"A Spell of Stardom:
Once-Struggling Actor Joshua Leonard
on the Rise After 'Blair Witch Project'"

by Ruthe Stein, San Francisco Chronicle, 17 August 1999

Joshua Leonard had just finished "The Blair Witch Project" when he agreed to be in "City of Bars." At the time, he was just another unknown actor shuttling from one really low-budget independent film to the next.

Then something unexpected and almost unprecedented happened: "Blair Witch," made for $40,000, became a runaway hit. Last week, while "City of Bars" was shooting in the Mission District, "Blair Witch" crossed the golden $100 million mark at the box office.

Leonard, dressed in a paint-stained sweatshirt and work pants for the scene he was in, tried to blend in with everyone else on the set. But it was a little hard with his face on the cover of the current Newsweek (along with co-stars Heather Donahue and Michael Williams) and a contract to appear with Robert De Niro in a $40 million action picture.

"I'm not the most talented guy in the world, and I have no delusions about that," Leonard said during a break. "I know so many talented people who have never had the kind of public exposure that I'm fortunate enough to get at this point.

"It's just the luck of the draw. It so happened I was at the right place at the right time and when I'm young and can enjoy it. I'm enjoying every minute of it, but there is no figment in my brain that believes any of this is lasting."

With a deal to share in the "Blair Witch" profits, Leonard, 24, has permanently taken himself out of the ranks of struggling actors. He won't say what his percentage is, but with the money that film is raking in, any percentage would put him on easy street.

Chronicle photo — Robin Weiner
Joshua Leonard is finding it hard to go incognito after "The Blair Witch Project".

"I'll be taken care of. I won't be needing to work a day job," said Leonard, who was working in an equipment room at a film school when he made "Blair Witch."

With back-to-back film commitments through March, he hasn't had time to splurge on anything, though he is considering buying a house outside Los Angeles to get away from it all. Leonard goes straight from "City of Bars" to "In the Weeds," in which he plays opposite Molly Ringwald, to the De Niro movie "Navy Diver," also starring Cuba Gooding Jr. Leonard and Gooding recently took a scuba diving training course to prepare for their roles.

Then there's a possible "Blair Witch" sequel. What it will be about is being kept secret. But one rumor has Leonard's character, a film student, reappearing in more supposedly found footage from the documentary he was making about a legendary killer witch.

Leonard looks quite different now than he did in "The Blair Witch Project." He cut his blond hair, shaved his beard and gained 15 pounds for "City of Bars." He plays Jay, a womanizer whose indiscretions drive one former lover to spray paint "Jay is a rapist" all over the sidewalks of the Mission.

Chronicle photo — Robin Weiner
A film crew shot a scene for "City of Bars" — starring Joshua Leonard, seated at left with fellow actors Chris Coburn and Mari Colabelli — at Taqueria Cancun in San Francisco's Mission District.

In the scene shot last Thursday, he walked down Mission Street with his buddy, played by Chris Coburn, trying to find out which of his many women has done this to him. Director Loren Marsh, a Stanford graduate making his second film, had the two repeat the scene again and again. Marsh hopes that having Leonard in "City of Bars" will help it get a distributor. "I think they will at least watch the movie now," he said.

Analyzing his character, Leonard said, "Jay is one of those hapless jerks who never means to hurt anyone, but there's a vast disparity between his intentions and his actions, and he ends up hurting women."

Leonard admitted going through periods like that in his own life where "I was kind of like exploring and not as conscious as you would like to be about, you know, whoever else's feelings. But I try not to do that at all today."

Recently, he started seeing an actress, whom he declines to name. "She's not anyone famous. She's in independent films." They met after "Blair Witch" became a success. But he isn't concerned that that could be the reason for her interest in him. "You can see that in people's eyes," he said.

Before "Blair Witch," Leonard wasn't sure if he would continue acting. He's had a love-hate relationship with the profession since childhood. When he was 6, his father, who teaches theater at Penn State University, started casting him in plays, including "The Front Page" and "Life With Father."

"When I was 13, I decided that was the last thing I wanted to do with my life. I wasn't too fond of actors," Leonard said.

He took up photography, shooting rock 'n' roll bands for magazines, and spent a year in Mexico working in a reforestation program. Returning to the States, he appeared in some fringe theater and made an indie film, "The Blur of Insanity."

"I had an interest in acting, but it wasn't my only focus," said Leonard, who also shot a few documentaries around the same time.

Playing a filmmaker in "Blair Witch" merged two of his interests. "It kind of culminated my passion for acting and my passion for documentary filmmaking. It turned me on from the word go. It was a fantastic idea and exciting that people were willing to take risks in a business where very few risks are taken."

©1999 San Francisco Chronicle

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