For the release of Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, UNSANE, which was all shot with the use of an iPhone, Danielle had the chance to speak with actor Joshua Leonard. During their talk, they discussed everything from working with Steven Soderbergh, what it was like to be filmed on an iPhone, and what it was like to play such a disturbing character.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Hi Joshua, thank you so much for speaking with me today. To start things off, how did you get involved in the project?
Joshua Leonard: I got involved in this project when I got a call from a casting director friend of mine named Carmen Cuba who is Steven’s long time casting director and has worked with him for years. But she also works with other filmmakers. I was doing a TV show at the time in Puerto Rico and was feeling really guilty about it because I had a six-month-old daughter at home and I was going back and forth. Any time I wasn’t working I was flying back across the country, back to Los Angeles, to be with her and to help out my wife. I got this call from Carmen and because this project was so top secret for so long she could only tell me at first that she had a really cool thriller with a really interesting filmmaker that was being done on a very low budget and was done on an iPhone in June and did I want to participate because the role was mine if I wanted it.
And I said, “No”. Not having all the information, I said “Carmen, thank you so much for thinking of me. But, I have this new baby and it is just a bad time to run off and do a little movie. Any other time I’d love to do it but, my focus is not on doing little independent films right now, [it’s about] being a new dad.” She said, “you should really talk to the director”. And I said “I really don’t want to because I don’t want to get convinced to do it and then have to break it to my wife and have that conversation.” And she said, “Fine it’s Steven Soderbergh” and I said “Ok, fuck my baby, when do you need me on set”.
Nightmarish Conjurings: That was the selling point for you it sounds like.
JL: I would have played a chair in his newest film if he would have asked me to. So the fact that it was such an interesting role and so different from anything I ever had the opportunity to do before was just icing on the cake.
Nightmarish Conjurings: What was it like finally getting to work with this person that you really admired and respected?
JL: I think Steven is that rare combination of filmmaker who is both deeply collaborative and also has a precision of vision that I think few people on the planet will ever dream of having. And he’s a guy who 25 years later is still experimenting and pushing his own boundaries and who has never been afraid of failure or allowed his own legacy to dictate his choices. He’s never rested on his laurels and he has never stopped experimenting whether it be with genre or budget or technique or the amount of jobs that he is willing to take on during any given film. And this being a perfect example of a film that I cant imagine many filmmakers as deep into a highly successful career as he is going “Ya, what I really want to do next is film a thriller on an iPhone for a million bucks.”
Nightmarish Conjurings: Did it affect your acting at all being filmed on an iPhone? Did it influence the way you performed?
JL: I think more than anything, filming on an iPhone makes you way less self-conscious. It think it’s more fun. I think the iPhone is such a ubiquitous piece of technology that we are all used to. We all have one in our pockets except for people who have Samsungs or the rare few odd ducks that still have Blackberries. But, I am a fairly new dad and we are always taking pictures of the kid on the iPhone or taking videos, so it removes any sense of elevation in the process because it is this thing that you are used to seeing. Also, real-estate wise, it takes up so much less space in the room which is tremendously freeing because it really feels like you are just distilling scenes down to the base elements of you and your scene partner. As an actor, it feels alive in a way that I don’t think you often get to feel especially not on a bigger production with a bigger crew and lots of lighting and very specific marks that you have to hit. You just have a lot more freedom.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Yeah it sounds like it was a lot more natural.
JL: Yeah I think that is true.
Nightmarish Conjurings: I wanted to tell you that I think you did a phenomenal job with David. I’m wondering, did you draw on any references for this creepy stalker character?
