Jonah Hill is thin. You’ve likely read about the 30 pounds the Judd Apatow regular—and now Brad Pitt’s co-star in Moneyball—recently shed. But it’s even more shocking in person, doubly so if you interviewed him four years ago, when he was doing press for Superbad. The Falstaffian motormouth, genuinely and loudly excited about his newfound fame, has been replaced by someone not only thinner but more reserved. He wore a Daniel Johnston shirt last time we met; now he sports chic duds. The new Hill is still talkative and positive, but quiet and more careful with his words.
“I became recognizable when I was 21 or 22 years old,” he says. “You guys would get sick of me doing the same thing over and over again, if you’re not already. So it’s really important to diversify.”
Hence Moneyball, the splashy movie version of Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller about Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager who famously/controversially employed “sabermetrics,” a form of cold statistical analysis designed (hopefully) to produce a dynamic baseball team on a budget. Against Pitt’s charismatic if eccentric Beane, Hill—who when filming had yet to discard the weight, it should be noted—plays Peter, a composite of Beane’s math nerd accomplices, including Paul Podesta and Theo Epstein. Hill, best known as an extrovert, is the opposite: a shy wallflower prone to deliver all his dialogue in a stunned whisper.
In a sense that wasn’t hard; he describes acting alongside Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the coach), with a script by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, as “intimdating.” And though Cyrus was part-serious, Moneyball was his first full-on drama.
The role is similar to Hill’s life in other ways. “I’ve had four Billy Beane-type experiences in life,” in which someone had “shed a light on me and [said] ‘You have something great about you, I’m gonna give you the chance to shine.’” The first of those was Dustin Hoffman, whom he met when he was studying acting at The New School and who recommended him for a small role in I Heart Huckabees . The rest are Judd Apatow (of course), Mark and Jay Duplass, who cast him in Cyrus, and Moneyball’ s director, Bennett Miller ( Capote ).
Though Hill, even the new version of him, is more confident than his Moneyball character, you can sense an affinity. “[He] was just a person in society that you come across in society sometimes that I felt hadn’t been portrayed in a movie—a guy that really blends into the wall. He’s a little Aasperger’s-y, my character, just that guy who would be doing all the crunching, the busy work.”
Of course, there were plenty of differences. “I can barely count to 10, 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 is not easy to be able to throw out numbers and have them be legit.”
Understandably, improvising didn’t prove quite as extensive in Moneyball as it does with his comedies. “The Social Network was coming out when we were done shooting. Steven Zaillian wrote Schindler’s List. So, it’s not like I was like, ‘All right, let’s take a chainsaw to this thing’ and started riffing.”
But drama and comedy aren’t all that different. Hill recalls having a conversation with Miller, who asked him if was excited to be doing a drama. He said yes, but admitted there was no better feeling than standing in the back of a theater and hearing people explode with laughter. “And he said ‘Well, I bet you’re gonna like a different kind of sound after you watch this movie in the theater.’ 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 he was right. During the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Hill says, there was dead silence during the climax. “That’s what [I] 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.”
Once in school, the pair accidentally mix up their fake names, meaning Hill suffers through track and field and misty-eyed drama class, while Tatum gets stuck with nerd classes.