He’s moved on from those negative experiences and developed into one of the most adventurous and intelligent actors around.
From the Oscar-nominated ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ to ‘Moneyball’ and the critically acclaimed 2016 comedy ‘War Dogs’. His latest role as a troubled group counsellor in the new Gus Van Sant film, ‘Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot’, will give you yet another reason to love this already cherished actor.
But at 34, Jonah is now embarking on a wholly different journey away from acting, one that is focused around venturing out to pursue his real love: directing and writing. His first film ‘Mid-90s’ is set to be released sometime later this year.
In this very raw exclusive chat, we sit down with Jonah to discuss everything from his temperamental relationship with the media & fame to why the truth is the only thing that matters.
Where are you at right now?
I’m in New York City editing my film.
Is that your directorial debut ‘Mid-90s’?
Is that an exciting adventure for you?
It’s been my dream my whole life so it’s the start of hopefully a very long adventure.
Are you going to move into becoming a director or is acting always going to be your first love?
Writing and directing has always been my first love but I’ll always act. I hope to do everything. Writing is my first love, and then everything else comes after that.
"I was a very insecure young man, and people were incredibly mean to me throughout my whole career, they still are. I’m sensitive, and my reaction to that often was to be a jerk back."
What inherently do you love about writing? What ticks all the boxes for you?
With everything else you’re working off something else, so if you’re an actor, you’re working off a script and a character, which has already been created, and if you’re a director and you didn’t write it you’re working off a script that exists.
But as a writer, it’s just a blank page. There was nothing, and then there’s something. And I think there’s a lot of gratification that comes along with that.
Did you write this film ‘Mid-90s’?
So, when you finished the script were you quite hard on yourself? Has it been through many iterations and revisions?
The producer is Scott Rudin, so I ended up doing twenty drafts of the script.
Are you quite hard on yourself in some ways?
Yeah, I think so. Everyone I work with is hard on the movie. I think that’s the only way it can progress, by not giving it any passes.
It’s funny because I’m terrified of Carrie Brownstein.
It was one of the first interviews we ever did, and it remains for me the worst interview for us to this day.
People often ask me to this day, ‘what is the worst interview you’ve ever done?’ And I still say, Carrie Brownstein.
For what reason do you think?
I’ll be totally honest, I don’t know. You know when you don’t like someone, and you’ve made that decision before you’ve even talked to him or her, which is unsavoury.
You felt like she had made that decision?
Jonah Hill in his Oscar-nominated role, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
You seem like a lovely guy.
Thanks. I asked her a question about women, and she just destroyed me.
I’m sorry you had to go through that. To be fair, I have no idea. I don’t know Carrie at all, I’ve met her once or twice, and she was nice to me.
But I’ve been an asshole in interviews or an asshole in general, and it usually came because I was upset with myself for some reason, so I would try not to take it personally.
Yeah, I know. It’s quite interesting. I was trying to research you; it seems like you’ve done little or no interviews?
I don’t know. It’s not like I enjoy being famous very much. I love getting to make things, and it’s all been leaning towards getting to make my film, which I’m so proud of. But I don’t really love attention or being out there that much; I like to get to make things.
And also, I’m very sensitive and so sometimes when you’re sensitive – especially when I was so young – I would get hurt really easily and then I would come off as mean.
It’s kind of hard to put yourself out there, especially when you grow up in front of everybody and make all your dumb mistakes in front of everybody.
You seem like such a nice guy. People can be mean I guess, and as you said you’re very sensitive. People seem to have got the wrong end of the stick with you in a way?
Are you referring to in interviews and stuff or just in general?
You in general, definitely in interviews?
I mean look, man, I was a very insecure young man, and people were incredibly mean to me throughout my whole career, they still are. I’m sensitive, and my reaction to that often was to be a jerk back.
And also, people always want me to be funny, and I love being funny, but I also have other parts of my personality I guess.
You grow up a little bit, and you start to learn about yourself and how you feel and gain your esteem from various places that have nothing to do with show business and stuff like that. And then you can look back at yourself and go oh man; most people get to be an idiot growing up privately.
"Nobody’s perfect, but as long as you admit you fucked up and have a plan to work on it, you’re pretty cool."
That’s so true.
Not like poor me by any means but definitely, people picked on me and I was sensitive and maybe wasn’t always kind back and I can own up to that.
Could it be that everything in life stems from the Bar Mitzvah?
It’s not accurate for me, but I’m glad you’ve pinpointed the cause of your life’s journey. Mine was Jonah goes platinum.
So I interviewed Harmony Korine recently.
Ah, he’s the best. He’s the best.
It was interesting as it was one of the stranger interviews I’ve ever done.
Did you have a nice chat with him?
Well, he was absolutely lovely but again, another mysterious character.
He was looking for a dead body while I was interviewing him.
He was probably fucking with you man.
I don’t know. I said to him ‘what’s happening there’s a lot of wind in the background?’ And he said, ‘I’m walking on the train tracks in Nashville where I’m based’. And I asked why, and he said, ‘I’m in a shady area because they put a reward out for a dead body and I’m looking for it’.
Twenty minutes into the interview, he goes, ‘call me back in ten minutes’. So, I called him back and asked what was wrong, and he said, ‘some guy was carrying a piece, and he was walking right towards me’.
Harmony is such an interesting person because I can’t tell if what he was saying to you was a show or if he was doing that. He has a prankster side to him, especially with regards to his persona. But god is he kind and generous.
