Lights! Camera! Newton?

How a tony Boston suburb became one of the most important towns in show biz.

Parental support is, of course, key. Generally speaking, many Newton kids come from wealthier families and can afford to delve into more-creative paths where paydays are less reliable, especially when starting out. “I think a lot of other places are like, ‘You need to make a living so that you can really support yourself,’” says Amanda Lundquist, NSHS class of 2007, whose feature film Pinsky, written with her best friend from high school, Rebecca Karpovsky, will debut in 2017. “And be realistic: I don’t think Newton kids are burdened with that.”

Still, it takes much more than money to make it big in show business. The country is full of affluent towns and suburbs where no one ever makes it to the red carpet, let alone forms a small army of stars. “Newton is a community that fosters high expectations of its students and instills in them the idea that it’s not only okay to ‘dream big,’ but that it’s actually praiseworthy,” Honeyman says. “The fact that students can look out there and see former graduates with successful careers in the arts going back generations makes it seem that much more possible.”


For Jonah Reider, fame wasn’t planned. Growing up in Newton, he was a gifted jazz pianist. As an undergrad at Columbia University he’d scored a prestigious spot working with Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. Then in September 2015, as a senior with his thesis papers and the real world looming, he decided, on a whim, to start cooking dinner for friends. Part of it was an economics experiment—he loved to eat and wanted to see if he could create a gourmet meal on a student budget. He also loved to cook. At Newton South, he’d founded the short-lived Newton South Grilling Club. Mostly, though, it was an answer to a creative calling. Reider was raised in a place where creativity was endorsed and the definition of success was fluid; where you were not just encouraged to, but in fact had something of an obligation to do what you loved.

Reider noticed this difference between himself and his classmates at Columbia almost right away. In Newton, “no one was heralding a singular version of success, where you have, like, a ton of money and a stable finance job,” he says. “That wasn’t something that I grew up with, but it was something at Columbia.”

Nonetheless, he decided to follow his homegrown instincts and start a supper club out of the dorm room he shared with three friends. Named Pith, after the white layer between the outer peel and the flesh of citrus fruit, it skyrocketed to fame quite literally overnight, dubbed “the hottest table in town” by the New York Post. Reider suddenly found himself cooking snap-pea pesto for famed food editor and restaurant critic Ruth Reichl and fielding interview requests from Stephen Colbert and the Wall Street Journal. By winter break he had two TV agents, a literary agent, representation with a speakers’ bureau, and an assistant. “Like, I’m going to be in the IKEA catalog,” he says.

Not long after the New Yorker published a story about Pith in October 2015, Reider’s life kicked into a wild new gear. He quit his job with Stiglitz and Columbia evicted him—turns out you can’t operate a commercial kitchen from a dormitory. His parents, he says, were “totally chill.” It certainly didn’t hurt that they could see that what he was doing, while unconventional, was at least going somewhere. Over the past few months, he’s been working on a cookbook proposal, a Web series, and pop-up events, including one in May with a composer at the American Irish Historical Society on Fifth Avenue.

Reider is not the only one of his high school classmates currently chasing fame, or something like it, though all would argue that what they’re doing is less a pursuit of fame than a pursuit of possibility. Reider’s friends Bohan and Zach are in New York forging careers in music; Max is in New York designing furniture. Aaron, he says, is currently in the second round of a global cello competition in Germany.

Their ambition is hardly surprising. Newton is famously hard-driving, long known for having some of the best public high schools in the country. A 2007 story in the New York Times identified the “amazing girls of Newton North” as “girls who do everything: Varsity sports. Student government. Theater. Community service. Girls who have grown up learning they can do anything a boy can do, which is anything they want to do.” Not that the boys had it any easier. “I’ve never, ever had to study as hard as I did when I was at Newton South,” says Alex Karpovsky, who plays Ray on Girls. “When I went to BU, it was like, are you fucking kidding me? And when I went to Oxford, it was also way easier.”

This type of environment, of course, does not come without some pitfalls. As the Times story noted, the city’s “wide-ranging opportunities” often contribute to a pressure-cooker environment in which everyone feels the need to be the best at something, or at everything. In 2014 and 2015, a series of suicides by Newton high school students was attributed, at least in part, to the stress of an overwhelming course load. In Nef’s Newton, “you got a gold star for doing,” she says. “If you did more, you got more gold stars.” For her that translated into four years of saying yes to everything—AP courses, the competitive speech team, theater, improv. “I don’t think I needed to do as many of the things I did in high school to have gotten into Columbia,” she says. “There’s no way I can ever know, but I drove myself crazy. I didn’t sleep for four years.”

Honeyman concedes that some Newton students, usually those who are the most involved, complain of “the pressure to excel” and believe that “being a solid student who is good at just one or two things isn’t enough.” He points out that Newton educators often advise students to take fewer AP courses in favor of spending time on other things that matter, such as extracurriculars and family. “It’s a community that understands that taking a gap year, taking a risk to follow one’s passion, at least for a while—inventing something of your own and running with it—is an exciting, fulfilling thing that sometimes ends up supporting you,” he says.

Both educators and students describe Newton as a place determined to foster individuality; Reider remembers a student community largely immune to social hierarchy, where no one “really aspired to be like anyone else.” As a result, the students themselves have embraced the arts and are accepting of kids in the theater community. “When I went [to high school] 25 years ago,” says Jeff Knoedler, director of Newton South’s theater program, “it was socially risky to be in theater. If you weren’t doing sports, you weren’t doing something right. But in our school people are sophisticated and enjoy variety. They see the value in [embracing] lots of different opportunities.”

Tess Primack, who graduated from NSHS in the late aughts, agrees that the theater kids were just as important as anyone else. “We had a little spot in the hallway where we would go in the mornings to hang out,” she says. “It was accepted as sport, the same as the football team.” Last December, she made her Broadway debut as Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof—one of the very first shows she appeared in as a child actor in Newton.


The question now, of course, is whether this remarkable phenomenon can continue. Certainly, there are many factors that contribute to fame—luck and timing not the least among them. Even Novak has said the fact that he and Krasinski ended up on the same TV show was “so bizarre that sometimes I think if I ever woke up and the whole Office had been a dream I’d be like, ‘I should have known! You know who played Jim? John from high school.’ It’s that weird.”

It’s likely that Newton students’ ability to take rejection—and take it again and again—is a critical factor in their artistic success. “Whatever creates that in a person, I don’t know,” Plaut says. “But that’s a quality that’s probably common to all of these people.” Knoedler says that a healthy dose of reality remains part of the core curriculum, especially when talking about managing the emotions and angst of creative teens. “Talent is important, but so is grit and determination and hard work,” he says. “I like to open their eyes to the possibilities, but let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

For the moment, all signs point toward Newton continuing its long history as a pipeline to Hollywood. In 15 years, LeBlanc and C.K. could easily be the least of the names that have come out of Newton. Ryan Vona, whose two Broadway shows include Once and Paramour; Jesse Appell, currently doing standup comedy in China; and Kelly McIntyre, now on tour with A Night with Janis Joplin, are just some of the Newtonians on the road to potential stardom.

Krasinski says he doesn’t “know the recipe,” but is convinced that where he grew up plays a major role. “Everywhere you look in every genre there were people excelling at the highest level,” he says. “I always felt like I was lucky to be from a place that was so open culturally. That, for me, is why I feel that I have any background in [acting], even though at the end of the day I think we’re all just flat-out lucky.”

Additional reporting by Matt Juul.