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St. Louis native Gabriel Basso stars in 'Hillbilly Elegy' on Netflix
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St. Louis native Gabriel Basso stars in 'Hillbilly Elegy' on Netflix

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At the center of “Hillbilly Elegy” is a native of St. Louis.

Gabriel Basso, 25, lived in St. Louis and Chesterfield before moving to Los Angeles when he was in eighth grade. He stars as J.D. Vance in the film based on Vance’s bestselling memoir.

Vance was born in the hills and hollows of Kentucky, moved with his family to the middle-sized town of Middletown, Ohio, and made his way to Yale Law School.

It is there that Vance gets a call to come back to Middletown to deal with a family trauma. Back at home, he reflects on a lifetime of family dysfunction created by his unreliable mother (Amy Adams) and his harsh and seemingly uncaring grandmother (Glenn Close).

Basso is best known for playing Adam, Laura Linney’s son, in the Showtime drama “The Big C” and for his roles in cult fave “Super 8” and the coming-of-age story “The Kings of Summer.” We caught up with him via Zoom from Los Angeles. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q • What is the theme of the movie?

A • I think one of the biggest things is family. We can’t really choose who your family is and where you’re born. But we can overcome any problems and persevere, just get through the obstacles that people or society throw in your way.

Review: A 'Hillbilly Elegy' adaptation, hold the politics

Amy Adams and Gabriel Basso in "Hillbilly Elegy"

Q • The real J.D. Vance lives in Cincinnati, a short distance from Middletown, where some of the film was shot. Did you get to meet him?

A • He came by the set a few times before we started shooting. We talked a bit about life. I was more interested in the stuff that he didn’t put in the book or wasn’t in the movie, because that stuff is already common knowledge. I asked him questions about his stint in the Marines and other stuff.

Q • Did you mold your performance on him once you’d met him?

A • There were some things that definitely helped. It’s weird, because he was a lot older by the time that I met him.

I mirrored with Owen Asztalos, who played J.D. as a boy, and tried to work with him on what he was thinking because we had to keep it believable that we were the same person.

It helped to meet Vance, and in other ways I stuck with my instinct on what I should do.

Q • The movie is directed by Ron Howard, the Oscar-winning director and actor. What was it like to work with him?

A • He was great. He definitely knows how to direct actors, because he was one. It was really nice to get some coherent direction.

Sometimes with other directors you get direction like, “Try that, but more sad.” How do you take that? Howard was very coherent with his ability to be, like, “OK, you did this here. Now try it this way.” It just helped a lot for me.

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