Since starring in Superbad at the age of 22, Jonah Hill has risen to prominence as a member of Hollywood’s comedic-cool elite. He expanded to dramatic roles in 2011’s Moneyball (and got an Oscar nod) and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street. Playboy Contributing Editor James Franco, who co-stars with Hill in This Is the End, sat down with the actor to discuss how he got his start, how Superbad’s success affected him and why he’s down for Seth Rogen.
FRANCO: Where are you from?
HILL: I’m from Cheviot Hills, California, ride or die. That should be the name of this piece, “Cheviot Hills, ride or die.” I rep Cheviot Hills so hard. It’s like a random neighborhood in Los Angeles. Nobody’s from there, but I think it’s the greatest.
FRANCO: It’s near Fox Studios, a sort of rich, very quiet kind of place. I think a person in my acting class lived there.
HILL: They were probably cool.
FRANCO: You started writing before acting. How did that happen?
HILL: I went to the University of Colorado for a semester and got kicked out because I never went to class. My mom still wears her Boulder sweatshirt. She’ll send me a picture and say, “It’s my $40,000 sweatshirt.” Then I got into the New School. I wanted to be in New York anyway to work toward a creative job, and I started writing there.
FRANCO: What did you write?
HILL: One-act plays, but I was too young to understand how to direct actors. I took an acting class to be directed and got positive feedback for my acting. Then there was this bar in the East Village that had a storytelling night and took itself ultraseriously, which I thought was funny. I wrote and performed these stories that seemed serious but were complete jokes. They were absurd. One was about growing up and spending three weeks at Neverland Ranch. I’d get drunk and write them beforehand, week after week. I’m friends with Dustin Hoffman’s kids, and Dustin thought he saw something in me, so he got me an audition for I Heart Huckabees.
FRANCO: You lucky fuck. Then what happened?
HILL: I dropped out of college because I thought I was going to blow up, but I couldn’t get work for two years. My agents wouldn’t let me tell anyone they were my agents. My parents were terrified. Meeting Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen was the tipping point. They liked my improvisations in my audition for The 40 Year Old Virgin, and I knew they were developing a more realistic place in comedy, which was something I wanted to be a part of.
FRANCO: What was the experience of doing that movie?
HILL: It was the defining day in my career.
FRANCO: You shot only one day?
HILL: A half day. It was raining, so they had extra time to shoot my scene. I could just tell it was the right place at the right time with the right people. A month later Seth told me I was going to be one of the roommates in Knocked Up, with the guys from Freaks and Geeks. That was big. We had a great time on that set, but you had to earn your real estate. Judd would shoot a scene four times, and whoever did the funniest version would be in the film. Then they were casting Superbad while we were filming and couldn’t figure out who would play opposite Michael Cera. Judd looked at me one day and said, “Jonah—shave. Here’s a camcorder; read this scene with Seth.” We shot it right there in Seth’s trailer, and I got the part. It happened in 20 minutes. It was crazy. Within literally three seconds my agents and everyone started calling me. I kept thanking Judd, and he said, “It’s all good. Call Michael Cera. You’re going to spend every waking second together until we shoot this.” Michael and I had an arranged marriage all summer. We would hang out at my apartment, go to Canter’s, play video games, mack on girls at the mall.
FRANCO: That’s awesome. You held off doing another movie after Superbad, right?
HILL: I was afraid to do another movie after that because when you’re young and have a hit movie, you don’t realize how difficult it is to make a hit movie. When they tested Superbad, right away it was through the roof. We started to go on press tours, and people were treating us like rock stars; we were on the cover of every magazine. I lived in this small apartment in Los Angeles, where I mostly played video games with my friends, and suddenly there was a billboard for Superbad above my apartment. Nobody knows who I am one day, then suddenly every single person knows who I am. You think everything will be that amazing, but it’s not like that.
FRANCO: You and I had a similar experience in that we both launched our careers with Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Judd Apatow. Then the five of us did This Is the End together. Judd didn’t direct it, but the only difference between This Is the End and an Apatow comedy, I feel, is the way they shot it.
HILL: Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t have been nominated for an Oscar or starred in a Scorsese movie if it wasn’t for what Seth, Evan and Judd did for me. You said something once that really stuck with me: “I’m down for Seth.” And the truth is, I’m down for all of them. If those guys need me, I’m there. They’ve been there for me as people. I support them in whatever they do. They are just guys who work hard, have so much talent and are good people, and that’s rare.
This article was originally published in the September 2013 issue of Playboy. Check out more from the issue at playboy.com/magazine.
Illustration by Raúl Allén