Margot Robbie, who shares a number of high-octane scenes with Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street, says he is fully capable of anything he wants to achieve on screen, naysayers be damned. “It’s hard sometimes for actors because people just want to pigeonhole and label them,” Robbie says. “It must be frustrating for Jonah to be labeled ‘the funny guy,’ like that’s all he can do. What’s great about working with Martin Scorsese is you can show all of your sides. You can destroy the labels. You’ll see everything in this film. Jonah’s so funny in this film, but he’s also quite scary.”
“I think Jonah can do anything that’s asked of him on screen,” adds Channing Tatum, Hill’s longtime friend and 21 Jump Street partner in crime. “And it’s the same thing with friendship. Anything he’s asked to do, he does with ease. Him and me, we’re yin and yang, but we both have the dragon inside. The kid is a genius.”
As a kid growing up in the Cheviot Hills area of Los Angeles, Hill, a self-described product of The Simpsons and Goodfellas, felt neither dragon nor genius. Rather, he did his best to just get by, whiling away his days skateboarding, playing in indie bands and wishing he could move to Springfield to live with Homer and Marge Simpson. “I was never very good at anything growing up. I’d never been told I was very good at anything growing up. That wasn’t a negative thing; it was never a ‘poor me’ thing,” Hill says. “I was just not exceptional at anything in my life.”
When Hill’s parents explained to him that it was actually someone’s job to make up the things that Homer Simpson said and did, a very young Hill began to write his own Simpsons scripts in middle school, sometimes during class, hiding his works-in-progress inside textbooks. Hearing, at last, a resonant call to action in his life, something he truly enjoyed and felt good at, Hill continued writing throughout high school and focused seriously — and academically — on his creative endeavors at the Greenwich Village university, The New School, where he befriended a coterie of like-minded creative types. They encouraged him to leap from behind the typewriter and onto the stage.
“I really enjoyed the round of applause, unfortunately,” Hill laughs. “So I was really inspired to go deeper into performing.”
When his good friend’s father, who happened to be legendary actor Dustin Hoffman, recognized Hill’s talent and lined up an audition for him, things began to crystallize for the up-and-comer — and quickly. “It felt really amazing to have someone older than me say I was good at something,” Hill says, still incredulous. “That it was my favorite actor of all time kind of made me listen.”
Small parts in the films I Heart Huckabees, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up led to Hill’s big break in Superbad, the sweet and salty coming-of-age comedy from writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who remain two of Hill’s closest friends. The 2007 film grossed $170 million worldwide and changed the actor’s life and career trajectory virtually overnight. Suddenly, he was being recognized on the street and in the supermarket. Professionally, the success of Superbad gave Hill some box-office credibility and, for the first time, the opportunity to choose projects he really wanted to make.