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Jonah Hill talks about his inspirations in cinema

07 September 2010

In his most intriguing and nuanced performance so far, Jonah Hill stars in the title role of the new film CYRUS as a young man who is so close to his mother Molly (Marisa Tomei), he cannot bear to share her with anyone else. So when Molly gets involved  with John (John C. Reilly), the trouble begins. 
Cyrus is determined to get rid of his ‘rival’ as quickly as possible and will do whatever it takes to achieve his goal. In this quirky and insightful   comedy, there is also a wealth of emotion. CYRUS shows authentic people with relatable foibles involved in realistic relationships.

Catherine Keener also stars in the compelling film from innovative filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass.        

Jonah Hill is widely accepted as one of Hollywood’s most exciting young comic talents, but his starring role in CYRUS reveals that he also has exceptional skills as a dramatic actor. He plays a young man who has a highly unconventional relationship with his mother Molly (Marisa Tomei). Cyrus has not grown up. He still lives at home and Molly is his only friend.   Cyrus is a talented musician but doesn’t have his own life. It is clear that he has never separated from his mother, who is a single parent.

So when Molly meets an interesting divorced man at a party (John played by John C. Reilly) and starts a relationship with him, Cyrus does his best to  sabotage the affair. Manipulative and   clever, he sets out to split up the happy couple so that he can have his mother all to himself again.

The original film takes a look at the tragedy and comedy   within authentically portrayed relationships. Shot in documentary style by the Duplass Brothers, the story is emotionally engaging but also witty and entertaining.

Jonah Hill is only 26 and is already a consummate actor. His films include    SUPERBAD, I HEART HUCKABEES, THE 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, KNOCKED UP, FUNNY PEOPLE, THE INVENTION OF LYING   and the recent hit comedy GET HIM TO THE GREEK.   He is currently writing THE ADVENTURER’S HANDBOOK, and will both produce and star in the film. He is also writing  two more films: PURE IMAGINATION and  21 JUMP  STREET.

Bearded with short hair and glasses and wearing   a checked shirt and brown suit, the  friendly and fascinating actor sat down in Los Angeles for the following interview.    



Q:  How would you describe Cyrus?

A: “I think he is manipulative and not very likeable at all. Cyrus is very damaged by the way he’s been brought up. He wasn’t forced to go out into the world and make friends and form relationships. I think a lot of kids want to be with their parents but then eventually your parents have to say: ‘alright   here’s the world, you have to   experience things and go through hard times and good times and meet people and develop relationships’. But his mother Molly never made him do that because I think she was dependent on him and was allowed to be dependent on her for far too long.  Elements of their relationship are beautiful because they are  so close and are partners  and  hang out all the time,  however they are close  to a   very unhealthy degree. This has caused Cyrus to live in a state of arrested development because he was not made to go out into the big scary world.”

Q: How interesting and enjoyable was it playing Cyrus, who is not the most sympathetic character as you say?

A: “They say you have to really like or find a way to love every character you play and this for me was definitely the most dramatic and complex character I’ve ever played in my short career. I tried and I just couldn’t find a way to like him; I wouldn’t be friends with him. But   the way I found an entrance into the role was by feeling sympathy for him and eventually I realized  ‘oh this guy’s really messed up and he’s just scared of losing the one person who is important to him and that’s why he’s manipulative’. It is not truly his fault and so sympathy was my way into understanding him, even though I could not like him or genuinely   enjoy  him as a character.”

Q: What was it like working with this fantastic cast?

A: “It was great. I was obviously intimidated beforehand having to work so closely with John and Marisa, because in my opinion they’re two of the best dramatic actors working today.  This was something very different for me because CYRUS is not one of the broader, hard comedies I am used to doing,  made with people I’ve known for a long time. It is different from the films that you’re used to seeing me do.   There is a lot more dramatic subject material with two brilliant  actors who I really look up to. So I was nervous, but then right away John and I clicked and became   close friends, which was great. Marisa and I would have small talk  and she’s lovely but I didn’t want to get to know her really well because in the story she was playing someone I’ve  known my whole life as my Mom. I didn’t  want to get that character and  that relationship  confused with Marisa Tomei the awesome, talented, beautiful actress. That might have been affected if I had gotten to know her too well. It might have been hard to distinguish Marisa the actress from the character she was playing, my mother.”

Q: How manipulative are John and Cyrus, who are at loggerheads and really at war for much of the movie?

A: “I think Cyrus is probably better at manipulation (laughs), not just because I play him but I think it’s less in John’s nature to be manipulative. I think John’s character is more pure of heart and just wants to find happiness, but Cyrus is such a manipulator and such a mastermind that he   probably lies awake thinking of things to do to anyone who would threaten his precious relationship with his mother.”

Q: What do you think of the distinctive Duplass style of film making with a lot of improvisation?

A: “I’m no stranger to improvisation. On Judd Apatow’s movies we improvise quite a bit and it’s part of my background and who I am as an actor. I think being a writer myself really helps because improvisation is completely useless if it’s not done in character within a story.  So as a writer when you are improvising you’re not   going to go off on a tangent and start wasting everybody’s time by riffing something, improvising a scene   that   could actually never be a part of the film. You are conscious of those kinds of things.”

Q: How was your acting and improvisation different in this movie from the broad comedies?

A: “This was a completely different experience for me because usually in the bigger comedies you are  improvising as a way to find new jokes and make the audience laugh at least once a minute –  or else you’re a complete failure  – which I’ve probably been guilty of before. In this movie I was really improvising just to find raw moments, really life like moments within the conversation.”

Q: What were the Duplass brothers like?

A: “Mark and Jay are fantastic and I had been stalking them for years basically. I had a seen a short film they did about eight years ago and since then I noticed  that they had such a  unique voice   and really wanted to work with them. But I didn’t have any semblance of success at the time so I thought ‘why would they want to work with me?’  Then  once I had a little bit of success when SUPERBAD came out (2007)  it all changed.  I feel that anytime you achieve even a minor success   it’s your responsibility to work with people that you feel have something unique to bring to film.  You have to use what little success you’ve attained to help get really good movies made. They were kind enough to take a chance on me because I hadn’t done anything like this role before, to this degree. Who knows, I could have totally blown It and ruined their movie (laughs).  Personally, I always knew I was capable of   this kind of work  but it took guys like Mark and Jay to actually give me that opportunity  so  it was   really  like  one hand washing the other. It worked out for everyone.”

Q: Can you discuss the music you play in the movie?

A: ”I play music in real life. The only song I learned how to play was the one I play during the scene where I’m staring at John.But it was very important for the Duplass brothers and me, along with and Michael Andrews who made a beautiful score for the film, that the music would be the kind that Cyrus would actually make and would be really good.   Cyrus would be talented and I thought Mike Andrews nailed the tone of his music really well.” 



Q: Can you talk about your look and image in the film? You look very young.

A: “Well, you know I tend to look very young if I shave and cut my hair but I think that’s   done on purpose in a lot of the movies I have made because I’m 26. It varies with each movie. So if I’m playing a 26 year-old like in GET HIM TO THE GREEK and I look 19, that would not work; no one would believe it. But for this movie  it worked to make  me look young.  In SUPERBAD I was a 23 year-old playing a 17 year-old. It was the same thing with CYRUS. It was definitely a conscious decision making me look different from the way I look normally.”

Q: You are such a great comedian. Were you naturally funny as a child?

A: “I don’t know,  it seems weird   to say something like that about yourself. But I always enjoyed making my friends   and my family laugh, and that  part of my personality I think was  evident  from a very young age.  I enjoyed entertaining people; I think it is great when everyone’s laughing and you’re all hanging out together having a good time. I love being around people. I’m a very social person and luckily I have a lot of people that I’m close to. But all my friends are funny as well, I think life would be boring if you didn’t laugh.”

Q: What kind of roles would you like to play in the future?

