In addition to being a legendary filmmaker, Martin Scorsese is also a legendary film fan, so Hill was first asked if the director ever recommended any classic films for the actor to watch. “That was one of the most amazing things,” he replied. “I really like Walter Matthau and I remember one day him saying to me, ‘Oh, have you ever seen Elaine May’s first film A New Leaf?’ I was like, no. Then the next day someone handed me a copy of the film, and that would happen often. I would watch it and then I had to be able to talk about it. That was just amazing that he would do that for me. It’s just such a cool, amazing bonus to not only be working with your hero and be learning from him about what you’re working on but being able to dialogue about things. You know I love film more than anything in my life, the fact that you can learn from your hero who knows more than any one in the world about the history of film and why things are important is just amazing.”
Hill was then asked if he ever just “geeked out” and asked Scorsese about Goodfellas or one of his numerous other projects. “That’s the cool part, you can! I think he knows that people really look up to him, and not in an ego way at all. He knows that Goodfellas is my favorite film. He would sit around in between takes and he would tell you things,” Hill answered. “He would mostly start talking about Goodfellas or Taxi Driver organically if there was something that reminded him about it. Then, once that door was open I would launch into my own questions because he had started it. Once he opened the door I was like, okay, then what was this like? It was amazing.”
“Also, Rob Reiner was there a lot, which was great,” he continued. “One day I got to just by circumstance sit and hang out for like an hour and a half with Robbie Robertson from The Band, Scorsese and Rob Reiner. It was like one of the greatest days ever because I just got to sit and hear these guys talk about their work. Steven Spielberg came one day while we were working and sat behind the monitors. You would go get notes and the two of them would be behind the monitors together and it was the most surreal, amazing thing you could ever imagine.”
While on the subject of Goodfellas, we asked Hill if the similarities between that film and The Wolf of Wall Street were ever discussed on set. “I know that (screenwriter) Terry Winter, Scorsese and (producer) Irwin Winkler had conversations about how Goodfellas, Casino, and Wolf felt like they were akin to one another,” Hill replied.
One of the most talked about scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street is when Hill’s character is high on drugs and begins masturbating in public at a party. The actor was asked if he felt comfortable doing that because his cinematic hero was directing him. “I would have done anything that he asked of me because of course you feel safe because you know that he doesn’t make ridiculous movies. His films are wonderful. They are my favorite films ever. So I of course felt an enormous sense of safety while working with him.”
The actor also discussed reading the book that the film was based on and his initial impression of Jordan Belfort. “I had read the book a few times when I learned that I was in contention for the part,” he explained. “I couldn’t put the book down and I couldn’t believe that this was how they actually behaved and interacted with people. That to me was why it was an interesting story because I couldn’t put it down. I was like; no way this is what actually happened. That is what makes the movie a story worth telling because that is what these people did and this is how they got punished for it. That to me is the most interesting part that they only got a slap on the wrist. That is what is really shocking to me.”
“Donnie is pretty hard to like,” Hill continued. “I found him entertaining. He’s really more obnoxious than anything else. I had a harder time with that. Would I actually be a friend with this person? No, I wouldn’t. I find him entertaining to watch and I find lots of characters in movies entertaining to watch but I wouldn’t necessarily want to spend my time with him.”
I then had a chance to ask Hill about working with Leonardo DiCaprio and if he felt intimidated knowing that DiCaprio has a short hand with Scorsese because he had worked with him so many times in the past. “Yeah, of course. The first days of rehearsals, and we rehearsed for a month and a half, I was terrified,” Hill said candidly. “The first month was Scorsese, Leo and me in a room. I thought, this is crazy, these guys know each other so well. What’s so great about Leo is that he understands, even though he’s made five movies with Scorsese, he has the same reverence that we all have for him. He grew up worshiping Goodfellas and all those movies. He understood that I was intimated and he tried to make it more comfortable for me.”
I followed up by asking Hill if he felt like he got a sense of DiCaprio’s approach as an actor from working with him and how it might be similar or different from his own. “We spent so much time together, that usually for me, that creates a bond. I enjoy that process, same thing with Moneyball, I spent a lot of time with Brad Pitt, and on Superbad I spent a lot of time with Michael Cera. That gets you on the same page on what you’re all making. We talked and talked and talked, and we happened to get along great. That’s great because now I’ve got a friend! You can’t force a relationship. That could work in the opposite way if you don’t like somebody. The movies that I’ve made that are really good are the ones where people were on the same page about what we were making.”
Hill has a reputation for his comedic improvisation skills, and Scorsese is rumored to encourage improvisation on his sets, so the actor was asked to talk about the differences between improvising on a comedy versus a drama. “The process of a broad comedy and a drama are completely different from one another, “he explained. “When you’re in a broad comedy like 21 Jump Street or Superbad, you have the responsibility to make the audience laugh every minute or you’ve failed. With a movie like Cyrus, Moneyball or The Wolf of Wall Street, you just have a responsibility to be that character as intricately and authentically as you can. That, as an actor, is way more enjoyable. But it’s completely different. We’re not trying to make a joke. In 21 Jump Street, I’m trying to be funny throughout the entire film. In a drama like The Wolf of Wall Street, you never say, I’m going to say this for this effect. I just say it because it’s natural to say.”
“What is interesting about Scorsese is that he laughs when he likes something,” Hill continued. “He’ll laugh at things he finds funny, but also things he is excited about. Sometimes you’ll be doing a heavy scene and he’ll laugh. He’s just excited. He has a world famous laugh and it’s the greatest sound in the entire world to hear.”
The actor also talked about how his expectations of working with Scorsese lived up to the reality of it. “It exceeded my expectations and my expectations could not have been higher. As far as what I’ve learned, what I was able to do with a part like Donnie doesn’t come along like ever in most people’s careers. That unhinged, messed up, fractured and out of control of a character. What Scorsese does better … and he does a million things better than anyone else, one of those things is he creates an organized chaos. He creates a safe and organized place for people to become completely unhinged. I don’t know how he does that.”
Finally, Hill discussed why he likes playing characters that are based on real life people. “When you’re telling a real story, you have some responsibility. Both Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, the names were changed and that was a great relief because these people have families and they didn’t write the books that the movies are based on,” he explained. “That takes the pressure off and you can make the character you feel is necessary. I find real life fascinating. I think movies should feel as much like documentaries as they can. The acting should feel like you’re watching a documentary. That is real life. How people treat each other, why they do the things they do and why they hurt one another is interesting to me. That is something I would love to keep exploring.”
The Wolf of Wall Street is currently playing in theaters now.
To read our exclusive interview with Margot Robbie about The Wolf of Wall Street, please click here.