Jonah Hill is trying to pinpoint the exact scene in “21 Jump Street” when he knew he had chemistry with Channing Tatum.
“I mean, I would say the first scene,” Tatum offers.
“We hit it off right away,” Hill says, more seriously. One of the first scenes they shot wound up being the hotel room scene, the one that features Johnny Depp making a cameo as his character from the ’80s Fox show. “We were supposed to jump over this couch, and Chan immediately did this flip over it. And then I walked around it. I think that set the standard for the two movies: that one guy is really good at stuff and the other is not.”
The new “22 Jump Street” — which takes their not-so-young undercover cops to college to bust another drug ring — plays on the ideas of sequels, exploring the anxieties about not wanting to repeat the first, even as some repetition is inevitable. For Hill, it was a chance to refine what he did before.
“I felt more creatively inspired to think of the most clumsy way to do each stunt," Hill says. "You’re putting together a puzzle to find how one would obviously do something, then ask yourself, ‘How can I completely mess that up?’”
For Tatum, this was another chance to prove that his comedic turn in the first was no fluke. But when asked if he’s up to Hill’s improv skills, he’s honest: “Absolutely not. I’ve only seen one person — and she’s in the movie — be able to make Jonah even take a little step back. And that was Jillian Bell,” he says, referring to the actress who plays the angry, insult-firing roommate of a student with whom Hill’s character sleeps. “She brings the pain with him. I don’t have many scenes with her, so I was excited when I did, even though I knew I was going to take some hits along the way. I knew it would be like being in the ring with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and just being like, ‘What’s going to happen?’”
Hill says making room for other people to be funny is one thing he learned from Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen. “Jillian Bell’s part was, as one of the writers, I would say incredibly underwritten and not very fleshed out," Hill explains. "When Jillian came in and auditioned, we started improvising and she made the part her own. That’s what actors should do, if it’s a comedy or drama. She made the part great. It wasn’t written great.”
Hill says Rob Riggle did the same thing to his villain role in “21 Jump Street.” (He returns for a cameo in this one.) “That part was more like just a bad guy,” he recalls. “He made that what it was because he’s so brilliant. That’s the fun of being an actor or a producer or whatever: You get to see people turn something bland into something wonderful.”
“22 Jump Street” was also another chance for them to spend time with the actor playing their police chief, namely Ice Cube. Some may wonder if the rapper-actor-filmmaker is as intimidating in person as he often is in movies and on records.
“Oh, that’s all true,” Tatum jokes.
But Hill wasn’t afraid to pester one of his heroes with endless questions. “I grew up in Los Angeles in the ’80s, so Ice Cube and Magic Johnson were who I idolized,” Hill says. “When we were writing the first one, the first idea we had was that the guy who wrote ‘F— Tha Police’ would play the police chief.” Luckily he said yes, and Hill found that he would answer anything he was asked about N.W.A., “Three Kings” or “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted.” He even discovered that “It Was a Good Day” — Hill’s favorite ever song, along with the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” — was not, as rumored, about a specific day.
He had even more questions while making the second movie. “That’s like a full six months,” Hill jokes. “I had a year and a half to think of all the questions I needed to ask that I didn’t before.”
While Hill is looking forward to taking a slight break from movies, to return for something he’s passionate about, Tatum is very busy. He’s been cast as Gambit in the next “X-Men” movie. “It’s the only X-Men that I really followed,” Tatum reveals, saying he’s not really a big “X-Men” head. “He’s just the coolest one to me: the smoking, drinking, woman-chasing, cussing one. He’s not even a good guy. He’s a thief.”
But Tatum does have other duties, such as now being a parent. “I’m solid at diaper changing. If a guy isn’t solid at diaper changing, I don’t know what he’s there for, really, because they’re not there for the first seven months. The mama’s the end-all-be-all,” he says. He also gets to see through his daughter’s eyes. “I love watching her experience new things for the first time. Like she just saw a kite for the first time the other day. She was like, “WHAT? What is it?”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge