Jonah Hill spent so much of the early part of his career acting in comedies — Superbad, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall — that it was hard to imagine the actor playing anything other than funny.
Then came his Oscar-nominated supporting turn in Moneyball, in which he played a statistician who helped the Oakland A’s general manager ( Brad Pitt) turn his team’s losing streak around. The performance was a revelation — quiet, understated, funny without being clownish — and it forced Hollywood to reconsider the extent of Hill’s talent.
“I started acting in my early 20s, and when you start out, you do any movies that are available to you,” says Hill, 30. “I was lucky to be in funny movies with my friends. It was a joyous period and I learned so much. But it’s amazing that since then, I got to do Moneyball and Cyrus and work with Quentin Tarantino [in Django Unchained] and now Martin Scorsese. I’ve been really fortunate to get to do both comedy and drama and express totally different things.”
In Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which opens Wednesday, Hill plays Donnie Azoff, the right-hand man to Jordan Belfort, a corrupt stockbroker ( Leonardo DiCaprio) who made millions while still in his 20s by preying on small-time investors.
Although the movie is based on Belfort’s nonfiction book, Hill’s character is a composite of various people. With oversized eyeglasses and ridiculously bright capped teeth, Donnie’s appearance is garish and larger-than-life — much like the raucous, three-hour movie, which is a rambunctious comedy.
“Donnie’s whole deal was to try to portray himself as someone far more upper-crust than he was,” Hill says. “He’s a ridiculous person, an awful person with no impulse control and no morality. When I was playing him, I made a choice never to break eye contact with anybody, because Donnie wants to alpha-male everyone in the room.”
Horrible things happen in The Wolf of Wall Street, but Scorsese gives the epic tale a broadly comedic spin, including a sequence in which DiCaprio and Hill suffer a delayed reaction to Quaaludes that is destined to become a classic bit of physical comedy.
“I was blown away by that scene when I saw the film,” Hill says. “It’s so crazy and it took a week to shoot. The drug counselor we worked with told us what it would be like to be on all these drugs at the same time. He said that when you’re on high-grade Quaaludes, your finger feels like it weighs 10 pounds. So I imagined a tiny version of myself inside my body puppeteering dead weight as Donnie is flopping around. It was difficult, but it turned out great.”
The trailers for The Wolf of Wall Street only hint at the delirious heights of insanity Scorsese whips up, depicting the world of finance as a madcap circus fueled by drugs and greed. The theme may be crime, but the tone is relentlessly funny.
“The greatest thing about Martin Scorsese is that his films have everything in them: They are scary and dark and hilarious all at the same time,” Hill says. “He considers Goodfellas a comedy, and I consider it to be one of the funniest movies ever made. He’s my favorite filmmaker of all time. And this movie delivers a similar feeling. These people are treating each other horribly and doing terrible things. They are incredibly unlikable guys doing despicable things. But there are moments when what they’re doing is so ridiculous, you can’t help but laugh.”