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18 October 2018

From Superbad to Scumbro, Jonah Hill is having a moment

Auteurist actor, first time director, unexpected style icon: how the star climbed the ladder of stardom in the most unexpected way.

By Arun Kakar

If you mentioned Jonah Hill in the late noughties, it’s likely that the first image that would have come to mind would be his brash, cargo-shorted character Seth from Superbad, where he co-starred with Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as part of a trio of spurned teens vying to lose their virginity at an end-of-year party. Seth (an analogue of the film’s co-writer Seth Rogan) is horny and hilarious, but he’s also decent and fragile, a kid growing up and looking for acceptance.

The film stands as a monument to peak Judd Apatow, the super-producer who along with Rogen, Franco, Hader and others pioneered a particular strain of obscene-but-heartfelt comedy that came to define the genre in the 2000s.

How have the Superbad trio fared since? Much like his acting style, Cera’s career finds itself in an awkward moment between the rebooted  Arrested Development Netflix series and blink-if-you-missed them bit parts. Mintz-Plasse is still unable to shed the shadow of McLovin, the notorious fake ID of his Superbad character that has proven an inescapable typecast. 

Hill, however, finds himself in 2018 with two Oscar nominations to his name, an acclaimed directorial debut, and on the list of GQ’s best-dressed list. How did this happen to “the pudgy, curly-haired one”?

After the success of Superbad, Hill continued to play to type. There were the average Apatow vehicles like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the strong Apatow vehicles like Funny People and the forgettable-but-decent indies like Cyrus that hinted at a more dramatic direction. It was with a surprise Oscar nomination for Moneyball in 2011 that the trajectory took a turn. “I think with Cyrus and Moneyball, I got a real taste for a new type of blood,” Hill told Vanity Fair in 2012.

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Hill might not have been the first choice for Moneyball director Bennett Miller (Hill said that he was  “at the bottom” of the list) but he could act. Hill played his nerdishness for nuance rather than comedy to portray character Peter Brand. Hollywood took notice and Work with the likes of the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scoresese were added to the CV. Hill was cleverly able to complement those more prestigious projects like the Wolf of Wall Street with hits like 21 Jump Street that more closely resembles the Hill of Superbad.  

He’s tripped out with Leonardo Dicaprio in the Wolf of Wall Street and tripped out with Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street. He’s done this without losing any of the affability that made him popular in the first place: The sleazy side of Superbad’s Seth can found in Hill’s character in the Wolf of Wall Street, and his desire for acceptance is at the core of his 21 Jump Street character.

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In 2014, just as his acting career really began to hit its stride, Hill was accused of homophobia when he told a paparazzo to “Suck my dick, you faggot”. Apologising profusely, he later told US radio host Howard Stern that “I am not good at being a famous person”. Four years later, and Hill has become an unlikely master at using the paparazzi to enhance his personal brand, where he has endeared himself to internet “standom” through his emergence as a style icon.

Along with the likes of Shia LaBeouf and Justin Bieber he has pioneered a style known as “scumbro”, a term coined by Vanity Fair to describe a style that mixes designer streetwear with outdoor brands like Patagonia in a collage of garish colours and Gucci. The scumbro lets his facial hair loose; he wears his Supreme hoodies with flip-flops and his shirts with bright tracksuits.

Hill – who underwent a dramatic weight loss last year and is almost unrecognisable from his Superbad days – has come to embody this trend . There’s Jonah Hill sporting a buzzcut, wearing a red hoodie and black sport shorts under a camel skinned coat while puffing on a cigarette and brandishing an iced coffee. There he is again, in a bright red Palace tracksuit/black hoodie combo, smoking a cigarette and holding a water bottle the size of a new-born baby. There he is again, this time with pink hair.

The change from butt of the joke to darling of the internet has come through taking risks without straying from popularity. What could have been viewed as Instagram era PR if done poorly has instead won Hill more plaudits and creative freedom. His acclaimed directorial debut mid90s is an adventure into Californian skate culture shot on Super 16, and his latest role is winning plaudits as a mentally unstable heir taking part in a mysterious pharmaceutical trial in Netflix’s Maniac.

Jonah Hill in 2018 is teasing collaborations with Adidas and turning up to his own fan appreciation days. Much like his character in Superbad, he’s defied expectations, winning the internet and his critics over in the process. The difference is that Hill has gone from the character the cool kids make fun of to the guy that the cool kids want to be.