By Alexis Whitham
Though perhaps best known for roles in films made by some of our most notable auteurs (including Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and David Fincher’s Fight Club), to call Jared Leto a mere actor would diminish the artistry of this director, producer, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
In the past year alone, Leto has won a Gotham Independent Film Award for direction of the documentary Artifact and earned an MTV Video Music Award for Best Rock Video for his band Thirty Seconds to Mars. Now, he is generating a healthy heaping of Oscar buzz for embodying Rayon, an HIV-positive transsexual in MVFF36 Spotlight film Dallas Buyers Club, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria, MVFF, 2009). Though many have made note of his four-year absence from the big screen, Leto doesn’t consider these recent years focusing on music over film as a hiatus. Varied passions are complementary forces for the performer; as he explains, “Just because you like a sunset doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a sunrise.”
Still, when a platinum-selling musician takes time out from world tours to return to acting, it’s got to be for the right reason. A challenging script and a groundbreaking director aligned for what Leto calls the “experience of a lifetime” on the risky and rewarding Dallas Buyers Club.
Once onboard, Leto jumped in with gusto. The actor was so fully committed to his role that if you ask him about his collaborators—Vallée, and actors Matthew McConaughey (mesmerizing as hell-raising cowboy turned AIDS activist Ron Woodroof) and Jennifer Garner—he will tell you that he didn’t meet them until after shooting was completed, as he insisted on staying in character through the entire production. A deep-seated commitment to method acting’s embrace of truly becoming a character has been a hallmark for Leto; equally impressive are his physical transformations.Chameleon-like metamorphoses have allowed this attractive man to melt into a varied cross-section of on-screen personas. In his first lead role as a driven Olympics competitor in Prefontaine, Leto took on the character’s voice, running stride, and dirty-blonde 1970s look, garnering critical acclaim for his efforts. For his harrowing portrayal of a junkie caught in a downward spiral in Requiem for a Dream, Leto not only lost a significant amount of weight but also lived on the streets of New York in preparation for the role. Leto’s most physically challenging turn was gaining more than sixty pounds to embody John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, in Chapter 27, a rigorous process that left him temporarily wheelchair-bound and with a case of gout. “It’s something I do to serve the character,” he says of his willingness to go to extremes for the sake of his craft.
When approaching the character of Rayon, Leto realized that he would have to undergo transformations both physical and internal. “It wasn’t just about losing thirty pounds or wearing wigs or high heels or waxing my body,” he explains. “There was a big transformation that took place inside. I was intent on playing a real human being. I think Hollywood is full of imitations that are over-the-top and colorful, so I felt like that had been covered. I wanted to really represent her, with as much dignity as I could, as a real person.”
Leto’s unwavering commitment also helped to inspire his fellow actors, most notably McConaughey, with whom he has undeniably chemistry. As his costar says, “What was ideal about the way that Jared worked—and how I was choosing to work—was, that’s who you’re there to be. Be your character. We don’t need to step out and say, ‘How was the weekend? How are the kids?’ It’s fun to go to work and remain the subject, remain looking through the POV of your guy.”
Not unlike McConaughey, Leto early on faced skepticism from critics who stubbornly refused to recognize the maverick artist behind the pretty face. The ensuing years and the bona fide acting chops deployed have silenced the naysayers, and Leto has taken his rightful place among his generation’s most gifted performers.
Now successful across multiple media platforms, Leto could never have imaged such success springing from his meager beginnings. “We clawed our way out of the muddy banks of the Mississippi with food stamps in one hand and whatever you could hold in the other,” Leto recalls of his childhood. Though money was scarce, Leto was at no loss for exposure to creative expression, watching his mother navigate gigs from acrobat to photographer to rock-climbing guide, and living in what he’s described as an “art-communal hippie” enclave. He gravitated toward the arts, studying painting at the Philadelphia University of the Arts and directing at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
From big-budget spectacle (Alexander) to dark comedy (American Psycho), Leto has chosen his panoply of boundary-pushing roles boldly and confidently, often appearing in underappreciated projects that gain cult status only when the groundbreaking dust settles. With this kind of track record, guessing what is next for the supremely talented multi-hyphenate is an exercise in futility. As the man himself confesses, “I like pushing into the unknown.” This succinct sentiment speaks volumes about Leto’s work to date, and we can’t wait to see where he goes next.