Jonah Hill, almost a grown-up

Who knew there was a mature actor behind Judd Apatow’s walking fat joke?

Ture Lillegraven/Corbis Outline

Chances are you’ve seen Jonah Hill. He’s only 26 and he’s racked up over 20 film credits. He wasn’t a child star—he made his screen debut just six years ago—but as Hollywood’s go-to fat kid, it seemed he might never grow up.

From the oversexed teenage virgin in Superbad to the embittered comedian in Funny People, Hill found a niche as the overweight, oversexed and under-laid loser in Judd Apatow’s slacker clubhouse.

Always the smartass sidekick. But this month, in two leading roles, Hill has quietly come of age. In the Apatow-produced Get Him to the Greek, he finally plays an almost-normal adult with a career and a cute girlfriend—even if he is waylaid by booze and drugs while playing nursemaid to an out-of-control rock star (Russell Brand). And in Cyrus, which opens next week, he stars as a grown man who clings to his mother (Marisa Tomei) and is insanely jealous of her new boyfriend (John C. Reilly). Ironically, it’s his most mature role so far. From the trailer, Cyrus may look like another goofy comedy. But it has a raw realism that allows Hill to reveal a disarming dramatic poise—a scary gravitas to match his heft.

Some stars are born, but it’s as if Jonah Hill was adopted. As a college student in Manhattan, he was performing comedy in an East Village bar when a couple of fans offered to introduce him to their father. Dad turned out to be Dustin Hoffman, who had him audition for I Heart Huckabees (2004), a metaphysical farce in which he made his screen debut snorting milk through his nose at a dinner table. Hill’s next mentor was budding comedy mogul Judd Apatow, who gave him a small role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin—as a weirdo in a toque buying himself a pair of silver glitter go-go boots with goldfish in water-filled platform heels. It was the first of half a dozen Apatow vehicles that would make Hill a staple in the most provocative comedy troupe to hit Hollywood since the first generation of comics from Saturday Night Live.

Finding his niche as the sharp-tongued, foul-mouthed fat kid, he became joined at the hip to Apatow’s star protege, Canadian actor Seth Rogen. In 2007, he was part of Rogen’s stoner crew in Knocked Up (2007). The same year, swapping penis jokes with Michael Cera in Superbad, he played a teen version of Rogen, who based the script on his own high school antics in Vancouver. As Rogen became a star and promptly slimmed down, Hill remained in his shadow, the hard-core loser. In Apatow’s Funny People (2009), they were cast as roommates, and rival comedy writers. The Hollywood star portrayed by Adam Sandler spelled out the relationship all too clearly: “So I’m guessing your friend is the fat version of you.”

Cyrus marks a departure from Apatow’s comic style. It’s the first studio film from brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, who made their mark writing and directing micro-budget indie features like The Puffy Chair, which cost a mere US$15,000. Like Apatow, they encourage actors to depart from the script, but with a different goal. “Judd Apatow films employ improvisation to create jokes out of the ether and make them as funny as possible,” Jay told Maclean’s. “We actually dis-obligate our actors from creating jokes. We don’t want them trying to be funny. Our style is aimed at getting the most naturalistic performances we can.”

Unlike most directors, the Duplass brothers don’t use table-reads, rehearsals or even blocking. Shooting documentary-style, with a camera always trained on each actor, they wait for the unexpected. That’s what they got when, out of the blue, Hill told Reilly, “Don’t f–k my mom.” Recalls Mark: “We didn’t even do a second take. Marisa and John’s reactions were so electric we knew we wouldn’t achieve it again.”

Hill’s appeal lies in his eerie mix of fragility and brutal candour. He’s like a child wise beyond his years, a hardened intellect framed by baby fat. “There’s something about the way Jonah handles himself, the way he walks,” says Mark, “a specific little-boy quality. Cyrus is passive-aggressive, manipulative, strange. But he’s loving, and just misguided. You hate him and feel sorry for him. That requires an actor with an extremely deep soul.” Not just another funny fat kid.