Joshua Leonard on His Horror History, Terrifying Claire Foy in ‘Unsane’

Matt Donato
Movies Horror
Movies Horror

Although actor Joshua Leonard has successfully avoided being labeled as “the horror guy” ever since bursting onto the genre scene in 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, that doesn’t mean he’s sworn off scares forever. Movies like The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) and Shark Night 3D kept a big toe dipped in terrifying waters, but his work as Steven Soderbergh’s nice-guy stalker “David Strine” in this year’s Unsane might be this former found footage victim’s most terrifying portrayal yet. Once an urban legend’s prey has now become the hunter, as Leonard’s lovestruck maniac finds himself at the center of Claire Foy’s incarceration nightmare. Sometimes it’s just fun to be bad — though, as you’ll read below, David is far from a lighthearted comic book antagonist.

FANDOM sat down with the performer and picked apart what it took to create David from scratch. As you can expect, Joshua Leonard “the man” is nothing like his on-screen representation in Unsane. This led to discussions about what classic movies were watched to inspire his wicked ways, what creepy art project may or may not have totally freaked Claire Foy out, and how it felt to be a joyous new father whose alter ego was as dark as La Brea’s tar pits. It certainly wasn’t an easy role to stomach, but who can say no to Steven Soderbergh?

FANDOM: In Unsane, you take a typical movie stalker role and make it your own. Were you inspired by any other films or societal occurrences throughout your preparation?

Leonard: When I first got offered the role — and rapidly accepted — I put a call out on social media for stalker film recommendations. I didn’t realize — until doing so — that there is an entire subgenre of stalker films. I don’t think I’d made that correlation in my mind. You start with Misery, then Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, Play Misty For Me, King Of Comedy. There were some others, too. Chuck And Buck — shout out to my dear friend Miguel Arteta for making one of the more epic, awkward indie stalker films.

I watched all of those and then – on a more serious note – talked to female friends of mine who had been the victims of stalking. It’s just a petrifying thing to have happen to you. A true violation of personal space and safety.

Then I spent a couple days cutting pictures of Claire Foy out of magazines and printing them out from the internet. I made a five foot by five-foot collage of [Foy’s character Sawyer Valentini] and David’s life together. That kind of really put me in the headspace.

FANDOM: Method acting is what they call that, I think?

Leonard: [Laughing] That was as method as I got on this one, luckily. It did help, and it was funny because I made this really upsetting, super creepy collage that I didn’t want my wife or our housekeeper to see so I kept hiding it.

FANDOM: Behind a drape or something?

Leonard: Oh yeah. Then I took a couple pictures on my phone and sent them to [Steven Soderbergh] just to say, “Doing a little character work. Hope you appreciate it.” He loved them and texted right back.

Unfortunately I forgot about them entirely until a week into production after a very long day of work. Claire and I were having a dinner bonding session after shooting all day. We were showing each other pictures of our babies on our phones and she scrolled right by one of those. I jumped for my phone…

FANDOM: Did it get a reaction?

Leonard: [Laughing] She said, “What the f–k is that?” I think I had her convinced I was a pretty decent guy by that point, but the picture of the collage that I made destroyed any such notion of that. To her credit, she proceeded to spend another ten minutes zooming in and staring at it, laughing hysterically. Then she made me send her copies of it.

FANDOM: So a happy ending.

Leonard: A happy ending, but it could have gone either way.

Unsane Joshua Leonard Claire Foy
Leonard takes mind games to the next level in 'Unsane'

FANDOM: Did you know what you were getting into when you accepted the role of David? Did Steven Soderbergh prepare you for the darkness, or provoke more madness on set?

Leonard: I had read the script before I talked to him for the first time. Unsane is one of those projects where the movie we made was in the script.

[Steven Soderbergh] brought together such a wonderful, weird group of actors. Everybody brings something very special and specific to their own part, but in terms of the feel of the piece and the twists and turns and who the antagonist is, we used the script as a blueprint. I totally knew what I was getting into. I don’t mind playing bad guys. It can be a lot of fun. David was not necessarily a fun character to play because he’s not a fun villain. He’s a very sad villain.

FANDOM: Sadly somewhat more realistic, too.

Leonard: A guy with some real problems of his own and a real sense of empty loneliness who then takes that and really destroys other people’s lives with it. It’s not…

FANDOM: You’re not a Tarantino villain or something.

Leonard: Exactly. Or I’m not a Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs Of New York — Bill the Butcher.

In our first conversation, I told [Steven Soderbergh] that he’d been a hero of mine for 20+ years. I said I would come out and played a chair in his film if he wanted me to – but I’d never played a role like David. I was curious what he saw in me because the script came in as a straight offer. I wanted to know what the qualities were that he thought that I could bring to David specifically that would help him tell his story.

He said it was more a sense of earnestness and the fact that I wasn’t inherently threatening that interested him. In terms of what I worked on when I got on set, I just did the best I could. It’s a film. Some of it’s really heightened, some of it could happen and some of it probably wouldn’t – but in terms of the character work itself, I just tried to keep it as rooted in David’s brokenness as possible as opposed to going outside of that and making him scarier.

FANDOM: Let’s dive into the filmmaking style a bit. How strange was it not to see these giant camera rigs on set because Steven Soderbergh is using cellphones the whole time?

Leonard: For me it was really exciting. I’ve kept a toe in the indie world long enough that I’ve had some cool opportunities to do some big, behemoth productions, but I think the truly unique experience on Unsane that I didn’t even anticipate going in was the fact that we’re so used to iPhones in our lives that they become really easy to forget. That there’s even a camera there.

FANDOM: You just see people on their iPhones.

