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When Jonah Hill entered the national consciousness as the profane, frequently yelling Seth in Superbad, he didn’t have the obvious markings of a dramatic actor. But cinema has a long tradition of comedians with surprising dramatic chops, and Hill’s became more apparent in 2010’s Cyrus, when he played the stunted son blocking the happiness of mom Marisa Tomei. With his wounded remorse and vulnerability, Hill showed skill beyond his comic abilities. That phenomenon continues in the new Bennett Miller film Moneyball, in which Hill plays Peter Brand, a mousy, low-level baseball executive who believes that Major League Baseball teams are not only mismanaged, but also completely ignorant of the real factors that determine success. Using the skills from his Ivy League economics degree, Brand employs high-level statistical analysis to discover the hidden attributes of low-value players. He sells iconoclastic Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) on the idea, earning the MLB’s scorn—at least in the short term. The film comes from the real-life story of Beane, who turned the A’s into contenders using sabermetrics, a performance-analysis system that challenged some of baseball’s most deeply held beliefs. As Brand, Hill has found another role that shows how he can excel when he isn’t going for laughs. A week before the film’s September 23 opening, Hill spoke to The A.V. Club about finding acceptance as a dramatic actor, why Moneyball isn’t about baseball, and how he tricked Miller into casting him.
The A.V. Club: The baseball movie is a sepia-toned staple of American movies, but you don’t see Moneyball as a baseball movie, right?
Jonah Hill: I think if you’re a baseball fan, you’ll love that element of it, but I think the filmmakers just used baseball as a beautiful aesthetic backdrop to a movie story about underdogs and being undervalued. I think The Natural was a big influence, and I think All The President’s Men was a big influence as far as two guys doing something controversial together, in a them-against-the-world type of environment. I don’t like to compare things to other things. It always sounds arrogant in print. [Laughs.]
AVC: The core struggle in the movie is between tradition and the science you and Brad Pitt espouse. The film ends up sort of vindicating Billy Beane and his methods, but you could also argue he wasn’t vindicated. He didn’t win a championship.
JH: I don’t think that it’s about the system itself. I never saw it as a movie about sabermetrics, just like The Social Network isn’t about two guys coming up with a computer program. It’s what it represented for him to challenge the system, and that’s what Billy’s vindication was, that he challenged the system and questioned the system that didn’t necessarily treat him the best way.
AVC: You talked about it being an underdog film, and you’ve said you felt like an underdog in this role. How so?
JH: That’s a good question. When I first met the world, basically, or introduced myself to people, I was in Superbad, and I feel the same way I felt promoting Superbad in an underdog style that I feel promoting Moneyball. Because in that film, I was an underdog—I wasn’t a famous guy, I’m starring in this movie, and no one knew who I was. I was like, “I’m Jonah, I’m trying to make some more comedy movies. I’m in this movie. I hope you accept me.” [Laughs.] And some years later, I’m saying, “Hey, I’m Jonah, I’m in this dramatic film that you wouldn’t expect to see me in, and I’d like to make more of these kinds of films, and I hope you accept me.”
So I’m not the person you’d expect to be starring in a drama with Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman, based on my previous work. But I like feeling like the underdog. I like when people, after they see the movie, are surprised that they enjoyed my performance [Laughs.] as a dramatic actor. It’s always better to shock people and change people’s expectations than to give them exactly what they think you can do. It’s not unexpected for me to be in a comedy film anymore; I’m no longer the underdog in that world. Not that I’m great or good at it or anything, it’s just that I’ve done a bunch of them, so you’re not shocked. To me, it’s cool to be doing stuff that’s different.
AVC: It seems like Cyrus was a good transition.
JH: Right, I think it was the perfect segue to something like this, because it was funny, but it had a lot of drama and a lot of—thank you, you saw it. [Laughs.] I say this as an introduction, because not a lot of people saw Cyrus, and I’m hoping, because of Brad and the book, that a lot more people will see this film.
I love that [Cyrus]. It did get me Moneyball. Bennett Miller saw Cyrus before it came out. I played a trick, basically, did a “friends and family” screening just so I could show Bennett. And then he cast me. Mark and Jay, I owe a lot to the Duplass brothers. I’m really proud of that movie, and I was really hoping more people would see it, because it’s a really beautiful movie.
AVC: Was your character always part of the Moneyball script?
