But a month or so later, Hill received a phone call from Wolf frontman Leonardo DiCaprio saying the part was his for the taking. A few days later, Scorsese sent Hill an iPod loaded with music from the film’s ’80s-era soundtrack to help him get into character. “You don’t forget the day the delivery guy brings you an iPod from Martin Scorsese,” says Hill, almost giddy at the memory.
Hill dove into the work, devouring Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name about Reagan-era Wall Street excess, on which the film is based; hanging with traders; and researching the Caligula-like behaviors of the era’s financial robber barons. Hill’s character, Donnie Azoff, is a composite of several real-life characters given to deeply unbalanced behavior. The experience was a challenge for Hill, but a liberating one too. “This guy’s desires overcome any sense of morality. He is basically an animal — completely unhinged,” Hill says. “Nothing was inappropriate for him. When I looked at the character objectively, from my own perspective, I could never respect or endorse his choices. But playing it, anything goes. Sometimes at the end of the day, I’d think to myself, ‘Man, what did I do today?’ ”
To get into character, which required a distinctive patois and tone of voice, Hill resorted to one of his time-tested, if unconventional, acting techniques: prank phone calls.
“I don’t know if other actors do this or not — it probably sounds idiotic or insane — but it’s one of the best ways for me to find my character and figure it all out,” Hill confesses. “Real-life conversations are the greatest form of improvisation to me, so I’d get into character as Donnie and call these guys at Best Buy in Hawaii or wherever and talk to them about computer equipment and televisions and stuff, working out my voice and accent and everything. I was never mean, but it helped me so much. I know it sounds weird.”
Whether Christopher Plummer, who nabbed the Oscar (for Beginners) over Hill two years ago, practices through prank phone calls is anyone’s guess, but early Wolf howling suggests that Hill should prepare some mantel space come awards season.
“I would never, ever say that,” Hill says sincerely, finishing his drink. “All I can do is be thankful for the incredibly good luck I’ve got. I mean, if I wasn’t having the time of my life right now, I’d be very upset with myself. I really can’t imagine being any luckier than I am right now.”
Frequent American Way contributor J. RENTILLY is an award-winning author and journalist in Los Angeles. He has three sons who think he’s kind of superbad.