At around age 7, Jonah Hill had a simple ambition: to live in Springfield, hometown of "The Simpsons."
That's what Hill told his parents back then when they asked him what he wanted to do with his life. Once they explained to their little boy about the impracticalities of living in a cartoon town alongside Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa Simpson, Hill revised his goal.
"They said, 'You can't live there. It's not a real place. There are people that write what Homer says, and there's a guy that is Homer's voice, and there are people that animate all those characters,'" Hill said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where his latest film, "Moneyball," premiered.
"And I said, 'I want to write what Homer says.' So that says a lot that a 7-year-old, my ambition as a 7-year-old was to be a writer on a prime-time animated series. Most kids that age, they say they want to be a fireman or whatever."
The 27-year-old star of "Superbad," "Get Him to the Greek" and next year's big-screen update of "21 Jump Street" eventually got to hang out in Springfield as a guest voice star on "The Simpsons." Hill also has achieved his aim of writing for a TV cartoon show as creator and voice star of the animated show "Allen Gregory," about a precocious 7-year-old boy.
Opening Sept. 23, "Moneyball" continues Hill's move from comedic roles into more serious parts that began with last year's "Cyrus," in which he played a mama's boy trying to sabotage the relationship of his mother (Marisa Tomei) and her new boyfriend (John C. Reilly).
Adapted from the book by Michael Lewis, "Moneyball" chronicles the efforts of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, Hill's voice co-star in last fall's animated comedy "Megamind") to build a winning team on a meager budget and compete with franchises that have three times as much money to spend on players.
Hill plays Beane's new aide, Peter Brand, an Ivy League-schooled economist who uses his statistical genius to crunch numbers to identify under-appreciated players that can be signed for peanuts compared to baseball's superstars.
Unlike the film's real-life characters, Brand is a composite of a number of economic analysts Beane hired, "with a little Jonah sprinkled on top," Pitt joked.
Also a producer on "Moneyball," Pitt said Hill is part of a wave of comedic actors, including Danny McBride and Russell Brand, who are "pushing the irreverence, but there's a truth to it. It's all grounded in some kind of personal pain or need or pathos."
"I love him and love what he does," Pitt said. "But upon meeting him, you meet a guy, I've been marveling at him, he's just incredibly open. He's not cagey, he's not protective in any way. Really, really genuine in his exuberance for the people around him and for life. If we were populated by Jonah Hills, it would be a really nice place."
True to his early goal of putting words in Homer Simpson's mouth, Hill started writing in college, trying his hand at short stage scenarios.
The move into acting began with an attempt to improve his lines of communication.
"I really found that I couldn't talk to actors. I didn't know how to express what I wanted them to do," Hill said. "So I took an acting class to become a better writer and director and learn how to talk to actors, and from that, I fell in love with acting. That was the impetus for all of this. From that moment on, I was like, oh, there isn't that crazy separation between the three. That's why a lot of the people I love can do all of that, because it's really about your voice."
One of Hill's idols was Dustin Hoffman, whose children happened to be college classmates of his in New York City. Hoffman helped Hill land his first screen role in 2004's "I (Heart) Huckabees."
A year later, Hill hooked up with the Judd Apatow comedy gang for a scene-stealing bit as an eBay outlet browser desperate to buy a pair of gaudy boots. He's been an Apatow regular ever since, as leading man in "Superbad" and "Get Him to the Greek" and supporting player in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Funny People."
Hill also was a voice co-star in "How to Train Your Dragon" and stars as the world's worst babysitter in "The Sitter," due in theaters this December.
"21 Jump Street," a new take on the show that made Johnny Depp a star in the late 1980s, casts Hill and Channing Tatum as cops who go undercover as high schoolers to investigate youth crime. Hill, who co-wrote the screenplay, had not been a fan of the show but was struck by the action and comedy possibilities as he watched the old episodes on DVD.
"I realized this is just a great idea, the idea of young-looking cops going back to high school, once we cracked the idea of, they think they've moved on and grown up and matured," Hill said. "But once they go back, they immediately revert to the same insecurities from when they were 16 years old."
Hill's "Moneyball" character reveals plenty of social insecurities himself. Economist Peter is short, nerdy and nervous, out of his element among athletes and coaches.
He could have made a fortune using his statistical talents in the business world, Hill reasoned, yet Peter sticks around the front office running the numbers on pitchers, batters and infielders.
"A big key for me is I realized he just loved baseball," Hill said. "He couldn't do anything else. It's like I couldn't do anything else but movies. I got lucky and won the lottery, but I just couldn't do anything else."