You would think he was a crazy person because of how crazy his art is but he’s so unbelievably knowledgeable and sweet and he gave me a lot of pragmatic directing advice. Not even just wild man ethereal directing advice but very pragmatic. He’s just so smart; I have a lot of love and respect for Harmony.
Miles Teller and Jonah Hill star in War Dogs (2016). Photograph: Warner Bros
I mentioned I’m interviewing you and he said, ‘he’s so sweet, ask him about life!’.
So, I just thought I’d ask you about life. What is the purpose of life?
I don’t know the meaning of life, that would make me some sort of God and I am not. I have no idea what the purpose of life is.
The truth seems to be the only thing that is correct. And people can’t hate when you tell the truth. And nobody’s perfect, but as long as you admit you fucked up and have a plan to work on it, you’re pretty cool.
That’s interesting because it seems like you love the truth. All the film roles that you’ve taken on, especially as of late, you immerse yourself in these characters, and there’s no bullshit to them. You’re sincere, especially in ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’ and I can imagine ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ and even ‘Moneyball’.
You like to turn the real almost into a type of surreal. I don’t know if that makes sense?
I don’t know it sounds very cool and for that, I’ll say thanks.
I guess you just kind of come off the page in a way.
Well, that’s so nice. All the things I’ve done, whether they’ve been super broad and comedic when I was younger, or things based in reality as of later, they’ve all just led me to experiment so that I could find my voice as a filmmaker.
All I care about is telling the truth and exploring people, their good and bad sides. Everybody I’ve ever met or played or written about or directed is one thing. And people are so multifaceted; they have things that you are going to agree with and disagree with.
I think life is so confusing for people, well, for everybody, and it’s so hard and confusing that maybe learning about people and their mistakes gives me some understanding that makes me feel good.
Are there specific things that are totally off limits in terms of talking to interviewers and journalists?
I mean there are things that I would prefer not to talk about just on a human being level that you would hope people respect. And I think when I was younger I assumed people would respect those kinds of boundaries and when they didn’t I would react terribly, hence those interviews that went crazy.
If someone said something I thought was malicious or felt was crossing some human decency boundary, I fell right into it and would react poorly. And now, I would say respectfully, that’s not something I want to talk about and hopefully they would understand. It’s about learning your own boundaries as you grow up.
"I mean there are things that I would prefer not to talk about just on a human being level that you would hope people respect."
You said you’re not into fame that much, how have you been coping with fame?
No, I think it has got a tremendous amount easier since I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my skin. I think it’s knowing what kind of mood you’re in and doing things that you can handle. It’s just knowing yourself and adjusting.
I get to write and direct movies. I got to write and direct a personal film that I’m very proud of, and hopefully, I’ll get to do another one.
My life is very special, and I learn to deal with things as they come. Sometimes it takes years of trial and error.
But have there been moments where you’ve thought screw that and just closed the door behind you and struggled with privacy at all?
No, there are moments where you don’t feel like being a public person, but it is what it is. Try and stay inside those days or watch a movie instead of going out. If you’re in a bad mood, then try your best and if you can’t help it then try and be kind and thoughtful to people and hopefully that works.
But you also come across as a very intelligent guy, and it’s not something people give you credit for.
Sure. If I respond to something emotionally, I’ll do it. It’s mostly filmmaker dependent.
Since I’m a director now – and I’ve wanted to be a director my whole life – I’ve got to learn from pretty much all my favourite filmmakers. And a lot of times I want to learn from great directors and be directed as an actor by great directors.
It’s funny because I love Gus’ movies so much and I love Harmony’s movies. But my movie is the first thing that I’ve made that represents my taste and my aesthetic and the things I believe in.
Are there specific topics that you think about late at night or if you’re sitting around with friends and family and you think, that is a topic which I would love to cover?
No, I think all great businesses come from the necessity of what you want that’s not in the marketplace, right? So, the movies are the same. I don’t think you choose them in that way.
The film I made and the next movie I want to make, they’re things that I feel that I don’t necessarily see out there in the same way as I see them or feel them.
What do you mean?
Just feelings about specific parts of your life or things that have happened that I haven’t seen expressed in the way that I have them in my head. So that’s why I would choose to make something.
Is there someone out there that you’ve read about recently, or you’ve been intrigued by that you think would make an excellent subject for a film?
I don’t look at it like a news story or things like that. They have to come from somewhere personal I guess.
I can’t believe you did that Danny Brown video. How did that even come about and Gus Van Sant has a cameo?
I made a trade with Gus: he was going to be in my video, and then I was going to be in his film. And I love directing music videos, but I don’t usually have enough time to do more. Once I lock this film, I’m going to do some more definitely. And I love Danny Brown. I’m a huge fan. I love rap music; it’s what I primarily listen to.
You have such eccentric taste; you go from Danny Brown to Gus Van Sant. I can’t seem to pin you down.
I don’t want to be pin down.
Does that sum you up?
No, I like what I like. Can’t you have an eccentric and eclectic taste? I think what’s always frustrating – not for me but for humans in general – is you don’t want to be reduced to something so simple. And then most of the time you are.
But with my taste and what I want to make, when people hear about my film, I think what they’re expecting and what they’re going to get is going to be wildly different. And I’ve made a whole career off that.
What were you laughing at?
I feel like I’ve made a whole career off people’s expectations, and then something being different than what they’re expecting.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is now out in the US with a UK date yet to be announced
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity purposes.