Last year saw Jonah Hill make his directorial debut, with Mid90s, which follows a band of teens bouncing from skate shop to skate shop during summer in L.A. But Hill didn’t leave acting entirely behind. He also starred alongside Joaquin Phoenix—as his AA sponsor, no less—in Gus Van Sant’s adaptation of John Callahan’s 1989 memoir, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. The story is a tragic one: Callahan, an alcoholic played by Phoenix, sets his sights on becoming a cartoonist after a car accident leaves him paralyzed. But there’s also a humor to the film—thanks, in part, to Callahan’s newfound profession, but mainly to the way that Phoenix and Hill portray their characters doing their best to use comedy to cope. This isn’t, of course, Hill’s first stint as a comedian, though it may be his first as one with long blond hair. Here, he reminisces on that golden mane and talks working with Van Sant (along with why he’s convinced that he’s a Carrie).
Let’s talk a little bit about the film, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Too Far on Foot. How did the role come to you?
I got a phone call from Gus Van Sant asking me to play Donnie, alongside Joaquin Phoenix.
And Donnie was a real person, right?
He was, but we don’t know his real name because he was Joaquin’s character, John Callahan’s, AA sponsor, and they don’t give real names because of the anonymity of the program. I don’t know if John just made his name up, because, unfortunately, he was gone by the time we were all working on the film.
He has such a fantastic look in it.
As an actor, working with the costume designer is always one of my favorite collaborations. That was especially true for The Wolf of Wall Street—Sandy Powell was such a genius in creating that character. And actually, besides Joaquin and Gus, my biggest collaborator on this film was our costume designer, Danny Glicker. He showed me a bunch of photographs when it came time to creating Donnie, whom Callahan describes in the book as rocking the Tom Petty vibe. One of the photos was of Yves Saint Laurent in Morocco in the ’70s. We looked at it and we were like, “Oh, level-10 Marrakech!” So Donnie wears a lot of caftans and Moroccan stuff in the movie—kind of our Tom Petty–and–Yves Saint Laurent level-10 Marrakech.
Was there any outfit of his that really helped you get into character?
Those little booty shorts. We needed something for him to be doing for a scene when he’s just coming home and is excited to go on a trip, and I told Gus I would love to see what Donnie dances like. So Gus put on “I Need Love,” the Donna Summer song—I thought he should be dancing to disco because he’s always talking about going to these disco clubs. I think it ended up being too expensive to use in the film, but it was so great.
He also has a very calm, Zen outlook on life.
Donnie had conquered a lot of the things that were dark and demonic about himself, and he was able to be peaceful and calm, which I aspire to be, too. I miss being Donnie—even just having his long blond hair. I was in a great place playing that character, and working with so many great people—Gus, who’s a master filmmaker, and Joaquin, who’s a master actor, and people like Kim Gordon, Udo Kier, and Beth Ditto. And then, right after I finished that, I went into preproduction on Mid90s as a writer-director, so I went from the most peaceful time in my life to the most stressful.
But you must have been ecstatic.
I was ecstatic, but it was a different kind of energy. Making Mid90s was the most joyous experience in my life, but it was a stressed joy.
The performances in Mid90s are so good, too. Do you think that being an actor, and having worked with so many directors, made you a better director?
I think all of your human experiences add up to the person you are now, and all your film experiences add up to the actor, writer, director, whatever else it is that you are. So, yeah: I've picked up so much from all these amazing people I’ve worked with, whether Gus, the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, Bennett Miller, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonze, Seth Nevin, or Judd Apatow. But, you know, in the beginning, I thought, Okay, this is going to be simple because I know how I’d like to be spoken to as an actor. So that’s what I did. But then you realize, Oh, Lucas Hedges is totally different from Katherine Waterston is totally different from Sonny Solcheck is totally different from.… You know, no two people are the same. No two actors are the same, no two directors are the same, no two writers are the same. So you can’t just do what’s best for you—you immediately have to adjust to whomever it is you’re dealing with.
In the spirit of Mid90s, what was the first CD you ever bought?
Gosh. It was 1993, so it would have been [Snoop Dogg’s] Doggystyle or [Dr. Dre’s] The Chronic. The film actually frames hip-hop in the way it was with me growing up, because I grew up on rap music—it was like the emotional backbone of my child.
What was your first e-mail address?
Gordonbombay18@aol—Gordon Bombay being Emilio Estevez, his character in The Mighty Ducks. I never liked hockey in my life—I just loved The Mighty Ducks.
What was your favorite Halloween costume?
Most consistently, I probably was a [Teenage Mutant] Ninja Turtle.
Michelangelo. Actually, I was doing this to my friends the other day—you know, asking, “Which Ninja Turtle are you?” We basically got into this whole argument about it, and then it turned into “Which Sex in the City character are you? Which Sopranos character are you?”
So, which Sex and the City character are you?
They think I’m Samantha. Not for being promiscuous or having a lifestyle like Samantha’s, but for sort of lacking any judgment of people’s lifestyles. But I think I’m a Carrie. I mean, I’m a writer and I’m annoying, you know? And then for The Sopranos, they said I was Chris Moltisanti, but I don’t know what that meant.
He’s like the favorite son—the one who always has somebody sort of looking after him, until he doesn’t. But for a long time, he’s the favorite.
I think I would have been a classic Chris Moltisantis until a couple of years ago, because I’ve always been comfortable with having someone older in charge. But I think that over time and growing up and things happening in your life and hopefully maturing, and maturing as an artist, you get to feel confident enough to just be the person and artist that you are.
What’s your secret skill?
I’m very good at Pilates. And I think I’m quite a good boxer—I take boxing very seriously. And actually, I just started jujitsu today.
Because from the start, even just doing research on it, it’s felt the most like physical chess to me—even more so than boxing. And my first time today really did feel like how you can never perfect chess. You know, the person who got me into it has been doing it for 25 years and is still a brown belt, so the endless opportunity for growth and understanding of something is very attractive to me.
What was your most memorable birthday?
My mom once surprised me and my friends by sending a mariachi band to play my favorite song, which is “Feliz Navidad.” We were going to a restaurant, and when I looked inside and there were, like, eight mariachi band players stuffed in by the door, I was like, “Am I hallucinating right now?”
Did they play “Happy Birthday” too?
No. My favorite song is “Feliz Navidad,” so she only told them to play “Feliz Navidad.”
What’s your karaoke song?
Well, I usually sing “Feliz Navidad.” Or I sing “Sk8er Boi,” by Avril Lavigne. I’m not sure I would say I’m a big fan of hers, but I like the way her songs sound coming out of my mouth.
Would you like to sing a little now?