Channing Tatum is the tall, soft-spoken, muscle-y star of action films (G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, Haywire, Fighting, The Eagle) and dramas (Stop-Loss, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, Dear John). Jonah Hill is the short, brash, mouthy star mostly known for acerbic roles in acerbic comedies (Superbad, Knocked Up, Funny People, Cyrus), though he recently earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his serious role in Moneyball. Given their diversity of experience, they seem like a strange pair for an action-comedy, but in 21 Jump Street, the big-screen remake of the ’80s Fox TV drama of the same name, their strengths complement each other perfectly.
Hill was heavily involved with the original conception of the film, which features him and Tatum as incompetent, immature cops banished to a police undercover program to infiltrate a high school. While it’s a retread—and extremely aware of it, with a pointed early-film self-referential speech about how uncreative people just keep dragging out the same old tired ideas over and over—it finds new twists on the story, with a series of reversals that range from intelligent to goofy good times. Hill and Tatum—both in their cop costumes from the film—recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about their production involvement with the film, playing against their histories but within their stereotypes, and the sequel they’re already planning.
The A.V. Club: 21 Jump Street seems like an actors’ playground in some ways—not just designed to be fun to watch, but actively designed to be fun to film. Did you enjoy the process?
Channing Tatum: I’ve watched [Hill] forever. I think the reason why I wanted him to do the movie was that he looked like so much fun in the films. I couldn’t imagine what I was going to learn, because I made him promise before anything that he was going to make me funny. I was like, “Are you sure you want me in this movie? Is it a drama? What is it, a love story? Are you sure?” And he convinced me that he was going to take that and bear it on his shoulders, that he was going to be responsible for me getting good reviews.
Jonah Hill: You really feel an obligation to someone when they’re trusting you to do something, and you promise that you’ll come through for them. So I made it my job to make sure [Tatum] gave a great performance and came off as great as he does. And honestly, it took about a billion times less work than I thought it was going to. Not because I didn’t think he was funny, but because I didn’t know how much he’d let himself go. He just came in and did everything he does, and that just made me love him more. He just came in and had no walls up, no anything he had to get through, no bullshit, and it was really just a beautiful experience.
AVC: This is your first action film. Were either one of you significantly out of your comfort zones? Did you take to action the way he took to comedy?
JH: No. [Laughs.] Well, I did. In this film, I made a comedic choice: Everything that he did great, I did poorly.
CT: I want to make sure, in the next one—if we get to do it, God willing—that he does something [great]. Because he’s actually good at doing it, when he wants to do it.
JH: Like in the Call Of Duty commercial Peter Berg directed—this thing I did with Sam Worthington—I had to play a guy who was bad [at fighting and action], who got good by the end. And at the end, I did it all! It was really fun to do. It’s really fun.
CT: You just have to commit to doing it. Because [you’re like] “Ah, it’s funnier if I walk around the couch after you dive over it.”
JH: I actually thought it was funnier to be worse at [action]. It didn’t really seem funny for me to be great at it.
AVC: You’re both playing types: big dumb jock and little smart nerd. Were either of you uncomfortable making yourself into a stereotype?
CT: Not me, especially in comedy. You just kind of have to throw yourself down the rabbit hole and hope it’s a little bit smarter at the end of it all. And I think we pulled off some amount of taking stereotypes in a different way.
JH: We also made fun of ourselves enough, from moment one of the film, by saying, “This is an unoriginal idea for a film.” We literally call ourselves out. So there is a sense of humor, in that I’m playing a stereotypical nerd and he’s playing a stereotypical jock, and those roles switch. It was a very simple structure to a story that we wanted to tell. But even the Eminem thing—that’s a cool, our-version of that. [In early scenes, Hill plays a 16-year-old version of himself styled after Eminem. —ed.] It seems more real, because that is actually what I did in high school. Like, bleached my hair and stuff like that. So we just tried to make our own version of that.
AVC: Was there a wish-fulfillment aspect for you in creating this story? The idea of going back to high school and being both the most popular guy in the room, and the cool action star?
JH: For me? No, no, no. I’ve never had issues with popularity. I was always a popular guy… I’ve always had friends and loved ones and everything, so it wasn’t like, “Oh man, I gotta fill some void that was left by high school.” I had a great high-school experience. I just wanted to make a movie that would be really fun. “Fun” would be the main adjective, not even “funny,” and I think it’s super funny. But I feel that, when you walk out, it’s like an hour-and-a-half party you just went to.
CT: That was the whole thing. “Let’s just make this fun.”
JH: Yeah. Sometimes you go into a movie and go, “Oh, I really want to affect people, I really want to get some certain emotion from them.” This movie was really a big opportunity to be like, “What movie could be more fun than this?” I don’t know if there’s something more fun, just straight-up fun, than this movie.
AVC: Channing, when it was first suggested to you, it was suggested as a drama, wasn’t it?
JH: They did a draft as a drama, which I read, that was more Miami Vice style, like the over-serious kind of action/drama. My agent had the idea, she said, “You should make this a comedy.” So it kind of started with that.
AVC: So what was the process like bringing Channing in on the film? Was there an audition where you showed off your comedy chops?
CT: No, this guy just likes living dangerously, on the edge, and just—
JH: I just called him up and said, “You need to do this, man, please do this.”
