In contest for nice Jewish guys, Jonah Hill wins it

Five minutes late to an interview at an L.A. restaurant, Jonah Hill apologizes like a contrite teenager. “I’m sorry I’m tardy,” he says, explaining he’d just flown in from Atlanta and was scrambling to finish his Chanukah shopping. His 28th birthday was the next day, but “It’s better to give than to receive, right?”

He’s almost adorably awkward, channeling his inner nice-Jewish-boy; this perfect gentleman is not what one might expect from the guy who helped reinvent the modern stoner-slacker in films like “Superbad” (2007), in which his libidinous character had a mouth so foul he could make Howard Stern blush.

During our hourlong conversation, however, nary an expletive nor a raunchy story comes out of Hill’s mouth. Perhaps it’s the context: His parents’ friends and his grandmother probably will read this story.

Scene from “Cyrus” with Jonah Hill (right) and John C. Reilly photo/ap/fox searchlight/chuck zlotnick

These days, Hill can count serious thespian, writer and producer among his credits — and, as of Jan. 24, Academy Award nominee. His role as a baseball numbers nerd opposite Brad Pitt in “Moneyball” earned him a nomination as best supporting actor in a drama (the Oscars are Feb. 26). Hill also was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award (the ceremony airs Sunday, Jan. 29) and a Golden Globe Award (which he lost Jan. 16 to Christopher Plummer).

“I’m not saying, ‘Now that I’ve made a “fancy” movie, I’m going to leave comedy behind,’” he said. “I’m so beyond proud of the comedies I’ve made. But it’s important for me to note this as a transformation in my career and my life. This period is me becoming an adult, becoming a man. I look completely different; I’ve matured; I’m not just that funny kid you know me as from my early movies. I’m here to do other kinds of things, including dramatic films, as well. I take that really seriously, and you should, too.”

If you’re picturing the Jonah Hill in his last flick, “The Sitter,” which was not so well received, or 2010’s “Get Him to the Greek,” which was, put that guy out of your mind. Along with the life-changing experience of his recent dramatic roles, including 2010’s heartrendingly bizarre turn as Marisa Tomei’s son in the independent film “Cyrus,” Hill also has slimmed down his overweight physique. As he sipped iced tea and joked about his new “girlish figure,” he said his physical metamorphosis reflects the personal makeover within.

Hill’s life, these days, is distinctly grown up, or at least moving fast in that direction.

He said he had just spent his first two nights in the home he recently finished building in Los Angeles; it’s a universe away from the frat-boy apartment he moved into when fellow Judd Apatow protégé Seth Rogen moved out. Those were the days when a bong was practically affixed to the dining room table, and Hill appeared on the cover of Heeb magazine, in a pose reminiscent of his lecherous but nuanced “Superbad” character, shmearing K-Y Jelly on his morning bagel.

Jonah Hill in “Moneyball” photo/ap/columbia oictures-sony/melinda sue gordon

After a bit part in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” in 2005, Hill went on to co-star in a string of other Apatow comedies before having his face plastered on billboards with “Superbad.” His next film, which he is currently promoting, is “21 Jump Street,” a comedic take on the old TV show about cops (Hill and Channing Tatum, in this case) doing undercover work at a high school. It is slated to open in mid-March.

Hill said he’s essentially had to grow up in the limelight, and looking back on some of his early interviews is “horrifying, because when you’re in your early 20s, you can sound like an idiot.”

But even back then, Hill was fiercely ambitious and looking to expand his repertoire. He saw his chance when he met Sundance regulars Mark and Jay Duplass, who in their early films helped kick-start the youthful genre known as “mumblecore.” After viewing their short film “Intervention,” Hill suggested that should any of them become successful, they should make a movie together.

“When ‘Superbad’ became a big hit, Mark and Jay were the first people I called,” Hill said. “They said they’d been writing a movie for me, and they gave me this gift that was ‘Cyrus.’ They were the first people to say, ‘Jonah can do something more, and we believe in him as a dramatic actor, not just some funny kid.’ ”

In “Cyrus,” Hill plays a 22-year-old who is overly dependent on his mother (Tomei) and comes creepily undone when she begins dating her new boyfriend (John C. Reilly). “I loved the character because he’s so heartbreaking,” Hill said. “There were so many mistakes made that he didn’t have a fighting chance, and that manifests in dark relationships, especially in the sad relationship he has with his mother.”

“Moneyball” came into the equation when Hill’s “Cyrus” co-star, Catherine Keener, recommended him to director Bennett Miller. The film is based on a true story, and Hill plays Peter Brand, a repressed Yale math whiz who helps Pitt’s Billy Beane reinvent the Oakland Athletics through a statistics scheme that, in real life, transformed baseball. “The role was extremely challenging because the character, in a way, is the polar opposite of me,” Hill said. “I tend to overcommunicate, probably more than anyone should, and to a fault. I can’t hold things in,” he said, laughing.

“But if my character had a thorn in his foot, he wouldn’t say anything to anyone. He’s someone who has an extremely hard time expressing what he is feeling, and uses baseball statistics, in a sense, to communicate his inner life.”

Born Jonah Hill Feldstein, the future actor grew up in Los Angeles, a middle child with an older brother and younger sister. His father, Richard Feldstein, is an accountant in the music industry.

He attended religious school at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, where he became bar mitzvah in a ceremony he described as “magical”; he attended high school in Santa Monica, where he became friends with Jake Hoffman, son of Dustin Hoffman. Because Hill’s parents are from Long Island, N.Y., the family sometimes vacationed in the Catskills, where, Hill said, “I saw Borscht Belt comedians who were 100 by the time I was old enough to see them.”

Apparently, Dustin Hoffman thought so, too, because he helped get Hill a bit part in his 2004 film “I Heart Huckabees” — the break that eventually led to his role in Apatow’s “40-Year-Old Virgin.”

More recently, Hill has produced and voiced a short-lived animated TV series, “Allen Gregory,” directed a music video for Sara Bareilles, and co-wrote and starred in “21 Jump Street.” He was working on that film when a friend called to tell him he was up for a Golden Globe Award.

“I freaked out,” Hill said. He was so surprised and thrilled that when he spoke to his parents later that day, everyone was crying.

“This whole ‘Moneyball’ year has been the most insane, beautiful, crazy, surreal, dreamlike experience of my life,” he said.

The Screen Actors Guild Awards air at 8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29 on TNT. The Academy Awards air Feb. 26.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal