Interview by Roger Durling with Jonah Hill
Roger Durling: Everyone please welcome Academy Award Nominee Jonah Hill. (Applause) And belated Happy Birthday!
Jonah Hill: Thank you, thanks. And thank you all for staying. It’s so nice to see so many people here after the film, it’s great.
Durling: Well, we’re here for you.
Hill: Oh. That’s very flattering.
Durling: So Jonah, how did you get involved in this wild, wild ride with Martin Scorsese?
Hill: Well, I did a film called Moneyball (applause)—oh thanks, thank you very much—and after that came out I was lucky enough to get nominated for an Academy Award and some other awards and a lot of new opportunities were presenting themselves to me and my agent had called me and said, “You’re on the bottom of a list of actors being considered to play opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in a Martin Scorsese film.” Even that phone call on its own would have been the greatest phone call I’d ever gotten. It was like, “You’re not going to get it. Don’t worry because you’re not going to get the part. Everyone is more famous and talented than you are.” She was kidding—she was right, but she was kidding. That started this process where I read the book and the script and I’ve been really lucky because if you’re an actor and you read a script and a character and you say, “I have to play this part” and you get that part then you’re the luckiest actor that exists if that happens once in your career. I’ve been lucky to have it a few times and the only times I ever felt that way were the things I ended up being most proud of and the things that remain over time that people talk to me about. I felt that way when I read Superbad, I felt that when I read Cyrus, I felt that when I read Moneyball, and I felt it with Wolf of Wall Street where I go, “There’s no other actor I think that could play this part. I really have to play this part.” I got to meet with Leonardo DiCaprio in Mexico when we were both there promoting other films and I said, “Listen, I know every actor wants to play this part but I have to play this part. I recognize who this person is in society. I think they’re a lot of what is wrong with society and I really want to be a part of bringing that person to life.” And he was really responsive and great and supportive and then a month later they said, “You’re going to fly to New York and meet with Martin Scorsese.” Now Martin Scorsese is my artistic hero. He is my favorite artist of any medium. Goodfellas is my favorite film of all time, it’s the reason I wanted to be in movies and they said that I was going to meet with him. And I said, “Well, instead of just meeting with him and telling him and begging him, why don’t I read for him so I could show him what I would do if I was given this opportunity? Now I hadn’t been on an audition in 6 years so my first audition back in 6 years was for Martin Scorsese. It was the most nervous I ever could have been in my life. I went in and met for a couple of hours and we read the scenes and we talked a lot about the character and then 2 months went by where they didn’t tell me whether or not I had gotten the part. Every day I’d call my agent having an anxiety attack and she’s like, “Well, they’re meeting with this person who’s way better than you but you’re still in the running.” And then about 2 months go by and I’m at dinner and I get a phone call and it’s Leo and he says, “Scorsese just called me and asked what I thought” and I said, “Of course. It’s you so let’s go do this.” It was the greatest moment of my life, hands down.
Durling: When I introduced the film, I was jokingly saying that you were about to see a film by a 25-year old director. What was it like stepping in to that set? This man seems to be working on all cylinders and like a maverick. Brand new. Energy. Excitement.
Hill: Well, what I think you have to keep in mind is that if you’re going to tell this story of these people you have to tell it as it actually happened with the energy in which it actually happened, the depravity, the excess and all of that. I think you could tell right away from my initial meetings with Scorsese that he wanted to make an aggressive, unapologetic movie about excess and the downfalls of that and what these people lived like. Personally, from an actor’s perspective I can’t tell you how my hero and the master of modern film does his work or what he does; but it felt like a very encouraged and safe environment to go as far as you possibly could almost to the point where if you weren’t going as aggressively and far as you could, you weren’t being honest in telling the story. The greatest thing about working with him is that he creates an environment where every single person there looks up to him the same way. Everyone there just wants to do their best work and operate at the best level. It’s absolutely inspiring to be in a work environment like that where every person every moment of every day is working as hard as they possibly can in working at a level they’ve probably never worked before.
