Joshua Leonard, star of Lynn Shelton’s wonderful new comedy-drama Humpday, may look familiar. A decade ago, he and some other neophyte actors/filmmakers took cameras into the woods and came away with The Blair Witch Project, one of the biggest, most influential independent films of the past 20 years. Thanks in part to a brilliant viral marketing campaign, Project grossed a fortune and inspired a poorly received quickie sequel and a vast ocean of spoofs.
The low profile Leonard has maintained over the past decade while toiling steadily in film as an actor and director actually works in Humpday’s favor. He’s able to disappear completely into the role of an artsy, straight bohemian drifter who ambles into the life of domesticated former college buddy/fellow heterosexual Mark Duplass and ends up agreeing to appear in a gay sex tape with him as a strange post-modern art project. That premise sounds gimmicky, but its execution is thrillingly naturalistic. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Leonard about Blair Witch madness, growing up, and working without a script or a net on Humpday.
The A.V. Club: This is your second time being a central figure behind a much-buzzed-about new independent film. How does it compare to the first time?
Joshua Leonard: Well, there is so little correlation just in terms of where I am psychically in my own life. Blair Witch was such an anomaly, but it was also the first anomaly. I was 23. I was literally just kicking a heroin habit, and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So I think being thrust into the spotlight at that point was kind of psychically traumatic. Although I was really grateful for it, and I’m still kind of proud of the punk-rock ethos with which that film was made.
AVC: People who achieve that kind of success early in life sometimes say they wish it could happened later, when they were mature enough to deal with it. So it seems like you kind of have the best of both worlds.
JL: The interesting thing about Blair Witch—and to some extent with Humpday, but maybe a little less, because Humpday is character-driven—the film was really the star. None of us autonomously blew up into huge celebrities. But I got to experience a massive level of fame for about 10 minutes. And I wasn’t prepared for it. It made me realize that I’m not someone who does terribly well with strangers while having a fight with my girlfriend at a restaurant. The multitasking aspect wasn’t something I approached with a tremendous amount of grace. But that said, it kind of came and went, because it wasn’t a situation where I had this huge breakout performance and it was all about me. I was just the guy from that movie that got the crazy amount of success and has a tremendous cult following. So once the hoopla died down, I was able to make a living working inside the film industry, and that really was the conduit that opened the door. But I had a journeyman career, minus a couple highlights, until I figured out who I was creatively and what I had to offer. So I do think this time around, there is so much more comfort, because I no longer do things with career motivation. I want to have a career, I want to keep making a living doing what I do. I love what I do. But this film that we made, I would have been equally as proud of if nobody ever saw it. The outside validation doesn’t change my perception of the movie. If that makes any sense.
AVC: Yeah, but the outside validation has to be nice.
JL: Oh, the outside validation is awesome! Don’t get me wrong. But that’s what I’m saying—it’s an absolute best-case scenario when you do a project absolutely for the love of doing it, with people you trust and respect, and then an audience responds to it as well. There is not that extra aspect of feeling like an impostor, which I felt like a little bit with the Blair Witch thing.
AVC: Blair Witch was such an anomaly that it didn’t even really inspire similar movies, in spite of its success. Even the sequel had to take an entirely different approach.
JL: And that’s the tough thing. I live in L.A., and I have a handful of celebrity friends, and I think there really is a difference between being supported and wanted for something that is really uniquely you, and you’re willing to own, and something that is more or less just an anomaly. And when somebody is giving you credit for something you didn’t have all that much to do with, it does nothing but flare up your ego. Because what happened with Blair Witch wasn’t necessarily a situation where the movie was successful because we all did our jobs so well. I was maybe 10 percent of why the movie was successful. You know, I think we did a solid job. I think we made a cool, tight little movie that was unprecedented in some ways. It also had a great marketing campaign, and it came at a time in Hollywood when the paradigm was shifting, and reality TV was coming in, and people were sick of being art-directed out of any true emotion. I think it was also the luck aspect, the time-and-place aspect—huge contributors to why that was successful. That’s stuff I don’t think any of us can take credit for.
AVC: Did The Blair Witch Project’s success keep you from getting roles? Did people think it’d be distracting to have the guy from Blair Witch pop up in a movie?
JL: I think you have to remember—this sounds like a prick thing to say—I hadn’t grown up wanting to be an actor.
AVC: But you come from a theatrical family.
JL: Which is partly why I didn’t want to be an actor. My pop was a theater professor, and my mom ran a theater school for children. So it was a traditional form of rebellion.
AVC: You were going to show them all by becoming an accountant?
JL: Teenage-rebellion form: I was going to do anything but. And when we made Blair Witch, I was just 20 or 21, and in N.Y. living a crazy life. And it was like “Maybe I’ll be an actor! Maybe I’ll write a novel! Maybe—” I was working doing editorial photography for a few magazines at the time—“Maybe I’ll be a photographer!” So it was just a creative project. There was no foresight that I was going to make this little movie on video and look like shit and say some stupid things—
AVC: And annoy people.
JL: —and maybe it’ll get me on the cover of Newsweek. There’s just no way to see that as a logical end. What I think was trickier at the time, not that I think I was some great actor, but I think I’ve become a far better actor by learning through doing. I’ve had work on a lot more films, and I’ve been able to work with some really great filmmakers and actors, and I think I’ve picked up a lot more—skillwise, craftwise—in the last decade. But I think what was tricky about that film was, there was no real separation between who we were as people and who we were as characters. There was a lot of hubbub about us not even acting. And I guess that really depends on your definition of acting. But I always felt that we shot that film in a state park around a bunch of people; we weren’t actually afraid a supernatural force was coming to kill us. And if a bunch of people come into the audience and believe we were in those given circumstances, then that’s acting. So it bums me out a little bit that people thought there was no acting involved whatsoever. And that might have bit me in the ass, career-wise. But I’ve worked through that.
AVC: Do you think if your character had a different name than you, that would have made it easier?
JL: Um, I don’t know, man, because I think part of the reason the film worked was because we were just the dudes and the chick you knew from your hometown. There was nothing elevated about us, and nothing elevated about our performances. I think partially because we tried to keep to extreme naturalism with the performances, but also partially because the aesthetic was so home-video. I don’t know. What I do think it did in my own personal life was allow people to feel like they had, in terms of the fan base, a more holistic notion of who I was aside from the movie than maybe they actually did.
AVC: After the Blair Witch Project came out and you and the other stars didn’t go on to do high-profile projects, it seemed like there was a perception in the media that you’d fallen off the face of the earth. There was an Entertainment Weekly article that was basically “Where are they now?” Did that bug you?
JL: In my life, I can chart back specifically to the release of Blair Witch and say, even if I’ve liked some of my jobs more than others, that I grew up fairly broke. I scrapped around, I did whatever day jobs I needed to do to pay the bills as a kid. And I haven’t had to have a day job in a decade. I’ve been able to make a living in the film industry. That to me is a win. I think that’s specifically why—and I know you work for The Onion, so you guys are probably a far cooler publication—it’s the danger of any kind of celebrity journalism, because it’s set up for failure. As soon as they set us up as the underdogs, there was almost no successful outcome that could have happened that somebody wouldn’t have found a way to tear everybody back down. Especially with us, it’s a perfect example. None of us were movie stars. We were all kids. Including the directors. They were in their mid- to late 20s. I remember the piece, and I thought “How fucking mean-spirited is that?” Especially because [Blair Witch castmate] Mike [C. Williams] has a few kids. He moved upstate. Yeah, he moves furniture sometimes. Yeah, he works sometimes. And he teaches acting. For that to be couched as “They should have been the next big thing, and these guys are all just a bunch of big fucking losers” is just, I find, really mean-spirited. It takes for granted that we had so little to do with the celebrity. The celebrity that happened out of that was really all a press creation.
AVC: People who aren’t angling for a big film career not subsequently having a big film career shouldn’t necessarily be seen as failure.
