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[Interview] Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum On How They Couldn’t Care Less About ’21 Jump Street’ Purists

Written by on March 15, 2012 

From the beginning, it is apparent that 21 Jump Street is carving its own, hilarious path. With a story hatched by Jonah Hill and writer Michael Bacall, the update on the TV show actually bares little resemblance to its predecessor. I recently sat down with Hill and co-star Channing Tatum at SXSW to talk their upcoming comedy. During the roundtable we discussed highway chases in traffic, 21 Jump Street purists, and Tatum’s surprising success in comedy. Check it out below.

So obviously you guys were having fun with this. I mean, look at you guys, you’re dressed –

Channing Tatum: We look like morons. [Laughs.]

And we’re in Austin, it’s a good time. This seems like a great place to kind of bring this to open it up to everybody.

Jonah Hill: Yeah, it’s really fun. I’ve been making [Channing] wait to see it with an audience for the crowd tonight because SXSW is, like, the best place to show a movie. Actually, in fact, five years ago exactly I was here promoting Knocked Up with Paul Rudd when I got the phone call asking me to adapt [21 Jump Street], this TV show, into this movie. And I started working on it five years ago exactly in this hotel. Yeah, so it’s kind of a bizarre ‘five years later.’ Pretty insane.

Was it originally, like, “let’s just go batshit with this movie?”

JH: No, no, no. My agent said, ‘You should do it as a comedy,’ and I said, ‘Let me think about it. I don’t really want to be somebody who remakes things.’ And that’s why one of the first jokes is about how lazy it is [to remake movies]. But I wanted to make a Bad Boys-meets-John Hughes movie, and that was the idea that I had, and that’s what I feel like we [gave] our best shot at.

When you two first met, did you recognize the special chemistry that would eventually play out as well as it did on screen?

JH: It’s crazy because we just took a gamble at it and then we just became friends and got lucky that it worked out.

CT: Yeah, because sometimes it’s not like that. Sometimes you’re just like, ‘Whoa.’

JH: Yeah, we didn’t know each other.

CT: No, we waved at each other from across a restaurant. I think he had just had Superbad come out, and I was just like, ‘Congrats, dude.’ And he was just like, ‘Sup?’ And that was it. And then he called me up when I was doing a movie in Toronto and he sent me the script. He only sent me 50 pages. And I was like, ‘Is there an ending?’

JH: I sent him the wrong file by accident. [Laughs.] That’s what kind of writer-producer I am. [Laughs.] I sent him half the script by accident. And he said yes, he just [also] said, ‘How does it end?’ [Laughs.]

What kind of funny things did you do to kind of get that chemistry going?

CT: I gave him a lot of massages. [Laughs.]

JH: Butt massages. [Laughs.]

CT: I did, actually. That’s not a joke. [Laughs.] Yeah, he was getting massaged on the highway in the Peter Pan costume. And I did the whole switcheroo. She was rubbing him over and I sort of got in step with her hands and then straddled him on the highway. Gave him a little massage.

JH: It was awful.

Was that a working Drivers Ed vehicle?

CT: It was, actually.

I can see you all messing around with that a lot.

JH: Yeah, it was funny. And that was one of the original ideas – like, how do you meld iconic high school things with action? And that car chase was one of them. Let’s do it in a Drivers Ed car so we can mess with each other with the two brakes. Or, one of my first ideas for it was, with highway chases, there’s never any traffic and, like, there’s always been traffic every time I’ve been on a highway. [So], how would you do a version of this where there’s traffic and have to run and get out of your car? The original version was, like, there’d be traffic and we’d get out and fist fight, and then get back in the car and drive. [Laughs.] And then it’d be like, ‘Oh shit, traffic’s loosening up again.’ So we’d get back in the car and drive and then we’d get stopped again, and get out and fist fight more. [Laughs.] That was the original version.

We just had a screening in Dallas that went very, very well. Everybody really reacted well to it. But it does seem like there has been this kind of Internet backlash – maybe of like 21 Jump Street “purists,” I guess you would call them. [And] to me, it’s like, if you looked at the original 21 Jump Street and made a film, it’s not going to be fun. And this is so much fun.

JH: You should read the purist [version]. There’s a script that’s a pure adaptation of it that I can get you a copy of. And the other fifteen nerds that are complaining about it [Laughs]. And it is – the writers of it actually came up to me and saw this movie and were like, ‘Oh man, your version is about a billion times better.”’ [Laughs.] And they are very successful, awesome, great writers. They’re like some of the biggest writers in Hollywood and they were like, ‘Thank God, you guys made this version. Our version was not awesome.’

How did you decide what to keep from the original TV series?

JH: We just wanted to pay homage at certain points to, like, just have that fun stuff for people who love the show. But I think 21 Jump Streets ‘purists,’ it’s like, ‘Shut the fuck up.’ [Laughs] Like, I was friends with [the show’s co-creator] Stephen Cannell and he blessed this whole thing. He wanted this to happen so badly. It’s not like we made The Godfather. Like, just shut the f*ck up. [Laughs] I would never remake something that was like this brilliant, amazing thing. It was something that was fun – you know, it didn’t need a remake, it was just a really cool idea to make a Bad Boys-meets-John Hughes movie. And reliving high school. And I thought reliving high school was a lot funnier than it was serious.

