Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are reclining in a Sydney hotel room wearing matching white robes. As a display of dick-bag decadence it ranks highly. Hill lazily stretches his arm out to greet me and attempts a wordless nod before the two collapse in fits of laughter. “That was really hard to do,” admits Hill of the ostentatious display. Tabloid reports suggest the previous day Hill required rescue at Bondi Beach when a drunken swim got out of hand. He denied the rumour, stating he was “just being awesome.” It is clear the two stars of 21 Jump Street – the Phil Lord and Chris Miller-helmed adaptation of the late-‘80s television drama – are enjoying their time in Sydney, and amidst all the joking, they offer up succinct, thoughtful answers that suggest that the interview process is second nature to them. They make an interesting pairing, and while it wasn’t initially apparent how the two disparate actors would work side-by-side, their chemistry is apparent in person and happily carries over to the screen.
“Jonah just called me up,” Tatum recalls. “I didn’t really get why he was calling me for a comedy ‘cos I don’t do this type of thing, but he promised me he would make me funny. He did, and I can’t thank him enough for it.”
“There was no-one else that could play the part,” Hill interjects. “It was perfect. We just got lucky, we had to play friends so I think we knew we had to get along, and then we just happened to.“
While the original series was a fairly straightforward police drama, the easy hook of undercover cops in a high school meant the premise lent itself easily to both school-based comedy, and hefty doses of action. Hill co-wrote the script with Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) with both these elements in mind. “I always wanted to make Bad Boys meets a John Hughes movie. That was the kernel that we sort of popped into a little piece of popcorn and ate,” he laughs, metaphor falling apart. The two actors each credit the other with making the blend of styles work so seamlessly.
“I’ve never really done something like this,” says Tatum, of the comedic portions, “but the writing was really, really good. We did the scenes as they were written and then after that, we were like, ‘Okay, let’s play now’.” Of course that easy back-and-forth didn’t apply when it came time to shoot the action sequences, during which Hill freely admits he was floundering. “Channing saved us because we really didn’t know how to make an action movie, and he’d made a bunch of them and knew how to do this kind of thing,” Hill says. “He was really our guiding light in that world.”
It’s an interesting time for the pair. Hill was this year nominated for his first Oscar, a Best Supporting Actor nod for his role alongside Brad Pitt in Moneyball(he lost out to Christopher Plummer). “It’s something that’s incredibly exciting, it’s something that is rare, and you just have to try to have fun with it and appreciate how cool it is,” said Hill of the nomination. This sets Tatum off on a praise chorus directed at Hill. “I don’t look at him as a comedic actor, or a dramatic actor, he’s just a great actor. I’m happy he is in such a great film and gets a chance to show his chops,” he gushes.
Tatum is similarly spun out about his current good fortune. As he is conducting interviews for 21 Jump Street, his “other film” romantic drama A Vow, sits on top of the box office in Australia, the US and numerous other markets worldwide.
“It’s so weird, we leave for Australia and I’m getting texts from my wife about what’s going on at the box offices there, its just so cool. It’s extraordinary and strange and probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing.” It also means he is incredibly busy, with the duo joking Tatum will be conducting interviews for the rest of his life. “I had no intention of having this many films come out in one year. The Vowwas meant to come out last year, but they wanted it to come out on Valentine’s Day.”
“Smart move”, Hill acknowledges.
“They have someone who plans these things out,” deadpans Tatum.
While the pair are full of praise for each other’s performances, they credit Ice Cube (who plays Captain Dickson, the duo’s commanding officer) with “doing a lot of the heavy lifting.”
“I was really nervous to be around the guy,” Tatum says. “He is so incredibly focused as an actor. He had pages and pages of monologues, and every word was word perfect. When someone is that intense and you know how serious they can be, it’s so fun when you get them gut-laughing.”
Another example of perfect casting came with the addition of Dave Franco as Eric, the charismatic drug dealer Hill’s character Schmidt befriends in order to bust, but develops something of a friend-crush on. “We needed a guy who felt like I would idolise him; a lot of great actors came in, guys we were friends with, but the second Dave came in, it just felt funny and natural that I’d idolise him, and it felt easy for me to want to be best friends with him. Also he’s the only guy who auditioned that’s shorter than me, which is important.”
Although the movie is ostensibly a big-screen adaptation of a television series, it shares only the initial premise with the original. “If you took the title off the movie, it could easily be a movie that stands alone,” says Tatum. “It’s not like we are playing any of the characters from the TV show.”
“You could call it ‘High School Cops’ and it would be the same movie,” Hill concludes. “Terrible name, though.”