JL: I can chart back and say “Look, I got a ton of press off that movie. Why didn’t I become a big movie star?” Because I’ll probably never be a big movie star. As I’ve spent more time directing projects—I think I’m really good at certain things as an actor—I think I have a unique skill set that I’ve gotten to know much better over the years—but I wouldn’t turn myself into a movie star. [Pauses.] I’m trying to figure out what I’m trying to say. I’ve never actually discussed this stuff. Nobody was angling for a big career, so when all the success happened, none of us really knew what we wanted to do next. When given opportunities now, there is a more logical progression for me, with Humpday, because I have a much better understanding of who I am and what I’m good at and who I like to work with. Sure I’d love to be able to play that out to whatever the best version of that career is.
AVC: Were there overtures from Hollywood at that point?
JL: Sure. But gestures more than anything. My first couple films after Blair Witch, I made a lot of money. I made more money than I’d ever made in my entire life, and more than my dad ever made in four or five years working his ass off as a university professor. So there was that stuff that came along with it. But it’s also a very “throw it against the wall and see if it sticks” mentality. Sure, it happened for a minute, but then we weren’t the new things anymore, and it was somebody else. That’s fine, that’s how it happens. But I don’t think that necessarily speaks to a specific short-terming in either the industry or our careers. We were just some kids who made a movie. And it got a lot of success. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there weren’t another 20 fantastic ideas in the hopper that should have also been huge but just didn’t quite make it.
AVC: How did you get involved with Humpday?
JL: I was friends with Mark Duplass, who is my co-star in Humpday. I was a huge fan of the films he and his brother made together: The Puffy Chair and Baghead. Puffy Chair, when I saw it in ’05, just blew my mind in terms of guys doing something in cinema that I really connected to, that felt new to me, that felt like it spoke to me generationally and personally. So we got to know each other through mutual friends, and Mark worked with Lynn on another project, and they decided they wanted to work together again. And when they came up with the premise for this film, he sent me an e-mail and said “Hey, do you want to play my best friend in this film?” I said, “Sure, absolutely, I would love to—if we can figure out the schedule.” To which he replied, “Great, it’s a film about two straight guys who try to have sex with each other.”
AVC: [Laughs.] So he hooked you in, then told you the premise?
JL: I said, “Okay, I trust you and I trust your taste, but please, as my friend, never let me commit to a film without asking what it is first.”
AVC: It could have been a snuff film.
JL: Technically, it’s a snuff film because it’s gonna be your last.
AVC: But you literally go out with a bang.
JL: When we do it, we’ll make sure it’s huge on YouTube.
AVC: I understand there was no script, just a detailed outline.
JL: Exactly. I guess that the point where the three of us were all committed to the concept and to working together was four months before we started shooting. When we all set out to do the project together, there was just a one-line pitch: “Two straight guys hitting crossroads in their life, in their early 30s, decide to make a gay porn because they’re convinced it’s going to fix their psychic discontent and break them out of whatever traps they feel they’ve gotten themselves into.” In terms of designing the story and characters, Lynn is a wonderful director and collaborator, because she really gave us the range to figure out who those guys were. And the three of us spent a lot of time on iChat and spent a long weekend down in L.A. just hammering out the beats in terms of taking this ridiculous concept and reverse-engineering it into something that actually feels human.
AVC: The plot almost seems incidental. Was that intentional?
JL: I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with you on the plot being incidental. I think at the end of the day, in terms of the skeleton underneath, it’s the plot and it’s the dare that’s thrown down in the first 10 minutes of the movie that propels it forward so you feel like you’re on your way to somewhere. I think that helps the movie keep moving. And Mark and Lynn and I all—as actors and filmmakers—like both those things: a film that’s both completely entertaining to watch, and at the same time doesn’t fall into the conceits of traditional Hollywood fare; where you actually get to explore the nuance of character and what makes people tick.
It’s true fallibility and not the Hollywood version of fallibility, where your protagonist is fallible because he works too hard and cares too much. That stuff to me is always kind of bullshit. That’s why I don’t really relate to Hollywood protagonists, because I feel like their idea of a conflicted character is the same conflict you would give if you were in a job interview. Sometimes they’re just so overwhelmed just trying to take care… What really takes people down are these tremendous fears and the sometimes completely absurd, misguided ways in which they go about trying to solve those fears. So I think this was a great opportunity to approach the seriousness of that in a way that wasn’t serious at all. When I watch a movie that is overtly didactic, that’s about drama, I just put walls up. Don’t fucking teach me a lesson. I want to be entertained. But when you can trick me into actually feeling something and relating to a character, that’s when I take my hat off. So I think that’s at least what we were attempting to do with this film: Do something that is really funny and watchable, and yet all the humor in it would really come out of the human vulnerability, as opposed to the pratfalls and dick jokes.
AVC: Your character is an artist and has all these vague ideas about the things he wants to do, but he doesn’t have much direction or focus, or a clear idea of what he’s actually going to do next. Sounds a little like what you were describing before you made Blair Witch Project. How much of yourself did you put into your character, both in terms of your younger self and who you are today?
JL: Thank you, man, that’s a great question. I think when you’re doing this kind of acting, when you’re improvising—and I guess I should only speak for myself, because maybe there are people who could completely immerse themselves in a character and improv in the moment. But because you’re serving two roles—you’re an actor but also a writer, and it can’t all be about character—you have to have at least half a brain on in continuing to move the story forward. To me, in the moment, I don’t think I’d ever be able to do something that was completely outside my scope. Just because you’re moving, in the moment, and you just want to be able to reach out and have authenticity at your fingertips at all times. Otherwise, I think it just doesn’t work. That said, a lot of the stuff I pulled for Andrew was hopefully from my younger years. Absolutely stuff that I still deal with; I’m far, far from perfect, and still working through a lot of stuff. But also, a tremendous amount of it is stuff I felt I really worked through in my 20s and put enough time into to feel like I could safely throw it out in the open and make fun of it and be able to laugh at myself, and hopefully through that, allow an audience to laugh with me.
AVC: It seems like your character has never made it through that post-graduate stage where you’re trying to figure out what you want to do with your life and who you are as a person.
JL: That stuff’s so fantastic. I dropped out of high school when I was 15, moved down to Mexico when I was 16, by myself, and I hitchhiked through Central America. I did the whole gig, and I would never trade that for anything in the world. But when I look at my friends who are still doing that in their 30s, it starts looking a little desperate. It’s not so cute anymore. I think internally you have to be careful that you don’t cross over from exploration into fleeing. I think especially in your late teens and 20s, there is a lot to be said about going out into the world and experiencing a lot of stuff. But I think the older you get, the motivations really change, even if it looks the same on the outside. Which is, you’re running away from figuring out who you are. And you’ve done all the exploration, and now you’re just too chickenshit to do anything with it.
AVC: What do you think your character is running away from by leading this vagabond, migratory existence?
JL: I think he’s running away from taking a risk, running away from taking a stand on anything, to risk putting his true self out into the world for public scrutiny. And he’s really come to a point where the front that precedes him is pretty different from who he actually is. It’s like the Neal Cassady concept, where Kerouac and Ginsberg and all those guys said, “Cassady was just always the truest artist of the group. But he never fucking wrote anything.” I didn’t know the guy, but I think there is a tremendous amount of safety in never actually putting something in a quantifiable form for others to pick apart. I think whatever you do in life, whatever your chosen career is, if you care about what you do and have an opinion, you’re going to put a sense of yourself into it. And it’s really frightening to put that into the world. And Andrew is scared of that. I think [his Humpday character] Andrew is scared of being alone his whole life, so I think part of how he deals with that is by trying to stay one step ahead of his feelings.
AVC: Do you think on some level, he envies what his friend has and resents it? They both see each other’s lives as being more idyllic than they necessarily are. In some way does he want to undermine his friend’s orderly, ideal existence?
JL: Fuck yes! If you knew Mark and I outside of the context of this film, the reality is that we both got a lot of both of those characters in us. We’re both pretty Type A in overlapping but semi-synonymous ways. I’m certainly not Andrew. I’ve got a career and a mortgage, and I take care of those things. And Mark’s an artist and makes movies and has a totally creative brain, and doesn’t feel trapped in that domestic prison that [Mark’s Humpday character] Ben does. In order to make the conflict of the movie work, you had to put these two characters on radically opposite sides of the responsibility spectrum. I think they look at each other and it projects directly. They’re looking at each other going, “That is the opposite of what I’ll ever be able to have in my life.” I think there is a tremendous amount of envy, resentment, and competition that comes out of putting those two forces up against each other.
AVC: It seems like the idea of appearing in a gay porn together is like playing chicken: Andrew is trying to prove that he’s still a bohemian, and Ben is trying to prove he hasn’t sold out, that under this responsible surface, there is still this virile creature.
JL: I guess. It’s the hetero-male one-upmanship that has completely blinded them from any iota of good judgment.
AVC: The idea of two straight guys having gay sex is very amorphous, in that there is no quantifiable way in the world to prove that people are 100 percent heterosexual or homosexual.
JL: Well, that’s up to the individual. You’re either turned on by somebody of the same sex, or not. That’s the only real empirical evidence we’ll have. I was hanging out with an Irish buddy of mine the other day, and he’s a little dude. He was limping profoundly when I ran into him. I was like, “Hey man, what happened?” He was like, “I have this friend of mine in the army, and he came over the other night, and we just started wrestling, and I sprained my back.” You know, straight women don’t do that. They don’t decide to wrestle with each other and then temporarily cripple each other as a way of trying to bond. And I think essentially for a straight guy, it is historically a struggle to find a way to show a profound, platonic love for your buddy. And it’s like Mark says at the end of the film, “I think we might be morons.” We wind up doing some really moronic shit that, at the end of the day, just comes back to two straight dudes growing up with this cultural preconception of what it means to be a straight dude: having a really hard time finding a way to express their love for their bro.
AVC: There’s something incredibly narcissistic in the idea that people would be particularly interested in seeing them make out.
JL: Absolutely. In fact, that’s the one tricky thing we got from a gay member of one of our audiences, because it’s not a movie about sexual politics, so we’re getting a lot of questions about how the gay audience will respond, and whether we were afraid of this becoming a homophobic movie. I think the fact of the matter is, we were making fun of ourselves.
AVC: It’s about the hang-ups of heterosexual men.
JL: We’re not taking a stance on sexual politics by any means. It’s a movie about friendship and trying to find self-identity and the weird roads we go down in order to try to do that. And I think people can try to put politics onto it and form opinions about what we’re doing, but I always find those things have far more to do with them than they do with us.
AVC: It’s like a Rorschach test. People get what they want to out of it.
JL: Exactly. But the one response we did get from a gay gentleman in our audience was, what self-respecting gay man would ever want to watch a porn film starring Mark and I? I said “All right, that’s fair.”
AVC: There’s such a lived-in chemistry between your characters. It really feels like you have all this history.
JL: And that, I give Lynn and Nat Sanders, our editor, absolute credit for, because the way that Mark and I came up with that organically was to overwrite everything. We knew every moment in those guys’ history: We knew where they met; we knew where they went; we knew when they lived together; we knew their address. We created all that stuff so it would feel very real to us. And then Lynn let us shoot a lot of that expositional stuff knowing that it was completely fucking boring, and probably would never make it into the final cut of the film. And then she and Nat, our editor, went in and cut it down to shorthand, the way people actually talk when they’re not in movies. When it’s not like, “Remember that time in the red apartment on Grand Street, when Trina the lesbian came over?”
AVC: They aren’t clumsily delivering exposition.
JL: Exactly. And so a lot of that stuff got shot and hit the editing-room floor as soon as they started putting the movie together. So there is a phantom version of that in there. I think as an audience, you sense that that work was done but you don’t have to suffer through any of it.
AVC: Can you tell me about the film you’re writing and directing?
JL: Sure. I’m writing and directing a film that’s currently called Everything’s Alright. It’s something I’ve been working on for a few years. It takes place in one day in L.A., and it’s about four people who have each done one thing they can never forgive themselves for, also kind of played to a hyperbolic extent. Eddie Izzard is playing a guy who was one of the last systems-checks guys on the Challenger before it went up and exploded. So it’s another kind of dark comedy about human fallibility, and trying to find a connection despite that. Hopefully it’ll be really fun to watch.
AVC: And 50 Cent is in it?
JL: Yep. An agent I knew who responded to the script and the part gave it to 50. I was in New York, and he and I sat down and took a long meeting together, and we really connected. I think he’s going to be phenomenal in that part. The whole film is set against the backdrop of this politically charged polemic state execution, and he plays the guy on death row in his last days before his execution.