‘Hillbilly Elegy’ actors talk about filming in Middletown

MIDDLETOWN ― You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family or untie the family ties that bind, no matter how hard you try or how far you go in life.

“Hillbilly Elegy” illustrated those points in the movie that was partially filmed in Middletown in August 2019. Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard used some artistic license in the movie, some of which was less than flattering as a number of local and national reviews have noted.

Credit: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX

Credit: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX

The movie is based on J.D. Vance’s 2016 bestselling book, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Vance, who now lives in Cincinnati with his wife and children, managed to escape Middletown by joining the Marines and was deployed during the Iraq War. After leaving the service, Vance graduated from The Ohio State University and from Yale Law School and became a venture capitalist.

While the movie features scenes of Central Avenue in downtown Middletown and the Harrison Street neighborhood the family lived in, there are some things that did not exist such as a large overpass with “Middletown” emblazoned on it.

The Netflix film, which has had early screenings at select theaters locally and across the nation, debuts on the streaming channel on Nov. 24.

The movie finds Yale Law student Vance played by Gabriel Basso, interviewing for a summer internship for a prestigious law firm. However, he is forced to return back to Middletown due to a family crisis, and navigate the dynamics of his Appalachian family roots and his relationship with his mother Bev, played by Amy Adams, who’s struggling with addiction.

Credit: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX

Credit: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX

The movie uses then and now parallel flashbacks of a younger Vance, played by Owen Aztalos. He shows Vance’s resilience growing up in an unstable family situation and finds encouragement from his foul-mouthed Mamaw, played by Glenn Close, who keeps the teen on a steady course as best she could to survive and succeed.

A scene where the younger J.D. says something Bev didn’t like and she hits the gas in the SUV they were in and accelerates to 100 mph. The boy manages to get out and run to a nearby residence where the woman takes J.D. and calls the sheriff about the situation. The boy lies to the deputies about the incident so she avoids going to jail.

The Journal-News talked with Gabriel Basso and Owen Aztalos this week to learn what drew them to this movie.

Aztalos said auditioning for Ron Howard “was out of this world” and that the stars aligned when he got the job. This is his first lead role in a feature movie.

Basso said he hadn’t worked for eight years but once he read the script, “I really felt that the message that family was important. I was drawn to the story, the family and the themes it tells about perseverance.”

He added that while you can’t choose family, the movie also recognized that love can transcend personal problems.

Aztalos agreed, adding that your family of blood isn’t necessarily your family of choice.

“There were definitely some tough, tough scenes for both us (Aztalos and Adams) for sure,” Aztalos said. “It was easy to stay in character when you’re working with such powerhouse stars (Adams and Close) who are inspiring and motivating you to keep trudging forward.”

Both Basso and Aztalos enjoyed their week working in Middletown.



“I thought it was great,” Basso said. He said he enjoyed visiting one establishment as well as talking to families who lived around the shooting locations in town.

“I thought it was pretty cool shooting in J.D.'s neighborhood because it made it more authentic,” Aztalos said.

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