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‘Unsane’: How the Star of a Global Box-Office Hit Turned His Back on Hollywood and Committed to Low-Budget Filmmaking

"The Blair Witch Project" turned Joshua Leonard into an overnight star. But nothing he did next followed a familiar pattern.

Joshua Leonard

Joshua Leonard

Molly Hawkey

Two decades ago, Joshua Leonard was a 21-year-old wanderer, working in experimental film production in New York, in the final throes of drug addiction, and uncertain what he wanted to do in life. His father taught theater, but Leonard never considered acting as a career; on a whim, he pursued a role in a microbugeted found-footage horror movie. It was called “The Blair Witch Project,” and it went on to gross nearly $250 million worldwide on a $60,000 budget.

“I came into my career sideways,” the 42-year-old said in New York last week, a few days before his latest role, as a psychopathic stalker in Steven Soderbergh’s “Unsane,” hit theaters. It was a brisk, sunny afternoon in Greenwich Village. He was sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park, a few blocks from the apartment where he was staying while his wife, Alison Pill, acted in the Broadway production of “Three Tall Women” alongside Laurie Metcalf.

In between promoting “Unsane,” Leonard was looking after his year-old daughter and finishing his sophomore directorial effort. But as always, the past was chasing him, and he was wrestling with it. “Because ‘Blair Witch’ became what it did, I started getting offered acting roles, and really fell in love with acting by acting,” he said. “It was about three years after ‘Blair Witch’ that I realized that I wanted to continue acting, because that’s when I stopped being the guy from ‘Blair Witch’ and had to fight for it … I had to learn the craft, and that’s where the love is for me, in the creative mathematics of trying to figure out how to do something.”

All of which means that the most notable aspect of Leonard’s progress isn’t his unexpected success in front of the camera so much as the way he pursued it. Leonard gravitated toward smaller, supporting roles and notable turns in low-budget projects. After “Blair Witch,” he cleaned up his drug habit and acted in the Showtime-produced, direct-to-video “Sacrifice” opposite Michael Madsen, and followed that up with a role in “Men of Honor” alongside Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Robert De Niro. “It just didn’t even compute that this was the same medium,” Leonard said. “It is fun being able to go back and forth between things. In the end, I will always gravitate towards the process.”

Nevertheless, it took a solid decade for Leonard to land a role that truly galvanized him. Lynn Shelton’s improv-heavy “Humpday” found Leonard acting opposite Mark Duplass in a charming cringe comedy about two straight friends who attempt to sleep together. Leonard found an ideal match for his grungy, bearded visage — a nomadic soul-searcher incapable of figuring out his priorities in life, and deeply envious of others who seem to have figured it all out. “The areas I’ve always been most drawn to personally and creatively are the messiness of the human journey, and the kind of circuitous routes that we take to become who we are,” he said.

That predilection has kept him away from big studio projects. “The notion that no single act ever defines us — that we are much more complex, ever-forming modular beings than that — I don’t that necessarily aligns itself with a big Hollywood hero’s journey,” he said. “I’m more interested in people who actually, really fuck up, hurt each other, and feel bad that they hurt each other, because I think that’s what I’m doing in life.”

“Unsane”

Enter “Unsane.” Leonard got the call last year about a super-secret project with an A-list auteur while working on the Crackle-produced digital series “StartUp” in Puerto Rico. Keen on spending time with his wife and child, he initially turned down the vague offer from casting director Carmen Cuba. “I was feeling really guilty about not being there, and not being present for her,” he said. “I love Carmen and Carmen casts great stuff, but I was not looking to do an indie thriller, because priorities just shift when you have a kid.”

At that point, he reenacted his conversation with Cuba. “It sounds amazing, and in another time I’d be down to do it, but I just can’t go and do an indie for no money right now,” he told her. “She said, ‘You should talk to the director,’ and I was like, ‘Carmen, I don’t want to even do that,’ and she said was like, ‘OK, it’s Steven Soderbergh.”