A: “I love making big comedies because they’re so much fun. There is   no greater thrill in the world than watching a movie like SUPERBAD or GET HIM TO THE GREEK and making people laugh. But   then again,   CYRUS is a reflection of other aspects of my taste.  I love all kinds of movies and I would also like to direct movies.  I just love film so for me it is about what’s going to be good at that particular time. I don’t think   ‘hey I just made a comedy now I have to make a drama’.   But having CYRUS and GET HIM TO THE GREEK come out close together was my ultimate dream because they’re so different from one another and  CYRUS has unexpectedly opened a lot of doors for me. This was my    first dramatic role.  Bennett Miller, who directed CAPOTE, saw this film and cast me as the second lead in a drama called MONEYBALL with  Brad Pitt, Phillip Seymour  Hoffman and Robin Wright. Then after that I’m making a comedy with David Gordon Green   called THE SITTER. To be able to go back and forth and do different kind  of films    is  fantastic.  It is not about people’s perception of me. It is just about doing good work and my goal  is to try to not repeat myself too often.”

Q: How do you prepare   for a more dramatic role like CYRUS?

A: “When you go into a comedy, you’re really focused on your character but you are also focused on how the movie is working and how funny it is.  If you are making a movie like  GET HIM TO THE GREEK    and you don’t make people laugh a lot  you are  failing pretty miserably at what your trying to do. In this movie there are moments that are really funny but it also just about good storytelling    and good character work. I will read a scene in a big comedy when we are  about to start shooting and I’ll look at  how I can get into the character  but I will also look at the scene and I might think, ‘oh  the second half of this scene needs to be funnier;  we need to punch this up’. But when you’re approaching a dramatic scene, you’re really trying to completely immerse yourself in that character. You do the same thing in a comedy but you have that extra layer.  You have to think about   how to make every scene as funny as possible. In a drama there isn’t that pressure, although there’s a different kind of pressure to do with how  absorbed you are in  the character,  if that makes any sense.”

Q: Does it concern you how critics view your work?

A: “I recently decided not to read reviews because I don’t want to rest my self esteem on what a stranger thinks.  I think Paul Newman said ‘if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones’.  The only  way  I can judge myself is by what  I think, whether I am proud of a film  and what people I respect think. If a filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson came up to me I would listen, I guarantee  you. But a critic’s job is to be critical and everyone’s taste is different.  I’m so proud of CYRUS and GET HIM TO THE GREEK and I will stake  my career on those two movies.”

Q: Well, critics and audiences love your work. How enjoyable is success?

A: “I appreciate your saying that   but I don’t know.  I don’t even think of myself as famous and successful.  I really just feel lucky to   act in movies and write movies and hopefully direct movies. That’s all I’ve ever wanted and that’s what my focus is. It is  not on anything else like  success or fame. That stuff can all go away in a second and it is all meaningless.  As  long as I get to make movies and talk about movies I will be happy. My friends, my family and my girlfriend don’t treat me an ounce differently than they did before I was making movies.  I know that this is a privilege and not a right for anybody.    I don’t care if you  are   the most famous movie star in the world, which I’m not. It is not a right so you just have to work hard and make good choices and try to make  films that you will  be proud of when you’re an old guy and you look back at what is important. You will be saying:  ‘here’s what I did with my career   which I love and my family and my friends and    relationships.”

Q: Who inspires you in cinema?

A: “I tend to be more influenced by filmmakers than actors or actresses. I love    Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Judd Apatow, Alexander Payne and the Coen Brothers.  I also really like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. As far as my role models go, I’d say Bill Murray is probably the premier person because he does drama and comedy  and does both flawlessly. I think Adam Sandler does both wonderfully too.  I also love Ben Stiller   and Sacha Baron Cohen. John C. Reilly is a perfect example of someone who does comedy and drama flawlessly and so is  Phillip Seymour  Hoffman.    I’d say my top three would be Bill Murray, Adam Sandler and Dustin Hoffman.”

Q: Finally, what do you hope the audience will take away from CYRUS?

A: “ I want the audience to   feel like I felt when I watched the film.    I laughed but I also felt really moved.    I hope that  they will feel that it was a really human, emotional, funny, heartbreaking and raw experience. But overall I just hope they enjoy It.”



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