JONAH HILL is a product of the Judd Apatow laugh factory, so you sort of expect his influences to be comedic.
Turns out, he's a "Goodfellas" man. He caught the movie and acting bug as a kid watching Joe Pesci's famous "clown" scene. Loved it so much he's modeled his career after it.
"It's just the most brilliant scene I've ever seen in a movie. The way it goes so seamlessly back and forth from incredibly dark to incredibly funny, then dark again, then funny, then dark," Hill said. "There's so much going in that scene, and yet Pesci is maneuvering through it so seamlessly."
And that, in a nutshell, is what Hill wants to do with his career.
He gained fame as the chubby laugh-getter in "Arrested Development," "Superbad, and "Knocked Up," and half a dozen Apatow titles, but he's branched out (the indie "Cyrus"), and makes the jump to big-league drama in "Moneyball," co-starring opposite Brad Pitt, working from a script by last year's Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin, working for Bennett Miller, who directed "Capote."
Pretty high-rent dramatic neighborhood.
"Brad and Bennett and the folks at Sony, they really did take a chance on me," said Hill, last seen smuggling drugs in his bum for Russell Brand in "Get Him to the Greek."
"The movie has a very high pedigree, and I was very aware of not wanting to let anybody down."
On the other hand, he was excited to do the Pesci thing, to vary the pitch a little bit.
"I look at it as a chance to introduce audiences to the other part of myself. It's exciting. I like being the underdog. When I started out in comedy, I was the underdog. I was saying, 'Hey, I'm Jonah Hill, I want to make movie comedies, I hope
you'll accept me.' And that worked out better than I could have imagined.
"Now, I'm the underdog again. It's like I'm saying, 'Hey, it's Jonah Hill again, I'm in a different kind of movie now, and I hope you accept me.' "
"Moneyball" is based on Michael Lewis' best-selling profile of baseball general manager Billy Beane (Pitt), who hired a math brain and stats genius (Hill) to find undervalued players who could turn the penny-pinching Oakland A's into a contender.
Like most comedians who turn to drama, Hill is a bit puzzled that people think the process is all that different.
"All I really care about is being genuine. If I'm doing a joke in a movie, what I'm trying to do is make the moment as honest as possible, to make what I'm saying or doing look like something somebody might actually say or do."
That's why Hill and so many of his colleagues in the Apatow factory are known for their love of improvisation - they're trying to craft authentic moments.
That style had to change on "Moneyball," scripted by Sorkin, a notoriously jealous guardian of his own prose.
"There's no question I was much more wedded to the page. And you know, honestly, as a writer, I know how to write comedy. I wouldn't know how to write this kind of thing, so I had no trouble sticking with what was written," Hill said.
Hill has written a script for the soon-to-air TV cartoon "Allen Gregory," and he's also directed his first music video, for Sara Bareilles. He's lost a ton of weight, and in no way resembles the guy we've come to know from his early movies.
Sounds like a guy who's ready to go all serious on us, like Jim Carrey.
Not to worry.
His next movie is "The Sitter," from "Pineapple Express" director David Gordon Green, about a babysitting gig gone comically wrong.
"This is the beauty of it. I like being able to switch it up. After a year of concentrating on the challenge of 'Moneyball,' it was nice to have fun."
For more on Jonah Hill, see Gary Thompson's blog at philly.com/KeepItReel.