INTERVIEW: Moneyball actor Jonah Hill

Moneyball concerns the story of real life Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane whose support of the controversial system of sabermetrics over traditional baseball scouting methods changed America’s favorite past time forever.  The mathematical formulas that embody sabermetrics have seemingly been applied to the film, which is directed by Bennett Miller (Capote), co-written by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and stars powerhouse actors Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  The only variable in the equation is co-star Jonah Hill, a well-known comedic actor who makes his dramatic debut in the role of a young mathematician.  Cinedelphia, alongside Philadelphia Weekly and Xfinity, recently participated in a roundtable interview with Hill in which we discussed his first foray into drama, the expectations of Oscar-nominated director Miller, and whether or not it was intimidating to work alongside his well-respected peers.

XFINITY: You’ve had a pretty meteoric rise in Hollywood in the last eight years.  What makes a good comic actor?

JONAH HILL: Ironically, I’ve been thinking a lot about the opposite lately.  Right now I feel exactly like I did when I was promoting Superbad [in 2007] in that that was my introduction to all of you, to strangers.  I was basically saying “Hey, I’m Jonah, I’m in this movie Superbad and I’d like to make more comedy films and I hope you accept me.”  Now it’s not unexpected for me to be in a comedy film and with this movie I feel like I’m doing the exact same thing where I’m saying “Hey, I’m Jonah, I’m in this different kind of movie, it’s a drama, and I’d like to do more of these kinds of movies, please accept me.”  So I’ve ironically been thinking about the opposite of that…I’m really priding myself that I’m trying to do both [comedy and drama] and I’m hoping that people are open to that.

X: Most people say it’s harder to be a comedic actor, do you agree with that?

JH: I don’t think so.  I just love movies, I’m a cinephile.  I like comedy movies as much as I like dramas and vice versa.  For me it’s important to get to make different kinds of films and I feel really lucky that I’m getting the chance to do both.

CINEDELPHIA: To continue on that thought, was it at all intimidating to enter the world of drama?

JH: I did a movie called Cyrus that I’m really proud of, that was a smaller drama, but this is the true introduction of me as a dramatic actor to people, right?  Just because of the scale of it.  But yeah, being the second lead in this movie with Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman was incredibly intimidating.  And then having it be something that Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian wrote and Bennett Miller directing, it’s a laundry list of people whose pedigree is basically unmatched.  Yeah, it was intimidating.  After the first week or so of rehearsals I just said to myself, “You’ve been given this great opportunity by these people, Bennett believed in you and gave you this part.  You can either stay intimidated or kick that stuff to the side and make them not regret that they gave you this big opportunity.”  So that’s what I did, I just said “Alright, that part’s over with, now let’s get to work.”

PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY: I saw that you studied acting at the New School.  Were you interested in doing drama from the start?

JH: That’s kind of what I was saying, I just came into this as an actor.  Dustin Hoffman is the person who discovered me back in my first audition for I Heart Huckabees, which I had a couple lines in, but it wasn’t the typical kind of comedy you’d end up knowing me for.  And basically you just take the opportunities as they come.  I got lucky enough to have four Billy Beane-type experiences in life, Billy Beane was the first person in my character Peter’s life to shed a light on him and say “You have something great about you, I’m gonna give you the chance to shine.”  And Dustin being the first one to give me that opportunity, encouraging me to act, and Judd Apatow being the second one, the most prolific one for me.  “You have something special and I’m going to give you the opportunity to show that to people.”  And also, I thought what Judd and myself and Seth were making were the most interesting films being made at that time.  They were different and unique and a little punk rock, a little against the system, which I thought was cool, especially as a 21-year-old, you want to say “fuck you” to any sort of system that exists.  Mark and Jay Duplass were the third people to say “We’re really gonna give you something different” and now the biggest one since Judd is Brad and Bennett and so I’m really trying to make those guys proud.  There was a laundry list of actors who wanted to get this part, a lot of whom have been nominated for Oscars and I was at the very bottom of that list and luckily these guys took a chance on me.

