Jonah Hill is not an easy interview. It's not that he's unengaged or standoffish as much as ... defensive. I'll give you an example: I once interviewed Hill about his movie "Cyrus" and casually compared the title character to Adam Grossman, that six-year-old boy he sometimes plays on 'Saturday Night Live.' Hill responded, "I don't see it, but more power to you. One is an annoying 'SNL' character and one's a character I worked really hard on in the movie."
So I was ready, going into my interview with Hill and his "21 Jump Street" co-star Channing Tatum, for things to get awkward. But despite the fact that Hill and Channing were both dressed in police uniforms, and even though Hill responded to one of my questions by calling me a "nerd," I'd say things went pretty smoothly. Well, except when Hill misunderstood a question about his Oscar nomination, thinking I had accused him of having a big ego.
OK, maybe it did get a bit awkward.
In "21 Jump Street," which has its premiere tonight at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Hill and Tatum play youngish police officers who are sent to infiltrate a high school in order to pinpoint the source of a major drug operation. Unlike the TV drama that inspired it, this is a deeply self-aware comedy, and it's already earned some very impressive reviews. Below, Hill and Tatum say whether they can tell during a shoot if a film is working (this one did, by all available accounts, whereas "The Sitter" most certainly did not). Hill also explains how his Oscar nomination has changed his life, and Tatum talks about the difference between the first and the upcoming second G.I. Joe films.
I was in the room when you and Brad Pitt filmed our "Moneyball" unscripted in Toronto.
A lot of talk about urine.
Hill: That was really fun. We had done so much stuff together, and I think he has to live little more guarded, obviously, a lot more guarded than I do. It's great when we got to do stuff together, because I think I put the situation at ease and take the heat off.
Here's my segue: Brad Pitt was in an episode of "21 Jump Street."
Tatum: He was! Did you actually talk to him about that?
Hill: Yeah. He asked, "You're making '21 Jump Street' into a movie? I was on that show."
Tatum: I've watched the episode a few times.
It's interesting to see Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp in the same scene before they were stars.
Tatum: It was like a "pretty off." Who is more handsome?
Hill: The screen exploded.
OK, don't take this the wrong way: But when I think of comedy, the first name I think of is not Channing Tatum.
Hill: That's exactly what I was thinking. You know, for me, I've been with this movie for five years -- from the age of 23 to 28. And I just get sick of doing the same thing over and over again. That's why I do movies like "Cyrus" and "Moneyball" and try to branch out. Because you get bored. And the audience gets bored at the same thing over and over again. So, for me, I wanted this movie to be "Bad Boys" meets a John Hughes movie. And in order for that to happen, we needed someone with serious action credibility to go along with me -- who has no action credibility. So, for me, it's about, "What's something that no one is expecting?" That's why I love when I drive by the billboard -- besides the fact that it actually exists. I see people looking at it like, "What are these guys doing in a movie together?" I think "Pineapple Express" had that.
Is this movie canon?
Hill: Pardon? What's canon?
That it lives in the same universe as the television series?
Hill: Oh my God [laughs].
Well, there were fans of the original series that could be wondering.
Hill: It technically does, actually. Technically it does, yes. You're such a nerd.
So, people that loved these characters in the '80s, this is how they ended up?
Hill: Yes. Yeah, the program was shut down for a bunch of years and we talk about it and make a joke about it.
Did you consider rebooting. Like, "I'm going to play Tom Hanson."
Hill: Never once. I think you're held up too much on something that I was never hung up on. Which is the sacredness of the original series.
I don't think it's "sacred." But it has the same title.
Hill: I would never remake something that was like "The Godfather." Things that are truly important to me, I could never remake or reboot, or whatever. But, for me, I love the idea of going back to high school and reliving that. There's a "Back to the Future" element to that.
Tatum: And not to say I'm sure this show is very important to some people. I watched it as a very young kid. I'm not kidding: I watched it every single week. It was one of the only things that me and my sister did together. And I loved it, but at the same time, let's get away from that. This is a comedy. We want to pay homage to it and say, "Look, thanks for being what you were, but now we're going to take it and run." The creator of the television show, Stephen Cannell, was so excited, and that's what I was excited to hear.
In the movie, a bullet severs a part of the human anatomy. Is that possible?
Hill: We don't want to give away all of the fun stuff, but let's just say, we think it's possible.
Tatum: I would say a bullet could sever just about anything.
After your Oscar nomination, did you ever catch yourself in a "Oh, that sounds like I am letting it go to my head and now I have an ego" moment?
Hill: [Pauses] You think that I have an ego?
That's not what I'm saying. I'm asking how did you prevent that from happening?
Hill: I have friends and family that make you realize that you're nothing but a guy who got really lucky [laughs]. No, but just, I don't know.
Tatum: It was well-deserved, but, what we keep saying, we work so hard on every single movie. We haven't worked any less hard or more hard on any of the movies.
Hill: On the failures or the successes, we work equally as hard.
Tatum: And I know how hard he worked on this and I know how hard he worked on "Moneyball." You know, some people go their entire lives without even having a successful movie, much less, "You got nominated for an Oscar, man." I guarantee you, it's not going to change his work ethic or how he approaches films.
Hill: I think it just opened up doors for me to do different films that I'd like to do. That's the only way it's changed my life. And, now, old people and foreign people know how I am.
Channing, I do find it interesting that you played two characters named Duke within a three-year time span.
Tatum: That's unlucky [laughs].
It's not a secret that your role in the second G.I. Joe film is small, but when you were on set, was there a different feel than the first one? Obviously the first one was rushed because of the writers strike.
Tatum: Yeah. Look, I think Jon [Chu], he's a younger guy and I think he has his thumb on the pulse of a sort of hip community. And that's what I felt was way different. You know, yeah, obviously it was during the writers strike, so there was a sort of run-and-gun type of a thing with the first one. And they didn't have to have that in this one, so it was great.
When you're on set, can you guys tell that it's working? Critics didn't like "The Sitter," but so far the reaction to "21 Jump Street" has been very positive. Can you tell that when you're filming?
Hill: I mean, I'll tell you this: I spent five years on this movie and was with "The Sitter" for about four or five months, or whatever it was. So I know the harder I work on something and the more I really sweat and cry over it, I know that I can find a deeper appreciation for it. But I can't tell. Who the hell knows? You get out there and you test something and you never know. Until you show an audience, you don't know. I knew this had the ability to be the most fun movie ever. Fun! Like just straight-up fun. That's the reason for making this movie, and I thought it had the ability to do that. But until you show it to an audience, you don't know how they're going to react to it.
Tatum: Sometimes you do a movie and you just want to squeak it past the critics -- you just want to open it. That's not what this is, in my opinion. And it's so nice that we actually had a fucking blast on the movie. And it's odd because I haven't done a lot of comedies, but I wonder if that's a huge part of the success of this -- that we just had a great time and everybody showed up to play, to make it the best that we possibly could have made it. It was just, "All right, what's the best idea in the room? Let's go do it." I want to do it every single time like that, but with dramas, it's harder to do that.
Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter