Ron Howard ‘Surprised’ by ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Author J.D. Vance’s Controversial Senate Campaign

The author of "Hillbilly Elegy" has taken a series of increasingly radical positions since working with Howard on the Netflix film.
HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Haley Bennett (“Lindsay”), Gabriel Basso (J.D. Vance), Amy Adams (“Bev”). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020
"Hillbilly Elegy"
Lacey Terrell / Netflix

What a difference six years can make.

When J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” was released in 2016, the story seemed like fitting material for famously wholesome director Ron Howard to adapt. The book told an inspirational story of Vance’s journey from a poverty-stricken childhood in rural Ohio to attending Yale. It was an only-in-America story that briefly made Vance the toast of some in liberal America, though plenty of critics cited the book for dangerous rhetoric and misguided conclusions.

After the book’s success (following Donald Trump’s presidential election in 2016), Howard helmed a 2020 Netflix film starring Gabriel Basso as Vance. The movie received mixed-to-negative reviews.

Recently, Vance has cultivated an even more contentious public persona. The author and venture capitalist is currently running as a Republican for the Senate seat being vacated by Ohio Senator Rob Portman, and he has embraced a set of controversial positions, even by Republican standards. A member of the so-called “New Right,” Vance now says he wants the federal government to take an increasingly active role in culture wars, even advocating to seize the assets of charities he disagrees with.

While the polarizing tactics ultimately won him the GOP nomination in the Ohio senate race, his positions and rhetoric have sparked backlash from much of mainstream America, including Ron Howard. In a new interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the filmmaker was blunt when asked about Vance’s right-wing populist turn as a Senate candidate.

“I was surprised by some of the positions he’s taken and statements he’s made,” Howard said. “I always knew he was conservative, but [he] struck me as a very center-right, a kind of a moderate thinker.”

While Howard may not support the turn that Vance’s career has taken, he still stands by his movie and the apolitical aspects of Vance’s story that originally drew him to the material.

“It was a family drama based on real events,” Howard said of the film. “There was a lot that I personally related to about the family dynamics, but also the region, the sensibility that I had long been looking for a way to express through a story. It ended with him at Yale and wasn’t ever meant to suggest that he was headed in the direction of politics.”

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