Joshua Leonard Returns to Low Budget Horror with Steven Soderbergh’s “Unsane” (Interview)

UnsaneJoshLeonard1Fingerprint Releasing / Bleecker Street

If there’s any actor who can say they’ve run the gamut when it comes to independent horror-thrillers, ’s credentials began by appearing in the 1999 indie hit The Blair Witch Project, which was basically three scared kids running around the forest with a video camera.

Leonard has come a long way since then, because he’s now one of the stars of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, a bunch of actors running around an insane asylum being filmed on an iPhone by the Oscar-winning filmmaker.

There’s actually more to the film than that, but honestly, the only thing you need to know is that Claire Foy from The Crown plays Sawyer Valentini, a bright young woman starting a new job in Philadelphia, who is haunted by having been stalked by a man that forced her to move from her home in Boston.  Because she still sees this man everywhere (either real or imagined), she goes to an institution to talk to someone and finds herself being involuntarily committed. Oh, yeah, and she thinks that man has followed her and now works at the institution. You can take a wild guess who Leonard plays.

Unsane might get into some disturbing territory, which actually makes it more effective as a taut thriller, but it also touches upon issues with the medical system, without wasting any time throwing more and more stuff at Foy, including two of her fellow “crazies” played by Juno Temple and Jay Pharoah from SNL.

The Tracking Board spoke with Leonard on the phone earlier this week. While he had some great anecdotes about working with Soderbergh, he also has his second movie as a director coming out this summer, and there’s even been some talk about doing a sequel to  Lynn Shelton’s Humpday with its tenth anniversary coming up next year.

It’s hard to believe we haven’t spoken since Humpday… 

: I know, I know. I was just talking to Adam Kersh [his publicist] about that, who I’m also working with on this thing.

And since then, you’ve had this entire television career that I knew nothing about…

Isn’t that what everybody’s been doing for the last ten years?

I guess that’s true, but it was weird because I heard you were in the movie, then I saw the movie and I had to do a double take because I didn’t recognize you with the full beard and glasses.

Dude, I mean, some of that was for the role, but yes also time has passed and we are older. I am older at least.

I am older too, believe me.

Oh man, so how are you? Thanks for checking in on this one.

I should mention that I spoke to Charlie Plummer last week and asked about the movie he did with you, so we’ll get to that, but he’s just an amazing actor.

No sh*t, aw. He’s fantastic, yeah. Our movie that we did together is coming out this summer, so I’m excited for people to see him in that role as well.

We have to be a little careful talking about Unsane obviously, because there’s lots of twists that would be a shame to spoil, although I feel the commercials are now giving away more than they should.  So… Steven Soderbergh. Obviously a big name Oscar-winning filmmaker. Do you get an entire script or sides? What sort of contact do you get to find out about this movie and role?

You know, I got a call from Carmen Cuba who I know as an actor. I’ve auditioned for her before and she’s Steven’s long-time casting director. I was working on a TV show in Puerto Rico and feeling very guilty because I had a fairly new baby at home and had abandoned my wife and baby to go work, and Carmen called me and said, “I’ve got this really cool thriller. We’re making it on a tiny budget in upstate New York in June. Do you want to come play this role?” And I said, “It sounds amazing but I just don’t think now’s the right time to abandon my family to go do a little film.” And she’s like, “The filmmaker’s really cool. You’re probably gonna want to do it.” And I was like, “Just any other time.” And she was like, “Okay, it’s Steven Soderbergh.” And I said, “Okay, when do i get on the plane?”

UnsaneJoshLeonard2Fingerprint Releasing / Bleecker Street

I was gonna ask if she told you it was Steven Soderbergh or not, because I would think she would want to lead with that.

She didn’t, because everything was a little bit under wraps, but she did send me a script after that. I read the script and I really liked the script but also the guy I play is … He’s such a creep. One of my first questions for Steven when we did get on the phone was, “Look, I don’t want to question you, because I’ve always wanted to work with you and if you think I can do it, then I believe you but what made you think of me for this role?” And he had a very nice answer, he said, “You know, you’re an actor who I think leads with a sense of earnestness and that’s an element that’s really important to have in the David Strine character.” I didn’t push it any further than that cause I didn’t want to talk him out of hiring me for the role, but he hired me evidently on some sense of earnestness that he got from me. He said he hired Claire based on her Golden Globes acceptance speak. So this is a guy who I guess sees things in us that we don’t even necessarily see in ourselves.

I really like some of the ideas the movie covers, not just the horror premise and where it goes but also some of the commentary on the mental health system and how it sometimes takes advantage of people.

It is crazy, and it does happen, and what I like about this film is that it plays in the way my favorite thrillers play, in the sense that on the surface it’s terrifying, it’s exciting. It’s a fun ride but then it also Trojan Horses its way into these real issues, such as what a poor profit healthcare system looks like and what happens when serving a board of directors and serving a patient are completely at odds with each other.

I never really thought of you as a really big guy, but David Strine is quite imposing… or is Claire Foy just really tiny and that makes you look bigger?

