You know how people show you photos of their kids on their phone, and they get so wrapped up they forget what they were in the middle of talking about before their phone came out?
That’s what happened with my Jonah Hill article in the issue of TIME magazine on stands this weekend. I got him to babysit my kid, and in recounting that, and all the cute things my son did and all the cute things he said, wait, I have some photos here — what was I saying?
Anyway, Hill is in this movie The Sitter, where he plays a slacker who lives with his mom and agrees to one disastrous night of babysitting for some neighbors. It’s a perfect role for him: irresponsible, annoyed, superior. And totally different from Moneyball, where he played a brilliant, quiet math genius and made people realize he’s a serious actor. He’s also starring in next year’s 21 Jump Street, which he produced, cast, co-wrote and hired the directors for. “Jump Street was just a box of DVDs and a dream,” he says. He’s also slimmed down so much that he’s in the commercial for the new Call of Duty video game, directed by Peter Berg, where he throws grenades and shoots tanks convincingly.
Though he spent a bunch of his career as the mini–Seth Rogen, Hill, 27, always wanted to be a serious actor. He grew up in L.A., where his dad was tour accountant for Guns ’N Roses (Dad gets a positive review in GNR bassist Duff McKagan’s new book, though McKagan attributes his good work partly to the fact that the band had his home address, in case he did them wrong.). Hill went to really, really good private schools and then to college at the New School in New York City, where he wrote his own one-man shows. He was known for his scholarship of movies and pop culture. “My assistant went on a weird youth bus trip when they were 13 or 15 and Jonah blew everyone away with how much he knew about music and movies,” says David Gordon Green, the director of The Sitter.
Hill’s first significant role began as a one-liner in Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Luckily for Hill, it rained on the day of filming, thereby canceling the day’s planned outdoor shoot. “So we said, ‘Let’s make him improvise for an hour with Catherine Keener,’ just to make him nervous,” Apatow says. “We thought it would amuse us to throw him in the cage with someone who knew what she was doing.” Apatow inserted the scene into one of Virgin’s last test screenings. “We put it in just to test his likeability, and it just killed. So we left it all in.”
Hill had created a comic persona that he still uses in movies like The Sitter. “Some people cover for insecurity by being really loud and hostile,” Apatow says. “That’s what we loved about Jonah in Knocked Up and Superbad. He’s evolving as an actor into something different”—in dramas like Moneyball and Cyrus—“but the earliest, funniest version of Jonah is the cocky nerd.”
The cocky nerd in 2007’s Superbad was Hill’s breakthrough role; even now, he can only hang out with his good friend and Superbad costar Michael Cera in someone’s house or office. Otherwise, crowds form. (“It’s like Beatlemania,” Hill says. “It’s unmanageable.”) After the movie hit, he helped write Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno. “I turned down a lot of stuff,” Hill says. “I was afraid to be the lead in a movie again. I kept thinking, ‘It’s not going to be Superbad.’ I don’t feel that fear anymore.”
He considered taking another long break from performing to focus on writing (he co-created the new Fox animated series Allen Gregory) and try to direct a movie. At 27, he was kind of burned out. “I felt like what I was doing with Judd was so punk rock and so alternative,” he says. “But it’s been copied many times. I’ve copied it so many times.” Moneyball made him interested in acting again; so did the idea of resurrecting the comedic persona he got scared of doing after Superbad. “His comedy comes from being a low-status person who behaves like a high-status person,” says Phil Lord, who is co-directing 21 Jump Street with Chris Miller. “There’s a real confidence there, so it comes across as someone who doesn’t give a damn and he’s really crude. But in fact he’s this incredibly polite person.”
Still, I worried if he was polite enough to babysit my two-year-old. Miller assured me that Hill has a two-year-old nephew he spends a lot of time with, and the kid seems unharmed. “My wife brought our two-and-a-half-year-old to the mixing stage a few days ago,” Miller told me. “He looks up on the screen, and Jonah is saying, ‘C—s—ing worst best friend ever” over and over. My son lights up and says, ‘Jonah!’ He was super-excited.”
Lord doesn’t have kids, but he also thought my son would be fine if he was left alone with Hill. “It will broaden your kid intellectually,” Lord says. “He’ll have a breadth of experience that he’s never had before, but he’ll be so blackout drunk that he’ll never remember.” There was no alcohol intake, according to the nanny cam that we set up. Though he did give my child a Popsicle at 10:30 in the morning.