his co-star, Tatum. Though he had seen the actor only in indie coming-of-age drama “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” Hill was convinced Tatum was perfect to play his onscreen partner. Nobody else saw it, including Tatum.
“He kept telling me, ‘I’m not funny, I can’t be funny,’ ” Hill recalls. “And I said, ‘You’re earnest and you believe you’re that person. So if you just commit, it’s going to be wonderful.’ And it was.”
Tatum doesn’t recall much protesting. “Jonah called me up and said he had this movie, ‘21 Jump Street,’ written. I was like, ‘The one from the TV show?’ And he said yep, and he told me what a terrible idea it was. And I said I was in. Immediately.”
For Hill, the key to comedy lies in the characters being real. “It has to come from truth,” he notes. “Whether it’s a comedy or drama, any success I’ve had comes from being honest with the character. I don’t care if a movie is bad — I can’t help that as an actor. But my job is to make the person I’m playing believable and real, and experiencing these feelings.”
For Sony Pictures, the studio behind the “Jump Street” franchise, Hill proved an invaluable resource on set. “Jonah has this elegant and quiet way of helping without taking over,” says Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal. “He is a perfectionist and a barometer of what is funny like no one I’ve ever seen before.”
Filmmakers cite Hill’s skill at improvisation for having created some of the most memorable scenes in the movies he’s made. Lord points to a sequence in “22 Jump Street” that pays homage to “Annie Hall,” where Hill and Tatum’s characters bond while cooking lobsters. “That was a case of Jonah insisting we do it, and we weren’t sure,” the director says. “We fought him hard on it. And now it’s one of our favorite parts of the movie.”
When Lord and Miller were directing this year’s hit “The Lego Movie,” they had Hill and Tatum come in to record voice cameos as Green Lantern and Superman, respectively. “We gave them the premise and some lines, but it ended up being those guys riffing for two hours,” Chris Miller says. “Jonah is one of the most gifted improvisers I’ve ever seen.”
Jonah Hill Feldstein never set out to become an actor.
A Los Angeles native, he is the second son of Sharon and Richard Feldstein; his older brother Jordan Feldstein is a manager whose clients include Maroon 5 and Robin Thicke.
While attending the New School, a progressive university in New York, Hill was focused on writing and directing short plays. But he had a big problem. “I didn’t know how to speak to actors, and a lot of the actors would complain that my directions were very insulting,” he admits. “So I figured I would take an acting class to learn how I would want to be spoken to as an actor. I not only loved it, but I got the most positive feedback I’d ever received in my life for anything I’d ever done.”
Growing up, Hill attended Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, Calif., where he became good friends with Jake Hoffman, son of the Oscar-winning actor. Dustin Hoffman would set his friends up by having Hill crank-call them, often pretending to be an assistant to a celebrity, and make outlandish requests.
When Hoffman was set to star in “I Heart Huckabees,” he recommended Hill to director David O. Russell. Though the tyro thesp had never auditioned before, he booked the role of Jean Smart and Richard Jenkins’ son. “I was so green and nervous, and it was just one scene,” Hill recalls. “But it was a thrill and an honor, and I knew I was in love.”
His next role was also small, but it paid off big. For “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Apatow was looking for someone to play a kid who wanders into Catherine Keener’s eBay store, and simply can’t wrap his mind around the way it works. “It was a one-line part,” Apatow recalls. “On the day we shot, it was raining, so we had a lot of time inside the store to mess around. Purely for my own amusement, I said, ‘Let’s force Jonah to improvise with Catherine for a really long time.’ It was basically throwing a young man in with an awesome acting shark to see what would happen. Cruel, really.
“And then, for the next hour, Jonah crushed it,” Apatow says. “He was so strong and unique. We all fell in love with him.”
When Apatow wrote the script for “Knocked Up,” he had Hill in mind to play one of Seth Rogen’s best friends, and he credits the actor with creating some of his favorite moments. “Shooting Jay Baruchel and Jonah’s idiotic abortion debate was the highlight for me,” Apatow says. “I especially enjoyed when Jonah mockingly shows concern for Jay’s sensitivity to the issue by only using the word ‘shmooshmortion.’ ”
But Apatow knew there was heart to Hill’s comedy, and cast him in “Superbad” as an obnoxious teen nursing a crush on fellow student Emma Stone. “We needed the audience to believe she could fall in love with this ridiculous mess of a kid,” Apatow notes.
