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How Jonah Hill Became the Biggest Mood of 2018

He’s an Oscar-nominated actor turned internet folk hero. How did we get here?

Jonah Hill holding a cellphone and water bottle Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a serious movie about addiction and self-acceptance, and yet, even it is not immune to the undeniable whimsy of current period Jonah Hill. Playing Donnie, the bearded, serene AA sponsor to Joaquin Phoenix’s protagonist, Hill breaks up the film’s more sobering sequences with moments of odd levity—Hill in a floor-length satin robe horizontally splayed out on an ornate bed or dancing in short shorts to “Shake Your Groove Thing” like the disco version of Risky Business—that can only reasonably be described with two words: “BIG MOOD.”

Jonah Hill wearing a satin robe as he lounges horizontally on a bed and talks on a corded phone Amazon Studios

Not coincidentally, those are the words that get thrown around most when discussing Hill’s real life as well. It’s “big mood” when he strolls New York City streets in a wool coat in the dead of winter, with an iced coffee in hand and his kneecaps blasting. It’s “big mood” when he steps out of a trailer looking like Post Malone one day and a Houston Oilers fan who lives in his mom’s basement the next. Three Saturdays ago, the voices of the podcast Failing Upwards, James Harris and Lawrence Schlossman, held the second annual Jonah Hill Day at Kinfolk in Brooklyn. “Still a bad excuse for a good day party,” as a flyer advertised, Jonah Hill Day was set up to honor the actor for his style, his attitude, and his general demeanor; for being the patron saint of average-yet-upward-moving, upper-middle-class boys and men, the chill ones who follow celebrity culture and know which skate brands to wear right now. “It really was a bat signal of like, ‘If you occupy this weird, niche corner of the internet, this day is for you,’” says Harris. Hill himself showed up this time to humbly bless his worshippers with his presence—and to make sure Jonah Hill Day wasn’t part of some Punk’d reboot. He stayed for almost two hours, braving the heat that had set in at the bar due to the abundance of eager hypebeasts to take selfies with whoever asked for one. It was a big mood.

In 2018, we find ourselves in the middle of Hillenaissance. Not because of some dramatic leap Hill has made as an actor, but because of who he is and, in some ways, who he’s always been: an aspirational yet attainable avatar for a subset of people—mostly men—who’ve spend a ton of time online, tweeting and entering sneaker-release lotteries.

To figure out when this movement started, we must travel back to Hill’s first big role, as Seth in the 2007 film Superbad. Curly haired, doughy, and in cargo shorts, Hill didn’t look cool in Superbad, but he achieved cool nonetheless. As a character, Seth is nerdy enough to be the underdog but confident and funny enough to be aspirational. In an early scene in the movie, he’s literally spit on, but a few scenes later he’s flirting with Emma Stone and getting invited to her party. Seth is perfectly affixed on the spectrum of likability—unlike his best friend, Evan, whose utter awkwardness makes him a subject of sympathy. (Though it should be noted that the actor who played Evan, Michael Cera, has his own subset of internet stans.)

Above all else, though, Seth—his quest for sex and booze, his deeper fears regarding friendship, growing up, and fitting in—was relatable, most especially to the kids who were still in high school in 2007, the ones who are in their late 20s now. The way that Seth is harassed by the cool kids mirrors the way kids who cared more about sneakers, fashion, and pop culture than sports or school spirit were singled out as “weird” as teens. “A lot of kids [at Jonah Hill Day] told him, ‘Yo, I was you in Superbad. I was the nerdy friend that cool kids made fun of,’” Harris says. In the war zone that is high school—where assimilation can feel mandatory—having niche interests can make someone a target. Seeing Jonah Hill in Superbad, though, was an empowering experience for many; a form of confirmation.

Which is why the next phase of Hill’s career was so rewarding. Hill quickly became a full-fledged star: His scene-stealing turns as the schlubby, funny one in movies like Funny People and Forgetting Sarah Marshall led to a role alongside Brad Pitt in 2011’s Moneyball. His performance as Peter Brand, Billy Beane’s sabermetrics-toting sidekick, earned Hill an Oscar nomination. A year later, he costarred in 21 Jump Street looking notably leaner than he did as Peter Brand. The movie itself was far better and funnier than any remake of an ’80s teen TV show should have been, and with Channing Tatum delivering a surprising performance as a comedic force, it was clear that Hill could manufacture onscreen chemistry with anyone. A year after that, he was begging Leonardo DiCaprio to smoke crack with him in a Martin Scorsese movie.

As the supremely white-toothed Donnie Azoff in The Wolf of Wall Street, Hill was outstanding: magnetic, hilarious, sleazy, disgusting. By January 2014, Hill had earned two Oscar nominations in three years.

This phase of Hill’s career is known endearingly by his fans as “the glow-up.” It’s the period in which Jonah Hill accelerated beyond the expectations that had been set for him—the period in which he made it clear that he was more than a cog in the Judd Apatow machine, more than just a “funny fat guy.” The glow-up is a crucial moment in Hill becoming an internet folk hero because, to extend the high school metaphor that started with Superbad, it’s analogous to the dorky weirdo triumphantly attending the five-year reunion with a cool car and a beautiful girlfriend. “A lot of kids just see his trajectory as a reflection of theirs,” says Harris. “People are rooting for him … because it’s a trajectory that, like, hopefully you can achieve.” Who among us doesn’t aspire (at least symbolically) to go from being the outcast to doing the “I’m the king of the world!” scene from Titanic while Leonardo DiCaprio holds you tenderly on Saturday Night Live?

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill reenacting a famous ‘Titanic’ pose NBC

A little more than two years after Jonah was held by Leo, he was back on the Studio 8H stage, officially becoming a fashion god. Introducing a musical performance by Future, Hill wore Palace. At the time, Palace was a niche skateboard brand out of London that was still mostly only known by those deep into street style. It was a sign to those who knew. “Most celebrities dress like shit,” Harris says when asked about Hill’s fashion sense. “Most celebrities aren’t as chill-seeming as he is.”

Hill’s love affair with Palace continued—he starred in an ironically low-budget commercial for the brand’s collaboration with Reebok announcing its New York City store opening—while he proceeded to turn the fact of paparazzi constantly photographing him into an opportunity to flex. In full Palace gear, him leaning up against a building to take a drag from a cigarette somehow became fashion statement. New York streets were a runway as he walked along in Raf Simons x Adidas shoes, as stickers from relatively obscure brands like Dime adorned his water bottle. By 2017, GQ had declared, “Jonah Hill Is Our New Style Savior,” while the popular Twitter account @Four_Pins, which is run by Schlossman, kicked off “Jonah Hill Fit Watch 2K17.”

“The culture needs guys like him,” Noah Johnson writes in the GQ article. “We rely on them for progress. To keep us looking ahead. Resisting stagnation. They are rogue, independent, risky. Unhinged, even. But beloved because of what they do for us. They inspire and entertain and crash through the plateaus of boredom. Kanye West, Shia LaBeouf, André 3000: They refuse to fall in line with the status quo, opening up entire new worlds to the rest of us.” Or, they at least give us better fashion role models than DiCaprio and his newsboy caps, or Johnny Depp and his pirate outfits.

“I think the clothes are just an initial indicator of ‘this guy has a certain taste within the same realm of a lot of other dudes in New York,’ and you don’t really see that in a lot of other celebrities,” Harris notes. He shops at the same stores—like, actually goes to the stores—discovers brands the same way kids on the internet do, and promotes an aesthetic they can identify with. He’s an internet sensation because he’s speaking to the arbiters of internet culture.

But it goes deeper than clothes. The evolution of Jonah Hill into a hero of the internet can be traced back to what happened about a month ago, on the second annual Jonah Hill Day: He came. “A year ago, someone sent me a flyer that these people were doing the first annual Jonah Hill Day—they were throwing a party—and I didn’t go,” Hill told Jimmy Kimmel on his show Tuesday night (while wearing tinted sunglasses). “I was too shy. … And it looked fun as hell, and it was one of those FOMO things where I was like, ‘Man, that would’ve been cool to go, they would’ve liked it,’ but I was just pacing around in my apartment.”

“This year, ‘I was like, ‘You know what? I need to get over my social anxiety,’” Hill continued, an earnest and somewhat nervous smile forming on his face, “and I went in there and I freaked it.”

“[It’s] just the most amazing, self-aware thing he could’ve done; it’s a very Bill Murray moment,” says Harris. “And when kids came up and asked him for selfies, he engaged with every single one. … He was the most genuine, appreciative dude. Confused! But down to earth.”

Before he left Jonah Hill Day, Jonah Hill commandeered a microphone from the party’s DJ. “This is the most surreal, epic, flattering, and enjoyable thing,” he said, the audience of admirers hanging on every word. “Thank you guys for [doing this]. Have a great time and enjoy National Jonah Hill Day.”

If you look on Instagram, you’ll see all the selfies. And it may take you a second or two to distinguish Jonah Hill from his fans. For anyone who looks up to him, that’s the point.