C: Can you comment on how the film transcends the sports genre and maybe compare it to other sports-related films of the past?

JH: I think the filmmakers use baseball as a beautiful aesthetic backdrop to tell a story, a really moving story, about being an underdog and being undervalued and that to me is the movie that we made.  It’s not like, “I’m going to watch a movie about baseball and math,” it’s just a great underdog story.  I could tell you what we talked a lot about, The Natural, All the President’s Men, Brad and my dynamic being a lot like Woodward and Bernstein and how they talked with each other and were able to finish each other’s sentences while doing something anti-establishment and controversial.  When I first meet Brad in the parking garage it’s kind of a fun wink to that movie.  Anyone who would answer that question though…I get so embarrassed to compare a movie that I’m in to some classic movie, I would cringe reading that.

C: Very modest of you.

X: Can you answer in terms of your character?  Did you have anyone specifically in mind when you were working on him?

JH: It wasn’t someone from a movie or anything, it was just a person in society that you come across sometimes that I felt hadn’t been portrayed in a movie, a guy that really blends into the wall…I found that a really moving character to play and I’m proud about how that came across.  When Hatteberg hits a home run and you see my character’s face, those moments mean so much to [my character], he never thought he’d have a moment in the sun like that, Hatteberg’s his guy and he’s 24-years-old and has been overlooked his whole life.  No one wanted that guy and he chose him and look what he did.  It’s just really moving and that’s the kind of person I wanted to portray.

PW: What was it like working with Bennett Miller?  What did he bring to the project?

JH: Everything.  Bennett is so incredibly talented, it’s mind blowing, there’s no other way to describe it.  He’s so nuanced and elegant and detailed in his filmmaking.  It sounds like what actors say all the time about directors, but this movie is so much of how Bennett sees the world.

PW: Usually movies with a lot of talking, especially when written by Aaron Sorkin, are very fast-paced, people running out of rooms and talking over each other like His Girl Friday-type style and this seemed to be much more laid back and leisurely.

JH: We had a conversation one time when we were making the movie and he was like “Are you excited to be doing a drama now?” and I said “Yeah, but I’ve gotta tell you, there’s no better feeling in the world than making a comedy movie and standing in the back of the theater and hearing people explode with laughter and have that audible connection to what you’re doing.”  And he said “Well, I bet you’re gonna like a different kind of sound after you watch this movie in the theater” and I said “Why?” and he said “When you stand in the back of the theater and you listen to the silence and you know that the silence is them leaning forward in their chairs needing to know what happens next.”  And that was actually true…in game 20 there’s a long chunk of dead silence in the movie where the guy from the other team hits the home run and Bennett’s like “I bet you 2,500 people are going to be quiet.”  That’s what he was most curious to see, if 2,500 people were going to be quiet during that part in the theater and they were and it was really cool.  A different feeling, for sure.

C: I thought one of the most interesting things content-wise was the math, the sabermetrics.  When researching the role, did you speak with the person who created the system or anything like that?

JH: I can barely count to ten, personally, but I had a statistics tutor to help me understand what I was talking about.  Bennett wanted me to improvise with statistics, which was the most frustrating direction to get in preparation for a movie, I wanted to kill him.  It’s not easy to be able to throw out numbers and have them be legit, which was part of his insistence and is why people who know sabermetrics and have seen the movie have flipped out.  I have a friend who wrote his senior thesis on sabermetrics five years ago at Harvard and he said he was almost crying…from the fact that this story was told so well and the sabermetrics part of the story was so accurately portrayed.  I became less upset with Bennett once I heard that.

C: Has the real life Billy Beane or anyone else from the A’s seen the film yet?

JH: Oh yeah, Major League Baseball had to approve the film along the way, and so did Billy.  The best complement I got was from Billy at the premiere in Toronto, he said “I’m very proud of this movie and I love your performance, it’s so wonderful.”  And without being a douche who’s talking about himself, it did mean a lot coming from the person whose story we’re trying to tell.

Moneyball opens wide in Philly-area theaters on Friday.

Official site.

Author: Eric Bresler

Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.

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