Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.
Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you a writer, producer, director and Oscar nominated actor Jonah Hill, a man who got his break as part of Judd Apatow’s comedy stable before showing his depth with dramatic turns in Moneyball, Cyrus, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Even though he’s now known for his work behind the camera, Jonah Hill might never have gotten into acting if his initial forays into directing went better.
Jonah Hill: I was into music and films and I wanted to be a writer director like I’m sure a lot of you guys do here and girls here want to do. And I started acting because I was really bad at giving directions to the actors. I had very poor tact and grace and when they didn’t do what I wanted them to do, it upset me. You know, I just was like, why aren’t you doing it the right way? And a friend of mine was like, you really shouldn’t give direction like that. There’s a real art to that. And so I took acting classes in order to hear how I would want to be spoken to by a director. And then when I started acting, I really fell in love with that as well as the other stuff, you know.
Eric Conner: Mr. Hill’s writing also got off to a rocky start, at least with his college administration. But thankfully, that obstacle wound up being a blessing in disguise and launched his career as a performer.
Jonah Hill: I would write these plays and a lot of them they wouldn’t put up because of the content, whether it be language or overtly – yeah, really sexual. No. Sexy dramas. They were just trying to be aggressive, I think, or trying to be controversial in some way. And so I think I liked that. I think I liked pissing people off and stuff like that and so they wouldn’t put them up. And so I was 18 and a friend of mine. There was this bar called Black and White. It’s still there in New York in East Village. And they had an open mic night where people would do poetry and weird stuff. And I would put up the plays at the bar. We would clear some tables out and do the plays Sunday nights at the bar. And so that was why I started performing. And then it actually kind of got a small following in New York City around that time. This was 11 years ago cause I’m f**king old and but it was eleven years ago. And people started coming in and they really encouraged me. And a couple of times I would be like at a party or something and someone would have heard about it, like without being a friend of mine. And then I was like, okay, that’s really cool. I’m going to keep doing this. I think my instincts were more comedic. At first, you know, like I think I’m completely a product of two things, The Simpsons and Goodfellas. But those are, like, where I get my taste from when I was growing up. I think those are the two things that completely shaped my sensibilities. So there was part of me that had this real passion and knowledge for comedy. And Simpsons is just the most brilliant. And if you guys are interested in working in comedy in any regard, you should study every single episode of The Simpsons cause it’s the best comedy writing of all time. And then Goodfellas and and Scorsese films were the movies that got me interested in the other side of things.
Eric Conner: Mr. Hill’s early work proved the old adage that there are no small roles. Even his brief turn as an eBay store customer in the 40 year old Virgin is really memorable.
Clip: So I guess I’ll just give you some money and you can give me these shoes. And.
You know, I know it seems so strange.
Yeah so I’d just rather buy them from you straight up.
Yeah, I know. I wish could be that easy.
I wish too but you’re making it extremely difficult for me. I’m just trying to get these shoes back to my house so I can wear them.
Eric Conner: No matter the role, no matter the size of the role Jonah Hill showed what he could do.
Jonah Hill: I think the most challenging part of being an actor comes from the days where something really bad is happening in your personal life. Like, let’s say, some death or breakup or friendship thing, whatever, some personal thing that’s going on outside of work. And you have to show up that day and give your performance like none of that is happening. So for me, that has been the thing that actors just have. That’s part of the gig. You know what I mean? So even if something really awful is happening. You have to be able to block that out and focus on your performance. It’s a weird part of the job for sure. Like, if you have a normal job, you can be quiet for the day or whatever, you know, or you can just focus on your computer or whatever it is. Like you have to be prepared that when you go there, you’re there to act and give your performance you know?
Eric Conner: Part of the preparation for Mr. Hill is knowing when to let his comedic side loose and when to stick to the script.
Jonah Hill: It’s honestly depending on what the director is cool with. You know what I mean? The director doesn’t want you to improvise, then you shouldn’t just be like f**k it I’m going to anyway. You know, you have to respect, you know, who’s running the set and everything like that. It’s interesting because Cyrus and Wolf of Wall Street, the comedy stuff is heavily improvised. You know, it’s so much of the fun of it is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. You know what I mean? But what’s interesting. I mean, Moneyball, we didn’t improvise a lot. Not very much at all. But, Wolf of Wall Street, we did so much improvisation, you know, because that’s what he likes, you know, and he supports that. So the comedy stuff for me, if I was running a comedy set, would always encourage people to improvise and come up with new jokes and new attitude as long as it’s about the character and not just trying to be funny, you know, but I think improvisation is great. The point is, is that it’s so cool that new stuff can happen that no one knew about ever and that makes the reactions real because the person is actually hearing it for the first time. So go for it.
