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Tatum and Hill have easy, funny rapport

Rebecca Onion

On the afternoon of the premiere of their movie "21 Jump Street" at SXSW, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are what Tatum called "juiced up," glowing with anticipation at the thought of watching the film with an audience for the first time.

The two stars, wearing the bike cop uniforms that their "Jump Street" characters, Officers Schmidt and Jenko, sport at the beginning of the movie, took time to speak with the American-Statesman at the Four Seasons Hotel on Monday.

"I just want [the premiere] to happen already. I feel like I'm a kid and it's Christmas," Tatum says, as Hill jokes, "We're gonna sit next to each other. I'm gonna sit next to you, right?"

Although the two look like an odd couple — the handsome romantic lead and the comedic superstar known for playing lovable and not-so-lovable losers — it appears that the making of "Jump Street" has been the start of a beautiful friendship.

The two actors each arrive at the "Jump Street" opening this week with a certain degree of career momentum. Hill was nominated for an Oscar this year for his role alongside Brad Pitt in "Moneyball," and Tatum's romantic comedy "The Vow," in which he stars with Rachel McAdams, has scored big at the box office.

Congratulated for his Oscar nod, Hill turns the praise back on his co-star, saying, "It's interesting that we had this movie together, because we're at such an interesting point in our careers, with all this fun exciting stuff happening, and it would have been really awkward if one of us was at a great place and one of us at a terrible place, and people kept congratulating one and being quiet to the other one."

Tatum quickly nods: "Totally. I would have hated you. I would have done some (expletive) to you, would have pranked you the whole time."

"Luckily," Hill continues, "it just so happens that he's a massive movie star, and I've had a good year. Otherwise, people would be like, ‘What's it like to be around such a big movie star?' and I'd have to be like ‘He smells like money.'"

The star of "Dear John," "Step Up" and other movies beloved by the teenage set is affable and humble. A dancer and athlete, who admits that he was an inattentive student during high school, he compares himself to his character Jenko, saying, "Jenko hates school, I hated school. Jenko was decent at sports, I'm pretty decent at sports." During the interview, he doodles on the pad in front of him, like a restless student in third-period geometry class.

For his part, although Hill has played a nerd in many a movie, and says that though he was thinking of visiting Austin Books & Comics (along with Waterloo Records) between his interview schedule and the movie's premiere, he swears he wasn't geeky in high school.

"It's funny, in this movie and in ‘Superbad' I played a guy who's a nerdy high school guy, but I had a blast in high school," Hill says. "I made a movie [‘Moneyball'] where I was a mathematical genius, and for some reason people don't think that of me."

Tatum laughs: "That's actually really funny. People are like ‘So! When did you start your love of statistics?'"

Before beginning this project, Tatum and Hill had varying degrees of familiarity with "21 Jump Street," the 1980s television series starring Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise. Tatum says that he and his sister used to watch the show "every single Friday," while the younger Hill was less acquainted with it.

Hill, who's credited as a co-creator of the film's story (along with Michael Bacall, the screenwriter), says that his agent was the one who came up with the idea of turning the serious television show into a comedy.

The movie's plot, in which the unpopular Schmidt gets a taste of coolness upon his return to high school, while the jocky Jenko finds that his "rules" for high school popularity no longer apply, turns the sincere concern of the ‘80s show on its head, playing the contrast between the old and new high school caste systems for maximum laughs.

Asked what it is about high school that lends itself so well to comedy, Hill jokes, "I think sadness is funny." Turning serious, he adds, "In high school, you're so trying to define yourself and figure out what you're about and who you are."

He says that "Jump Street's" plot, in which two supposedly adult twenty-somethings are forced to rethink their place in the high school social order, adds another layer to this comedic premise. "You get out of there and you think you're done," Hill says, "but then you're still trying to figure out who you are. I don't think it ever ends. My parents are in their fifties and sixties and still trying to define themselves."

If "Jump Street" does well, as preliminary reviews suggest it will, the movie's ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel. As many reviewers of "Jump Street" have already noted, Tatum's loopy energy serves him well in his first comedic role on the big screen; the response might bode well for a future "Jump Street" set on a college campus.

Asked if he wants to pick up more work in comedies, Tatum confirms: "Definitely. I would love to. And regardless of whether the sequel happens, I'm going to be working with this kid (Hill) forever. He's one of my favorites."