Now 30, Hill is getting wacky again in 22 Jump Street, the sequel to the 2012 action-comedy remake that shocked virtually everyone—save Hill and his producing partners—with its hilarious premium content. The original, also co-starring Channing Tatum, grossed more than $200 million around the world.
Born Jonah Hill Feldstein in Los Angeles on December 20, 1983, Hill never looked much like a movie star. (He’s short, with weight that bounces from pudgy to off the charts.) His parents, both from Long Island, moved to L.A. to work on the outskirts of showbiz—his dad is a business manager; his mother did costume design. But it was Hill’s big personality that made him popular with his well-heeled classmates at the elite Crossroads School, whose alums include Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson and Jack Black. In an office not far from there, Hill later joined Judd Apatow’s troupe of brilliant misfit clowns for what was merely act one of the actor’s career ascendancy. Movies such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek were fun, but a turnaround came when Hill played a malapropos mama’s boy in Cyrus, proving he could really act. Since then it’s been A-list all the way for the guy who once dressed as a hot dog and yelled, “Ask me about my wiener!” in a comedy called Accepted.
Contributing Editor David Hochman, who interviewed Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh last month, spent time with Hill in Beverly Hills. “Jonah sometimes comes across on-screen as a laid-back Winnie-the-Pooh type,” says Hochman, “but make no mistake—he’s intense, shrewd and unrelenting in getting exactly what he wants, and he wants a lot.”
PLAYBOY: After the acclaim for The Wolf of Wall Street, why go back and do a goofy comedy sequel like 22 Jump Street?
HILL: I’ve never made a sequel before, and I didn’t think I ever would. But I always say I should be scared of everything I’m doing. If things get too easy, that’s a problem. The fear with 22 Jump Street was how to make a good sequel and make fun of ourselves for even attempting to make a sequel. Especially when that sequel is based on a remake of a cheesy 1980s show.
PLAYBOY: What was the solution?
HILL: The solution was to be self-aware from the get-go; 22 Jump Street is a sequel about how ridiculous sequels usually are. Nick Offerman’s character says it outright: “Second missions are always bigger and worse than first missions.” It’s usually just Hollywood people making a cash grab and throwing money around to make it ballsier and louder than the first. By saying that out loud, we’re letting people in on what we were thinking behind the scenes.
I spent five years working on the first Jump Street with the writer, Michael Bacall, and the directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and then we had about eight months to start making the second one. It’s like what happens with a lot of bands. They have their whole lives to put into that first album, the album’s a hit, and then they have to make another one right away. But I think people are going to love this movie.
PLAYBOY: Schmidt and Jenko are now in college—at the age of 30.
HILL: Yeah, they go undercover as freshmen so they can bust up a drug ring at a fraternity. Frankly, a lot of the story is about what I’ve been going through lately. Many people want to see me as a 24-year-old guy, but I’m 30 and changing a lot. Also, the idea of being in a relationship when things change drastically—that’s kind of the big theme of the film. For our characters, it’s like they go to college with their hometown honey, and then Channing realizes it’s a big wide world out there. Was he with me because we were in a small pond, or does he really dig me? It’s a bit of the seven-year itch.
PLAYBOY: You get smacked around quite a bit in this one.
HILL: It’s interesting, because before the first Jump Street, I’d never made an action movie. It’s such a wild process. You don’t just do the scene. You have to wait for things to actually blow up. We were trying to expand this movie to make it bigger, and that’s where Channing made a huge difference since he’s done so much action before.
PLAYBOY: What was your toughest stunt?
HILL: Hanging from a helicopter or hanging off the side of a moving truck is physically challenging, but just the whole nature of those scenes is intense. When you’re standing on a rooftop with a helicopter floating 10 feet above your head, it seems like a bad fucking idea. We were shooting in Puerto Rico that day and heard M16 gunshots, and they weren’t coming from us. That’s a day I won’t forget.
PLAYBOY: You survived.
HILL: I never got hurt, thankfully. The only thing I was in pain from was Channing between scenes. He does this thing where he grabs part of your leg right above your knee. He’s one of the strongest human beings on the face of the earth, and when he starts squeezing that pressure point, it’s literally incapacitating. It’s like being hit by a stun gun, and it gives him nothing but pure evil joy.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been called “the ultimate wingman.” Is that a compliment or a curse?
HILL: I’m sure I could find a way to be offended by that, but it’s like anything else. If it’s not coming from a close friend or someone in my family, it doesn’t mean much to me. If the question is whether it’s an insult to be in movies with amazing actors like Leo and Channing and Brad and Michael Cera and all the rest, and supporting what they’re doing, then it’s a total compliment. I make these movies because I get to work with these people who have become my friends.
PLAYBOY: There’s a fearlessness in your approach to acting. You don’t hesitate to let it all hang out, whether it’s the crack-smoking scene in The Wolf of Wall Street or getting smacked with an octopus in 22 Jump Street. Are you that fearless in real life?
HILL: I think about that all the time, and the answer is no. A lot of actors live their lives like they live their art. As a creative person, you can have no boundaries. I don’t live like that. I use my work to get out any of the crazy things I want to do in real life so I can act like a normal person the rest of the time. I get to see what it’s like to be a cokehead stockbroker or an undercover cop for six months. I’m lucky. You don’t have to go there and ruin your life, but you can still see what someone wants from that sort of experience, what it leads to, what life lessons are to be learned.
PLAYBOY: The Wolf of Wall Street was up for five Academy Awards, including your nomination. Were you shocked when the movie got shut out?
HILL: Not really. Thelma Schoonmaker, who edits all of Scorsese’s films and is one of my all-time heroes, wrote me an e-mail the day of the Oscars, saying we probably weren’t going to win anything. But she also said the nicest thing, which was that, either way, my performance is going to stand the test of time. That meant so much to me, because this woman cut Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino. The Oscars aren’t the most reliable measure, when you think about it. The year Goodfellas was nominated, it lost to Dances With Wolves. No disrespect to Dances With Wolves, but which movie do you remember most all these years later? Movies like Goodfellas were the ones that made me want to get into movies in the first place, so how could I be disappointed in any way with The Wolf of Wall Street? I had the best experience I’ve ever had in my life. I got to work with Leo, who’s probably the finest actor of his generation. I know Martin Scorsese. He knows my name. We talk to each other, and he was happy with my performance. I’m an incredibly fortunate guy.
PLAYBOY: You earned $60,000 for the role, but somebody must have slipped you an envelope full of cash afterward, right?
HILL: Nope. Nothing. I just really wanted to do the movie. I said, “I’ll take whatever you’ll pay me if we can just sign the contract.”
PLAYBOY: Did you get to keep the prosthetic schlong from the movie? That scene alone, of you whipping it out and masturbating at a Long Island pool party, makes it a Scorsese classic.
HILL: That was a super crazy scene and hilarious to watch. I had to give that baby back, but I do have my character’s teeth in a safe. I usually keep one item from each movie. I have a baseball bat from Moneyball. From Superbad I have the Western shirt my character wore. From Jump Street I have the bike-cop uniform. They’re relics of all the crazy good times in my life.
PLAYBOY: Can you pinpoint the moment you became famous?
HILL: The day Superbad came out, Michael Cera and I bought a newspaper. I still have it because it was the day we couldn’t walk around together anymore. One day before, we could walk near my apartment in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles and nobody would talk to us. Then all of a sudden it was insane, and it pretty much hasn’t stopped.