Eric Conner: Mr. Hill’s ability to communicate so well with directors and other performers gave him a terrific network of collaborators, one that he has been fortunate enough to work with ever since.
Jonah Hill: The truth is, I’ve just been really lucky. All the guys I started making movies with, like Judd Apatow and Seth and Jason and Paul Rudd and all those guys, they just happened to be amazing people. And so it was not a challenge to maintain those relationships, because I think in all of this, I just gravitate towards the people that I, A, share the same taste with. And that breeds and when you’re in school, like especially in this environment, as I’m sure you guys are doing. But this is such a great way to be around all these people and meet the people and have the same taste as yourself and able to form those those friendships become based on wanting to do work that you all believe in, you know. And so whether it was starting out with Judd and those guys or moving on to Cyrus with the Duplass brothers or Moneyball with Bennett and Brad or Wolf of Wall Street with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, it was always people that were into something creative that was the same. And then those relationships and friendships build from there. And I’ve just been lucky that those people all happened to be great people as well as artists. You know, you find the people that you’re creatively in tune with, you just do. It naturally happens. It’s like finding a girlfriend or a boyfriend or a best friend. It just like you can’t force it and it will naturally happen as you go through the creative process.
Eric Conner: Just like dating the first time could be a nerve wracking experience, especially if the performers or directors or people you idolize. That’s enough to make even a talented, trained performer like Jonah Hill feel the pressure.
Jonah Hill: I guess the first time would have been John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei in Cyrus, where I was really intimidated to work with actors that were so profound.
Clip: Who do you think she’s gonna believe? Her son who needs her now more than ever after his battle with panic and anxiety, or this new guy who clearly wants her kid out of the way?
You listen to me you little weirdo. If you want to mess with me, I’m going to mess with you right back.
Jonah Hill: But each time you do it, the first few rehearsals or the first few scenes. You’re incredibly nervous. And then there’s a point where it kicks in where you’re like, I have this job and if I want to keep this job, I better put all that stuff away and focus on just doing what I came here to do and giving the performance I came here to give.
Eric Conner: Cyrus was a small indie film, but it turned out to be a massive turning point for Jonah Hill’s career and helped him get the role that showed all of Hollywood he could do a lot more than just comedy.
Jonah Hill: You know, I really wanted to make all different kinds of films. And even when you get some success making movies, they try and convince you to just keep making that same kind of movie, you know? And for me, it’s just important to always push yourself to do stuff that you haven’t done, even if it’s uncomfortable for other people, like people running the studios. But honestly, like I did this movie, Cyrus and Bennett Miller, who directed this film, he’s one of my best friends, saw that film and gave me the opportunity. And Catherine Keener actually helped me a lot because she was in Cyrus with me and is best friends with Bennett. And, you know, Brad Pitt and Bennett Miller were really supportive. And Amy Pascal, who runs Sony, who I made Superbad and Moneyball and 21 Jump Street, and This Is The End. So we have a really deep relationship. And she was really supportive of me getting this part. And it changed my life in a lot of really great ways.
Eric Conner:Though getting the biggest role of his career added its own share of pressure.
Jonah Hill: Same with Moneyball when we were rehearsing Bennett and Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it was the four of us in a room. I was incredibly intimidated. And eventually you have to be like they’re going to hire somebody else and fire me if I just act all nervous and don’t start acting well, you know, so there just has to be that thing. You like I said, if something bad happens in your life, you have to kick that stuff to the curb while you’re there doing your job. And I think Scorsese was a different thing all together because, yeah, we did a month of rehearsals and it would be me and him Leonardo DiCaprio in a room rehearsing. And I’d be like, what the f**k am I doing here. And I think I constantly in my life, whether it’s Moneyball or even the first movie set I was ever on or whatever it is, it’s a constant thing of what am I doing here? And I think that’s the best attitude to have, is to always feel like you are the person who doesn’t belong because it will drive you to do the best you can. Not like I belong here, but I want to make sure that I do the work that allows me to be with these great people.
Eric Conner: One of the ways Jonah Hill made his character in Moneyball so believable was basing it on a real person he knew extremely well his dad.
Jonah Hill: Like like how to make the decisions about how to play the character? For me, it’s usually just thinking, do I know a person like this in real life? Like for Peter Brand, the character in Moneyball. He’s based a lot on my dad, like my actual dad. But my dad is an accountant. He’s a wonderful, wonderful, amazing guy. We’re incredibly close. But we couldn’t be more different as people. But he sees the world a lot more numerically and logically than I do. And so I thought a lot about him. And then luckily, this film and the Scorsese film and a couple other films have done had been based on real people, too. So you have, you know, their actual life and you just try and figure out simply what kind of person they are. From a psychological standpoint, like what? What makes them happy? What motivates them to make the decisions they’re making? And if you read any books on psychology, those have helped me a lot to understand is why people make the decisions they’re making and kind of go from there.