A child of the ’90s, Leonard had worshipped the likes of “sex, lies and videotape” and “Schizolopolis” in his teen years, so the prospects of collaborating with one of America’s most daring and prolific filmmakers changed the equation. “At that point, I was like, ‘Fuck my baby, when do we shoot?’” He smiled. “The scope of what he’s done is so mind-blowing that you can’t pigeonhole him into anything. I think a part of that, now that I know him a little bit, is this deep-seated restlessness to take on the next experiment.”

If Leonard intended to draw parallels with his own meandering trajectory, he didn’t cop to it — but watching “Unsane,” it’s a wonder why the actor and director hadn’t crossed paths sooner. “Unsane” stars Claire Foy as a woman involuntarily committed to a mental institution while reeling from experiences with Leonard’s stalker, who surfaces at the hospital as one of its smiling attendants … or does he? The rickety, labyrinthine psychological thriller, shot on an iPhone to intensify its jittery qualities, uses Leonard’s contradictory screen presence as a key aspect of its design: He’s at once warm, almost cuddly, and deeply unsettling for the same reason. What’s hiding behind that grin?

Though it premiered in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival to generally favorable reviews, “Unsane” fell short of box-office expectations in its opening weekend, garnering just over $3.7 million in wide release. Leonard, however, already got what he needed from the experience. “If Steven Soderbergh had wanted me to play a chair in his latest film, I would’ve happily shown up and done my preparation to play a chair,” he said. “On the set, I was standing as close to the action as I could be, whether I was in the scene or not, just to learn.”

Leonard had an ulterior motive for all that: Over the past decade, he has been charting an alternate path as a filmmaker himself. Inspired by his experiences on “Humpday,” he made his narrative directorial debut with 2011’s “The Lie,” an entirely improvised adaptation of a T. Coraghessan Boyle short story in which he played a man dealing with repercussions after fibbing to skip work. Six years after that Sundance premiere, he directed his sophomore effort, “Behind My Heart,” which stars Marisa Tomei and Charlie Plummer in the story of a bereaved family. It’s being released this summer.

the lie joshua leonard

“The Lie”

“As a filmmaker, I’m still very much in the discovery process,” he said. “I think I’m drawn to the stories of redemption.” He paused as a squirrel scampered towards him on the icy bench, and a passing couple stopped to snap a photo — of the creature, not him. Then he stared off into the distance and as the couple continued on their way. “I was absolutely a cocky kid when I did ‘Blair Witch,’ and I think part of the glory and the downfall of being a cocky kid is that you don’t know you’re a cocky kid,” he said. “Now being a husband and a father and 20 years into a career, I am very aware of all the things I don’t know, and may never know, and very aware of the fact that life and filmmaking should not be some solipsistic journey.”

Leonard’s progress has impressed his earliest collaborators. “I’m really proud of him,” said “Blair Witch” co-director Eduardo Sanchez in an email. “He seems like a happy man and has somehow beat the odds to carve out a pretty great career in this business. It seems like he keeps challenging himself, and his longevity proves that Josh still has that relentless personality that first impressed me more than 20 years ago.”

And for Lynn Shelton, with whom the actor has been discussing a “Humpday” reunion project timed to the movie’s 10th anniversary, Leonard is “willing to take a risk, to make the dangerous choice, and to fight for the truth,” she wrote. “You really can’t ask for more from an actor.”

After he finished “Behold My Heart,” Leonard went right back to acting, appearing in Larry Fessenden’s upcoming Frankenstein riff “Depraved.” That collaboration came out of starring in another project that Fessenden produced in 2010, the micro-budgeted “Bitter Feast,” and offers another window into the way Leonard charts a path through arbitrary connections.

“I’ve always stumbled into situations where I aligned with people who weren’t necessarily waiting for permission to make something,” he said. “Sometimes, you’re lucky in that a job comes your way that fulfills an impulse that you want to explore in your creative life, and then other times it doesn’t, and you’re working to pay the bills.”

While Leonard carries an air of satisfaction about his current professional standing, he singled out one boundary for his growing household. “Being married to a former child actor, we set the ground rules when our daughter was still in utero,” he said. “She will never work professionally until she’s 18. Then she can study whatever she wants. But if she wants to be an accountant, more power to her.”

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