I was just howling when Nick Offerman was delivering the monologue about –

JH: Yeah, about how lazy it is [to remake movies].

That was as brilliant as, like, what Abrams did in Star Trek with the whole, “Well this is an alternate timeline,” so it validated everything. To me, when you did that in this movie, it totally validates everything you’re doing.

JH: Yeah. Well, we call ourselves out on it within like the first five minutes of the movie, and I think – yeah, it’s [just] supposed to be fun. The haters are four people. They don’t represent the movie-going audience. I could care less.

Channing, you’re not known for comedy, [though] you have done comedy. Had you done a lot of improv in the past? How was it keeping up with Jonah and Rob [Riggle]?

CT: Well, one, I don’t think you can keep up with these guys. They are truly the elite of what they actually do. But they really did – they set a great stage for me to not feel bad about failing and just really going for it. I would always be like, ‘Dude, I’m so afraid I’m not going to be funny in this,’ and he’s like, ‘Stop trying to be funny. Just be it, and don’t worry about that.’ And if I couldn’t find my way – if I knew there was a joke somewhere in here and I couldn’t find my way into it – I would ask him. I’d be like, ‘How do you see this?’ And it was just a great, creative experience. You can’t really improv that much in drama.

JH: You can, it’s just different.

CT: Yeah, it’s different, you have to have a really clear intention of something you need to get across. But generally it all sticks around the same thing. [But] in this, I don’t know, I could’ve ran over and ran into the wall and fell down and somehow that would’ve been okay. But maybe not right for the scene.

Jonah, this had a lot more action than I usually see from you. What was it like doing the action scenes?

JH: It was fun. I liked it a lot. I think that’s why it was important to cast Channing opposite me because in order for a movie to feel like a Bad Boys-meets-John Hughes movie, you needed to have some action and credibility in there. And I had never done action movies before, so I didn’t have credibility in that universe. [But] Channing has done a ton of it [and] is amazing at it. And it was really fun, honestly. It’s just really fun. There’s no other way to, like, put it besides, “It’s crazy fun.” Like I did that Modern Warfare commercial, and same thing – it’s just a lot of fun. It’s really fun.

Did you use any pranks that were high school pranks from your experience in the movie?

JH: Well, the Eminem stuff, I did that in high school. I looked like that, [so] that’s where that came from. I actually – oddly – met a lot of resistance from everybody and I had to fight for it.

CT: And I’m so happy. It’s one of the funniest things in the movie to me. [Laughs.]

JH: And it gets such a big reaction that I just want to look down the line at everyone who was resisting it tonight at the premiere and go, “Remember that argument about…?” [Laughs.]

CT: Because it was like a knockout, drag-down [argument]. Because it takes, like, dying his hair and –

JH: It’s a strong choice. But I was like, ‘Trust me, it’ll work. I swear to you, it will work.’ And I’m glad.

It seems to me there were some bits also in some of the trailers that maybe didn’t make it into the movie because I know there was some stuff with you two guys kind of wrestling around in the high school scenes –

CT: That’s interesting because we saw like a really early cut of the movie, and I haven’t seen the movie with a crowd.

JH: I know there’s a lot of backlash from windshield purists. [Laughs.]

A lot of actors don’t like seeing themselves on the screen. They don’t like rewatching their own movie after they’ve made it. But a lot of those actors are generally making dramas, things like that that are very intense, very heavy lifting. For comedy, is it easier to watch yourself on screen? Do you get the same laughs? Or do you still hate it?

CT: I – I don’t know. I still haven’t seen it with a crowd yet, so I’m not sure if it’s going to be easier or less easy.

JH: I think when I do a drama or comedy, it’s just – it doesn’t matter. It’s more fun to watch yourself in a comedy, definitely, because you hear people reacting to it, whereas in a drama, a good drama, people are dead silent the whole time, or most of the time. I like it both. I think they’re just different experiences watching yourself for sure.

This is obviously a film that lends itself very well to a sequel, and they were saying that you already started working on the sequel. Where does that kind of [stand] at this point? Or is it one of those things where you kind of have to wait and see how this one does?

JH: Yeah. We would love nothing more, I would literally love nothing more than to start making a sequel. It’s something that we had so much fun doing, the way it turned out was amazing, we love everyone involved. And it’s just completely out of our hands – it’s in the audience’s hands at this point.

I want to see the undercover cheerleaders.

JH: Exactly. [Laughs.] But, yeah, it’s all dependent on how the film performs financially.

But do you think it’s safe to say that the way you would kind of – the way you sort of hint at the end towards the idea of these guys maybe going into like a college atmosphere?

JH: If you guys write good reviews and people go see it, then you’ll get to know exactly what happens in the sequel. [Laughs.]

21 Jump Street hits theaters on March 16th.


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