When Jonah Hill arrived at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, it felt like a turning point for the 35 year-old actor, producer, writer and now — finally — director. He brought with him his directorial debut, Mid90s, a Los Angeles-set coming-of-age drama about Stevie, a 13-year-old who finds solace among a group of older skateboarding teens. A lyrical study of adolescence, it’s not exactly what those raised on Hill’s breakthrough “frat” comedies like Superbad and Knocked Up would have expected.
As he told the assembled Berlinale press, looking eye-catching in a knock-out pink duster coat, “You were introduced to a sliver of my personality when I was 21 years old. I spent all of my twenties doing what I thought people wanted me to do and was scared to do anything that would disrupt people’s ease with me, or their version of success with me.” Eventually, he moved into more heavyweight titles — winning Oscar nominations for Bennett Miller’s sporting drama Moneyball and Martin Scorsese’s exhilarating The Wolf of Wall Street.
Naturally, Hill gravitated towards Miller and Scorsese when it came to putting Mid90s together. “They were generous enough to answer some questions when I ran into problems,” he says. He’s particularly thankful to Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, a former skate kid himself, for encouraging his writing. “I just respect how much he promotes being himself in his own creativity and that’s been inspiring to me to be able to become my own person, as a person and as an artist.”
Born Jonah Hill Feldstein, the Jewish-raised Hill has always wanted to direct; so much so, that his highly successful acting career almost got in the way. “Acting was something that’s been this amazing, accidental journey in my life,” he says.
“I never planned on being an actor and some kind compliments at a very insecure moment led to a really bizarre diversion that I’m very grateful for, but it all led me back to here.”
His “insecure” moment doubtless refers to his own self-image. He has recently edited Inner Children, a magazine produced by A24, the company behind Mid90s. “I really believe everyone has a snapshot of themselves from a time when they were young that they’re ashamed of,” he wrote in the intro. “For me, it’s that 14-year-old overweight and unattractive kid who felt ugly to the world, who listened to hip hop and wanted so badly to be accepted by this community of skaters.”
The magazine saw Hill interview all manner of celebrities to ask how they learned to love themselves — including pro-skater Na-Kel Smith, who appears in Mid90s, and Hill’s own younger sister Beanie Feldstein, who made her acting breakthrough in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Seeing his self-image battered by others evidently rankled; it’s only through making Mid90s, he says, “that I’ve started to understand how much that hurt and got into my head”.
With this in mind, it’s tempting to see Mid90s as some sort of cathartic autobiography for Hill. “I think a lot of first-time film-makers end up making coming-of-age stories because you reflect on the first 20 years of your life,” he reasons. “Although I’m not Stevie; this isn’t my life. I think all the characters I’m writing about… are people I can see myself in.” Indeed, the gang member nicknamed Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), who is forever holding a camcorder could just as easily be Hill, the wannabe filmmaker.
As we soon discover, Stevie (brilliantly played by Sunny Suljic, who first came to global attention in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer) comes from a broken home. His older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) bullies him while his single mother (Katherine Waterston) is more interested in reigniting her love life. By comparison, with parents that stayed together, Hill’s own middle-class Los Angeles upbringing was within a much more stable environment.
Like so many LA kids, Hill was immersed in the entertainment world without even trying. His mother Sharon worked as a costume designer and fashion stylist. His father Richard was a tour accountant for mega-band Guns’n’Roses. And his friends were the sons of famous actors; or at least in the case of Jake, offspring to Dustin Hoffman. It was Hoffman Snr who invited Hill to audition for David O. Russell’s oddball comedy I Heart Huckabees. He got the role.
Once referring to himself in interview as “a nice Jewish boy”, Hill had a “magical” barmitzvah when he was young — the theme was “Jonah Goes Platinum”, apparently. But skateboarding was his real religion back then. Like Stevie, he sought out friendship and camaraderie and regularly hung out at Los Angeles skate-shop Hot Rod, dubbing himself “Jonah the Jew” (evidence still exists of a skateboard decorated with year-book style photos, including Hill under this nickname).
This laid-back West Coast vibe has never entirely left Hill; he recently shot The Beach Bum, alongside Matthew McConaughy, for writer-director Harmony Korine, which riffs on this exact theme. Amusingly, in a sort of tit-for-tat, Hill roped Korine in for a cameo to play Stevie’s mother’s suitor in Mid90s. As Hill wryly puts it, “I thought: ‘Who is the last person on earth you’d want to sleep with your mother?’”
Korine, of course, is one of cinema’s great provocateurs, who launched his career writing Larry Clark’s 1995 controversial movie of disenfranchised youth, Kids. Hill’s own movie has already drawn comparisons, not least because “they both have skateboarding”, he sighs. “My movie wouldn’t exist without Kids, but Kids is truly about its nihilism,” Hill adds. “This [Mid90s] is recreating something that happened 20 years earlier, with a real sense of reflection, connection and hope.”
Bigger influences than Kids on his film are Shane Meadows’ British-made This Is England, about a group of 1980s skinheads, and Rob Reiner’s classic tale of youthful friendship, Stand By Me. Even so, he has a different ambition with Mid90s. “A large reason I wanted to make movies is to challenge traditional masculinity,” he says, referring to the way young males “bluntly speak to one another” in language that can be perceived as misogynistic or homophobic.
“For me, at least in America in that time in the ’90s, traditional masculinity was not to show emotion, not to show sensitivity, not to show vulnerability, because it’s feminine or — God forbid — gay to do so. And what that does, and what we’ve seen, is it leads to a lot of horrible behaviour and a lot of bad actions… I wanted to show that that’s problematic and really explore that because these kids end up making terrible decisions.”
He even feels a little guilty about films like Superbad. “A lot of what they’re showing is…bro-masculinity,” he says. “[I want to] help illuminate why maybe some of them weren’t the best lessons in the entire world. It’s not like a responsibility – it’s where my heart is and what I want to make. But at the same time I’m learning, I gotta unlearn a lot of stuff. And maybe some of the people that like Superbad will come with me on that journey.”
Mid90s opens on April 12.