JH: Mm-hmm. Well, in the book they call him Paul DePodesta, which is a real person. I believe it’s a composite, and they just called him Paul, and I think Paul was upset with how he was portrayed in the book. We could have legally used his name, but he and I talked a lot, and people assumed he and I had some weird ugliness between us, that he didn’t want me playing him, when I read all the sports columns and stuff. That was really annoying, because Paul and I have a great relationship. [Laughs.] He’s a nice guy; he’s really respectful to me and kind and open with his information, and I got to follow him and learn what it was like to be in that culture in that time. We made it a composite of a few different people who used sabermetrics around that time period.
AVC: Your character has some of the same traits as DePodesta. He started in Cleveland, he worked with Billy Beane at the A’s, but has gone on to do so many other things, too.
JH: I think it’s tough for Paul, because—I identify with him, because when I came out of Superbad, I was a kid. Not that I’m some sort of wise old man now, but I was 22 years old, and I was an idiot. [Laughs.] When I look at interviews from when I was that age, I come off different than how I am because I’ve matured—and I‘ve matured, become a man in front of the public eye. I understand Paul. He’s gone on to do all these things; he doesn’t want to be painted as this assistant-computer-nerd guy. I get that. Hey, man, it’s tough—I couldn’t imagine someone playing me or writing a book about who I am. Although I let people write articles and try and express who I am, and it blows up wildly in my face.
AVC: How much of a sports guy are you in general?
JH: I grew up with baseball; I played in Little League and went to games with my dad. But I, as I grew up, became more of a basketball fanatic than a baseball one. When I got the part, I reconnected with the game.
AVC: Reconnecting with the game and the micro-level of analysis that goes on with people like your character are two different things.
JH: Yeah, I had to get a statistics tutor, because I’m very poor at math. [Laughs.] That person’s job was probably the toughest job in the making of Moneyball: trying to teach me statistics.
AVC: There are few things more tedious than number-crunching, in real life or onscreen. What do you think the key is to making it interesting to watch?
JH: I think The Social Network is not a movie about—and I’m paraphrasing Aaron Sorkin’s words, who was one of the writers of this movie, who wrote The Social Network. He said, “The Social Network’s not about guys coming up with a computer program.” Moneyball’s not about people using math to win baseball games. I saw The Social Network as a movie about friendship and how power changes people, and a really deep character study of this person. Our movie is about being an underdog and being undervalued, and a deep character study of a guy who made choices, and had choices made for him basically that didn’t pan out. And it’s beautiful to see someone coming to terms with that, and trying to change that.
AVC: Certainly the emphasis isn’t on shots of equations and you against a whiteboard.
JH: Right, that sounds like the worst movie ever.
AVC: Aside from studying statistics, how much preparation did this require on your part to feel confident?
JH: Like I said, I had a tutor, but I realized I never played a character that was skilled at anything, or skilled at anything that I couldn’t become skilled at. Like with Cyrus, I learned how to play some of that music, but I knew how to play piano. Get Him To The Greek, my character knew everything about bands, and I’m a music enthusiast, so it wasn’t requiring a lot of work. In this, I played someone who is literally one of the smartest people in the world at this. He’s a full-on genius. I just really got into the mindset. When I cracked this person, I realized what it was was, I was talking to some of these guys, the real-life guys who were using sabermetrics, and they all could have been billionaires on Wall Street—and most of their friends were. I said, “Why did you do this? Why did you not become a billionaire? Why did you go to a crappy apartment somewhere and make no money and get treated poorly by your co-workers?” It was because they loved baseball—they just loved it. And what I realized about myself, it’s the same way I am about movies. I just love movies. I got lucky and won the lottery, but if I hadn’t, I’d still be struggling to work, because there’s nothing else I could do, because my heart wouldn’t allow it. So that was the connection between myself and the guy I was trying to play. And then it all made sense—not that I would be a billionaire on Wall Street if I chose to. [Laughs.]
AVC: You read the book. Was there anything in the book that you hoped would make it into the movie and didn’t? Or any changes that were made?
