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Jewish Journal

Jonah Hill’s not-so-nice Jewish guy

by Naomi Pfefferman

January 6, 2014 | 5:48 pm

Jonah Hill in "The Wolf of Wall Street"

In January, 2012, when Jonah Hill -- who first became famous for his comic roles in raunch-fests-with-heart, like “Superbad” -- had just received an Academy Award nomination for his dramatic turn as a shy statistics whiz in Bennett Miller’s baseball saga “Moneyball,” he told the Journal: “It’s important to me to note this as a transformation in my career and my life.”

“This period is me becoming an adult, becoming a man…I’m not just that funny kid you know from my early movies.”

By now, two years later and just after turning 30, on Dec. 20 – Hill’s cred as a serious thespian is clear. He once again has earned an Oscar nod, this time for his performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir of his outrageously debauched days as a financial huckster who defrauded investors out of millions of dollars.   Hill plays Belfort’s manic business partner, Donnie Azoff, a Quaalude-popping, cocaine-snorting, hooker-addicted con man whose excess and greed rivals Belfort’s.

“I personally regard Donnie as the most unlikable person I’ve ever played,” Hill said in a recent telephone interview.  “I’m disgusted by everything he does.  But as an actor you have to understand that you’re part of telling a story and bringing this person to life, even if they share no qualities with you as a person.”

Hill’s role is actually a composite character based in part on Danny Porush, whom the Jewish Belfort (portrayed in the film by Leonardo DiCaprio) describes in his memoir as “a Jew of the ultra savage variety;” one who also “burned with the secret desire to be mistaken for a WASP and did everything possible to cloak himself in complete and utter WASPishness.”

In the film, Hill’s character dons preppy clothes and ultra-bright capped teeth in hopes of achieving the illusion:  “Part of this character’s development definitely was that this was a person putting up a veneer and literally wears veneers on his teeth,” the actor said.  “It’s not so much that he’s self-hating as it is that he sees the WASP country-club aesthetic as being at the top of the food chain.  He’s portraying a less-than-real image of himself, just like these [stockbrokers] were selling ideas and dreams to people that weren’t real.”

You could call this winter the cinematic season of Bad Jews -- not just Belfort, Azoff and company, but also the sleazy protagonist played by Christian Bale in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” 

“Being someone who’s Jewish and playing someone who’s Jewish in such an unflattering way, I’ve definitely thought about how the things that are beautiful about Judaism are not the things portrayed by these guys,” Hill said of “Wolf.”  “They’re actually the things that hurt Judaism, because these characters are all about greed and money, and there’s that old stereotype that all Jews care about is money.  So they’re not exactly what we want as a culture out there.” 

Yet the film, Hill added, “is in a way like [Scorsese’s] ‘Goodfellas,’ which is not about Italian people, but about people who happen to be Italian.  It’s not like I meet an Italian and assume they’re in the Mafia, and I wouldn’t watch ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and assume that Jews are people who are trying to steal other people’s money.  Religion and culture are part of the makeup, but it’s not what the story is about.”

Some reviewers have criticized the film for glorifying an ultra hedonistic lifestyle, but Hill disagrees.  “I don’t see how you could watch the third act of this movie and not see that it’s a cautionary tale,” he said.  “If you watch the entire film, you don’t say, ‘That’s what I want my life to be like.’ ”

Hill (“Knocked Up,” “Get Him to the Greek”) has come a long way since 2007, when he posed for a cover of Heeb magazine wielding a bagel with a smear of K-Y jelly. In fact, he has been fiercely ambitious in recent years in transforming himself into a dramatic actor to watch.   After “Superbad” became a blockbuster, he turned to his first dramatic role, as a troubled young man obsessed with his mother (Marisa Tomei), in the moody independent film “Cyrus.”   To catch director Bennett Miller’s eye for “Moneyball,” he invited the filmmaker to a “friends and family” screening of “Cyrus” – which, he said in 2012, “was all b.s. – a ruse to get Bennett into the theater to see the film.” Hill was even brasher in his attempts to secure the role of Azoff in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” seeking out Leonardo DiCaprio to pitch himself for the job when both actors happened to be in Mexico.  “I’m the only person who can play this part,” he boldly told DiCaprio.  He even underwent a “terrifying” audition for Scorsese, his favorite filmmaker: “I made myself a nervous wreck for about three months,” he said of waiting to find out if he had snagged the role.

To prepare to play Azoff, Hill both read and reread Belfort’s memoir and met with Belfort, who was “incredibly charismatic and entertaining, a great storyteller, [even as] he described that period of his life with remorse,” Hill said.  He also repeatedly watched the film “Caligula” for its depiction of ancient Roman excess.  And he spoke with a drug counselor about how Quaaludes affect the body:  “She said your finger would feel like it weighs 10 pounds, so I imagined a mini-me inside myself trying to propel around dead weight,” he said.

While shooting, Hill said he came down with a bad case of bronchitis from sniffing the vitamin D powder that doubled for cocaine. And he recently told Vulture that he made only about $60,000 for his part in the film (DiCaprio received close to $10 million), even though his actors guild minimum wage was worth it to work with Scorsese.

His character is central to some of the most jaw-dropping sequences in the film; he swallows a goldfish at one point to teach an erring underling a lesson.  “I was only allowed to have the fish in my mouth for three seconds, and then I had to spit it out,” he recalled, adding,  “It went to the bathroom in my mouth on the first day of shooting.”

In another unforgettable sequence – which Hill called “exhausting and painful” to film -- Azoff and Belfort consume copious amounts of ’ludes and then have a knock-down drag-out fight while crawling and scraping in slow motion due to the drugs. There’s also a scene in which Azoff whips out his privates and publicly masturbates at a party.

“If this were in a broad comedy, it would be just stupid and outlandish for the sake of it, but because it actually happened I had to take it seriously as an actor," said Hill, who wore a prosthetic for that scene.  "The truth of what these guys did is so outlandish, which is why you’re laughing.” 

Hill said his inner nice-Jewish-boy left him feeling guilty at the end of some days of shooting. 

“It’s great, and it’s challenging when you’re on set, but still when you get home you’re like, ‘Oh, man, I said this terrible thing to this person today, and that wasn’t nice.”

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is now in theaters.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Naomi Pfefferman Magid is the arts & entertainment editor of the Jewish Journal, where she’s spent the last quarter century interviewing everyone from Seth Rogen, Natalie...

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