Joshua Leonard: It’s an omnipresent piece of technology. The iPhone itself doesn’t feel threatening or sacred so I think it gave us a lot more room to play and be in these rooms with each other. You almost forget that you’re making a movie sometimes.

FANDOM: From an audience perspective, framing was a lot wider. Bigger spaces in focus. Rooms were captured in their full view. Someone would enter all the way on one side and have to walk across the whole area in a static hold where you eliminate the tracking of characters.

Leonard: There’s still certain limitations to shooting on the iPhone that I think will be worked out within the next couple years. You’re capturing in 4K native so you’re capturing a very high quality image, but in terms of focus pulling it’s still very tricky. Because of the chip size you’ve still got this huge depth of field on the cameras where everything’s in focus so [Steven Soderbergh] — being a master filmmaker — understood the medium that we were shooting on. He organized the aesthetic of the film around these kind of tableaus where we could walk in and the scene could play out. When he would move the camera it was so fast.

That’s the other thing about shooting on an iPhone and shooting with almost entirely natural light – you’re never waiting between setups. On a traditional movie you’d shoot half a scene then walk away. Maybe grab a burrito? An hour and a half later you come back to shoot the other side of the scene – yet in the case of Unsane, it would sometimes be two minute turnovers. He would just literally take the phone, put it on the other side of the room and go, “Okay. Let’s go.” You move so fast and that also helps to mitigate any self-consciousness that can build.

So for those who might balk at the idea of filming cinema-quality projects on a smartphone, what immediate benefit would you use to convince them otherwise?

Leonard: Speed and price.

FANDOM: Do you think Unsane would have been made without the benefit of smartphone cost savings? Does Unsane then become a harder sell?

Leonard: I think if Steven Soderbergh wants to make a thriller, Steven Soderbergh can make a thriller. He just finished another film that he shot on an iPhone.

FANDOM: So much for his short-lived retirement plans.

Leonard: He was wrapping his film the day before our Unsane premiere, and we just shot this one a little over six months ago. The man is prolific. He’ll put normal humans to shame.

FANDOM: He might have even written Logan Lucky, if rumors are true.

Leonard: [Smirks] He might have.

FANDOM: I can only imagine how many pseudonyms he has at this point.

Leonard: I know of three and I’ve only worked with the guy once. I’m guessing there are some more out there that I don’t know about. I’m not even in the inside circle.

FANDOM: I question the crew size on every Soderbergh movie now.

Leonard: “It’s a funny thing about that actor, Josh Leonard. Not really Josh Leonard. Josh Leonard is just Soderbergh’s pseudonym for his acting.”

Joshua Leonard Blair Witch Project
'The Blair Witch Project' kicked off the found footage movie craze.

FANDOM: I wanted to bring up your role in The Blair Witch Project, next. Even though Unsane is a narrative film, were there similarities to shooting a found footage movie versus something on the iPhone? Is it still that guerrilla-style even in traditional formatting?

Leonard: The direct line I would draw between The Blair Witch Project and Unsane is that we were trying to do something that there wasn’t much of a set precedent for. In both cases, the budgets were low enough that creators had total autonomy over their own projects. These filmmakers lived, died and created on their own instincts, under the set of constraints that they had. On The Blair Witch Project, our biggest constraint was that none of us had two nickels to rub together. On Unsane it was that [Steven Soderbergh] chose to use the iPhone and – I believe – used his own money. He was going to make damn sure the project didn’t inflate.

FANDOM: It feels like a natural evolution in cinematic experimentation.

Leonard: Both were experiments. Both had real chances of falling flat on their faces. If they had, not many people would be the wiser but you and I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about them now. Or many other found footage films to this date.

FANDOM: I want to bring up your acting choices because after The Blair Witch Project, you could have become “the horror guy” — but you didn’t. Was that a conscious path or one based on opportunity?

Leonard: A little bit of Column A, a little bit of Column B. Sometimes when you work in a freelance profession, the choices you make are based on the opportunities in front of you while others are made because you need the rent to be paid. There’s certainly a lot of stuff that I’ve chosen not to do over the years. I just think what keeps me interested does not necessarily translate into good branding. Such is the path that I’ve chosen for myself.

FANDOM: I bet you didn’t have a crisis of conscience when Steven Soderbergh asked you to be in his film.

Leonard: I’ll say anecdotally that when I got the call from Carmen Cuba, who’s a friend of mine and [Steven Soderbergh’s] longtime casting director, the project was so top secret that in the first phone call she didn’t even want to tell me that he was making the movie. She said, “I’ve got this indie thriller that’s being shot on an iPhone with a really cool group of people,” but I had an eight-month-old baby at the time. It felt like if I came to my wife and said, “I’m going to go three thousand miles away to make a film for two dollars shot on an iPhone,” that I would have come back with one less testicle.

FANDOM: The leash would tighten, alright.

Leonard: So I said, “I would love to, but with a new kid it’s just not a good time to go do a little movie on the East coast.” She said, “You should at least talk to the director.” I was like, “Come on. You know the director’s just going to convince me to do it. I don’t even want to.” And she said, “It’s Steven Soderbergh.” I was like, “Okay. You’ve convinced me. When do I show up? Fuck the baby.”

FANDOM: So next to Soderbergh, if you had your choice of a filmmaker to work with, who would it be? Who haven’t you worked with that you’re dying to?

Leonard: Robert Altman, but that’s not going to happen.

FANDOM: Nope. That you *can* work with. Let’s caveat that.

Leonard: That I can work with? There’s so many out there. What’s the guy’s name who did Rust And Bone and A Prophet? Jacques Audiard — I think he’s spectacular. I also think Jeremy Saulnier is one of my favorites out there right now. He’s next level.

Matt Donato
Matt is a Brooklynite who spends his after-work hours posting nonsense on the internet instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don't feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged).