It stands to reason that Moneyball, a dramatic film about taking second chances on unproven talent, would cast a comedic performer opposite Brad Pitt. Having long been branded the master of deadpan in Judd Apatow’s canon, Jonah Hill aimed for the bleachers and lobbied for the role (after Demetri Martin fell out) of Oakland A’s stat-head Peter Brand, who persuades Pitt’s general manager Billy Beane to radically change his ways in Sony’s feature take on Michael Lewis’ novel. It was a natural progression in range for Hill, who had already shown a fierce literal side as the mama’s boy in 2010’s Cyrus. He spoke recently with AwardsLine contributor Anthony D’Alessandro.
AWARDSLINE: As a comedy actor, did you face any challenges from the director or studio heads over your capability to play drama?
HILL: I didn’t audition. I showed Bennett [Miller] Cyrus before it came out and that’s what they cast me from. You know I was at the bottom of a list of actors who weren’t known for their dramatic work. I knew Bennett socially and he knew I was eager to break out of whatever box I was in. As a respected filmmaker he wanted to make an unsuspecting choice. And [Sony Pictures co-chairman] Amy Pascal and I had a really great relationship coming off of Superbad. She knew I was trying to do more dramatic work. Regarding those comedic performers who segue to drama; out of my generation I think I made the most effort do both. If you think of my last two films last year, Cyrus and Get Him To The Greek come out a month apart and now I have Moneyball and The Sitter coming out about a month apart [almost three, actually]. Those two films two years in a row are completely unrecognizable and that’s the career I strive to have.
AWARDSLINE: I ask because one of the faults of this business is that people love to pigeonhole.
HILL: It’s easy. I’m guilty of it as well. Why waste the time trying to get to know every single person that you don’t even know in your real life when you have friends and family you need to get to know. So if someone is an actor or entertainer, it’s easy [for a director] to say, “That guy does this thing, on to the next.” I’m guilty of it as anyone, that’s why I make an effort to do different things. I’ve been lucky between Cyrus and Moneyball that people have accepted me as a dramatic actor.
AWARDSLINE: When you sought to make a change in roles with Cyrus and Moneyball, I imagine it’s a team effort. It’s you at bat with your agents, managers and the casting director muscling.
HILL: The beauty of my position is that as a comedy actor, because the comedies I’ve made have been successful, I’m valuable to getting movies made by acting in them. These people [directors] are trying to put together their movies from a financial point of view. The fact that I have movies that people have gone out to go see, is meaningful. A movie like Cyrus helps get made because of my involvement and I help make that movie because I am anxious to do something different. It’s like one hand washes the other.
AWARDSLINE: How did the role of Peter Brand speak to you?
HILL: I thought it was a beautiful story from my characters’ point of view, about a guy who blends into the wall and how a big spotlight that shines on him changes his life and makes him grow.
AWARDSLINE: When you were prepping for your role of Peter Brand, I understand you hung out with Paul DePodesta, who was the assistant to [Oakland As general manager] Billy Beane and a pivotal character in Michael Lewis’ novel. Is Peter a variation on Paul?
HILL: Peter is a character that myself, Aaron, Bennett and Steve created. He’s an amalgamation. In him are elements of those guys who worked for Billy and elements of a person who never had a light shown on them before. In preparing for the role, I spent as much time in MLB front offices as I could as well as with Paul who was using saber metrics at that time.
AWARDLINE: I know you’re an excellent improviser. Was there ample opportunity to veer from the script?
HILL: We would improvise, but when Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian write the script, it’s less of an improvisational environment. Bennett is a detailed, elegant filmmaker and I think he was searching for those little raw moments. He taught me a lot about the words not mattering in that it’s not the words you’re saying, it’s what you’re feeling and sometimes the words may not match up with what you’re feeling at all.
AWARDSLINE: Are you a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences?
HILL: No, but I presented an award a few years back. [Editors’ note: Hill co-presented the sound editing Oscar in 2008 with Seth Rogen, where they debated over who gave off a more Halle Berry vibe.]