Jay and Mark Duplass have been known names on the indie festival circuit for seven years, but no matter how much critics rave about their work, people just didn’t seem to make the effort to see their first two feature films, The Puffy Chair and Baghead, at least not in theaters. If for some reason this is because neither of those movies had known stars, hopefully that will change with their upcoming situational comedy Cyrus, which stars John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei and Catherine Keener.
In the movie, Reilly plays a guy also named John who hasn’t dated anyone since his wife left him seven years earlier. When he meets Molly (Tomei) at a party, they instantly hit it off, but then he meets her 21-year-old son Cyrus. This is where Jonah Hill comes in, playing a very odd guy who will do anything to get his mother to break up with John, beginning a hilarious game of one-upmanship as the two of them try to convince Molly that the other one is up to no good.
A few weeks back, ComingSoon.net sat down with the 26-year-old actor who broke out in Greg Mottola’s Superbad in 2007, and the first thing we learned was that Hill was actually one of the Duplass Brothers’ early fans. It wasn’t the best interview because it was hard getting answers out of Hill, and just as he seemed to be warming up to us, the interview was over, but we did our best.
ComingSoon.net: You’ve been working with Judd Apatow and doing his improvisational comedy method for many years, and with this, you worked in the “Duplassian Method” I guess you could call it. Did you know their stuff beforehand or how they worked before you came onto this?
Jonah Hill: Yeah, I had seen their short film “The Intervention” about seven years ago at a film festival and asked them questions during the Q & A, and then I saw “Puffy Chair” and thought “Those are those guys that I really love” and then I asked them if they want to work together and they were like, “We don’t know who you are” and then “Superbad” had come out and been successful and so I just basically asked them, “Hey, if you guys ever want to work together, I’d love to do that.” I think it’s my responsibility or anybody’s responsibility when you become somewhat successful is to make sure that you use that success to further someone’s creative endeavors. They handed me the script, and I was like, “Let’s do it.”
CS: So you were nice about it. You could have said, “You guys dissed me seven years ago so now I’m more expensive…”
Hill: But it would have been counter-productive to just making a great movie.
CS: Had John already come on board or did you guys come on together?
Hill: They had written it for… I think they had written it for John and maybe for the three of us.
CS: I know they were looking for very specific people and it wasn’t about casting for the characters. I know they had some sort of script but how detailed is it. Is it a full script?
Hill: Yeah, it was a great script, it was an unbelievable script. That’s kind of the misconception and they promote their own misconception that they improvise so much, which is weird, because they’re such great writers. They wrote such a beautiful script, and then we did improvise a lot, but they really had a clear… it was pretty clear, in my head at least.
CS: Once you’re on set, they don’t do a lot of the usual setting up cameras and lights once you find the right location, but is it a matter of them just letting tape run for 20 or 30 minutes and letting you go on scenes?
Hill: Yeah, the takes would be extraordinarily long.
CS: So do you experiment in what you do each time and do you talk a lot about it beforehand?
Hill: No, you just do it, yeah. They would give great direction. They would also give direction to all of us separately, so we wouldn’t know the direction that the other actors were getting, so it would be a surprise what was happening.
CS: What was a good example of that, something John or Marisa did that threw you in a different direction that you weren’t expecting or made you change your own game?
Hill: I don’t know. I can’t think of an example, but everything was meant to be a surprise. We didn’t rehearse for that reason because we wanted everything to feel fresh when it was happening and give it the ability to go in whatever direction it was heading naturally.
CS: Do they throw out lines at all like Judd does? I assume they wouldn’t want to intrude in the characters interacting.
Hill: No, they’re very quiet. They’ll wait until a take’s over or sometimes Jay, who actually camera operates as well, will maybe very gently whisper something but it’s different than Judd’s method which is a lot more abrupt, as he’ll just shout stuff.
CS: You’ve worked with John before albeit briefly…
Hill: Yeah, very briefly…
CS: He’d worked with Adam McKay a few times who is also really big on that comedy improv, so how did Marisa fit into that, since she comes from a more straightforward acting background.
Hill: She was great. She was a fan of “Puffy Chair” I think as well–I mean, you’d have to ask her–but she was up for it. She kind of knew what the program was going to be like and she’s just a fantastic actress, but I don’t have to tell you that.
CS: It must have been a dream come true to have such a hot Mom being so clingy to you…
Hill: Why would that be a dream come true?
CS: Because she’s not really your mother and she’s kind of all over you in the movie…
Hill: My Mom is beautiful, but I don’t think anyone wishes, “Man, I wish I had a really hot Mom…” That would be weird.
CS: Yeah, but you get to have Marisa Tomei hanging all over you for the entire movie.
Hill: Yeah, I mean she was great, but I honestly was such a big fan of her acting, too. She’s just incredible, yeah.
CS: What else did they tell you as far as Cyrus as a character? Did they just tell you to be as weird as possible?
Hill: Absolutely not. It was a very specific character. Have you seen the film? He’s a very specific person. I think it’s probably the most complex character I’ve ever played and we were very thoughtful making sure that he stayed true to the guy that the three of us were trying to bring out.
CS: I’m thinking specifically of the techno scene where you’re playing John your music and I wondered what’s going on in your head while you’re standing there staring off into space.
Hill: Yeah, it was weird, you know, but…
CS: That’s just part of him trying to freak out male acquaintances of his mother?
Hill: Yeah, I mean it’s trying to intimidate him.
CS: When you’re an actor making a movie like this, you’re really putting a lot of trust in Jay and Mark to make sure to get the best stuff you’ve done on set into the film. Do you feel that you did a lot of stuff you liked that didn’t make it into the movie?
Hill: There were certain things that were gone but they were ultimately for the benefit of the movie and the story that Mark and Jay were trying to tell. Like there were sequences that we shot where you find out what Cyrus did when he moves out. You see him move in somewhere else in this kind of house he finds on craigslist with all these younger kids, and he kind of starts having panic attacks and stuff. But it made you feel too bad for him, and you had to feel like he was John’s equal rival.
CS: So there were whole other scenes. I was thinking more as far as those 20 minute takes and having to whittle them down to just the best parts.
Hill: No, that’s kind of the biggest chunk that was lost.
CS: I know you’re doing “Moneyball” next. I spoke to Soderbergh last year and when he was directing it, there was going to be more comedy in it, so is it getting more serious now?
Hill: It’s definitely a drama, but there’s funny moments in it for sure. Bennett Miller, who directed “Capote,” saw “Cyrus” and thought I could do something a little more dramatic.
CS: What was your background before you started appearing in movies? Were you a stand-up comic?
Hill: No, I was never a stand-up comedian. I like film. I love films, all kinds of films.
CS: Did you do drama in high school or anything like that?
Hill: No, I didn’t do high school drama. I studied theater in college and writing and directing, and that’s kind of like… film.
CS: I know Judd’s really into having his actors write – I think maybe you were the first person to tell me this…
Hill: Yeah, he was a definite mentor for me and got me writing. I already wanted to but he really showed me what was up, as far as outlining and format. He literally gave me outlines and showed me how to write a script and walked me through the process a few times.
CS: How has that been going? I know you’ve been writing “21 Jump Street”… is “The Sitter” something you wrote as well?
Hill: Oh, “The Sitter”… no, David Gordon Green’s directing that.
CS: That’s from someone else’s script.
CS: How has it been going with the writing because I know you’ve working on some stuff for a long time? Might some of those screenplays start moving forward into production?
Hill: Yeah, “Jump Street” is something we’re working on that we’re going to shoot early next year, and I’m just constantly writing also for myself as well as professionally. It’s something that I love to do.
CS: Have you been getting any calls to do any rewrites on stuff or touch-up the comedy in scripts?
Hill: Yeah, you know, I was a writer-producer on “Bruno,” so… I love doing stuff like that. It’s interesting to write for other people in other people’s voices. I did some rewrite work and stuff like that.
CS: Do you think you’ll ever reunite with Seth Rogen or Michael Cera? “Superbad” was so well-loved, you would think one of these days, you’d want to do another movie with them.
Hill: I don’t know. I love those guys and I would love to do something with them. I don’t think we’ll make a sequel to “Superbad.”
CS: No, I think that would be kind of hard to do.
Hill: It would. It just wouldn’t be as good as the first one, so why even try to do it?
CS: Hey… some people like “Aliens” more than “Alien.”
Hill: “Godfather II” is I think better than “The Godfather.” But I don’t think “Superbad 2″ would be as good as “Superbad.”
Cyrus opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, June 18. You can also hear what the Duplass Brothers had to say about bringing actors like Hill, Reilly and Tomei into their process in our exclusive video interview.