Joshua Leonard: The Man Behind (Ahem) Humpday 

Tuesday, Jul 7 2009

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 superlow 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.

click to enlarge KEVIN SCANLON - Bro-mantic

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“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 psychodrama 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 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.”

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