The actor discusses his role in Gus Van Sant's 'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot'

Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot

“I’ve never been happier in my life than when I was playing Donnie,” says Jonah Hill of his role in Gus Van Sant’s Sundance drama Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. It’s not hard to see why: The disco-dancing, caftan-wearing Donnie, a recovered alcoholic and AA sponsor to quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), has a serenity about him that would seem to contradict his painful past.

“Once you’ve gone through a lot of pain, it feels really good to be on the other side of that,” the actor tells EW. “I usually play characters that are more, I would say, unsettled inside, and Donnie, even with all he has going on, really seemed to be kind of at peace,” he adds in an exclusive featurette about the making of the film, above.

Don’t Worry is based on Callahan’s memoir of the same name, and it chronicles his recovery from alcoholism and the discovery of his passion for cartooning following the accident that put him in a wheelchair. For Hill, signing on to play the artist’s charismatic sponsor was a no-brainer. “Before I even read it, I would have desperately wanted to work with [Van Sant and Phoenix], just out of admiration,” he says.

The film marked his first collaboration with both — sort of. Before shooting began last spring, Van Sant had already appeared in the music video for Danny Brown’s “Ain’t It Funny,” directed by Hill. “I said, ‘I’ll do your movie if you’re in my music video.’ We did a swap,” the actor recalls. “He did it, and he had a great time. ” (“He had already agreed to do our film. I don’t think it was, like, a trade,” Van Sant says. “It [was] hard. I don’t like acting.”)

Hill immediately followed shooting Don’t Worry with production of his upcoming feature directorial debut, Mid ’90s, and he took lessons — as well as a few key members of the crew, almost entirely by coincidence — from Van Sant’s set with him to his own. “I can say I had the best film school of all time,” says Hill, who’s worked with a long list of revered filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, and Quentin Tarantino, in addition to Van Sant. “They all offer something very different, and I think I got to, like, steal from my heroes.”

On the set of Don’t Worry, Hill appreciated Van Sant’s openness “to let life pass through his movie with this artful eye and structure,” he says. “There [are] so many different kinds of human beings and directors, and the ones that you can feel that are open to let what’s happening go through their lens into the film, and not be so rigid ahead of time, are the ones that end up being the kind of filmmaker I was. And Gus embodies that wholly.”

Van Sant’s flexibility behind the camera allowed for one of Hill’s most memorable scenes, a private moment in which he’s alone in his house, looking for his watch. “I was like, ‘I should be dancing,’” Hill says. “And Gus was like, ‘Oh, that’s great, we can do that.’” The director chose Peaches & Herb’s ebullient “Shake Your Groove Thing” for the newly musical scene, and Hill “went and listened to that song for like an hour, and then we shot that, and I was wearing the shortest shorts I have ever seen.”

“When we got to have him dancing around, we knew it had to be short shorts,” says costume designer Danny Glicker in the featurette. “That was a given.”

Credit: Scott Patrick Green/Amazon Studios

Disco and short shorts notwithstanding, Donnie “was just a ’70s rock kind of dude,” Hill says. Callahan mentions in his book that his sponsor strongly resembled Tom Petty, and the actor listened to “a lot of Tom Petty, a lot of Crosby, Stills & Nash” to get into the character’s mindset. The luxurious wardrobe also helped: In Hill’s estimation, “the caftans were the most, I’d say, elegant and comfortable. Danny Glicker and I had a term called ‘Donnie’s level 10 Marrakech.’ He’s rockin’ a level 10 Marrakech aesthetic all the time.”

With the look and the playlist down, all that was left was forging the intimate friendship at the center of the film — which Hill and Phoenix did, in part, by practicing karate together. (“He’s genuinely amazing at karate, and I’m a white belt, so I’ll just leave it at that,” Hill says.) Over martial arts and many hours spent together, the actors became very close.

“I just love him. Everyone unanimously has a deep respect for Joaquin’s acting, but I have such a profound respect for him as a human being. I think the world of him,” Hill says. He ranks their relationship “among the top three connections I’ve ever had” with a costar, calling one emotional scene they shared “probably the single most important moment I’ve had as an actor.” That kind of bond ought to get them pretty far.

Check out the exclusive featurette above. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is now playing in select cities, and will expand July 20.

Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot
  • Movie
  • 113 minutes