In some of those scenes watching back the movie, I feel like I am twice her size. Even though there’s almost like this Lenny in Of Mice and Men quality to the visual of those things. I had just gotten out of the editing room on my last picture when I got the call from Steven, so I had been sitting in a dark room for such a long time and gained some weight and was just on the penance trail, knowing I was going to go back to work as an actor and had then lost a bunch of that weight. [I] then got the call from Steven and he said, “I’m gonna need you to put that weight right back on.” I regained the weight, because he did want David to be a guy who sat around on his couch and ate ice cream and internet-stalks Sawyer.

To me, it looked like it was muscle, more muscular…

Oh, thanks, buddy. It’s not, it’s not. I’m not that strong.

Again, I want to avoid spoilers here, but was Soderbergh able to shoot in order so that you could keep the different sides of David Strine separate?

I would say, we shot 95% in script order, which is always an absolute dream for an actor, and part of that was because the movie is predominantly a one locale movie, so there was no reason that we couldn’t do that. It was actually a closed down mental institution that we were shooting in, and there were parts of the hospital that were still open, but not the wing that we were shooting in. We just took that over for the length of shooting, so there were very few constraints on places that we couldn’t shoot and when we could or couldn’t shoot them. So we kind of just shot the film in order. Steven, for those who don’t know, is also going home…. He directs the film, he shoots the film himself, and then he edits the film at night when we all get done with a 10 to 12-hour day, he goes home, and he edits into the wee hours. The night of the wrap party we all went to a bowling alley, and he sat there on his laptop and when the party was over he came over to Claire and I and said, “You know, if you want to come back to my hotel room, I’ve got a cut of the entire film that you can watch.” So we went back and we watched the film that we had just finished making that day from start to finish, and then I flew back to Los Angeles and I got a text message from him three days later that just said, “Picture locked!”

Oddly, he just finished another movie, and he tweeted that he finished shooting.

It seems like he didn’t come out of retirement to play any political games with anyone. He came out of retirement because he wanted to go make stuff again.

Did he have a smaller crew on the movie because he was shooting everything himself?

Yeah, it was a much smaller crew. I mean, one of the things that he said on the very first conversation I had with him was, “If this technology existed when I was 15 years old, this is all I would be doing with my time.” I think it was something that I really relate to, which is this notion that anything that you can do to reduce the time between impulse and execution, especially in a medium like film, which can really just take years and years to make and hours and hours between set-ups and it’s … I mean, look, you don’t go make Dunkirk on an iPhone, but certainly for a film like this, part of the fun of it is you just get to jump on the train and you’re just making stuff and you’re light and you’re nimble and you’re working with a master filmmaker who knows what he wants and knows what he’s doing and there’s just no excess, nothing is out-sized for the process of getting together with a group of people and just making something.

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And even with the iPhone being this piece of technology that’s so omnipresent in all of our lives all the time, it reduces that sense of elevation of making a film with a capital F, where you’ve got a sense of self-consciousness because you’ve got this big camera in the room, this oversized crew and you feel like you have to deliver something. It becomes much more just about the collaboration, the people in the room that you’re making it with. I mean, some of those scenes were just Claire and myself and Steven, who’s operating the camera and the guy recording sound. It would just be four people making it, which is really kind of a throwback to what was the most fun about making films in our backyards when we were kids.

Were you able to shoot any more stuff with Amy Irving, or does he just shoot what’s in the script and nothing extra?

Yeah, we did, yeah. I mean, in this case, we pretty much shot the script.

What can you say about your own movie? You said it’s going to come out in the summer, so you already have distribution and everything?

Mm-hmm. [responding affirmatively] My movie is called Behold My Heart, and it’s about a mother and a son in the aftermath of the death of the patriarch of family, played by Marisa Tomei and the wonderful young Charlie Plummer. I think it’s really exciting. It’s a very intimate film that I wanted to make for years and we got such a fantastic group of actors together. It’s Mireille Enos and Tim Olyphant, so I’m very excited about that.

Charlie said it seemed like that you shot it a long time ago, so he must have been 15 or 16 at the time.

Yeah, we were not as fast in the post process as Soderbergh was.

I’m hoping to talk to Lynn Shelton again pretty soon and next year I guess is the 10th anniversary of Humpday, believe it or not.

Yeah, I know.

Are you guys talking about doing something else or are you and Mark Duplass and her just too busy doing other things?

You know what? We were just texting about it yesterday. I would love to. I think it’s a great idea. I think Ben and Andrew are characters that I’ve always loved, nd we were talking about how it should be our bromance version of Before Sunset.

Nice! Yeah, that’d be pretty amazing, and you also worked with Larry Fessenden, who I love, and he’s really been another pioneer in indie horror.

Yeah, I just wrapped two days ago with Larry.

I assume that’s another horror-thriller?

Yeah, yeah, it is absolutely a Fessenden film. It was a blast.

Have you taken some time off from TV for a while? What’s the next step for you other than finishing your own movie?

Right now, because we’ve got the kids…  so my wife [Allison Pill] is doing a run on Broadway right now, so we’re in New York and I’m writing my next project while she does that and then after the summer then I’ll probably go back to work and we’ll see, it may indeed may be a directing thing or an acting project. It’s a little bit up in the air right now.

Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane opens on Friday, March 23.

  | East Coast Editor
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Still quiet here.sas

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