Brow Beat

Jonah Hill on Why He Didn’t Hide From Homophobia, Race, and Adolescent Sex for His Directorial Debut

“At the end of the day, I’m not a moralist. I respect the audience too much to tell them what to think.”

Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, and director Jonah Hill on the set of Mid90s
Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, and director Jonah Hill on the set of Mid90s. Tobin Yelland/A24

Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, follows a group of very young and very profane skateboarders on the streets of Los Angeles during the titular time period, a clearly personal nod to the actor’s own experiences. But the movie is not nearly as squishy and nostalgic as the premise makes it sound. Though it does feature the polished juvenile gags and prickly adolescent male bonding that are some of Hill’s signatures, it also doesn’t shy away from the racial dynamics, machismo, vicious language, and sometimes bone-rattling violence that comes with the territory. I called the 34-year-old actor and now filmmaker to ask him about the movie’s inspirations and whether he ever thought twice about some of the movie’s more head-turning risks—including a sex scene that nearly brought down the theater in an early screening. Our conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jeffrey Bloomer: There are a lot of surprising choices in the movie. To start with: What about Lucas Hedges, who plays the central character’s wayward sibling, said to you “terrifying, abusive older brother”?

Jonah Hill: If you’re going to cast someone as an abusive, let’s say, really harsh older-brother figure in a movie, it could go so stock so easily if you cast someone who reads that way. And Lucas is such a bighearted, sensitive young person that I felt, if you could feel that sensitivity and giant heart underneath this veneer of abuse and anger, that you’d have a lot more empathy for this person.

I think it’s quietly his best performance this year. Two other names that I didn’t really expect to see in the credits were Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who are known for scoring much different movies. How did you land on them?

They’re my favorite modern composers. And I never thought I’d get them to actually score the film, and we didn’t have a lot of money to pay them. And we just screened the film for them and asked them to watch it, and they said yes. It was incredible. They’re so known for The Social Network’s score, which is so much about coldness, and I thought it would be really exciting to see what Trent and Atticus’ perverse take on warmth would be.

I want to ask about Stevie, the main boy in the movie, and the actor who played him (Sunny Suljic). He’s supposed to be 13, and I think the actor was maybe 11 or 12 when you were filming. But to me he looks a lot younger, like a little kid hanging out with much older kids. 

I was looking for a kid who looked really young for his age but was 10 feet tall inside. And right when I saw Sunny, I knew it was him. Because that’s who he is, you know? That he would be able to take the hit, and the abuse, and the work it takes to get through that internally, even though he’s so small.

Why did you want him to look younger?

Because he’s lonely. He maybe doesn’t fit in with people his own age. A lot of times, if you look younger, you’re just even more on the outside.

I ask in particular because of the sex scene, which had my entire theater jumping into the seats behind them. 

To me, showing it as harsh and as honest as it was back then was the point. You know? The point that this kid is terrified and shaking during his first sexual experience. And we get to see that as the audience. And he only gets happy and excited once he realizes it’s his currency to raise up through the group. And that’s a fucked-up lesson that a lot of people now are having to unlearn from this time period. And to me, I just wanted to show how that was and let the audience see that for what it is. Because at the end of the day, I’m not a moralist. I respect the audience too much to tell them what to think. That’s what I observed and tried to share.

A lot of people, including my screening companion, were conflicted about the scene because Stevie looked so young. Were you surprised by the very strong reaction? Or was it deliberate?

I think you’re mining for something that isn’t there. That sexuality at that time period, in this story that I’m telling, is not about two people connecting, which is what it should be about. It’s about the currency it gives you in a group of male friends at that age. And I feel that is something that is problematic, which is why I showed it so explicitly.

The movie is blunt about a lot of things that movies like this often aren’t. The kids also have pretty direct conversations about race, and the boys talk to a homeless man in a skate park in a scene that feels important to the movie. I know this movie is very personal to your experience: Do you think kids at the time would have talked about this stuff so directly?

Well, you clearly didn’t like it, my man.

I actually did!

All this is so thought out. Skateboarding is beautiful because it takes people out of their socio-economic and racial bubbles and unites people based on what they love to do, which is skateboarding. As far as the homeless people, one of my inspirations for the film was that, growing up skateboarding in the ’90s, people really looked down on skateboarders. It wasn’t like how it is now, where skateboarding is this celebrated thing. It’s going to be in the Olympics. You know, they were society’s outsiders—the ultimate outsiders. And other people who are disregarded by society are homeless people. When you’re skating, you’re out in the streets. I knew homeless people and was friendly with them.

So that scene came from experience?

That’s my favorite scene in the whole entire movie: these kids just having a deeply human connected conversation with someone whom society completely overlooks. But they don’t, because they know what it’s like to be looked at as outsiders.

Do you think that kids were as thoughtful as these kids are at that moment?

What I like about this young generation, at least through making this film and spending time with these wonderful kids, is race is less of a part of their judgment than it was when I was growing up. Growing up in L.A. in the mid-’90s, the riots had just happened. Of course, things are fucked and tense still, now. But skateboarding always does bring different races together. Any subculture or common interest—but especially skateboarding—really isn’t about race. It’s about skateboarding. Which is why, I think, these kids end up getting into these wonderful conversations, and hard conversations, and uncomfortable conversations. Because they’re all together, united by this thing, when socio-economically, and neighborhoodwise, they would be separate.

Obviously, there’s also a lot of use of the word faggot. This is something you’ve publicly reckoned with yourself. Did it give you any pause to include it in the movie?

I think people who grew up in that time period are having to unlearn a lot of messed-up lessons that were learned back then. We’re talking about language that is ugly, behavior that is ugly. I felt it was more important to tell the truth and have that be the lesson, and show it in its ugliness, than to go back and change history.

I agree with you. If anything, I was wondering if it made the studio nervous.

Well, actually, the opposite. My instinct at the last minute was to have a scene where these kids are debating whether they should be using that kind of language. And my producer, Scott Rudin, who is a gay man, I sent him this scene, and he said, “Would you guys have had this conversation back then?” And I said, “No.” And he said, then that’s more offensive to put that in the movie than to show it how it actually was.

That’s great. I—

It breaks my heart if anyone would ever think I didn’t think this stuff through and really try to do my best to make a harsh point that shows how wrong a lot of the stuff that a generation learned was.

I think it’s clear the movie is thinking these things through. On that note, let’s talk about the end in the hospital. There’s a disturbing sequence. Then, with the highlight reel, I was left wondering if the movie was sort of celebrating these boys.

Are they celebrating what had just happened?

No, not the accident, obviously. But they sit there and they watch a highlight reel of the movie that we just watched. I think you could read it as valorizing them.

I’m not a moralist, so like, to me, I’m not judging my characters. I believe everyone is good and bad. There’s no such thing as a good person or a bad person. There are things they look back at and they’re proud of, and things they look back on and they’re mortified. So these kids got him into that hospital bed. But they also slept there and love him. It’s not as black and white. It’s gray. Was he better off without them? He wouldn’t be in the hospital. But he also has these people who deeply love him. There are a lot of ways to look at it. Not just one. They’re definitely not celebrating the fact that he’s in the hospital.

Certainly not.

I don’t want to make movies, ever—if I’m lucky enough to get to make another movie—I don’t want it to be like, “Here’s my morals!” Live by them. You know what I mean? I just want to tell complex stories about complex characters, that you can’t judge them one way or the other 100 percent. With this movie, ultimately, I think it’s also summing up youth. If we look back on all of our youth, there are so many moments that would make us smile or cry, based on the day. That’s how I feel.