BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – It’s hard to tell if the two stars of the action-comedy “21 Jump Street” are more in character as cops or as teenagers as they come barging into a press conference for their new movie in full Southern California police gear – embroidered LAPD polos, baggy blue shorts and high-top Converse sneakers sans socks.
Portly Jonah Hill and buff Channing Tatum make a strong case for arrested adolescence as they lope onto a stage to face the entertainment media at a press day hosted by Columbia Pictures at Soho’s tony Crosby Street Hotel.
Hill, just coming off an Oscar nomination for his dramatic role in “Moneyball,” seems ready to have some fun with this long-in-the-making project on which he stars, serves as executive producer and co-writer of the story with screenwriter Michael Bacall.
Tatum, currently appearing in the soft-hearted romance “The Vow” and a veteran of action movies (“Haywire,” “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”) but a stranger to comedy, seems a little more tentative about this whole loosey-goosey improv business.
Their oddball partnership on “21 Jump Street” represents a radical reimagining of the late-1980s Fox TV show (which featured the fresh-faced Johnny Depp in a breakout role) about a youthful squad of undercover LAPD cops who pose as high-schoolers to bust crime on campus. In the film, Hill plays the nerdy Schmidt and Tatum portrays the cool jock Jenko, who form an unlikely friendship at the Police Academy and then are assigned to the secret Jump Street unit to infiltrate a local high school.
Hill said he spent five years working to get the film into production, and once he overcame some initial doubts he became convinced that he was onto something special.
“Honestly, when this first came to me it was a dramatic script, and I was really against it. I did not want to make a TV show into a movie. I thought it sounded really lazy and stupid and eye-rolling and unoriginal and all of those things,” he said. “But, really, there’s like a ‘Back to the Future’ element that everyone involved understood.
“The idea of reliving your high school years, and what would that be like, and what is funny about that, what is sad about that,” he said. “And what if you think you have all the answers and you go back and you have none of the answers? And that, to me, is a really, really strong idea for a movie.
“And what if that was like a ‘Bad Boys’ meets a John Hughes movie?” Hill said. “That was what got the train moving, so whether it was called ‘21 Jump Street’ or it was called ‘Narcs’ or it was called ‘Two Cops Go Back to High School,’ I didn’t really care. That idea was what captivated me and made me want to move forward.”
“Have you seen the show in a while?” Tatum chimed in. “You know, it’s pretty funny and cool. I was a fan of the show. I watched it every single Friday. But I don’t really think you have to call this thing ’21 Jump Street,’ but I’m glad they did because I liked the show. And we paid some good homages.”
While Hill is an old hand at comedy, Tatum is widely viewed as a handsome hunk more at home in action fare. So how did he hook up with Hill?
“I got a phone call from Jonah when I was in Toronto shooting a movie, and I wasn’t sure why he was calling me,” Tatum recalled. “But he told me about his passion for ‘Jump Street’ and how long he’s been working on it. And they sent me the script over email. It seemed like one of the most fun scripts I’d read. And I just said, ‘Alright man, if you promise me that I’m going to be funny then I’ll sign on.’ And he did, he really held my hand all the way through it, and they created a great stage for you to be safe to fail and not feel bad if you didn’t know your way into a joke. Like, I know that there should be something funny in here, but I don’t know how to do it. And everybody helped me out with that.”
A key element in making the comedy work is the Mutt-and-Jeff chemistry between Hill and Tatum. How did the actors develop that?
“We went for milkshakes and hung out a lot,” Tatum said with a shrug.
“Everyone asks if we knew each other before, and it’s funny because we had only met once five years before at a restaurant,” Hill said. “We didn’t actually meet, we just waved at each other. And that was the only experience we had until I called him up on the phone.
“I gotta say about this guy, in every really good movie you get to be surprised or shocked by something someone does,” Hill said. “And I think Channing walks away with this movie because you’ve never seen him do anything like this before. I think he’s the funniest part of the whole entire movie. And the second I called him and he was down to do the movie, I saw why I wanted him, which is that he is fearless.
“He was just jumping in, and he’s fearless as a person and fearless as an artist,” Hill continued. “And that’s why he’s great in this movie, because he didn’t put a wall up and say, ‘oh man, I’m scared and maybe I shouldn’t do this.’ He was like, ‘whatever you guys want, just promise me that I’ll be funny.’ He’s just honest and raw in every scene. And that’s why we became friends because we both are down to kill ourselves for our movie.”
“Thanks, buddy,” Tatum said with a wry grin.
“Now you guys are supposed to, like, roar into applause,” Hill said to the scribbling journalists.
“Nah, it was easy to get along with this guy,” Tatum said. “I think it’s really nice when you can actually see a friendship come through the screen, and I think you can actually feel it.”
Lastly, as if addressing the 2,000-pound elephant in the room, one nosey journalist asked about a certain cameo in the film that should earn huge laughs.
“Who?” Hill said. “We, umm, don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Not to give away the surprise, the journalist persisted, but whose idea was it to include the cameo?
“We don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hill said.
“If there were a cameo, that would be pretty neat,” chimed in co-director Phil Lord.
Finally, Hill laughed, “You’re wasting your time if you’re going to keep asking about that.”