When Jonah Hill talks about working with Martin Scorsese on “The Wolf of Wall Street,” he does not call him Marty. This is unexpected, because everybody calls the 71-year-old director Marty – everybody, it seems, except for a comic actor who remains so in awe of Scorsese that he would never presume to be familiar.
Hill’s performance as Donnie Azoff, a crack-smoking, fast-talking, morally unhinged stock-market hustler is one of the things that makes “Wolf” such a wild, excessive, divisive ride. And while the actor, who just turned 30, is amazed at the debauchery that Scorsese was able to put onscreen, he remains more stunned by the fact that he got to be in a movie by the man he says is “my favorite artist of all time in any form.”
“To get to work for Martin Scorsese in any way, let alone play this kind of character in this kind of film, was and is the ultimate goal for me as an actor,” he said in a recent lunch interview with TheWrap. “It still doesn’t seem real to me.”
He paused. “I mean, there are moments when I watch the film and think, I’m in a Martin Scorsese movie. I’m on drugs in slow motion in crazy ‘Casino’ sunglasses in a Martin Scorsese film. This is the best. Stop the tape right now, I want to ‘Groundhog Day’ this for the rest of my life.”
Along the way, Hill said, he learned a number of lessons working with the guy he still can’t call Marty. Here are five of them:
1. Embrace the ugliness.
Leonardo DiCaprio, who is appearing in his fifth Scorsese movie as Jordan Belfort, a real-life broker who became rich swindling investors with penny stocks, came to Hill with the news that they were interested in him playing the part of Donnie Azoff, a fictionalized version of Belfort’s second-in-command, Donny Porush.
“They sent me the book and the script, so I read both a few times,” said Hill. “And Donnie just popped off the page to me, even though he’s someone I genuinely dislike. I met with Leo first, and I said, ‘I have to play this part. I’m the best person in the world to play this part. I know who this person is within society. He’s what’s wrong with society. He’s an animal, he doesn’t care about people’s feelings, he will do anything to further himself in the things that are not important, and I’m dying to play that.’
“About two days before the movie started, Leo and I went to dinner with Jordan Belfort, and I still was missing one key element of Donnie. You know, Jordan just seems to want to be a cult leader – he seems to be obsessed with having power over everybody, having that god-like stature. But Donnie doesn’t want that. He wants the more primal things – the money, the drugs, the women. And I asked Jordan at dinner, I said, ‘How do you feel about what you did to these people’s lives?’
“And he said, ‘At the time I just kind of blocked it out. And if I could do it over again and become rich without hurting anybody, I of course would.’ And then he’s like, ‘Jonah, your character, he liked the fact that he was hurting people.’ And that, to me, opened everything up, of why this person does the things that he does. And it disturbed me. The sickness of enjoying doing that to people is really sadistic.”
2. Take it to the limit.
Much of the three-hour film chronicles, with unbridled energy and without much restraint, the unbelievably excessive lifestyles of Belfort and Azoff, who spend their waking hours awash in drugs, sex and money. One of the most startling scenes comes at a party, when Azoff – who is, as usual, out of his mind on a combination of drugs – sees the woman who will become Belfort’s second wife, and begins openly masturbating while staring at her from across a crowded room.
“As an actor, that’s probably the most extreme thing you can see yourself do onscreen,” said Hill with a grin. “But I think it was important to show. It really happened, first of all. And second of all, this film is a complete copout and a disaster if you do not show the actual depravity of what went on.
“The biggest challenge of that scene was that it’s a big party scene, so you have a lot of background extras who don’t know the context. So I just asked them, ‘Please take this seriously.’ It’s hard not to laugh at such a ridiculous, insane action, but I had to take it as seriously as it was to this person.
“To do a scene like that in a broad comedy would be to be shocking, and I wouldn’t do it. Whereas this wasn’t to be shocking, it was trying to show what these people actually did. And that was important to me. If they were willing to do it in real life, and I wasn’t willing to do it as an actor, then I don’t deserve to be playing the part.
“What I loved about this movie is that it felt grimy, it felt slimy, it felt criminal.”
Hill auditioned with the scene in which his character meets Belfort in a diner, an uproarious intro that begins with a conversation and ends with the two men smoking crack together. He spent two months studying the scene before he auditioned, another two months rehearsing it in pre-production, and then a month or two thinking about it before Scorsese shot it. But he neglected to give much thought to the following scene, when Azoff calls up his employer and quits to work for Belfort.
“I did it for, like, an hour. I don’t even know how many takes,” he said. “And I started getting a small anxiety attack, because he was saying, “do it again, do it again,” but not saying what to change. I don’t know what to do differently, and I get in my own head and start freaking myself out.
“And finally his assistant comes up to me and says, ‘Jonah, are you OK?’ Which then spiralled me a million times deeper into my anxiety attack, because it means that everyone is noticing that I’m not nailing it. So my performance gets worse and worse.
“And finally, Scorsese goes, ‘We’re going to take a break. Everyone step off set. Kid, come here.’ And we go to his monitor setup, I sit down next to him, and he just starts reading the paper for about 20 minutes. Doesn’t say anything to me. I sit there for 20 minutes, go through every range of emotion you can go through in life, and I finally just start to relax. Then he goes, ‘All right, kid, let’s try one.’
“We do one, and it’s the take that’s in the movie. I always think about, what was he trying to do? And I guess it meant, don’t think about the other people, don’t think about it not going right. Just relax and take a minute and realize that you’re free to be good here.”
4. But don’t relax too much.
Hill said he really did feel as if he was the best person to play the role, but that never made him totally comfortable with the idea that he’d landed the part.
“I felt that I knew what he wanted from the part, and I’d be able to provide that. But any time I started to feel like I belonged there, something would happen to remind me that I was in a Martin Scorsese movie. And it was more of a struggle to act as if you were not acting for Martin Scorsese than to accept the fact that you were.”
He shrugged. “It was even harder when we were in rehearsals and I would have lunch with him and with Leo. Because then we were just talking about our lives — and what would I have to contribute to that kind of conversation with them? So I talked a lot about my favorite movies, and tried not to mention ‘GoodFellas’ too much.”
In the end, he said, the insecurity worked for him. “I work better from a place where I feel like I shouldn’t be somewhere. I feel like I have to fight to deserve a seat at the table, and that’s good for me. Any time I get comfortable I feel like I don’t do my best work.”
5. Don’t worry about awards.
When Hill landed a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for “Moneyball,” he knew nothing about awards season – the morning he got a SAG nomination for that film, he said he had no idea what the award was or that nominations were being announced.
This time around, though, things are different (and not just because Hill wasn’t nominated by SAG for the late-screening “Wolf”). “It’s become this uncomfortable thing where people say to you, ‘You could get awards recognition in this movie,'” he said.
“So that’s in your head when it shouldn’t be. I’m just proud of this movie, and if I don’t get nominations am I some sort of failure who let everyone down? With the first one, it was, ‘He’s never going to get anything, he’s a comedic actor,’ and then when I did everyone was happy.
“Now with this one, there’s almost an expectation, because it’s a Martin Scorsese film, and they put in the trailer, ‘Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio‘ and ‘Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill.’ It makes me nervous.
“We were shooting ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ last year when ‘Django Unchained’ came out, and I had a really interesting experience getting to watch Leo during that time period. Because I thought he was absolutely brilliant in ‘Django Unchained,’ and he ended up not getting nominated for an Academy Award. It felt almost like it was awkward that he didn’t. When he walks in a room, do you mention it? Do you say, ‘Sorry you didn’t?’
“So I really try and tune that stuff out. I don’t want to feel like I messed up if nothing happens, you know?”