Look at Jonah Hill’s IMDB page, and you'll see success after success, hit after hit, banger after banger. The guy has been in some of the funniest movies of the last two decades: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, 21 Jump Street. From there, Hill successfully made the transition into more dramatic roles, earning Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor twice for Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street. In 2018, Hill wrote and directed Mid90s, a coming-of-age film. He’s friends with guys like Seth Rogen and Leonardo DiCaprio. On the surface, Hill seems to have the perfect, creatively fulfilling life.
But read any magazine feature on Hill, or see him on a late-night talk show, and you'll see that he's candid about his personal struggles with weight, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. In 2017, Hill’s older brother, Jordan, died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. Hill has been vocal about how physical activities like surfing and Jiu Jitsu have helped manage his mental health. In his latest film, the Netflix documentary, Stutz, Hill’s subject is Phil Stutz—his Los Angeles-based psychotherapist who has, as Hill puts it, “changed my life.”
From the first few minutes of the film, you realize Stutz is wired differently. The 75-year-old has an easy, almost effortless relationship with Hill, not unlike one between a professor and grad student. He curses profusely, cracks jokes often, and because of a Parkinson’s diagnosis, uses nontraditional methods like hand drawings to convey complicated psychotherapy concepts.
With the documentary streaming now, I talked to Stutz via Zoom about the benefits of therapy, dealing with the trauma of losing a sibling, and some of his secrets for living a happier, more fulfilling life. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ESQUIRE: My first question to you Phil is simple, but it might have a complex answer. How are you feeling today?
PHIL STUTZ: I feel OK. I feel better than I have in the last few days. My brain is working well. When the Parkinson's was at its worst, I would have trouble finding words, not being able to follow a train of thought.
In the movie, you don't ever seem to be at a loss of words. I've never had a therapist that came out of the blocks just saying, “fuck.”
[Laughing] I've never done that by the way.
It was disarming to hear you talk like that. Is that something you normally do with all your patients?
It's different from person to person but most of them like it. It gives the message: don't fuck with me, let's get to work here. You don't stand on ceremony. Ruth Steiner said if someone is talking to you about higher principles and spirituality and they don't make you laugh, they're not being honest. The human condition is paradoxical. And if you can't laugh at it, you don't get to joke.
In the film there's role reversal where you’re the one in the chair being interviewed. Did that make you uncomfortable at all?
A little bit, yes, but not horribly. When I was training as a therapist, they’d get 10 or 12 of us in a room, and then we'd wok on each other. So, I was used to people throwing questions at me, challenging me. Now that I think about it, I enjoyed it a little bit.
It's probably something that you don't really get to do it very often. When does a therapist get to talk to their own therapist?
There's also another element. I believe the public would be interested in what would happen with a movie star. What I tell them is, at the end of the day after you get done flying privately or being recognized, the problems are the same. Exactly the fucking same.
One of the things that you arrive at is that no one ever has everything figured out. You're never fully at a place where—
—you have certainty.
Pain, uncertainty, and constant work. No matter how successful you become, no one is ever free from them. No one.
You're always uncertain! Jonah talks about having terrible anxiety and panic attacks and thought if he could arrive at some level of professional success, all his problems would go away.
This is a thing called Part X, which is a part of the human soul. Its goal is to keep you from growing, keep you from being happy and satisfied. It's devious. Part X gives you a problem you don't need and then gives you a solution that makes the problem worse. It suggests to you that if you succeed in the terms that you fantasized about, you’ll be free from the three aspects of reality.
Yes, the three aspects. That’s a big part of your practice.
Pain, uncertainty, and constant work. No matter how successful you become, no one is ever free from them. No one. And it makes people crazy because someone will say I've done everything possible, I've succeeded, and I'm still depressed, I'm still insecure. I wake up in the morning and I feel like shit. Why am I not exonerated of these things? The answer is, you’re human.
I think it's becoming a lot worse with social media where we're fed this message that you'll be happy if you get this sports car or buy this house or take this trip, you’ll be happy.
Happiness is not an accomplishment. Happiness is a process. One of the biggest parts of that process is fending off Part X. That’s the beauty of the tools, I think, is that they give you something to do. And if you're not doing it, at least you're fucking up. At least you come to that level of awareness.
That was another thing that stood out to me in this film. You stress the tools you give patients like Jonah are not the key to being happy at life but rather are there to help you do the work.
Jonah’s a very good student. Once he gets his teeth into something that he believes in, he'll do it every day. In this case it's me telling him what to do, but at the end of the day, I'm not really important. The principles I'm talking about are either true or false. If they're true and you exercise them, you're going to feel better, you're going to feel stronger. If you stop using them, you're going to regress back to unhappiness.
I was thinking about this concept in child psychology where kids are not told to be happy all the time. Rather, calmness is what’s important. You’re going to have all kinds of problems thrown your way but having a calm baseline will help you deal with life’s ups and downs.
There's a thing called radical acceptance. Normal acceptance means when something bad happens—a relative died, or I lost my job—I have to roll with it. Radical acceptance is different. Radical acceptance means not only do I accept what's going on, but I’m also going to react to it as if it's the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. I’ll give you an example. Do you surf?
I try to get out once a month. But I'm not good at it.
