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FILTER 45: To Age On Stage: Growing Up With Jonah Hill and Beirut

By Kevin Friedman on November 23, 2011


FILTER 45: To Age On Stage: Growing Up With Jonah Hill and Beirut

If you were asked to pair two people together for a conversation about music, film and their lives on stage, you might not immediately come up with Jonah Hill and Zach Condon. On the surface, the two entertainers seem almost diametrically opposed. Hill is best known as Michael Cera’s hilariously boorish other half in Superbad and as the passive-aggressive man-child with a serious Oedipal complex in Cyrus, while Condon, fronting his band Beirut with his world-weary crooning and fondness for European folk music, just might be this generation’s most hopeless romantic.

Despite their differences, these two combine to rather accurately represent the elements we often associate with youth: eagerness, melodrama, naiveté, romanticism, coarseness and earnestness. Hill, his ideas bursting out in rapid sentences of excitement, humor and sarcasm, is the raging yang; Condon, the sensitive and soft-spoken soul of few words, fills the yin with his brooding emotion. It might still be a little early for a This Is Your Life montage for either (Hill is 27; Condon, 25), but both achieved success and notoriety at a tender age and have been growing up in public ever since.

Illustration by Michael Kupperman

Over the course of three full-lengths and several EPs, Condon has followed his inspirations by digging through the record crates of Eastern Europe, France and Mexico for influence, working the stylistic elements of those countries’ traditional music into his own. Beirut’s debut, 2006’s Gulag Orkestar, drew heavily on Balkan Brass legends Goran Bregovi´c and Boban Markovi´c, while Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg and Yves Montand were the touchstones for 2007’s The Flying Club Cup. The previous release, 2009’s March of the Zapotec EP, reflected Condon’s newfound affection for Mexican marching bands.

Hill began stealing scenes with his first screen role in 2004’s I Heart Huckabees. He made the most of minor parts in massive films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Funny People by portraying characters that are often obnoxiously matter-of-fact--—in Knocked Up, his advice to Seth Rogen’s character struggling with impending fatherhood was, “I won’t say it but it rhymes with shmish-mortion.” That led to Superbad, the uproarious, youthful romp that made Hill a star. In 2010’s Get Him to the Greek, he played the straight-man to Russell Brand’s unhinged egomaniacal rock star, sacrificing his most precious cavity for the greater cause on two separate occasions in the film.

Both artists recognize the importance of that which put them on the cultural radar, though neither is ready to be pigeonholed. With Beirut’s new album, The Rip Tide, Condon is working to move past the tag of an ethno-musicological cherry picker. Previous records made no secret of their debts, but the clearest moment of influence here might be Dexys Midnight Runners on the song “Vagabond”—needless to say, it’s subtle. Often alternating between the epic and the intimate within the same song, this is Condon’s most eclectic and personal album to date, relying on no specific genre or national identity other than his own. Hill, too, has begun to move away from the “hard-R” comedies in favor of dramatic roles. While his initial approach alternated between obscenity-laced rants and deadpan eye-widening, he has been expanding his methods ever since. In Cyrus, he stood toe-to-toe with one of his heroes, John C. Reilly, in a pitched battle for the heart of Marisa Tomei, and in the forthcoming Moneyball he stars alongside Brad Pitt as the sports number-cruncher who changed the way player talent is evaluated.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that these artists have a strong mutual appreciation for one another; Hill has been seen wearing Beirut T-shirts in several of his films, and Condon, despite the poignant demeanor of his music, loves the bawdy comedies from which Hill has emerged as Hollywood’s go-to man. Ultimately, both are appreciative to have attained their initial goals so early, but having done so, each is eager to push further. Perhaps youth is not always wasted on the young after all.

A Conversation with Jonah Hill and Zach Condon

Can you describe your initial exposure and reactions to each other’s work?

Zach Condon: Superbad—that was the original.

Jonah Hill:
My first introduction to Zach was the song “Elephant Gun.” It’s one of my favorite songs ever. I write to Beirut often and I think Zach’s music is really cinematic and really good to write to.

Have you ever met prior to this conversation?

Michael Cera and I went to see Zach play soon after Superbad had come out. When we first heard your music, we pictured you like the guy from Gogol Bordello who was in Everything Is Illuminated, because your music sounded kind of Eastern European.

Condon: People would ask me, “Where did you hear about this stuff?” and the truth was: in movies. In fact, this is the first year that I’ve been to Serbia and Slovakia. I’d never been farther east than Prague before.

Which movies in particular turned you on to this style?

Condon: [Emir] Kusturica films—Underground; Black Cat, White Cat. I used to make popcorn at a movie theater that played those types of films.

How close are you in real life to the perception of your persona?

Condon: My first album came out when I was pretty young. I was 19, so it was hard not to wear all your emotions on your sleeve. The contradictions are the funniest part. You could say it is autobiographical, but the way I live my day-to-day life is not even close to what the music might evoke. I play video games, I crack fat jokes with the band, I watch TV shows. I’m not reading old books and listening to records on an ancient Victrola.

Hill: I started making movies when I was 18 or 19 and I’m 27 now. Not that that’s old, but I’ve grown up in front of people, publicly. So I think you would only really know me as anxious or angry, mostly from Superbad or something like that. But even Get Him to the Greek, my character wasn’t really anxious; he’s a pretty nice, normal guy.

We’ve both spent the same formative years getting comfortable in our own skin in front of an audience.

Hill: Yeah. I’m sure, Zach, if you read an interview from when your first album came out and I read an interview from when my first movie came out… I cringe horribly thinking about what I thought I knew about life, or the world, or movies, or anything. Cyrus was the first thing for me where I was like, “That’s nothing like me, the person.” I think if you grow up in front of an audience, a lot of people just judge you as what they first knew you as.

