Learn more about Jez Butterworth's career ahead of 'The Hills of California'

The latest play from the great Jez Butterworth, The Hills of California, premieres at the Harold Pinter Theatre in January 2024, directed by Sam Mendes.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

One of the big theatrical excitements of 2024 is the arrival of a new play by Jez Butterworth. The Hills of California has its world premiere at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre in January, directed by Sam Mendes – who previously collaborated with Butterworth on the award-winning production of The Ferryman.

The Hills of California is set during the heatwave of 1976. That summer, the Webb sisters return to their family’s dilapidated guest house in the backstreets of Blackpool, where their mother is dying. This new play features an exciting cast led by Laura Donnelly, Ophelia Lovibond, Leanne Best, Helena Wilson, Bryan Dick, and Shaun Dooley.

It’s the latest effort from the prolific and much-acclaimed Butterworth, who has two Olivier Awards and a Tony to his name, and who has also scripted movies like the James Bond film Spectre and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.

Learn all about Butterworth’s work on stage and screen ahead of your trip to see The Hills of California in the West End.

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Jez Butterworth’s beginnings

Butterworth was born in 1969 in London. He has four siblings: three brothers and a sister. His brothers John-Henry and Tom are also screenwriters and frequent collaborators, while his brother Steve is a producer.

Butterworth grew up in St Albans and went on to study English at St John’s College, Cambridge. It was at university that he cemented his love of both writing and performing, and decided to pursue a career in the arts.

Jerusalem Mark Rylance

Jez Butterworth on stage

Butterworth burst onto the British theatre scene with his debut play Mojo, a black comedy set in Soho’s nightclubs. It featured a rocker dealing with his jealous manager and a dangerous local gangster. Mojo premiered at the Royal Court in 1995, with a cast featuring Tom Hollander, Andy Serkis, Aiden Gillen, Hans Matheson, Matt Bardock, and David Westhead.

Mojo was instantly acclaimed, winning the 1996 Olivier Award for Best Comedy, as well as the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, and further awards from the Writers’ Guild and the Critics’ Circle.

Butterworth’s next theatrical venture was The Night Heron in 2002, which also began at the Royal Court – to a more mixed reception – as did The Winterling in 2006.

Butterworth crossed the pond for his 2008 play Parlour Song, which opened Off Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre Company, then returned to London’s Almeida Theatre the following year for its European premiere. This well-received black comedy showed people living on a manicured estate in leafy suburbia, but harbouring wild desires.

Butterworth returned to the Royal Court in 2009 for the play that made him a household name: Jerusalem. It starred Mark Rylance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a local eccentric and drug-dealer who lives in a caravan in the woods, and who tells outlandish tales about a mystical, elemental England.

Jerusalem was an instant hit, lauded for Rylance’s extraordinary performance, and for Butterworth’s funny, strange, tender, and deeply moving state-of-the-nation writing. The play transferred to the Apollo Theatre in the West End, and then went on to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre in 2011. Mark Rylance won the Best Actor Olivier and Tony.

Jerusalem has since played around the UK and internationally. In 2022, it returned to the West End, with Rylance reprising his performance, as did Mackenzie Crook. It was a hit once again, proving the enduring power of the work.

Butterworth next went very small scale for his eerie, elliptical 2012 play The River, which played at the tiny Upstairs space at the Royal Court with Dominic West, Laura Donnelly and Miranda Raison, and then on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre led by Hugh Jackson.

Butterworth had another massive success with The Ferryman in 2017. Centring on a family in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, whose uncle fell in with the IRA and was then “disappeared”, it was inspired by Butterworth’s partner, Laura Donnelly, whose uncle suffered that same fate.

Sam Mendes’s incredibly naturalistic production featured a huge cast, including, memorably, a baby and several live animals. Premiering at the Royal Court in 2017, the cast was led by Donnelly, Paddy Considine, Genevieve O’Reilly, Fra Fee, Brid Brennan, and Dearbhla Molloy.

The Ferryman transferred to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End later that year, and to Broadway in 2018. Butterworth won his second Olivier for the play (Donnelly also won for Best Actress and Sam Mendes for Best Director), and a Tony Award.

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Jez Butterworth on screen

Although he’s largely renowned in the UK as a playwright, Butterworth has also built up a substantial career on film and television. He teamed up with brother Tom for the TV movie Night of the Golden Brain in 1993, and in 1997 he adapted his play Mojo into a film, which he also directed. The new cast featured his hero, Harold Pinter.

In 2001, Butterworth worked with Tom again on the Nicole Kidman-starring erotic thriller The Birthday Girl, about the trouble that follows a man purchasing a Russian mail order bride. Butterworth also directed the movie.

The brothers then wrote the 2007 historical film The Last Legion, an adaptation of a novel set in the 5th century. Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, and Iain Glen were among the cast.

Butterworth next joined forces with another brother, John-Henry, for Fair Game. This 2010 film starred Naomi Watts as the real-life CIA agent Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as her husband.

Jez and John-Henry collaborated with Christopher McQuarrie on the 2014 sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow, which saw Tom Cruise’s PR officer learn to become a super-soldier under the tutelage of Emily Blunt. It was both a critical and commercial success, and a sequel is reportedly in the works.

In 2014, Jez and John-Henry wrote the James Brown biopic Get On Up, starring Chadwick Boseman, and the following year Butterworth co-wrote Black Mass with Mark Mallouk, about the FBI’s dealings with the Irish mob. The cast featured Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Butterworth moved into the James Bond world with the 2015 film Spectre. It starred Daniel Craig as 007, Christoph Waltz as Blofeld, and Léa Seydoux as the latest Bond girl, alongside regulars Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomi Harris, and was directed by Mendes. The film was a box-office hit.

There were more fast cars in Jez, John-Henry and Jason Keller’s 2019 film Ford v Ferrari, which dramatised the 1960s battle for racing dominance at Le Mans. Matt Damon and Christian Bale starred in this full-throttle tale, which was nominated for the Best Film Oscar and won for editing and sound editing.

In a very different vein, Jez, Tom and James Richardson created the historical TV series Britannia, starring Kelly Reilly, David Morrissey, Zoë Wanamaker and Mackenzie Crook. Its strange flights of fantasy proved divisive, but it ran for three strong seasons.

Jez and John-Henry’s 2021 drama Flag Day, about a con artist played by Sean Penn, had a more mixed response, but they were back in blockbuster territory in 2023, teaming up with David Koepp and James Mangold for the return of a beloved hero in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.

The ripping yarn saw Harrison Ford return to the franchise, along with John Rhys-Davies and Karen Allen, along with new adventurers like Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Mads Mikkelsen, and director James Mangold.

Most recently, Butterworth and Richardson created the black-comic marital drama Mammals, starring James Corden as a chef who discovers his wife has been unfaithful. Meanwhile, his sister-in-law (played by Sally Hawkins) descends into a fantasy world. The show ran on Prime Video in 2022.

Now you can see the latest product of Butterworth’s boundless imagination as he reunites with Mendes for The Hills of California. Make sure you’re there to see this London run before anyone else – plan your trip now!

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Photo credits: The Hills of California (courtesy of the production), Mark Rylance in Jerusalem (photo by Simon Annand), Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (Lucasfilm)

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