Say you're in a line, waiting for the next wave. You can't possibly know the speed, size, shape or whatever it is. The wave hasn't gotten there yet. But when the wave gets there, your reaction to it has to be I've been waiting all my life for this experience. The wave is perfect.
You and Jonah both share the experience of losing a sibling. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about your feelings towards that loss.
Here's what happened. It was the 1950s and I was nine years old living on 78th Street in New York. I was coming home from school and just at that moment my parents pulled up in a cab, my mother raced past, didn’t even look at me. My father came and said, “Your brother's not with us anymore.” At that point, I got very angry and the reason I was angry was my desire to protect the family. At that moment my fate was sealed, and I didn't even realize it. My parents were atheist, so the family kind of fell apart after that. It became my job to deal with death. I know it sounds insane; it was insane. My life direction was set at that point.
After filming this movie, do you feel like you're in a better place with it now?
Yes. I'm in a much better place with it now. I'm doing what I just instinctively want to do. I turn down a lot of stuff where I can make money. I’m 75 years old, I don't care anymore. I’m writing a book and the information that's going to come out of it is going to be very important. It's what I feel like I should be doing. But first I had to work off the karma, whatever you want to call it, of my brother's death.
You mention that your parents were atheist, and you're obviously an academic person. But these concepts like radical acceptance feel, not exactly religious, but spiritual to me. Where does that come from?
You have to distinguish organized religion from spirituality. Spirituality for me is not so much a belief system. It consists of real forces. They're invisible, but they're real. And part of the goal is to learn how to interact with them. It gradually took me over without any kind of doctrinaire theory or anything like that. I came across this guy named Rudolph Steiner. You know who he was?
No, I don't know Steiner.
He was a philosopher in Europe, born about 1860. In the year 1900, he gave up philosophy and he became a spiritual leader. Europeans who weren't thrilled or helped by organized religion, but wanted some connection to the spiritual. I've studied him for years and years and years. He made predictions 120 years ago that have come out to be true. I'll tell you just one.
Around 1915 he said that in 100 years there's going to be two things that will be impossible or very difficult to do. And one of them is education. Duh. I don't think there's much question about that. And the second one is, there will be no strong leaders. And the explanation for both of those things is nobody wants to listen to anybody else. Narcissism would be completely out of control.
Do you have any advice for people who feel like they need to talk to a therapist but don't know where to start?
For those in therapy or who are contemplating therapy, what you need to see in the therapist is two things. Number one, can they make a very quick connection with you? If they can't do it in three sessions, they can't do it. It's just the way it works. Number two, they should never allow you to leave the room after a session without taking something with you. It should be something that you can act on in between the sessions, a tool. The time in between the sessions is more important than the time of the time during the sessions. It's your job as a shrink to give them homework. A lot of people demand it before they leave. Traditional psychotherapy is much better than it used to be, much more realistic. But still, people don't come out of it with tools that allow them to move forward. Everything depends on forward motion.
Any other things people should be wary of?
The stuff I really object to are these products now that have a stable of twenty shrinks. Whenever you get in trouble, one of them will be available to you. Right? That's bad because it impersonalizes the thing and commodifies what should be sacred and personal.
In the movie Jonah says, “Therapy changed my life. And I'm hoping that by doing this film, it can change other people's lives.” I think if therapy was like universal healthcare and if every American had access to it, the country would be in a much, much better place.
I agree with that. Obviously the problem is delivery and that I don't know the answer to, but I do think something interesting is going on, which is the amount of television shows about psychiatry is increasing a lot. The media interest in psychology is way up also. And then you have certain, let's say specific issues like our ex-president—I won't mention his name—who arguably has psychological problems.
My favorite moment in this film is where you and Jonah perform the Grateful Flow, the exercise where you use the feelings you get from the most positive things in your life to penetrate the dark clouds that Part X creates. I actually stopped the scene and hit rewind so I could perform it along with you guys. Is it that easy for people at home to use Grateful Flow to get in touch with that part of themselves?
Think of it as a force. And think about most depressions or dissatisfactions or demoralization as a black cloud. And it doesn't matter what's above the cloud, you can't perceive it. It's all bad. A lot of people walk around their whole lives like that. It increases the frequency of mental illness and ultimately even suicide, which is epidemic now, by the way.
So, what the grateful flow does is it creates a force. It's not just what you're grateful for. It just comes up and then out of your third eye area. And when it comes out, it meets something that's much bigger and it can't really be described, but it's something that's completely accepting of you and completely loving without limit. And if every time you do the exercise, you're training yourself to get into that mode. And the more you get in that mode, the less frightened you become.
You have to make those mental muscles stronger.
At the very end of the film, you have this wonderful declaration of love for Jonah and Jonah says, “I love you” back. And I thought that encapsulated what you're trying to get across during this film and during this conversation we’re having. Is it that simple? Is love the key to this whole thing?
Listen carefully. The answer is yes, you're going for love to experience love, but you have to pursue what's meaningful to you. That's individual. So, the pervasive love that's collective should connect every single human being. Really, the trick is how do you make your personal desires and pursuits also be part of the collectivity of the human race? I know the answer to that, but I can't reveal it right now.
That’s OK. We'll have something to talk about next time.
This article was first published on Esquire.