Condon: Oh yeah, I’ve been fighting myself out of the same world-music hole since the first interview I gave when I was 19.

Hill: If I met myself when I was 19 now, I probably wouldn’t even want to hang out around him.

Condon: I’d sit him down for a stern talking-to.
Hill: I’d wise him up a little bit with the back of my hand.

Can you discuss what it’s been like to attain such large goals at a young age?

: Well, I had large ambitions and low expectations. There was a moment where it kind of came crashing down around me that I’d realized that everything in my life had kind of changed overnight. There was a time early in my career where I couldn’t say “no” to anything. I just couldn’t believe that people wanted me to play and the places I was going to. It actually led to a physical meltdown on tour, panic attacks and the like. I had to change the rules completely after that.

All the major benchmarks that I never thought I would achieve, like hosting SNL, presenting an Oscar, being on the cover of Vanity Fair—things that you don’t ever think are actual things that can happen in life—happened to me when I was like 23 or 24 years old. Or being a character on The Simpsons, I did that. I created an animated show, Allen Gregory, that’s airing after The Simpsons on Fox in October. Now I’m forging this dramatic career, with Cyrus and Moneyball, and I’ve started directing. These weren’t things that I thought were ever possible. I’m coming up with dreams and trying to do them until someone doesn’t let me anymore.

Both of you work on projects that start quite personally but are presented to large audiences. Can you talk about the transformation from the personal to the public?

I remember when the first [Beirut] record was picked up, I got a phone call saying, “You’re going to play South by Southwest this year.” The thing is, I’d never actually played a real concert before in my life. It was this mad scramble to assemble a team of friends of mine to do this thing. But it’s taken years to assemble some sort of stage persona because it would be madness not to have one in front of thousands and thousands of people every night. I think I was watching a Jacques Brel performance and I realized how he was playing with the crowd’s emotions, his movements, his body language and I’ve been trying to emulate that ever since.

Hill: When I started out, I’d either be putting up my own plays, with no financial pressure, or I’d be cast in one scene in a movie where I would just go in and do whatever I felt like, creatively, and it was very free. Then when you become the lead of a movie, producer, writer or all three at once, you have a lot more pressure to not squander the money that was given to you by a huge corporation that’s paying for everything. You do have a responsibility to make something you feel is great and, when you’re an old man, can give to your grandkids and be proud of how you spent your life—but at the same time, to not make it so crazy that no one wants to go see it. So it really sometimes can be about where art can meet commerce in a certain way.

Condon: It’s funny, it’s the same thing with [record] labels. They throw money at you and wait for an album in return. Smaller figures and less pressure, I think, but even that was weird for me. I had two options: to either become heartless and cold, or to set off on my own.

Hill: I chose heartless and cold—kidding. That’s a joke. [I’ve been listening to] the new album, The Rip Tide; to me it sounds the most eclectic as far as different styles in one album, which I thought was really cool. When I saw you perform at the Avalon in L.A., you were just about to release [The Flying Club Cup], which was very French-influenced, and the one before seemed very Eastern European.

We were talking about growing up in the public eye, and as an adolescent you’re dressing up in different styles and trying on different attitudes, trying to find your middle ground. It’s funny because the first one caught on so early, when I was head-over-heels in love with Balkan Brass music. And then the second know, you could see me trying on these different styles, but The Rip Tide should be a little more true to the sound I’ve created over the years and not the ones I’ve fallen in love with.

Who is your biggest influence?

Condon: I’d say probably one of the most important people I’ve met, as far as my career and just giving it to me straight, would be Jeremy Barnes. He plays in a band called A Hawk and a Hacksaw, but before that he was the drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel, which was a big influence for me. He kind of discovered me and sent my demo out to the person who ended up signing the first record. He flew out to New York to help me finish it in a real studio and taught me some of the ins and outs and tricks of the music industry; he all-around took me under his wing and even introduced me to the producer I worked with on this new record. So I definitely have to give him a lot of credit for that.

Hill: Dustin Hoffman—he discovered me and is my favorite actor. He got me the audition for I Heart Huckabees, which was directed by David O. Russell.
Condon: You gotta tell me about this Dustin Hoffman thing. I’ve never heard that before.

Hill: Well, I’m friends with his kids. I used to make these prank phone call CDs—the best improv class you can take is a prank phone call because you’re forced to react in character, on your toes, as quick as you ever would in a scene. Dustin used to love them; he would have me prank call people and one day he said, “I’m gonna put you in a movie, I think you’re a really talented guy.” Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray are my two favorite actors ever because they can do comedy and drama both in such an excellent, incredible way. That’s kind of the career that I’m aspiring to have. If you’re really talented as an actor, you shouldn’t be limited to one style of film; you should push yourself to do different things. I’ve only done two dramas now, but to me it’s about doing both.

Zach, it seems you’re doing something similar, too, by experimenting with different styles and influences.

Condon: Definitely, yeah, it’s true.

I love that answer. You can tell which one of us is more insecure by our answers—mine take 45 minutes and Zach can just give a confident, “Yeah, it’s true.” I was just talking to a friend of mine about this other actor—I won’t say who—but I was like, “We take so long and have to gain approval with our answers and everything but he just answers things so cool.” And my friend said, “Yeah, well, we’re insecure and he’s on heroin.” I thought it was the greatest response to my complaining. Not that you’re on heroin, Zach.

Condon: No, I’m smashed out of my gourd right now.  F

This article is from FILTER Issue 45