Before portraying former international arms dealer Efraim Diveroli in the new Warner Bros. film “War Dogs,” Jonah Hill got some advice from his “Wolf of Wall Street” co-star Leonardo DiCaprio on the subject of playing real people in movies. “He said, ‘Always meet them if you can, take what you want and leave what you don’t,'” Hill said during a panel conversation hosted by The New York Times on Thursday. “It’s great if you can [meet the person]. You just have to do a lot of editing of who they actually are.”
Hill wasn’t able to heed DiCaprio’s advice in the case of “War Dogs,” as Diveroli was serving a prison sentence at the time of filming and wanted nothing to do with the movie. It wasn’t the first time Hill has encountered resistance from a real person he was playing in a film. “Most of the time when I play somebody, they have a violent reaction against me playing them,” he said during the Times Talk, which also included “War Dogs” co-writer and director Todd Phillips and star Miles Teller, whose real life character David Packouz was not in jail and did meet with the actor.
Former childhood friends in Miami, Diveroli and Packouz amazingly won a $300 million contract from the Pentagon in 2007 to arm U.S. allies in Afghanistan. The tale of how these two twenty-somethings became middlemen in the global guns and ammo trade first came to light in 2011 thanks to a feature in Rolling Stone magazine entitled “The Stoner Arms Dealers.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Hill originally turned down the role of Diveroli before Phillips reworked the script and was able to change his mind. “A lot of times when you do a movie, it’s about finding one person to build the movie around, and for me it was just always Jonah,” Phillips said. “When I read the [Rolling Stone] article, I really thought, oh man, Jonah could just kill this part.”
When Teller was asked if his success as a young actor helped him identify with his character, an ambitious Millennial already making millions of dollars, he said he found it slightly challenging to put himself in the mindset of someone in their early 20s. “I’ve got buddies who say, ‘Don’t you wish you were 22 again?'” Teller said. “I’m like, no. I’m done sleeping on kitchen counters.”
For Hill, who described Diveroli as a “genuinely bad person,” playing the part of a charismatic manipulator is exactly the kind of role he relishes. “I really gravitate towards exploring people who operate outside of the moral boundaries of society,” he said. Though he already has two Oscar nominations, he still remembers what it was like when his reputation for comedies like “Superbad” and “Knocked Up” led internet commenters to protest against his being cast in a dramatic role alongside Brad Pitt in “Moneyball.” “It definitely hurt my feelings,” he said. “I was like, I can do other stuff too.”
Though “War Dogs” is in many ways a Todd Phillips comedy, the film stands apart from the director’s previous work for it’s dramatic telling of real life events. “What I like about this movie a lot is that it blends both [drama and comedy],” Hill said. “The actors I look up to and respect a lot are the ones that can do both very well.”
“War Dogs” hits theaters on August 19.