If you were surprised at all by Jared Leto’s performance in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, then you both shouldn’t have been and are not alone. The film, which is set in the mid-1980s, tells the real-life story of Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), a hard-living, rodeo-riding, hetero- and hyper-sexual electrician who contracts HIV. After being abandoned by his friends and given a 30-day death sentence by his doctors, Woodruff embarks on a mission to procure drugs and other alternative treatments from Mexico for himself and a group of other patients. Among them, is Rayon, a waxed and plucked transsexual fellow AIDS patient played by Leto, who becomes Woodroof’s unlikely confidante and business partner. Leto’s work in the film—funny, sensitive, heartbreaking—has drawn not just praise, but gasps and whispers and all manner of suddenly awakening ticks and noises. The shock and awe has been amplified by the fact that Rayon is his first role in a film in nearly five years, an extended period of self-imposed sabbatical, precipitated by what Leto felt was his growing disenchantment with acting, Hollywood-style-which, if you’re Jared Leto, you’d have had good reason to find embittering.
Up until recently, Leto—who is, amazingly, now 42—was probably best known, to greater and lesser extents, for three things: playing Angela Chase’s grungily mopey and quasi-illiterate love interest/obsession Jordan Catalano on the short-lived but forever-beloved mid-’90s TV series My So-Called Life, a subject that he no longer likes to broach; his dark, shuttering performance in Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s addiction epic Requiem for a Dream (2000), which he will happily speak about freely; and fronting the spacey, emotive, Los Angeles rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars, in which he plays alongside his older brother Shannon.
Leto, though, should probably be known for three other things: his tenacity, his sticktoitiveness, and his grit. After My So-Called Life ended, he was already in his twenties, and understandably blanched at the idea of falling into a teen-hearthrob-y groove. Instead, he decided to patiently and diligently work to prove that he had more to offer—which he did, forgoing adolescent schlock in favor of starring inPrefontaine (1997), a biopic about Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine, and taking smaller parts in projects by filmmmakers like Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, 1998), James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted, 1999), David Fincher (Fight Club, 1999, and later, Panic Room, 2002), and Mary Harron (American Psycho, 2000), all of which led up toRequiem for a Dream. Around the same period, he also started Thirty Seconds to Mars at a moment when actors having bands was beginning to become a thing—and not necessarily one that was viewed charitably (if you want to get a sense of the environment back then, Google “Keanu” and “Dogstar”). It drew the wrong kind of focus—an actor with rock star dreams, in a field that was increasingly filling up with them (also Google “Crowe” and “Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts”). Leto, though, didn’t buckle—or even bend—under the cultural pressure. He just kept writing songs and playing shows and, almost surreptitiously, became a kind of rock star—to the extent that Thirty Seconds to Mars has now released four albums that have collectively sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, and the group plays to packed stadiums around the globe. And when other opportunities to do the kind of work that he wanted to do as an actor proved scarce (mostly, because they are in general), Leto made do with the best available options, working with Oliver Stone onAlexander (2004), gaining a substantial amount of weight to play Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27 (2007), and taking on the role of a 118-year-old man in Jaco Van Dormael’s sci-fi drama Mr. Nobody (2009), and then simply, quietly, quickly decided to walk away until the right thing came along—which turned out to take nearly half a decade, when the script forDallas Buyers Club floated into his orbit.