Jared Leto was a movie heartthrob who decided he’d rather be a rock star – and went on to sell 10 million albums. Now, after a six-year break from Hollywood, he’s back on the big screen in the role of a lifetime, discovers Claire Black
He grew up in poverty in Louisiana, the youngest son of a “vagabond, hippie mother”. Wayward at school, he was smart and easily bored, which meant there was a bit of petty crime, minor arson, some stealing. He pitched up in Los Angeles with $500 and a backpack and proceeded to become a mid-1990s heartthrob. Then there were movies. And then, quite simply, there weren’t. Not for six years. It’s not that Hollywood dropped Jared Leto. Hardly. It was that Leto decided he’d rather be a rock star than a movie star. Not like Keanu Reeves, or Russell Crowe, a proper one with 10 million album sales and gigs in packed stadiums around the world. So how come he is back again, Golden Globe already bagged, Academy Award nomination safely landed, with the chances of that little gold statuette ending up in his hands a pretty good bet?
Movie star? Rock star? Would the real Jared Leto please stand up?
I can tell you that on first meeting he’s more the latter than the former. In part it’s the penthouse suite rather than the standard double. (I’m not being a snob, trust me, these things matter.) It’s also the long hair, framing those still razor sharp cheek bones and the dreamy blue eyes – Leto was always pretty rather than hunky. At 42 he’s not so much young-looking as ageless. Then there are the clothes – all black with zips and poppers, subtle not showy but they don’t look like anything that came off a peg or from a safe bet designer. Slight and quietly spoken, the only thing about Leto that doesn’t fit with the rock star schtick is that he looks remarkably healthy. This is especially surprising given that he was rocking a kilt on stage at The Hydro in front of thousands less than 24 hours before we meet, catching a red-eye flight from Glasgow to London. And yet Leto looks clear-eyed. More than this he looks like a man who relishes an egg-white omelette and regards wheatgrass as a treat. You may judge that as a little catty, but having read that Leto planned to celebrate his recent Oscar nomination by whipping up a batch of vegan pancakes, I feel no remorse.
Jared Leto first became famous as Claire Danes’ bad-boy love interest on cult TV series My So-Called Life. After that there were around 20 or so movies – American Psycho, Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream. And then the hiatus. To put it into perspective, in Hollywood terms a break of six years is basically like dying, being buried, forgotten, having a multi-storey car park built on top of your place of rest before being excavated, reanimated, dressed in a tux and marched down a red carpet. Leto is under no illusions. “It’s the end of your career, that’s what it is,” says Leto. “Most people who are on their sixth year, it’s not by choice.” So how exactly does one pull off a resurrection as remarkable as he has?
“Lucky motherf***er,” he says quietly, with a smile and an almost imperceptible shrug. “I wasn’t looking for it. I wasn’t looking for anything. I didn’t want to go to work. I wasn’t pining to make a film. Dallas Buyers Club was sent my way and I was encouraged to read it. I hadn’t read a script in years. I gave it a read and I fell in love. I knew it was an opportunity to do something really special.”
He’s not wrong.
Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodruff, a macho, womanising Texas electrician who was diagnosed with HIV, a virus he viewed as “that gay disease” back in the dark days of 1985. Woodruff was given 30 days to live. He was 35 years old. Instead, he transformed himself into a one-man HIV/Aids drug therapy guru, smuggling non-approved medicines into the US from Mexico and shipping them from elsewhere, selling them to a community desperate for something, anything, that would stop people from dying as major pharmaceutical companies – and American government agencies – dragged their heels with both research and funding. The film is not sentimental and it’s not simplistic either. Woodruff, played magnificently by Matthew McConaughey, who’s also been nominated for an Oscar, was motivated by self-preservation and money before any kind of civic duty. But that’s why his gradual shift as he slowly but surely comes to terms with the new community of which he finds himself a part is so moving and so believable. And that’s in no small way due to the relationship between Woodruff and Rayon, played by Leto, the transgender woman and drug user who first of all buys drugs from Woodruff and then becomes his unconventional and unreliable business partner.
Rayon is a confection in halter tops and headscarves. She wears candyfloss-coloured lipstick and has a penchant for injecting class A drugs into whichever of her veins will still accept them. She is fragile and fun, sweet and damaged. She is, Leto says, “the role of a lifetime”.
“Rayon is one of a kind – fun, funny, full of grace, with a big heart, very open, very compassionate. It’s funny, I never think about her gender first. To me, that’s just so imprinted on who she is. I wasn’t playing this part as a drag queen or a glam rocker or any of that. This was a man who wanted to live as a woman. She is who she is. If she was alive today she would identify as a transgender person.” Leto met transgender people at the beginning of making the film, which was, he says, really informative. It was an experience that made him committed to “bringing a real person to the screen not a cliché or a stereotype. I felt that had been done before so why bother?”
Leto landed the role at least in part by ‘being’ Rayon when he first spoke to director Jean-Marc Valle. Speaking on Skype, he wore lipstick and a pink, fluffy jumper pulled off one shoulder. He wanted to see if he could pull it off. Having been cast, he then lost 30lb (McConaughey’s weight-loss garnered more press attention because he’s known as a beefcake so to see him gaunt and drawn-looking was truly shocking) but Leto is slight so the change in his physique was no less dramatic. He also stayed in character for the duration of the shoot.
“I find it a really productive way to work,” he says. “It means you can use the entire day to experiment not just the time when you’re in front of the camera. There was no rehearsal on this film at all. None. So that was my time to experiment.”