JH: I think a lot about how different I am from that character. My character literally studied logic, logical thinking, and a lot of times I act on raw emotion. It was interesting to play someone who doesn’t express emotion and has a really difficult time expressing emotion. That was really exciting, because we kept that. There isn’t really a time when you see me—except when [Scott] Hatteberg hits the home run, my eyes glaze up a little bit, or this thing at the trade deadline. It’s just someone who’s so pent-up, never had a light shined on him before, and Billy shines a light on this guy. It’s like a baby learning how to use his legs for the first time, wobbling around and trying to understand what it’s like to feel empowered. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is this the last film you made before dropping all the weight?
JH: No, I made The Sitter directly after that. I made Moneyball and The Sitter back-to-back.
AVC: It seems like there are a lot of changes in your life, taking a more dramatic role and losing all this weight. Were they connected decisions?
JH: No, they’re all independent of each other. It wasn’t like, “I’ma lose weight and start doing dramas.” I wanted to be healthier, and that was the impetus for wanting to lose weight—it’s just about being healthy and feeling good. The drama thing was something I’ve always wanted to do, but the opportunities are rare, and they have to be the right ones. When someone who is known as a comedic actor goes to drama, it often doesn’t work out, because they really just chose wrong, I think—or maybe they’re just not good actors, I don’t know.
For me it’s important making that transition seamless, and not a huge shock and jumping into cold water. When you see me do Get Him To The Greek and then Schindler’s List, it’s a tough one-two combination. But to see Get Him To The Greek and then Cyrus and then Moneyball, it’s a little more organic; it doesn’t feel like I’m trying to shock you or anything. I’m just saying, “I’m a different actor than you thought I was. Don’t put me in a box. I’m not just some kid running around screaming curse words.” I think that is where that comes from. I have other tastes besides comedy. I love comedy. I adore it, but I love dramatic movies just as much.
AVC: You started writing one-act plays after college—were those more comedic or dramatic in nature?
JH: Those were more comedic. As a writer, I haven’t delved into dramatic writing. As an actor, I could always, even more so than comedy, do drama. In the comedies I do, I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of a world like Judd Apatow’s, where I believe comedy comes from real people. It’s not like some silly spoof. The ones I’m really proud of, most of them with Judd, they feel very honest. When I’m playing them, I’m not playing some guy you would never meet in your life. Hopefully you would recognize that person from the real world. I’ve never been into just really silly stuff. John C. Reilly gave me great advice, and I’m paraphrasing here: When you do your comedy and your drama, your acting style doesn’t change. If it’s a comedy, the situations and the characters might be a little funnier, but you’re just trying to be honest.
AVC: He’s a perfect role model for that.
JH: Yeah. My role models, my heroes, are Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray. Those are two actors that do comedy and drama seamlessly, and you never balk at either.
AVC: And their performances aren’t wildly different. Something like Rushmore or—
JH: Groundhog Day. It’s just more jokes, honestly. You have more of a responsibility to make the audience laugh. In comedy, we do have to say, “All right, it’s been two minutes in the film. We need another laugh here.” With drama, there’s no pressure in that regard. It’s a different kind of pressure, but it’s not like we need to make someone laugh.
AVC: Sort of related to that, you’re making a transition to TV with the animated Fox show Allen Gregory. In TV, you have to hit certain beats, where you can’t usually can’t go long without laughs. Has that been sort of on your mind?
JH: No, because the show is so comedic at its core. It’s meant to be very funny. There are really sweet moments and cool moments in it, but it’s meant to make you laugh. That is the idea behind doing it. I worry about all that stuff. Luckily with animation, they give you a lot more leeway than a live-action show.
AVC: Oh really?
JH: Yeah, you can get away with a lot more. But being in TV is insane. The notes you get sometimes, I just don’t understand them. Fox is really cool to me; they’ve been really cool in letting me make this the way I want to make it. It’s not something else; it didn’t get transformed into something else. I had the luxury of it not being my day job, so I said to them, “If it ever wavers from what I want, good luck. We’ll part ways and I won’t do it.” And they believed that. [Laughs.]
AVC: How strange has it been to have your appearance be such a focal point of news stories and—
JH: The conversation? The funny thing was, it was such a big conversation before. People are so funny. There’s no winning with commenters or anonymous people. They’d be rude that I was overweight, and now they’re rude that I’m healthy. [Laughs.] To me, it is what it is. I chose this job, and I can’t complain about anything, because I’m getting to do what I want to do. That is a by-product of doing what I do, and anyone who complains about it is false. They chose to be in the spotlight. I didn’t accidentally get here. [Laughs.]