While his comedies were making big money at the box office, it was a small independent film, “Cyrus,” in 2010, which launched Hill’s dramatic career. The picture was directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, known for their Mumblecore style of largely ad-libbed scenes. In the movie, John C. Reilly plays a lonely soul who meets the woman of his dreams (Marisa Tomei), but their love is threatened by her oddly close relationship to her son, played by Hill in the title role. Though sold as a comedy, the film features many dark and uncomfortable moments, including Cyrus throwing tantrums and mentally torturing Reilly’s character. It was a leap to cast Hill, but Mark Duplass says he and his brother were sold within two minutes of meeting the actor. “Jonah was so eager and excited to do something different that we never had to push,” he says. “He was willing to try anything, to go anywhere. In the wrong hands, the role of Cyrus could have been a kitschy, over-the-top cornfest. Jonah just happens to have a big brain and an even bigger heart, and it was clear to everyone from day one that he was headed for big things.”
Keener recommended Hill to Bennett Miller, who was looking to cast the role of Peter Brand, an economics whiz, in “Moneyball.” With “Cyrus” not yet in release, Hill told the Duplasses that his family could attend only an early screening, and he slipped Miller in to see the movie. Hill believes that screening sealed the “Moneyball” role. “ ‘Cyrus’ was a tipping point,” he says of the film, which made less than $10 million at the worldwide box office. “It led me to this path I’m on now.”
Miller chuckles at the tale. “It’s a beautiful story, and he likes to tell it, so I’m really loath to burst that bubble,” he says. “But if you want to know the truth, the decision had been made before I screened that movie.”
Miller says he didn’t even audition Hill; he knew from talking to him that he could pull off the role of Peter. “Part of the reason he was so good is he understood what it meant to be undervalued or overlooked,” Miller notes. “As much success as he had in his early films, in which he is phenomenal, I really do believe that what he has to offer as an actor defies our expectations.”
The thesp isn’t shy about pursuing the roles he wants. He jokes of “stalking” DiCaprio when they were both in Mexico doing publicity for their respective films, “21 Jump Street” and “J. Edgar,” making a case for himself to play Donnie Azoff in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He was happy to audition for Scorsese, and even took a huge cut in pay, making just $60,000 for six months of shooting.
No matter how serious a film, Hill still relies on the same methods he developed at the behest of Dustin Hoffman to prepare for the role. Before every movie, he calls a customer service line as the character he’s about to play. For Donnie, he made calls to Best Buy to see if his annoying, gravelly voice sounded realistic. “It’s a way to improvise and rehearse in real life, because I can’t do it in person. If someone recognized me, I’d look like an insane person. If they believe it, I have confidence in myself that it’s real.”
Hill recently wrapped another dramatic turn in Fox’s “True Story,” in which he co-stars with James Franco in the story of a murderer on the FBI’s Most Wanted list who assumed the identity of real-life journalist Michael Finkel. Hill plays Finkel, with Franco as the killer. It’s a very different dynamic than the pair shared in the bawdy comedy “This Is the End.”
“Jonah was very serious on ‘True Story,’ ” says Franco of Hill’s first dramatic lead. “In fact he was a little depressed because it was such a dark film.” Yet Franco notes that the two found room for jokes off-camera. “He’s like a brother to me,” Franco said.
Hill is also getting back into television, producing a scripted series with DiCaprio and rapper Q-Tip about hip-hop artists the Native Tongues for FX. And while he can’t reveal details at this time, he’s producing a show for HBO with “Wolf” writer Terence Winter and his wife Rachel, a producer on “Dallas Buyers Club.” Hill and DiCaprio are also set to produce a film based on the life of Richard Jewell, the security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics who was first considered a hero for discovering a bomb on site, but whose life was torn apart days later when he became the FBI’s prime suspect. The two actors were doing press on “Wolf” in Japan when their manager, Rick Yorn, sent them Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article about the Atlanta events. Both thesps instantly signed on to produce, and for Hill to play Jewell, with DiCaprio as his colorful lawyer.
Billy Ray, recently nominated for an Oscar for scripting “Captain Phillips,” is working on the screenplay; a director has not been announced. “It’s a heartbreaking, incredible story,” Hill says. “It’s what I’m most passionate about right now.”
Now all he has to do is concentrate on keeping that passion constructive and keeping his temper in check.