Eric Conner: The aforementioned score says a film, Wolf of Wall Street, might be Jonah Hill’s finest performance to date, one that fully channeled the legendary director’s dramatic intensity and crackling energy.
Clip: I tell you what, you show me a pay stub for seventy two thousand dollars. I quit my job right now, and I work for you. Hey, Paulie, what’s up? No yeah, no everything’s fine. Hey, listen, I quit. Twenty two million dollars in three f**king hours. Can you believe it?
Jonah Hill: The thing about Mr. Scorsese who honestly, the fact that I got to make this movie with him is the crowning achievement of my entire life. I’m so lucky I even got to, like, ever be in the same room as him. And I think the reason why his movies are so important to me, especially Goodfellas. But every one of his movies is that they’re completely dangerous in that you do not know what’s going to happen in a scene from second to second. It shifts from being funny to very scary to very you just are very uncomfortable in a lot of ways. And I think that’s amazing. You know, and like like obviously the greatest scene in any movie ever, in my opinion, is in Goodfellas, which is very obvious, the famous scene where Joe Pesci’s like, you think I’m a clown. Do I amuse you? And because it’s so hilariously funny. And then in a millisecond later, it’s it’s the most tense, scary thing and then goes back to being funny and and back to being very tense. And if you can create that kind of spontaneity in any way, and capture it on film, that’s what we all should be striving for. To have people watching it going. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next second. And that is so exciting, you know, so. Same with, you know, King of Comedy and Casino and Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, all of his films. They just have that thing where you are very uncertain of what’s going to happen moment to moment.
Eric Conner: Jonah Hill was destined to work with another famed storyteller, Quentin Tarantino. Even when it seemed like the fates were going to keep them apart.
Jonah Hill: Quinten Tarantino is so cool and obviously super, super genius. And he had called and asked to meet with me. And I was like, no, thanks. No I literally almost jumped through the phone and into his office. And there was a there was another part that they were interested in me for. And then I wasn’t able to do it because I was doing another movie and the schedules, conflicted. And the movie was like way s**ttier than a Tarantino movie. Oh, my God, I’m doing this movie and not able to do a Tarantino movie, not against the movie I was making, just like, oh my gosh, I’m not going to be able to work with one of my heroes because I’m not available. And so I was really upset, you know, sad because I miss this opportunity to work with Quentin, who’s one of my heroes. And so they were already almost done shooting the movie. And we were at Summer of Sony, which is this thing like where all the Sony movies, they go to Mexico and promote the films internationally. And Channing and I were there for 21 Jump Street and we got to the hotel and all the Django Unchained people were there and they were like, the other part is gone now, obviously, but we have another scene that still has not been shot yet and I want you to come do it. And I was like, this is the coolest thing ever in the world. And I wrote him a letter. I wrote him a really long, handwritten letter about why it was, like, heartbreaking that I didn’t get to work with him. And he said it was because of the letter that he kept me in mind. And I told him. Yeah. Write people letters. Honestly. Seriously, though, it’s so nice. It’s it’s like the nicest thing. Whenever someone’s written me a letter, I’ve always remembered them so positively in my mind. There you go, I guess write letters and, you know, people and go from your heart.
Eric Conner: Of the 60 plus roles, Mr. Hill has played one of the most rewarding roles was portraying Jonah Hill in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s satirical This Is The End.
Jonah Hill: What was it like to make This Is The End? Well, it was great because Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who were the writer directors, are really old friends of mine. They wrote Superbad. And, you know, I was just so proud of my friends that they were directing their first film. And like all of you guys, you know, it’s like it’s like to see your friends progress and do new things and to take that responsibility on – I knew they would be great at it and was just excited that they were pushing themselves in that direction. And it was great. You know, like James Franco and Craig and everyone, Michael Cera, these guys I’ve known all these people for a long time. And like, it was really interesting to get to play a version of yourself, like to create that version that’s not me. It wasn’t like I actually am, but it was fun to make fun of that and play on that. So for me, it’s actually one of the performances I’m more proud of because it’s this super weird version of me. You know what I mean? But it’s not me that makes any sense. And Seth and I haven’t had originally written the character where everyone was really mean to each other, you know? And my only note was I think my character should be super duper nice and then turn out to be evil, like later on, you know, so it was a really fun experience. And those guys are the best comedic screenwriters working today Seth and Evan hands down. They are so brilliant. And they’ve worked on so many movies that you don’t even know about that their names are not on. And they just those guys are working at a very high level right now. And I have a lot of love and respect for them.