CT: I had just done a little piece in The Dilemma, and it was fun to do that, but again, I got to just follow somebody. I think that was my whole thing, is that I really just like to work with really talented people and people that I think are smart and that really get it. I’ve watched him, and I’ve studied and read a lot about what he’s got going on and what his plans are in this industry—he wants to direct, he wants to produce, he’s a writer, so I knew he was going to be really involved, from page one to when we wrap the movie. And I just felt comfortable with that. I wanted to be in the Jonah Hill business, in a way. That’s what I kept saying. He’s just like a little white Puff Daddy—
JH: That’s exactly right. [Laughs.] That’s exactly what I am.
CT: [Laughs.] I just knew from other people as well, just how smart he was and how involved. I sort of made a value plan. I liked his work.
JH: It was so cool to see someone in his position that could take a leap of faith like that. It speaks volumes about someone’s character.
CT: Especially since I didn’t get the whole script, I got 50 pages of the script…
JH: [Laughs.] He only got 50 pages of the script.
AVC: That was mentioned in a previous interview, but never explained. Why did he only have 50 pages of the script?
JH: We sent him the wrong file, I guess, that didn’t have the other 60 pages.
CT: Yeah, because I was like, “Yeah man, look at this script, it’s crazy! These crazy characters…” The script that I got was a lot crazier than the one that we actually made. I mean, shooting rocket launchers into ponds and stuff, it was insane. I was like, “This seems like something that would be fun and crazy, and something I’ve never done before.” So I was like, “Is there an ending? How does it end?”
JH: I was like, “What are you talking about?” That was such a funny conversation,
AVC: How much of what we see in the final version of the film is improv?
CT: [To Hill.] What percent would you put it on?
JH: I don’t know. Not to be rude, but I hate that question. Because it’s like, you know those forms that you fill out when you do a physical? They ask you how many drinks per week you have? It always infuriates me, because for me, it’s like: “Well, I’ll get drunk maybe once a week, or once every other week or something. It’s hard to say how many drinks per day or whatever. It would average out, but I don’t drink every day…” It always annoys me, because I can’t put a real number on it. Every situation is just so different.
AVC: Well, without getting into super-specific percentages—
JH: After Moneyball, it’s impossible for me to not get into super-specific numbers of things. I still think like that, it’s bizarre. [Laughs.]
AVC: But with Moneyball, especially with an Aaron Sorkin script, you’d presumably be expected to stick closely to the lines. This felt a lot looser.
JH: My theory is—the way I came up [in comedy] is—you get it a couple times how you want it, then you do a couple times that are just free. Because even if it’s just one moment, one bottle getting knocked over, whatever it is, you just want to find some real moments in there, things that feel like they’re actually happening, and capturing something happening.
CT: You don’t know who all’s going to be in a scene. Sometimes when you get there, someone’s sitting in a weird chair, and that’s the funniest thing in the scene. And you don’t know. You can’t write it, sometimes. You have a plan; you go in with a blueprint and try to execute the blueprint. And you’re like, “Okay, cool, I’m doing that.” And then as you’re doing it—
JH: Something cool happens.
CT: It’s like, “I didn’t know you were going to wear that shirt today, that shirt looks like X.” And you start making fun of the person’s shirt.
JH: One of my favorite scenes, that there should hopefully be a 20-minute version of on the DVD, is when our friend Jake Johnson came in and played the principal. And it was one of the most amazing things that happened, because I love him and know how to write for him and stuff. We had this thing where, through the course of the scene, we realized that it’d be funny if he wanted to bully me a little bit. Where he was jealous of Channing because he gets to bully me and make fun of me…
CT: And him and me sort of became, like, cohorts together.
JH: Yeah, like frat-guy bros together. It was so funny. This guy Jake is so brilliant. We were feeding him stuff and he would go on riffs. Sometimes things just happen that you want to capture, and you don’t know they’re going to happen. You just have to ride that wave.
AVC: You’ve both gotten into producing over the past few years, and you both have production credits here. What level of involvement did you have?
CT: Like I’ve said, I came on really late. Probably a little bit before pre-production started. My responsibility was that I really just wanted to help Jonah protect his vision. You never know if the studio’s going to get crazy on the stuff we’re doing, and if I have an EP [executive producer credit] as well, then I can try to help him protect that. And just help out with any amount of action stuff that I’m used to.
JH: For me, I was sort of the original architect of the movie with Mike Bacall. We wanted to make Bad Boys meets a John Hughes movie, and like Channing said, being a producer just creates a little bubble around what you’re trying to do, a little protection barrier.
AVC: The sequel is already in the planning stages. Where are you with the script?
JH: We’re writing it, but obviously it’s in the hands of the viewers now. If it performs, then we’ll get to make it. If it doesn’t perform, then…
CT: Yeah, it’s like how you said, “It’s only words on a page at the moment.” It’s not anything real until it actually succeeds.
JH: It doesn’t mean anything except for that the studio likes the movie and thinks it has a shot at doing well. But if it doesn’t do well, then we’ll never make the sequel, and if it does really well, hopefully we’ll get to.
AVC: This one is almost secretly a high-concept movie, full of reversals. Do you have a similarly complicated idea you want to follow for the second one?
JH: Yeah, but we probably shouldn’t talk about it now. But we have a very structured plan. It’s pretty well thought-out.