How intriguing that Jonah Hill is the one to call a halt on promotional work. “I have come to the understanding that I have spent nearly 20 years experiencing anxiety attacks, which are exacerbated by media appearances and public-facing events,” the star of Superbad and Wolf of Wall Street said recently.
The multihyphenate, twice an Oscar nominee, was talking about Stutz, his new documentary on mental health. “You won’t see me out there promoting this film, or any of my upcoming films, while I take this important step to protect myself,” he said. “If I made myself sicker by going out there and promoting it, I wouldn’t be acting true to myself or to the film.”
It is, as Jonah Hill implies, easy to snort at pampered stars complaining about having to do the odd interview before returning home to rest on fluffed piles of $100 bills
I have interviewed him twice — once on the phone, once in person — and on both occasions we got into a discussion about the slippery logic of the print interview. It seems this subject has been on his mind for a long time. Back in 2010 he was in Dublin for the release of the rambunctious comedy Get Him to the Greek. Then 27, and at the centre of the media cyclone for three or four years, he had already developed theories about an often artificial process. He goes to a hotel. He sits in front of a poster. Print journalists are wheeled in for 20 minutes of chat (if they’re lucky). They go off and tell readers who he really is.
“I love this job. I would never complain,” he told me. “But it’s equally frustrating and fascinating at times. People meet you for 10 minutes in interviews and then they think they know you.”
I joked that I was about to do that very thing.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, laughing. “When actually it takes months or years to get to know somebody. The truth is that only those really close to me actually know me. I am always going to be different to what people expect when they see me in movies.”
Oddly, I can remember few interviewees being quite so positive about the experience. Afterwards he thanked me and noted that he had enjoyed the questions.
Nearly 10 years later I phoned him up to talk about his directorial debut, Mid90s. He began by reflecting on our last meeting.
“I am sorry for how I was back then!” he said. “I often look back on my youth and think I was way too young to be representing myself and my life.”
In truth he couldn’t have been more helpful and open. I have no idea if the subsequent articles gave any useful insights into his personality — as our first conversation implied, they probably didn’t — but they certainly failed to convey his now-apparent discomfort with the process. Hill’s recent statement had little to do with the material generated by press interviews.
He wasn’t offering a meditation on how the media sometimes garbles interviews into dubious, misrepresentative hit pieces. His point was specifically about how such attention can fray the minds of those already struggling with mental-health issues. “I usually cringe at letters or statements like this, but I understand that I am of the privileged few who can afford to take time off,” he said with admirable self-awareness. “I won’t lose my job while working on my anxiety.”
It is, as Hill implies, easy to snort at pampered stars complaining about having to do the odd interview before returning home to rest on fluffed piles of $100 bills. Leaving aside the fact that only a sliver of the talent is so blessed, this caricature doesn’t convey quite how frantic the process used to be. (We will return to that “used to be” shortly.) One-on-one print interviews are exhausting enough. The actors and directors will also be required to do a dizzying number of short broadcast slots. Radio and TV interviewers are plumped down and asked to get through their questions in five minutes or so. If the chat takes a wrong turn down an uninteresting alleyway the journalist has no time to manoeuvre back to the main road. No wonder so many stick to “What was it like working with Big Movie Star?”
Then there will be a series of round tables, around which journalists from many countries squabble to get their question in. Everyone fears the “local question for local people”. Recollections of your visit to Dubrovnik in 2003 will play only with the writer from Croatia Today. I remember a round table in Los Angeles during which a journalist — I shan’t even say from which country — began barking at two of the world’s most famous comic actors. “We can’t use this! This is no use to us!”
Not everyone is comfortable opening up before dozens of strangers in one hectic day. It is perfectly understandable for those with anxiety issues to be nervous about press duties
It is wrong to assume that, just because they go before cameras and audiences for a living, actors are necessarily comfortable with this degree of attention. Some manage the trick of turning the interview into a performance. Twenty years ago Jamie Lee Curtis played the room for me as if I were an audience of thousands. Demonstrating her continuing fitness, she grabbed my hand and placed it on her midriff. “Here, feel that!”
Even then, I worried the police might burst down the door and drag me off to Cancellation Island. I don’t think “grabbing the talent” was mentioned in the email warning against other offences, such as requesting shout-outs to your listeners or posing for selfies (the sure sign of a media hack), but it was pretty much taken as read.
Colin Farrell is famously an efficient delight. Saoirse Ronan couldn’t be more easy-going. I was lucky enough to speak to Guillermo del Toro, later to win an Oscar for directing The Shape of Water, at the end of the day, and when the PR person came to signal time was up he sent her away, and we chatted like human beings for another half-hour.
One could easily move on to name and shame the actors who are recalcitrant, awkward or just plain monosyllabic. But, in doing so, one would be brushing aside the possible reasons behind their inability — or unwillingness — to play the promotional game. As Hill’s statement demonstrates, not everyone is comfortable opening up before dozens of strangers in one hectic day. It is perfectly understandable for those with anxiety issues to be nervous about press duties.
Over the past two years the process has changed a great deal. Since the early days of the pandemic, rather than having to actually meet the awful hordes, the talent has generally fielded questions via the magic of Zoom. The PR teams have closer control. As the autumn festival season kicks off, however — Telluride, Venice and Toronto are just over the horizon — it looks as if a degree of in-person normality is returning. A few actors will relish that re-engagement. Others will see it as one more chore. They are allowed to feel that.
“They all want you to be something,” Jonah Hill told me in 2019. “You have to pretend to know who you are, but you don’t. Everyone’s full of shit, basically.”