In the end, not being a fan of "Jump Street" is exactly what made Hill perfect for the upcoming comedy.
"Originally were developing this as the straight version of the show," producer Neal Moritz ("The Green Hornet") said. "When Jonah came to me with this idea, I was like, 'You know what? That's probably the way to go.' And then when we got a first draft of the screenplay, I was really, really, like, 'OK, we're going to make this movie.' Just because I liked the fresh spin on it, and I thought it was an original take. The movie could have existed if there was no '21 Jump Street' show. That's what I liked. I think the combination of action and the combination of comedy are two really, really good genres to meld together. Some of the best buddy cop movies, whether it's '48 Hrs.' or 'Lethal Weapon,' have had a combination of those two. I really like those kind of movies."
Based on the framework of the popular television series -- which ran from 1987 to 1991 (and was a launching pad for Johnny Depp to become a household name) -- "21 Jump Street" follows two underachieving cops (Hill and Channing Tatum), who get sent back to high school as part of an undercover ring to bring down a smarmy drug dealer (Dave Franco, James's brother).
"Jump Street" has seen its profile rise steadily over the last few months, thanks in part to a great red band trailer and some buzz-building screenings. Sony will premiere the comedy during South By Southwest in March, the same place Universal launched the similarly R-rated "Bridesmaids" last spring, before it opened to record-breaking box office figures. The hope is that "Jump Street" doesn't find itself limited by the adult-rating either.
"We started talking to the Sony people about 'The Social Network,'" co-director Chris Miller ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs") said to press during a set visit last year. "You know that scene where they smoke pot with the girls at their house? They have the big six-foot bong? They went back to the MPAA fifty times to get the perfect cut that would allow that in a PG-13 movie. We heard that, and we thought, 'How are we going to do a movie about kids selling and taking drugs, getting drunk?' Doing things you're not supposed to do felt like a disaster. Eventually we all just locked hands and committed to doing [it with an R-rating]. And it made financial sense for the studio, because those movies end up doing really well on DVD. It kind of balances out."
Free from ratings constraints, Miller and co-director Phil Lord let their freak-flag fly. "We do have an F-bomb problem on this film," Miller said. "I feel like once you cross a hundred, you should slow down. So we've tried to do that."
Much of the language can be credited to Hill, who co-wrote the script for "21 Jump Street." Of course, beyond profanity, the Oscar-nominated star felt rebooting the television series as a film would work because its themes were universal.
"I thought it was really cool to relive high school; thinking you would get it right this time, and having all the answers, but immediately reverting back to the insecurities you had the first time around," Hill said. "That, to me, is the one nugget that has remained true over these past five years [since I was first approached]. That is the story I wanted to be involved in. And that's what we did."
"21 Jump Street" is out on March 16; watch an exclusive new clip from "21 Jump Street" above.
Additional reporting done by Jenna Busch