Joshua Leonard came undone at Cannes. It wasn't just that Humpday, the film in which he stars, had made it into the festival's prestigious Directors' Fortnight — unlikely enough for a movie about two straight friends who decide to shoot a gay porn together for art's sake, and which cost less to make than a couple might spend on a Côte d'Azur getaway. What really got to Leonard was what happened when the screening ended and the curtain came down.
"It's the festival [that] my whole life I had idealized as the ultimate acceptance into the international film community, the people who had always inspired me to make movies," Leonard explains. When the film finished, the audience proceeded to give Leonard, co-star Mark Duplass and director Lynn Shelton a five-minute standing ovation. "The standing ovation starts and you're just overwhelmed and thankful, and you wave and mouth, 'thank you' to everybody for a couple minutes, and it kept going and I started getting really uncomfortable," Leonard says. "It was almost, like, what do I do? Where do I put my hands? How do I stand? We don't really deserve this much. That's enough, thanks. And then, it kept going, and something inside me broke open. I was just standing there, we were all standing there in the middle of this huge audience, and I just started weeping. I hugged everybody I made the film with and I was just pouring tears."
Humpday's warm reception wasn't just one of those French peculiarities — it also won a special jury prize at Sundance and has been getting near-unanimous raves on the festival circuit. Cultural anthropologists might be inclined to read something prescient into the big love being showered on this tiny film prior to its theatrical release. Does it mark the moment when mumblecore — the genre of super-low-budget, loosely scripted films shot primarily on digital video — matured and got its institutional anointing? Maybe, but Leonard, who first came on the scene 10 years ago when another, pocket-change film called The Blair Witch Project had its seminal debut at Sundance, was thinking more about the personal baggage he brought to Cannes than whatever meta moment he might have found himself in.
"It felt like I was personally seen and accepted," he explains, "and for, you know, that scared 14-year-old kid in the redneck, jock town, who wanted to find a way to connect with people in the greater world and who didn't know if he was ever going to find a place to fit in, it was a profoundly moving, validating experience."
That this validation would come via the vernacular of mumblecore, which grew out of the South By Southwest film festival and seems to have developed to give voice to highly literate, ineffectual Gen Y-ers (previous efforts include includes 2002's Funny Ha Ha, 2005's Puffy Chair and last year's In Search of a Midnight Kiss) is not as surprising. But in Humpday, Leonard may have given the movement its most charismatic avatar to date. He plays Andrew, a Kerouac-ian lost boy who, after a 10-year absence, shows up at the doorstep of his best friend from college, now a married, home-owning member of the bourgeoisie. The reunion sets in motion an understated, touching and often hilarious psycho drama that eventually forces Andrew to face the fact that his own persona is no more solid than the cigarette smoke he blows into a lonely night. In other hands, the role could have easily slid into dismissible caricature, but Leonard's reading is so pitch-perfect we leave the theater worried about what will happen to this guy and — for those of us watching, who, perhaps, relate a little too well to Andrew — ourselves.
I meet Leonard at his L.A. home, a tastefully appointed one-bedroom that comprises the lower half of a Craftsman duplex perched nicely on a breezy, tree-lined hill in Echo Park. The space is open and light; the kitchen shows signs of surprising utility (emphasis on coffee). There is handsome art on the walls and attractive books on the coffee table. The only sign of disorder is the squall of clothes tossed on the bed in anticipation of his imminent flight for Humpday's screening at the CineVegas Film Festival. Though I've crossed paths with Leonard casually for years through a group of mutual friends, this is the first time we've spoken at length, and I get the sense that the 33-year-old actor has been working toward an opportunity like Humpday for most of his life.
An appealing combination of scruffy, masculine good looks and chatty, slightly feminine introspection, Leonard tells me he grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, where his father taught theater at Penn State. The environment was, he says, "pretty solidly heartland, football, redneck." He started getting in trouble at a young age. "I think part of it was just because I was really bored and part of it was just because I felt like a freak and I didn't fit in. So, it was that kind of adolescent, punk-rock version of 'I'm going to hurt myself before you hurt me,'" he says. "I got into drugs very young. I stared getting arrested very young."
Leonard's efforts landed him in a boy's home ("Oh, dude, I could tell you stories about the boy's home") and eventually got him kicked out of school. By some miracle of persuasion, he convinced his parents that if he earned his GED, they would allow him to go to Mexico to do volunteer work. "I liked the idea of doing social work, but the Peace Corps wouldn't take me," he says. "So, I found an organization that would take me at 16, and I just went down with them. Ironically, I taught elementary school for the first six months and then worked for this anthropological institute, doing volunteer work in Chiapas, which, you know, I pulled for the movie."
Leonard drew on more than biographical details for the role of Andrew. The character's wanderlust and inchoate yearning weren't too far off the organizing principle of his own youth, which he explains this way: "I gotta get the fuck out of the suburbs," he laughs. "There was nothing scarier to me than becoming an ordinary meathead. There was nothing more frightening than becoming average, which, ironically, I think, is part of the great serenity of getting older — learning how not unique you actually are."
After Mexico, Leonard knocked around between Seattle and London, developing an interest in photography and getting a little work with his camera, before landing in New York at 19. It was the mid-'90s and independent films were having their heyday at Sundance. "I stared seeing Hal Hartley films and Allison Anders films and Nick Gomez films, and I'd never really seen art films before. I didn't grow up on Godard and Kieslowski," he says. "When I saw some of those scrappier, more independent, more character-driven films coming out, it felt accessible to me, and that's when I really started the journey of trying to find a place for myself in the film community."
Leonard eventually got a job working at Mystic Fire Video, a company that distributed the works of "old-school freaks" like Kenneth Anger and Derek Jarman. He was also earnestly delving into the kind of bohemian lifestyle Humpday's Andrew envisions for himself. He did an anti—death penalty performance piece with Judith Malina from the Living Theater, worked with avant-garde filmmaking legend Jonas Mekas, and smoked a joint with Allen Ginsberg. Then, he got strung out on heroin. By the time he was cast for The Blair Witch Project, "it was just another thing that happened in the confluence of events of being young and really high in New York and trying to figure to what I wanted to do and what my voice was."
When Blair Witch arrived at Sundance in 1999, Leonard had hit the skids and was in rehab. He was three months' sober and living in a halfway house in Los Angeles when he appeared on The Tonight Show to promote the film. When he emerged from the halfway house, he found himself in that vast hinterland of Hollywood — a working actor doing intermittent TV roles and appearing in films of small consequence for years on end.
In the year prior to being cast in Humpday, Leonard had reached the end of his rope. A collaboration on a labor-of-love documentary project about the so-called "Beautiful Losers" art movement had turned sour, he had his heart broken "in a dysfunctional relationship" and financing for a film he was set to produce and direct fell through just before shooting was scheduled to begin. "There was never a riper time to dig in and figure out how to at least try to never put myself in that position again, and a lot of that had to do with self-examination and figuring out where I was complicit in my own downfalls," he explains.
All of which made Leonard uniquely suited to chart Andrew's internal landscape. "I got to do a project like this because of the emotional place that my own life was in, and I think doing a project like this helps to reinforce any personal work I'm doing on myself." A lot of that work, Leonard says, is about "the ongoing journey of trying to figure out who the fuck you are and what your purpose on the planet is, what our generation's version is of what it means to be a man."
It's in this way that Humpday's potentially ludicrous setup is actually a bait-and-switch, allowing for a refreshingly sweet examination of gender, sexual identity and friendship. The two lead characters are never more vulnerable with each other than when they've finally alpha-dogged themselves into a corner. I suggest the ultimate message could be that friendship is gay, even for two hopeless heteros. "In a great way. Friendship is gay. That should have been the tag line, dude," Leonard laughs. "I'm sure a lot of the guys I grew up with would punch me in the face for saying this, but I feel really lucky to have grown up in a generation where the archetypes about what it means to be a man have started breaking down and expanding."
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I tell Leonard that as the film closes on an image of Andrew, alone with his thoughts about what the future may hold — an image that evokes Dustin Hoffman in the last scene of The Graduate — I was left with a profound sense of dread about where he goes from there.
"I think as with many of us — certainly myself to varying degrees at different points in my life — Andrew doesn't know who he is. He knows that he wants more but doesn't necessarily know how to get it. He's become too aware of his own self-conscious fronts to even pretend like there's anything authentic about them anymore So, in many ways, to me, it's hopeful, but certainly not in a Hollywood way.
"It's like that place I was talking about in my own life, where everything I thought was supposed to work, that I thought I was supposed to do, just stopped working and blew up in my face. At the time, nothing hurts more, and in hindsight, nothing helps more."
I'm less worried about Leonard's own future. "Bar none, this is the most fun I've ever had making a film in my life," he says, "and in that deep-down way of trying to get to those seeds of truth underneath all the bullshit, it may have been the most challenging. But those are fun challenges, man."