This past March, Jonah Hill hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live. It was a perfectly mediocre episode in the way that late-season SNLs often are, but Hill's monologue struck a chord, if not necessarily the uproarious one producers might have been hoping for. "I've had such a crazy year, so much happened!" Hill exclaims to the audience, before deadpanning, "I had a starring role in the Hail, Caesar! trailer." Polite laughter, then uncomfortable silence. "I, uh, also saw Deadpool. On opening day!"
And that's the punch line. While Hill hasn't been nearly as busy as some of his more prolific friends from the Judd Apatow school of comedy (we can't all be Seth Rogen, with two movies and a television series released in the span of three months), he has undeniably been more, let's call it, selective. You might think you've seen a lot of Hill over the past year, but that's probably just been cameos (Hail, Caesar!, Sausage Party) or rewatches of his Jump Street films, which have been making the rounds on Netflix. (Or worse: you're mistaking him for Rogen, apparently a thing people still do.)
Those fleeting glimpses of Jonah Hill, leading man, are not likely to increase any time soon. Although this weekend marks the release of the dark satire War Dogs, Hill's first starring role since last year's barely watched drama True Story, it's also, at the moment, the only feature on his slate. Which is perfectly fine with him.
"Now, I feel, is the time I get to be truly selective and only act in things that I really, purely want to do. That's really lucky and exciting," the 32-year-old says in between sips of Gatorade (or possibly Mountain Dew; whatever the beverage, it was much too yellow for 9:30 in the morning) at a posh downtown Toronto hotel, the latest stop in his seemingly endless War Dogs press tour. "In the past, you can get so worried about establishing yourself that you find you're not as passionate because you signed up for a film four years ago and you've completely changed in that amount of time."
Hill isn't referring to any specific film, though a brief trip through his IMDb profile offers a few clues: barely there comedies (Just Add Water, Accepted, Grandma's Boy), lifeless blockbusters (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian), unfortunate bombs (the legitimately underrated The Sitter). But those can mostly be written off as what a young actor simply has to do early in his career, especially if that career is immediately, and presumptively, pigeonholed in the stoner-comedy genre.
"In my early twenties, my early career, comedies were the only opportunities I had," Hill says. "A few of them I really love still and am proud of, but as you grow, your taste changes. The best movies have it all in one. That's kind of the goal. But then it's hard for people to understand. … Almost every interview calls me a comedian, which is so disrespectful to standup comedians."
It's also a problem that should have been cleared up by now, considering Hill has two best supporting actor Oscar nominations to his name: one for 2011's Moneyball, in which he played a stoic baseball stat-cruncher, and the other for 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street, where he brought the monstrous coke-sniffing, goldfish-eating, stewardess-assaulting Donnie Azoff to life. After witnessing those performances – as different as night and day, or as Scorsese and Apatow – you'd be hard-pressed to think Hill was merely the goofy horndog in Superbad or the jittery cop in 21 Jump Street. But it's a typecasting that War Dogs just might break.
In the Todd Phillips-directed film, Hill plays Efraim Diveroli, a real-life Miami arms dealer who, in his twenties, managed to secure a multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. government to provide guns to soldiers in Afghanistan. The character is the perfect portrait of 21st-century narcissism: entitled, brash, greedy, selfish and extremely fond of the word "bro." Hill captures the villain tidily, even though he never got the opportunity to meet the man himself, as Diveroli (who ended up serving four years in a federal prison) refused to co-operate with the filmmakers.
"By all accounts, he was manipulative and deceptive, but also charismatic and charming. I was really drawn to that challenge of someone who is being likable while they're hurting someone at the same time. It's a bizarre and scary quality," says Hill, who has become something of a specialist in playing detestable louts after his dramatic forays in Wolf, True Story and here (hell, even his part as "Jonah Hill" in This Is the End found him playing a sociopathic weasel). Which, of course, has led to confusion among certain admirers.
"I love making stuff where, after a screening, you get to see where the audience lies with their own personal morality," Hill says. "Some people are like, 'Donnie and Efraim, they're so awesome!' … When people don't call these characters out, as opposed to embracing them, that does get uncomfortable. I was having dinner with friends three weeks ago, and these two young South African arms dealers came up and tried to fist-bump me. A lot of bro-ish stock brokers did the same thing after Wolf. People see what they want to see, but in my mind, I'm calling people out."
The question is, though, if people will continue to see Hill as the oblivious bro-y comic performer, or the serious dramatic actor who's in on the joke. Hill is hoping to change the perception project by project – even if that means a "clean slate" of acting jobs and a shift in concentration toward work behind the camera.
"It's now up to me to make choices that purely reflect my tastes, which is what I'm thinking about now with my movie," he says of his script for Mid '90s, a coming-of-age skateboarding film that he hopes to make his directorial debut. "It's such a small, personal movie – it's not like I'm doing it for financial gain or anything, it's purely for love."
In the meantime, though, Hill is happy playing the part of the professional, selling War Dogs and, perhaps reluctantly, playing to certain expectations. When told of how portraying Diveroli "shows off a new side of" him, Hill quickly replies, almost sternly, but not quite: "Not of me – I always want to say that because I wouldn't want to be mistaken for this person." But then he flashes a smile and adds, "I'm just being funny. Or attempting to." The man can play both sides.