Actors, as a rule, like to say that they “never judge” a character they’re playing, no matter how loathsome. Even villains, the logic goes, don’t look in the bathroom mirror in the morning, waxing the moustache they’re about to twirl before throwing the heroine down a well.
But Jonah Hill? He’s judging his guy, Donnie Azoff, a real-life Wall Street bottom-feeder and scene stealer in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
“I couldn’t find a way around it,” Hill says. “I mean, I kept looking for things to like about the guy, things we had in common. And I just couldn’t.”
Donnie has an overeager charm when we first meet him in “Wolf.” He sees stock trader Jordan Belfort’s fancy, vintage Jaguar E-Type, rudely presses him to find out what he earns and promptly quits his own sales job to become a disciple of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Donnie’s got an overly brilliant smile and a back story, which is the first sign this dude isn’t right. Yeah, he married his “hot cousin.” What, somebody else should have her?
“Everybody has a little of Donnie in them,” Hill says with a laugh. “You know, that desire to do whatever you want, to be filthy, ridiculously rich. But if you’re a good person, there’s just a tiny bit of Donnie in you. This guy has no impulse control.”
Hill, 30, has been a reliably rude funnyman since 2007’s “Superbad,” playing characters that often come off as variations on an “impulse control” theme. In film after film, he’s an eating, drinking, cursing, lusting, self-absorbed, drug-coveting Bacchus. Last summer, he passed a version of that hedonist off as himself in the blasphemous blockbuster “This Is the End.” But the real Jonah thinks of himself as more of a moralist than that.
“Donnie is 100 percent that thing that we don’t like to show within ourselves,” Hill says. “He has no moral compass. No morality. He treats people horribly. He’s the most selfish person in the world. I mean, who wouldn’t like to be him? Or hate him? He wasn’t someone I would want in my life.”
But for a few months, he was. Working for his hero, Martin Scorsese — “‘Goodfellas’ is the reason I wanted to make movies” — Hill had to get up every morning and literally put on his “game face.”
“His teeth were whiter than white. That’s from Belfort’s book. I wore a prosthetic set of teeth, and that was tough because I’m supposed to be doing a different accent, a different voice. When I first put in the teeth, they gave me this horrible lisp. I had to practice and practice to get rid of it. Tim Monich, our dialect coach, let me practice talking with him hours every day. No one in my personal life would put up with that. Dedicate a couple of hours talking with me, with those teeth in, doing that accent? Forget it.
“I would call different stores like Best Buy or Target and talk to them as Donnie, in character, about products that they had.”
Donnie, Hill decided, was a working-class lug “trying to pass himself off as WASPy, upper-class, upper-crust. That’s the key to who he is.”
Hill is earning Oscar buzz for his performance, thanks to rave reviews. He is “not (just) comic relief here but a credible, if weird, figure,” the Hollywood Reporter noted, praising the fact that Hill “keeps offering surprises” right to the movie’s end. Donnie matches Jordan excess for excess — lying, cheating, snorting and spending all his ill-gotten gains, reveling in the amorality of it all.
Hill’s gift for spontaneity on the set — improvising — is much in evidence. And that fits the character.
“Everything Peter Brandon says in ‘Moneyball’ is supposed to be incredibly deliberate. Thought over. Thoughtful,” Hill says, remembering his first outing in a serious movie, where improvising funny lines wouldn’t work. “Donnie, having no impulse control, was perfect for improvisation. Every decision, everything he blurts out, was just that second. That’s what he’s thinking. That’s what he’s saying.”
Hill says he hopes “not everybody on Wall Street is like this.” After all, everybody — especially movie stars — has skin in the stock market game. “Your average Wall Street trader doesn’t get up in the morning and ruin somebody’s life. These guys did, every day. They stole from people. What greed makes people do just shocks me.”
Hill has a sequel to “21 Jump Street” due out in March and another film in the can. But “Wolf” is hitting theaters and earning accolades during a rare idle period for Hill. He’s not sure how to follow “the most demanding, most complex role” he’s ever taken.
“For the first time in my career, I don’t know what I’m doing next. I’m excited about that. I’ve been lucky, these past couple of years, getting to express different sides of myself. I’ve gotten to try all sorts of different roles. You keep working with people who are better than you are and you get better. That’s all I can shoot for.”