Jonah Hill Talks "Personal, Emotional" Directorial Debut 'Mid90s'

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Jonah Hill

The first-time director said of his young stars, many of whom are professional skateboarders with no previous acting experience, "Watching them put in the hard work to do that has been, like, the single most moving experience of my life."

The cast of Jonah Hill's Mid90s raved about the freshman writer-director at a surprise screening of the film at the New York Film Festival on Sunday night.

The screening was the pic's first following its Sept. 9 premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Mid90s stars Sunny Suljic as Stevie, a shy 13-year-old with an abusive brother (Lucas Hedges) and a loving but oblivious mother (Katherine Waterston). Longing to escape his gloomy home life, Stevie befriends a group of teenaged skateboarders led by aspiring pro Ray (Na-kel Smith) and loudmouth party boy Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt).

According to the cast, the film's theme of friendship was infectious. On the red carpet before Sunday's event, Suljic commended Hill for promoting cast bonding by creating a relaxed environment on set. "He didn't put too much pressure on me," Suljic told The Hollywood Reporter. "He kind of introduced himself as just another friend."

When prompted about Hill's skill as a director, Suljic continued, "I mean, you can tell right off the bat he's really good at it — it feels like he's been doing it for so long."

Primarily known for his career as an actor, Hill stepped behind the camera for the first time with Mid90s. After his breakout role in 2007's Superbad, he appeared in a string of comedic films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the Jump Street series. In the early 2010s, Hill began to move away from his comedic persona through dramatic performances in 2011's Moneyball and 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street, both of which netted him Academy Award nominations for best supporting actor.

Hill maintains that although he enjoys acting, writing and directing have always been his "first love." "I've been a cinephile my whole life," he told THR. "That's what's brought me joy. You know, first it was skateboarding and then it was film."

Despite growing up in the 1990s L.A. skateboard scene, Hill claims Mid90s isn't autobiographical. However, he admits the story is very close to his heart. "If you look at anyone who's, like, a hero of mine, like Mike Nichols or Barry Levinson, their first films were films from a very personal, emotional place," Hill said. "That's why I made Mid90s."

Following the screening, castmembers Ryder McLaughlin, Alexa Demie and Gio Galicia joined Hill, Suljic, Hedges, Prenatt, Waterston and NYFF director Kent Jones for a panel discussion. During the panel, Hedges, who acted alongside Hill's sister, Beanie Feldstein, in Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, praised Hill for his work ethic.

"It means a lot to work with a director who's really, really passionate about what he does. I had the same feeling when I worked with Greta," said Hedges. Speaking directly to Hill, he added, "It was an honor to work for you, man, and it really comes through in the film."

Later in the panel, Hill complimented the pic's young cast, many of whom are professional skateboarders with no previous acting experience. "What's cool about all these kids is that they weren't actors, but they now are very serious actors," he said. "They wanted to become these people that they're not, and watching them put in the hard work to do that has been, like, the single most moving experience of my life."

Singling out Suljic in particular, Hill added, "I've never had to carry a movie like that. I usually play supporting roles, and, like, it's crazy to carry — literally strap a movie at 11 years old to your shoulder and [have you] walk across the field with it. It's insane."

Mid90s was produced by Hill, Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Ken Kao, Lila Yacoub and Mikey Alfred and will be distributed by A24. It is set to hit theaters nationwide on Oct. 19.