Eric Conner: Mr. Hill has worked with a wide variety of filmmakers, each with their own style. But they all still have one thing in common.
Jonah Hill: They’re all different. All the directors that have been wonderful that I’ve worked with have all been wildly different and not comparable to one another. That’s what’s so interesting. So the things I admire the most as an actor from a great director, it’s like personally like Scorsese is like separated from everybody else just because he’s like the master and like no one will ever come close to him, in my personal opinion, of anyone I’ve ever worked with, Judd and the Duplass brothers and Bennett Miller, they’re also different. But the one thing they share in common is they all care so much about what they’re making to the point where they will f**k up the rest of their life to make sure this movie is great. You know what I mean? Not any of them specifically. But you get the sense like that this is what is the most important thing to them is making this movie great. And so I think you just have to care so much.
Eric Conner: This approach helped Mr. Hill as his career expanded behind the scenes, including writing and producing the 21 Jump Street reboot and directing the indie film mid 90s. But the most important advice he got from his colleagues was not about vision.
Jonah Hill: Wear comfortable shoes. That’s what every director. No, I’m kidding. But every, if you ask any of the coolest directors I’ve worked with and you ask them about directing, they all say where comfortable shoes. It’s like a famous term I guess cause you’re standing all day. Let me think of the real answer to that question. John C. Riley and Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio and Judd and Seth and those guys, they’ve all imparted a lot of wisdom on me. And there’s not like a specific sentence or something I could really say. But the essence of what all of them do is kind of what I was talking about before is like shooting from the hip, like making decisions from your heart, you know, doing things that you care about for the right reasons. And I can’t stress that enough because all you guys are great and smart and you’re going to be so talented and successful. It’s just like don’t let anything penetrate what you feel. You know, your heart knows what’s up. And so don’t you know, don’t go against that you know, because it’s just, always think about when you were a little kid and you wanted to do this and like, what made you want to do that and keep that with you for the rest of your career in life. I wish I had, like, one cool sentence to say but none of those guys ever taught me s**t so it was like really hard. They were just focused on themselves the whole time. It was really hard to.
Eric Conner: He’s joking about the famous people he’s worked with, at least I think he is. But Jonah Hill seriously cautioned our students about getting into the industry for the wrong reasons.
Jonah Hill: I think the main thing I say to people that I meet who want to do this in any way is like take the word fame out of your vocabulary forever, because I definitely never did this to be famous. I do not even like being famous. I love making movies. And I love meeting people like you guys. You know what I mean? And so if your goal is to be famous that sucks because it’s like you should be here because all you can do is act or write or direct or whatever. I know that’s what you meant, but that’s a secondary thing that I think about a lot, because a lot of kids come up to me like I want to be famous and you’re like, oh, man, you have the wrong outlook on what this actually is. Because what this is, is like you get to make stuff with people you care about, that you’re passionate about. And as far as decisions, the only decisions I’ve ever regretted were ones I made for impure reasons, like to do a movie because I thought it’d be a big movie or it’d be popular or something instead of just really feeling like it was the right thing to do creatively. So I just think every decision you guys make should just be completely from your heart. You should only make stuff you would want to show the whole world forever and constantly just go from your heart and don’t have anything else cloud your judgment. I know it sounds really like straightforward and like cliche, but purity in your decisions just should come from what you feel all the time.
Eric Conner: Jonah Hill’s decisions have not only been pure, they’ve been smart, a mix of blockbusters and indie films, comedy and drama. Sometimes he’s in front of the camera and sometimes behind. Sometimes both at the same time. And that right there is his plan for the rest of his career.
Jonah Hill: What I’ve been doing the past couple of years and what I hope to continue to do is to do all different kinds of things. It’s no declarative thing like I’m done with comedy and I only want to do dramas like it’ll never be that way because there’s such a big part of me that loves to make people laugh. Loves to entertain people in that way. But there’s also a part of me that loves to tell all different kinds of stories and play all different kinds of people. And so the idea is just to do whatever you feel passionate about. Again I’ve said this about fifty thousand times, but if I feel connected to something emotionally, then that’s what I want to do, you know? And until they kick me out, that’s what I’m going to keep doing.
Eric Conner: My guess, Hollywood is not kicking out Jonah Hill anytime soon. We want to thank Jonah Hill for taking the time to talk with our students. And, of course, thanks to all of you for listening.
This episode was based on the Q&A curated and moderated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see your other Q&As. Check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all of our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.
This episode is dedicated to the memory of Eileen Conner, my mom, the woman who introduced me to comedy by letting me stay up way too late when I was way too young so I could watch Saturday Night Live. Thanks, Mom.