JL: I watched as many great stalker genre films as I could. I watched Misery, The King of Comedy, Single White Female, and Play Misty For Me. I don’t think I realized until Steven offered me this role that there was an entire sub genre, within the thriller genre, of stalker films. So I watched all of those. But for David specifically, weirdly I thought a lot about the Lenny character in Of Mice and Men, just in terms of, like, there’s a sadness. There is a guy who does some really bad stuff who really, I don’t think has the emotional maturity to understand how bad the things are that he is doing and kind of inadvertently hurts all these people in his way. With David’s obsession with Sawyer, it was as easy as going back to remembering falling in love as a thirteen year old and how all encompassing that felt and how I couldn’t see past that. It felt like this other person was your entire world and you couldn’t live without them and they completed you in some way. Then it became about asking what does it look like if that is still what love feels like but you add twenty years and you add a hundred pounds, and you add a certain amount of adult intelligence without an adult sense of emotional maturity. That person actually becomes really fucking dangerous.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Absolutely and it’s kind of an icky headspace to get into. Was there a routine or ritual that you got into to play the character?
JL: I guess as anybody who has played a bad guy in the film will tell you its impossible to try to honestly get inside somebody’s skin and simultaneously be judging the character as an actor at the same time. So just really trying to remove any sense of judgment. And you’re right, it’s not a fun skin to sit in. It is a really sad place to have to go. And you don’t think when you’re performing like “Ooo this is a creepy choice”. So much of the stuff that I think is creepy and unsettling, I attribute to Steven as a filmmaker. Because really all we can ever do is try to be honest with the character and honest with the moment. But, I felt really bad for my wife the day that we went to see a screening together when she had to come home and sleep next to me.
Nightmarish Conjurings: It must have been difficult to see that side of you or that potential of you acting in that way for the character.
JL: I think it means that I probably did my job. When I watch it, there is nothing cool about David.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Was there something you did after you were done shooting to get that self care and get some moments away from that? Did you have that still living with you even after you left the set?
JL: I took a shower and I flew home and started changing some of my daughter diapers and that brings you back into the moment.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Yeah, I bet. Were there any memorable or significant moments you experienced while working on the project?
JL: Often times in a film you will shoot an average, even on an independent film, of 3-4 pages a day. And Claire and I had two of those blue room scenes which are these long extended highly verbal cage matches between the two of us where the power dynamic just keeps shifting and each scene was about 8 pages long. So we were scheduled to do one scene on a Tuesday and the other scene on a Wednesday. And because Steven Soberbergh is Steven Soberbergh we had prepared. Claire and I spent hours the evening before preparing for that first scene and running it, running it, and running it, and working on it. And then we finished shooting it before lunch and it was supposed to take all day to shoot it. They came to use and said, “Ok lets do the second one now”, which was just as much work as the first one was. We were planning to spend hours that night going over it and preparing it, instead we walked away for a half an hour and were held up in a corner and did a little work on it and went back and shot the second one the same day. That was an unbelievable amount of work to do that was both emotionally draining and completely exhilarating because there was not time to think. We just kind of jumped on the train and didn’t jump off until the film was done being made.
Nightmarish Conjurings: That’s impressive. Sounds like you guys had a pretty good working relationship to be able to shoot it off the bat like that.
JL: Claire is one of the fiercest most astonishing and generous actors I have ever worked with. There are other actors that I can’t imagine doing that with. She is somebody who is just about the work and a kind person to boot. When you have a guy like Steven helming the ship, you are in pretty good hands.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Absolutely! Last, but not least, are there any projects that you are working on that we should be keeping our eyes out for?
JL: My latest film that I directed, Behold My Heart, will be coming out this summer; we just finished post-production on that. That film stars Marisa Tomei, Charlie Plummer, Tim Olyphant and Mireille Enos. I am very excited about that. And then just last week I finished shooting Larry Fessenden’s newest film, Depraved, which is a modern, socially relevant take on Frankenstein’s story. I am very excited about that as well.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Wow, you have been really busy.
JL: I have been busy and as long as they keep hiring me I will keep showing up.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Well, thank you so much again and we wish you all the success with UNSANE.
JL: Of course it was an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time.
UNSANE is now in theaters nationwide.