There’s only one scene in the film when Rayon wears men’s clothing. It’s one of the most poignant because she looks so hideously uncomfortable.
“It was a really intense scene to shoot, very special,” Leto says. “I had thought that it was going to be really difficult, number one because it was the first time I didn’t have heels and lipstick and a wig – all of the armour – but I was surprised because when I put the suit on I still walked across the room like her. I was glad that she didn’t leave me just because I didn’t have all of the physical trappings or accoutrements.”
Dallas Buyers Club has taken 20 years to make. It was back in August 1992, just a month before Woodruff finally succumbed to complications related to Aids, that screenwriter Craig Borten drove from Los Angeles to Dallas to meet him and start work on the story. The project was then kicked around for nearly two decades before it finally reached the screen. For Leto, the people involved, not least McConaughey, were part of what tempted him back to stepping in front of the camera.
“I just couldn’t say no,” says Leto. “This doesn’t happen very often, it’s a rare thing to find something like this.”
I launch into a paean about the perils of commercialisation in Hollywood and plainly it doesn’t exactly scintillate because halfway through it he abruptly interrupts me.
“Where are you from?”
Edinburgh I tell him.
“How far from Glasgow is that?”
Fifty-odd miles I say, but a whole lot further in terms of just how different the two cities are.
“Really?” he says, sounding vaguely disbelieving. I feel the need to reassure him that I love Glasgow (I do) by telling him that I lived in the city for 10 years.
“Really?” he says sounding even less interested. “The accent sounds a little different. Maybe I don’t know any better but Glasgow is really,” he pauses for the longest time, “unique. The accent of the people I talked to was very strong.”
I offer a sort of apology for mine being a bit watered down and then, self-conscious, I run out of things to say.
“Anyway,” he says, blinking his big blue eyes, “once in a lifetime. I haven’t made a movie in six years.” Not exactly subtle but at least we’re back on topic. So how, apart from the lure of being lead singer in a band with your older brother, Shannon, on drums, does he explain that six-year break?
“I was busy,” he says. “Making movies is a very time-consuming thing and it demands everything from you when you do it, at least the way I work. It’s not flexible – you have this huge chunk of time and you have to do that. I do a lot of different things in my life – direct, edit, write, make art, sing – I bounce around a lot and making movies steals time.
The other reason, though, was that 30 Seconds to Mars enjoyed more success than Leto had imagined possible. Critics have never exactly fallen over themselves to shower the band with praise, but the fans gathered loyally. They bought the albums and the gig tickets. That’s what gave Leto the chance to “tour and tour and tour”. The band are in the Guinness Book of Records for being on the world’s longest tour. It was two-and-a-half years, if you’re interested. Surely that’s like living a kind of parallel existence?
“It is. It can be lonely. It can be exhausting. I’ve had people come out on tour for a week, two weeks and they can’t take it any more.” He smiles. “I’ve been in 10 different countries in two weeks. Sometimes you’re in beautiful places for barely enough time to look out of the window of the car to see it. But it’s also really special – you get to know countries and cultures through the people you meet and the audiences. You go back again and again so you start to feel at home, you have your favourite restaurants and places to walk, your favourite people to see.”
It’s clear that it’s a life that Leto loves. And I’m starting to understand how sitting in a trailer on a movie set day after day, probably isn’t for him.
“It’s a circus,” he says of being on the road with his band. “There are 40 or 50 people on the road. You build a show every night, you take it down every day, pack up five trucks and a few tour buses and go to the next place. You try to get on stage and give people the night of a lifetime.
“Films are like that too. I want to make films and see films that change me. Films that show me a part of life I’ve never experienced before, that take me some place new and different and unexpected.”
The way Leto describes his life – a mix of creativity, spending his time editing, producing, making music – sounds simultaneously very LA 2014 and, in a strange way, reminiscent of Leto’s itinerant childhood spent living in or around a variety of hippie communes where people were artists by dint of their lifestyle.
“Yeah, I think that’s safe to say,” he says. “I grew up around a lot of artists in a very bohemian culture, a lot of hippies, creative people – potters, painters, sculptors, performance artists. The big difference is that it was very communal at that time and very few people made a living doing it. It’s different because I’m very fortunate in that people are listening to what I have to say as an artist. I don’t take that for granted.”
And now they’re listening and they’re watching, not least on 2 March when the Oscars are announced. If Leto wins the Best Supporting Actor gong I don’t imagine it’ll change very much for him, but it will be richly deserved recognition for Dallas Buyers Club.
“It’s hard to make these little movies,” Leto admits, “they break your heart. “Most of the time they don’t get made, then if they do get made they don’t get made right, then if they do get made right, they can’t find distribution, then if they do get distribution they can’t find an audience because you don’t have enough money to market them. So when they do get made, they do get distribution, they do find an audience it’s wonderful to celebrate it. I think we’re all happy that this film is getting such a great response.”
He’s glad he took the six years off. And no, he hasn’t read another script since Dallas Buyers Club found its way into his hands. “But the door is open,” he says, “so we’ll see.” And what if it takes another six years for the next film to turn up?
“It’s OK with me,” he says smiling, stretching himself out. “Six years,” he says thoughtfully, “that means I’ve got a few films left in me – maybe four? Maybe five?” I believe that would suit him just fine.
Dallas Buyers Club is in cinemas on 7 February.