Durling: You mention the word “unapologetic”, was there any talk about the characters and about white-washing these characters? They’re pretty vile characters.
Hill: This was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life or career and the most fulfilling thing because it was so challenging. The reason for that is that I’ve played characters that have had lots and lots of flaws but at the end of the day I thought they had a good heart. I thought that they were a good person even if they were severely flawed. This was the first time I’ve played someone where at the end of the day I didn’t think they had a good heart. I didn’t think they were a good person and I didn’t love anything about them. Donnie is entertaining and he can be really funny at times and eccentric and everything but, you know, these people were ruining people’s lives and they were laughing along the way. I think Terry Winter said to me,—he wrote the screenplay—“We’re purposefully not showing you the other side. We’re purposefully not showing you the wake of their destruction and the callers on the other end of the phone.” What I thought Leo and his amazing performance did so well and the whole movie as a whole, you’re kind of cheering for these guys a lot of the way. When it starts to turn dark at the end and they all start turning on each other and it goes so dark, you realize you’ve been sold. You’ve kind of been on the other end of that phone. Leo’s charming and funny and even though he’s this bad guy he’s saying “It’s alright. Anyway, let’s just go on to the next crazy thing.” That’s what I think is a story that only Martin Scorsese can tell. In Goodfellas, these guys do horrible things to one another and treat each other horribly but until the end you’re like, “I love being around these guys.” At least I was and maybe that says something about me, I don’t know. I found that really interesting. It was really interesting during the day I’d be so engaged in the work and having such a great time working with these amazing people and it wasn’t until—we were shooting an hour outside of New York City—I’d be driving home and listening to music and a wave of guilt would wash over me for what I had done that day. Seriously, it was funny because you would. And it wasn’t because of the drugs and sexuality or anything, it was because of the way Donnie treated people. Like the scene with the goldfish with that kid that I have to fire and embarrass and throw a cigarette at. You’re acting, but that’s a person. I looked into his eyes and he looked really upset because of how I was treating him and that kind of things stuck with me more in a guilt way when I would leave work.
Durling: You got to meet Jordan Belfort and all the other people involved in the movie and the real character that you guys were portraying?
Hill: Well, Jordan was around the whole time and it is so incredible to be able to call somebody literally between takes some times and go, “What was this day like? What did this feel like? What was the energy like?” He was a well of information. He was probably the most vital thing for me to have because I could call him whenever I wanted. Leo and I spent a tremendous amount of time with him and he’s so wildly open. I mean he wrote the book that this is based on and I never met someone so open about their experiences, especially ones that aren’t flattering. Jordan’s the kind of guy—like let’s say one of us did something wrong and you’re talking about it and reflecting about it in the past and you’re explaining it to someone, you would kind of change your tone of voice and go, “Look, this was…okay, I’m not so proud…” You would say it in that way. With Jordan he’s like, “Well yeah, I did this horrible thing and this horrible thing and then I did this horrible thing.” And he’s just very matter of fact about it. I think he looks at it as a time in his life that he’s not proud of but that he’s moved on from; but I was blown away by his openness and his directness in which he was telling the story of this part of his life.
Durling: Your character, Donnie, grabs on to some of that directness. I love that first scene that you have with Leonardo DiCaprio where you impose yourself on him and say, “I’m going to work for you.” There was a drive to Donnie. Did you come up with the glasses? You have a very particular way of holding a cigarette and you have all these physical aspects of Donnie, did you develop those yourself?
Hill: Yeah, I mean, I would say this is the most in depth character work I’ve ever gotten to do, definitely. The teeth—which are amazing—that was in the book and written in the screenplay. The big thing for me was Sandy Powell who was our brilliant costume designer who has won awards and needs no accolades from me. She’s absolutely brilliant. But I’ve never been that collaborative with a costume designer on how someone was going to look and their clothing and everything. With Donnie, it was about—and they touch on it in my intro scene where they say his whole thing was trying to project a waspy, upper crust image that was false. Even before he was wealthy he was trying to look like he fit in to something he clearly didn’t fit in to. What was fascinating and why I was so excited to play this part was because this guy Peter who I played in Moneyball, he was someone who felt he didn’t belong in the world. He wouldn’t even make eye contact with anyone ever. That was a conscious decision to make eye contact because you didn’t feel you were worthy of locking eyes with somebody like a confidence thing. With Donnie, he has no impulse control and feels like he belongs everywhere and never breaks eye contact with anybody even when they’re not speaking or he’s not speaking. You know, or when he goes up to Jordan, he’s so inappropriate and so locked in like “How much money do make? Is that your car?” All of these inappropriate questions that he doesn’t see as out of line in any way. That was so interesting and very different from who I am as a person and it was very exciting to get to play someone like that.
Durling: I have to ask you about the insane scene of the Quaaludes in the kitchen. What was that like shooting that sequence?
Hill: As Jordan says, “They don’t make Quaaludes anymore so you’re all shit out of luck.” I thought that was a funny line to an audience watching it saying that they were amazing. I have never taken one and I asked around a lot and we had a drug expert who Emma, our producer, hooked me up with and she was amazing. I’d never played a character addicted to drugs. Donnie’s addicted to crack, cocaine and Quaaludes and all these things and I had to—in order to honestly play that on screen—I had to really know a lot about what that felt like and what it does to your motor skills and everything like that so I could physically do it, especially for the big Quaalude scene on the lemons. I asked her all about what it did to you and one of the things she said was it takes your motor skills away so you’re slurring and your mind doesn’t really tell your body what to do as well as you can when you’re lucid. She said it feels like your finger could weigh up to 10 pounds. So I imagined like a tiny version of myself inside of myself as a puppeteer moving a bunch of dead weight around. It was just ridiculous. It was ridiculous to shoot but it was physically exhausting. I’ve never shot a scene in a film where you would have the gall to say that this was probably the most exciting scene in a film. Usually you see the film and you see what scenes people really react to but while we were shooting everyone was pretty clear on the fact that this was probably the most entertaining scene in the film.
Durling: And the most insane scene.
Hill: Choking and all these things, it’s just so ridiculous. But this was how these people lived their lives and that was what you had to keep in mind is that if this wasn’t a true story, you wouldn’t believe the stuff you were doing or saying but this is real. Donnie did marry his first cousin. And as funny as that is, to me it was important to show—that’s one of my favorite scenes because I watch an audience laugh about him talking about what he’d do with his kids if they were disabled and all this stuff and people laugh and laugh but this was how these guys really spoke about that and that’s disturbing to me. You know what I mean? It really truly is. And it’s interesting to see how a certain lens on things allows people to take in that information in a different way but that’s disgusting what this guy is talking about. I just thought for an intro of a character—within 5 minutes of an intro of a character he interrupts a guys breakfast, asks him how much money he makes, asks to see a check for how much money he makes, quits his job, talks about how he married his first cousin, talks about what he’d do if his kids were mentally disabled and takes his boss to go smoke crack with him. And I was like, “This is one of the craziest intros to a character I’ve ever seen in a film”, and I’m just so thrilled with how it turned out and how people react to it. It’s a very interesting film to watch people’s different reactions to it.
Durling: Leo and Marty—I don’t have the right to call him Marty—Leo and Martin Scorsese have worked five times together now. What was it like watching these two?
Hill: I have to say—and this is with all the truth that I have—that Leo is the best actor of his generation. He is so unbelievably, wildly gifted and to get to work with him for six and a half months and watch how he acts and how he does things was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a collaboration so connected or an actor and director be so connected as Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. It was incredibly intimidating walking in to that being the third person. The first month and a half of rehearsals were just the three of us in a rehearsal space so I was terrified. These people basically finished each other’s sentences, they had worked together so much and so fluidly and they were incredibly inviting. I think without Leo understanding—for Scorsese, when you’re that respected and that loved, it’s probably hard to understand the effect you have on other people without saying anything. But Leo understanding and having that same regard for Scorsese that I have and all of us probably have he was like, “Look, I know this is scary.” His awareness of that and comforting of that was the nicest most amazing thing someone could have done for anyone else in that situation to make it feel comfortable when he knew I was terrified.
Durling: You said you actually had a long period of rehearsal just the three of you before you actual started rehearsing. Any light you can shed into what that process was like?
Hill: It was just incredible because for me what was scary was not—Scorsese is so good with actors that when you’re talking about the character or the movie it’s actually not intimidating because it’s so engaging and so exciting. What I was scared for was the social element of it like the first lunch when we were all rehearsing. I was scared to say something embarrassing in front of my hero. I was more scared to chit chat and small talk with him. But what I came to realize with him the first day we were having lunch, the documentary Searching for Sugarman had come out, which I loved this great documentary that came out last year or two years ago?
Durling: Last year. It won the Academy Award.
Hill: Yeah last year. It was an amazing documentary and it had just come out and I said I had seen it and he just started talking about it. What I realized is that I am obsessed with film, it’s my life, and this is probably one of the most knowledgeable people about film that exists in the world and that connected us right away where we could just talk about movies. That was just incredible. And he would do this amazing thing which probably when it happens to you is the coolest thing I’ve ever felt where you’d be talking about something and he’d go, “That reminds me…” or “the thing you just did reminds me of this one scene in this Elaine May film from 1971, A New Leaf…” and he’d start talking about something and he’d asked if I had seen and I said no and the next day his assistant would hand you a DVD of the film. He would bring up a film from 1938 and give you the film and you’d have to watch it that night for the next day so you couldn’t lie and say you had watched it. So the next day you would come in and he’d go, “Did you watch A New Leaf?” and I’d go, “Yeah, Walter Matthau is so brilliant” and he’d say, “Did you see what I was talking about here?” And it was this incredible thing because it’s your hero and someone you look up to and respect so much but he’s actually trying to make you better in ways outside of the film you’re making. I think people who take the time and effort to give their knowledge and love of something that you share with them; it is such a beautiful gift to give somebody. That was something that meant the world to me getting to discuss these new films with him and things that I had never seen before and it was really magical and something I’ll never forget and as I get older will try and do the same thing for other people I encounter. They won’t respect me as much as I respect him; but I understand what that gift is to give somebody like that.
Durling: Scorsese had done comedies before, The King of Comedy and After Hours—
Hill: He considers Goodfellas a dark comedy. He does, seriously. Goodfellas is remarkably funny.
Hill: It’s just also really really pitch black and dark at a lot of times. But I feel the same way about this film. It’s very funny but it comes from a very dark place.
Durling: But that’s the part that I find so refreshing about this film is that this man is doing an all out comedy and it’s hysterical. Was there talk during the filming about the tone that you’re going for?
Hill: Again, I think it’s the situations of what took place. Nothing he ever does is some abstract comedic idea. It all comes from what actually happened and who these people really are. In Goodfellas, one of the funniest and most terrifying scene—and it’s my favorite scene in any movie ever—is the Joe Pesci scene where he goes, “Am I a clown? Do I amuse you?” and he immediately is like, “I’m just kidding” and it’s hilarious and then it gets scary again. I think that’s what he does the best out of any director of all time is—like in life in certain moments, things tonally shift incredibly fast at the blink of an eye. So within the same scene, something can be really scary, really intense and really funny. My favorite scene I’ve ever been a part of in any film is in this film in the sushi scene where he slides me a note that says “Don’t incriminate yourself. I’m wearing a wire.” It’s the end of our friendship; it’s the end of everything we built and we’re not able to say anything and it’s this really an emotional and heavy scene and then at the end he’s like, “How’s your wife?” and I’m like, “She’s still alive, so my life is fucked.” And it gets this big laugh at the end, but the whole scene has been about these guys turning on each other and the end of what they built and their life together and then at the next second it’s very funny. I really get so much creative inspiration and what I thrive for is to have things be really emotional and really real and it can be really funny but it has to come from the truth of what you’re involved in and the character that you’re playing.
Durling: Thanks for coming. It’s been a real treat having you hear.
Hill: Thank you. Thank you guys so much for staying. I really appreciate it.