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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Aug. 25, 2011 | 9:40 PM

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Interview: Joshua Leonard of HIGHER GROUND

Joshua Leonard has not built a career playing pious characters.  His credits include Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, where he played one of two heterosexual men who make a bet to sleep together, and The Lie, a 2011 Sundance selection he also directed, in which he played the titular liar.  Yet he jumped at the chance to play Ethan, an evangelical Christian in Vera Farmiga’s directing debut, Higher Ground

He recently spoke with Film Radar about working with Farmiga, and in crafting a character that was far away from his own experience.

Film Radar:  Let’s talk about Higher Ground.  How did you come to be involved with this project?

Joshua Leonard:  I got a call from the folks that I work with that Vera was coming into town and wanted to talk to me about potentially playing her husband in a film that she was also directing, so…I blushed, and wiped the drool off my mouth, and said ‘yes, absolutely, even if I have to play it as a one legged Asian boy, I’ll do whatever it takes,” and then they told me about the project, and I thought, why the hell would she ever want me to play that role? And I went and I sat down with her, and her husband Renn (Hawkey), and it was one of the very first times that someone has actually hired me in the room, which is always the actor’s dream.

FR: Of Course.

JL: And then we started the real work of trying to figure out how, you know, who this guy was.  Not only is the film very different than anything I’ve done before, but the character and the world it takes place in is something that’s so virtually diametrically opposed to the way that I grew up.

FR: I was going to ask you about that.  You’re from Texas, correct?

JL: Well, I was born in Texas, but my folks moved us to the East coast, to Pennsylvania, when I was about three, so I spent most of my formative years on the East coast.

FR:  So you didn’t have that evangelical background growing up at all?

JL:  No, no evangelical background.  In fact, my pop was the son of a Lutheran minister, and my mother had been raised Jewish.

FR:  That’s pretty unusual.

JL:  Yeah, they were both kind of the black sheep of the family and dismissed the dogma and the ritual that they grew up with.  They tried putting me in a Quaker school when I was five.  There was a lot of talk of spirituality, but absolutely no ritual. And also, I was a Reagan Youth kid.  I grew up listening to punk rock music and being taught to question eveything…to question authority and government, and subsequently my parents and my teachers and the law, so…

FR: Your usual youthful rebellion type stuff..

JL:  I think all those things were very important and very formative in who I became and why I do what I do, and I also think that the nature of questioning everything and the nature of having faith in something are exact polar opposites. And that’s why it was so interesting to me to do a project that was very much about the nature of questioning, and about the striving, finding a place to call home, finding a community, finding something you can believe in, find a set of tenets you can live your life by.  But that wasn’t my character’s duty at all.  My character was the one who was very comfortable living in the container of, you know, he’s found the Word, he’s found the woman that he loves…

FR: He’s content.

JL:  He’s found the community that he feels comfortable in, and wanted to do a good job raising his kids. And so Ethan’s role is really…I think probably if he had a little more sex with his wife, he’d be a happy guy.  His questions just exist in the realm of trying to make himself a better version of who he already is.  And the real question of the film comes through Corinne’s character, which is not knowing if she belongs there to begin with.

FR:  I would say that the movie offers an unusually nuanced portrait of faith, but it’s also not a Christian film exactly.  What kind of an audience do you think the movie’s going to attract?

JL:  I don’t know.  I would hope that it attracts all different kinds of audiences.  People of faith, people of no faith.  The core of the movie, and this is part of my own journey of self-discovery in the process of doing this…when I read the script, not having grown up Christian, or in a fundamentalist community of any nature,  I read Bill Irwin’s speeches, you know, the actor who plays the pastor in this film, I read his speeches with the same set of biases and kind of reductive thinking of the fundamentalist Christian characters that have always been spoon fed to me in previous media and previous films.  I read his sermons, and when I was first reading them, they all sounded like that same Southern Baptist preacher:  “And Jesus came down off the mountain, and he said…”

FR: The televangelist type.

JL:  Right. And so it felt impossible, given my experience, to see the dimensions that existed behind that.  And when I started doing research on the film, and talking to people, and especially people like Norbert and Vera, who grew up in these types of communities, the people became people to me, and then it all became much easier, because at the core of everybody’s journey in this film is a group of folks who are dealing with the tremendous disappointments of being human.  That, to me, although the circumstances are going to be familiar to some and not familiar to others, the human journeys are so tremendously relatable.

FR:  The ending of the film is ambiguous but also hopeful.  In your mind, what does the future hold for Ethan and Corinne?

JL:   All I believe about them is that they’re gonna keep fighting the good fight.  And I don’t know what that means.  You know, Corinne stands in that doorway, and if she’d walked inside the doorway it would have meant one thing,  if she would’ve walked outside, it would have meant another.  I think for certain audience members, one choice or the other would have vindicated their own personal beliefs, and I think the way that Vera did it was so classy and inclusive.  It’s really about the questions so much more than it is about the decision.

FR:  Inclusive is a great word to describe the tone of the movie overall.  Let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about Vera Farmiga’s directing style.

JL:  Sure. 

FR:  Was she primarily focused on performances, since she’s an actor herself, and was also appearing in the film?

JL:  What was great about Vera’s directing to me is the same thing that’s great about her acting to me, which is the same thing that, now that I’ve gotten to know her, and become friends with her, is what’s great about her as a person, which is that humanity and the quest for truth precede everything else.  So yes, when she was directing me, or herself, or the other actors, it was never, ‘can you walk three inches that way, ’ it was never technical notes, it was always about finding more levels, more nuance, more history, and more honesty in these characters and their relationships. That said, she knew exactly what she wanted visually.  Vera is a great director.  She had a point of view, and took on tough material.

FR:  No kidding!

JL: Yeah, I don’t think a lot of the rest of us could see the finished film, when we were making it.

FR:  I can’t imagine it was an easy sell, either, to get this project off the ground.

JL:  No!  It was something that she worked on for years!  It just kind of came at the right place, right time.  She happened to be pregnant when the financing came through.  She was in pre-production during her first trimester and we were in production during the second trimester of her pregnancy.

FR:  That’s amazing.

JL:  Yeah, it’s really pretty heroic. 

Higher Ground opens in select theatres Friday, August 26th.




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