Suicide Squad’s Jared Leto Talks The Joker, Heath Ledger, and Where to Get a Rat for Margot Robbie
Jared Leto doesn’t have a squad. In fact, he’s spent his 22-year career confounding expectations and swan-diving off the pop-culture grid. Here, the Oscar-winner gives his most in-depth interview ever—and dons the best clothes from this fall’s Italian fashion collections at our photo shoot in Milan, Italy.
Jared Leto’s assistant looks like she’s wearing a Jared Leto’s Assistant costume. She’s razor-thin with stark bleached hair. An abused vintage T-shirt falling off her shoulders. Skintight black jeans and boots. She’s the coolest assistant in assistant history. And the chillest—considering she’s at work at the moment. “You want, like, a water or something?” I do. I do want a water. We’re at Jared’s home—and he’s asked that I not describe the home or its location or whether or not it has a penis-shaped trampoline in the backyard. (It doesn’t have a penis-shaped trampoline in the backyard.) “I’ll go get Jared, cool?” Cool.
Jared walks into the living room, clutching a bowl of oatmeal like it’s a newborn. The first thing you notice are his eyes. He has very round eyes. They’re almost cartoonish—picture SpongeBob spilling boiling water on his lap. In my mind, Jared Leto is one of the last true Hollywood mysteries. Monday he could be ass-naked in a Terry Richardson photo shoot. Tuesday in a tuxedo—looking spit-polished and glamorous—at a benefit for Haiti relief. Wednesday sending his Suicide Squadco-star Margot Robbie anal beads and a live rat. (Yeah, he really sent anal beads and a live rat.) None of those Letos would surprise me. We’ve grown to expect the surprise, and in fact a lot of the moviegoing, TMZ-reading public actually seems to have a blind spot to Jared Leto for this reason—too weird, too changeable, too hard to pin down. But Suicide Squad, his new movie, is changing that.
Today, the only thing that surprises me is that Jared shows up clean-cut, wearing New Balance sneakers. I later remember that I’ve seen him wearing the sneakers before, in a rock-climbing photo on his Instagram. Jared is really into rock climbing. As we get settled in for our long talk, I ask him why he climbs—other than for the very badass Instagram photos. “Sometimes I think the same thing,” he says. “Like, why? What’s the point?”
So…what is the point?
“You know, it’s like when you’re a kid and you see a tree, and you climb it. It’s really that simple. It’s kind of a base response,” he says. “You see a wall and you want to climb it. You want to test your limits. I never really climb to get to the top. Getting to the top is nice. But I think I climb more because I want to see what I’m capable of.” I ask him if he ever gets afraid when he’s stuck hundreds of feet above ground, looking for a hold. “Yeah. But fear is good. It’s what compels you. It’s what pushes you up the wall.”
In his career, Jared doesn’t show fear. That’s what’s so thrilling about his performances. The 44-year-old (and yes, I’m sure that the man you see on these pages was born in 1971) just climbed one of Hollywood’s most daunting mountains: In Suicide Squad, he followed the late Heath Ledger as the Joker.
There are plenty of elements to this that might stir up some fear, too. For starters, not living up to his hype. His previous role, in Dallas Buyers Club, as a transgender woman named Rayon who’s in a fight with AIDS, earned him an Academy Award. Then there are the ferocious online comic-book nerds who have hair triggers when it comes to calling bullshit on Hollywood interpretations of their beloved superheroes. (See: Ben Affleck’s Batman.) And, perhaps the most fearsome thing of all—considering that, like Ledger, Leto is a notoriously committed Method-style actor—the mental toll such a role can take. (More on this later.)
But the chameleon seems undaunted.
If you watch Jared on Ellen or on late-night shows—and basically any other time he isn’t acting or performing with his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars—he looks very chill. Not hipster chill, like his assistant. Way more controlled than that. He’s intensely pulled together and, dare I say,professional. Even with his wild personal-style choices, most of which project a boho rock ‘n’ roll frontman, Jared is still extraordinarily calculated in his demeanor.
Later, I’ll bring up one of the styles Jared once adopted. Around 2014, he sported a full beard and long hair. The Internet often said he looked like Jesus. “It’s a classic look,” Jared tells me. Which by most standards is a cheesy dad joke at best. But when Jared says it, he smirks. And the smirk seems to come from a completely different Jared. It makes me think that maybe when he was developing his Joker, he wasn’t taking cues from comic books or Jack Nicholson. Rather, he’s known what it’s like to be a mischievous showman all along. Maybe he’s got this character lurking inside him. Maybe that’s why he’s not afraid.
GQ STYLE: You’ve had major critical success as an actor but nothing as mass asSuicide Squad. Are you ready for attention like this?
JARED LETO: My career has had a nice slow burn. You know? I never woke up one day and all of a sudden my life changed. And I’m grateful for that, because I think it has allowed me the time and space to adjust accordingly, to find out where and how I’m comfortable doing things.
Is that by design?
A little bit has been fate. Some of it’s been design. Fame has never been a target for me.
Even when you were a kid, you didn’t want to be famous?
No. I never really thought about that. I never had pictures of people on my wall. I never had celebrity obsessions. Even the music I listen to. My favorite band was Pink Floyd. I don’t think I knew what they looked like when I was in my 20s. I knew what their artwork looked like, and I knew every lyric of every song on Dark Side of the Moon. But I didn’t really have that kind of exposure or “heroes” in that way. That’s the nice thing about the work that I’ve done: It’s all been fairly character-oriented. Less based on having some charismatic, winning personality. I’d probably lose that race if that’s the one I was in. And that’s been fun. I’m really grateful that I got the call to do something like the Joker.
I remember after the success of Heath Ledger’s Joker thinking no one would want to take on that role again. It seemed impossible to follow a beloved deceased person’s perfect performance of such a cult character. Why’d you say yes?
I don’t remember much hesitation. I’m sure that I considered everything when I got the call. But let me say a few things. Number one, Heath Ledger: Not only was he perfect as the Joker—perfect. There’s not a single frame where he’s not great. Not only was he perfect in that role, but it’s probably one of the best performances, not just of a villain but maybe one of the best performances on film, period. Period. That’s my opinion. And that was my opinion before I got the call. It was a perfect performance, and those are very rare. Then you have Jack Nicholson, one of the world’s legends. So you have two legends. Then you have Cesar Romero, and then you have Mark Hamill, who does this incredible voice acting. Then you have 75 years that the Joker has been written about and brought to life by artists. But in a way, the fact that it has been interpreted so many times I think gave me a great sense of freedom and permission to walk down a different path. On the one hand, I had an enormous amount of respect for what’s been done before, like real admiration and respect for the work that had been done before. On the other, this excitement about the opportunity to go and say something else, something new, something different.
Gossip at the time suggested that Heath Ledger’s transformation into the Joker on-screen might have contributed to his death. As such an extreme Method kind of actor, you weren’t at all afraid of that?
There was a point where I was researching violence and was watching a lot of things that…things that it’s arguable if anybody should even see. And I noticed that started to have an impact on me that I didn’t like, so I stopped. It starts to just get inside of you, violence and some of those things. But you know, I’ve made some pretty dark films.
But did Heath’s death make you think twice about diving headfirst into the role like that?
I think that you have to dive in. I think it’s that sort of thing. It’s a challenging piece of work. But we had a lot of fun with it, too. I mean, the Joker is not that bad a guy, as I would always say. [Here, Leto fully turns into the Joker for a second.] I’m really not that baaad a guy. I would always say that. The Joker is great because he’s always making himself laugh, so I can just make a joke where people are like, What? And I’m laughing on the inside. He finds things funny that other people will never. Like death. And one of the things I really loved about the Joker is that he’s an entertainer. He loves to push buttons. He loves to create energy. Any kind of energy. When I was on set, I think everybody in the crew was really happy to see the Joker again when he came back out. Because he’s a lot of fun to be around and to watch. You never know what he’s going to do next. He’s so spontaneous, and has no rules, that it was nice to entertain the troops, so to speak.
I’m interested in the logistics of the gifts. We get it—you sent Margot Robbie a rat. But how’d you get the rat? Did you catch it? Buy it?
Well, in New York, you’re never farther than three feet from a rat. There are rats everywhere, man. You want a rat, I can get you a rat. There are harder things to get!
Will Smith recently said that he’s never actually met Jared Leto, just the Joker. Do you think that your music is a better way to get to know Jared?
I think that’s probably true. If you’ve seen me at a concert, you probably would get to know me a lot. I think all of us in the band share a lot of who we are at the shows. You know, when I’m acting, I’m provided a list of given circumstances and a character, and the way that I work has generally been around building a character. I’ve always liked actors like Peter Sellers, Daniel Day-Lewis, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn—actors who do get lost in their roles and build really powerful or arresting characters.
If you had to choose between music and acting, which would you pick?
I would choose music, for sure.
Which do you think you’re better at?
I think I’m better onstage than almost anything I’ve ever done in my life. That’s where I excel the most. We’ve toured and played so many shows. Years and years and years of touring. I think that’s probably where I thrive the most.
Do you talk to Shannon [Jared’s brother and bandmate] every day?
We talk a lot. Pretty much every day because we’re in the studio right now, so we see each other.
You guys were both born in Bossier City, Louisiana. I’ve been to Bossier City. You couldn’t seem less like someone from Bossier City.
We moved fairly early on, but we used to visit my grandparents in the summer in Louisiana, when we were kids. But we did move quite a bit. We had a bit of a vagabond upbringing. But there’s definitely a connection to Louisiana. There’s still something there.
What is it?
I don’t know.… A feeling? Like, if I went back to Louisiana tomorrow, there’s a feeling there. There’s some kind of connection.
The Deep South seems like it might be a hard place for you—as creative and open and strange as you are—to connect with.
Yeah, we severed a lot of ties when we were fairly young. Maybe severed is a harsh word. I think it was even more challenging for my mom—a single mom with two kids—to feel like she had opportunities or feel optimistic about the future. I joke sometimes that you don’t leave Bossier City, you escape it.
Do you believe in God?
I don’t believe in a God who sits in conscious judgment of the actions of humanity.
So what do you believe in?
I don’t want to be dismissive, because my real belief is that if that’s what you believe and where you find comfort, then that’s great. That’s actually my belief: People should believe whatever they want to believe. But for me, you know, I don’t think there’s a bearded dude up there that’s like, Oh, you did this and this. I’m not even sure this is all real. This could be a simulation, you know? If you look at VR these days and then compare it to the first manned controlled flight by the Wright brothers in 1903 or 1904, whatever it is, and how far we’ve come in just that short amount of time, who knows what VR is gonna be 100 years from now. I think that we’ll be able to generate and send what we perceive as a dream. You’ll be able to live inside a dream if you want to do that.
What does your mother believe?
I think probably similar. But you’d have to ask her.
I know you guys were more bohemian, but there must have been a lot of religion in Bossier City.
Yeah, I had cousins and aunts and uncles that were into Assembly of God and evangelical churches like that. I remember I went a few times and saw the preacher with the gold chains and rings and glasses on. It was incredible. People speaking in tongues.
Were you close with your father before he passed?
No, it’s really just always been my brother, my mother, and I. And as a kid, I never really knew any different. But when I look back on it, I can now see a single mother struggling and working hard and not having, you know, a lot of luxury around. There was a lot of homemade-gift giving around Christmas times and birthdays and stuff. But again, it was normal. It was the norm.
I’m assuming that when young Jared pictured his future, he saw something similar to the traveling bohemian actor-musician you’ve become and not a casino worker or whatever in Bossier City.
Yeah, for sure.
How did you get your mother to see that?
I think my mother was the same way. She saw that, too. That’s one of the reasons she left. My brother was the same way. We were always very creative kids. And my mother and her circle of friends were artists, sculptors, and performance artists. There was a lot of creativity around, and that was a big driver for us. And I think that’s the interesting thing about a creative life: It usually puts you on a road slightly less traveled.
Were you picked on?
I was always a bit of a dark horse, a black sheep. Both my brother and I. And we were always the new kids in town, too. But I never put up with being bullied. I would fight back. Even if I lost, I would fight back. I had that thing—I’ve always had that. Maybe it’s authority issues or something, I don’t know, but I always had that thing, like, I don’t care who it is or who it was. I won’t let somebody do that to me. I would fight back.
When did you have your first girlfriend?
I can’t remember.
Really? Everyone remembers their first girlfriend, man.
First girlfriend… I don’t know. Yeah… [that devious smirk makes another appearance] I’ve never really been traditional. But I don’t think I had a real girlfriend until much later. I was in my 20s.
Were you a Casanova then?
No. I was fairly introverted during certain periods. And I certainly wasn’t a popular kid. I never remember being the center of anyone’s attention. I was more lost in my own imagination. I spent a lot of time alone. I didn’t have a big social circle.
Is that different now? Do you have a lot of friends?
I know a lot of people, but I think it’s still the same, probably. There are a lot of people in my life that I like, but I don’t have a huge posse.
When you hear rumors about yourself, does it get to you?
I’ve had rumors bother me. Especially if they’re hurtful or spiteful and not true. And then sometimes it doesn’t at all—you just laugh it off. Something can also not annoy you or be hurtful but be wrong. There’s going to be people who love you, people who hate you. It doesn’t matter if you’re Barack Obama or the Pope. If you’re Kanye or Taylor Swift. There’s gonna be people that love you and people that don’t. And thinking that you can please the world or convince everyone otherwise is a fool’s errand.
Give me the Jared Leto quick review of those four people: the Pope, Obama, Kanye, and Taylor.
The Pope! Papa, as they call him in Rome. He seems like a move in the right direction. I don’t know too much about him, but he seems like a move in the right direction.
I’m a supporter. A believer. I think that he was handed one of the worst jobs in the country.
Almost a tougher job than the Joker.
Yeah, just slightly. He was handed one of the worst jobs in the world at that time and inherited a huge mess. I was at the Correspondents’ Dinner, and he’s certainly the funniest president we’ll ever get. He’s done some incredible things, and I think he’ll be remembered as one of the best.
He’s a friend and has always been. Kanye has always been the nicest person to me, kind and generous. I think he’s a talent, and I really appreciate his ability to speak his mind. I’m very different. I’m very careful and cautious because I don’t want to deal with the other things that come along with speaking out like that. But I do appreciate that in other people.
Do you have a lot of controversial thoughts?
I think we all do. I just played the Joker. I think a lot of very strange things.
Last on the list, Taylor Swift.
She’s great. She triggers a conversation with myself about what’s possible. And you know, the thing I like about Taylor is she’s a self-made woman. I see that in my mother. There were probably points in Taylor’s career where someone else maybe would have been knocked off balance by criticism or other challenges, and she just kept marching forward.
Chris Pratt or any other leading man like that—hunky, heartthrob, etc.—probably wouldn’t take some of the photos you’ve taken. Like the nude ones Terry took of you and whatnot. How do you define masculinity?
We’re in an interesting time right now where people are exploring all kinds of different ideas of identity, not just masculinity or femininity. Maybe a whole new paradigm. I think that’s great. Because a lot of people probably are marginalized still, and finding a sense of identity is critical to empowering people. For myself, I have never had a specific idea of masculinity. I think it’s okay just to be yourself and whatever that entails. You know, I’ve certainly never felt required to present myself in a certain way.
Really? Not even in Hollywood?
No. But I hear it, though.
So people in the industry have tried to push you in certain directions, but you’ve never felt the burden to comply?
Yeah. I’ve never felt that burden, but I’ve heard that conversation. They call it a “leading man.” Some of my favorite actors, you could put into a bucket of being a “masculine leading man.” And I think there’s room for everything. And a lot of times you’re just hearing echoes of other people’s insecurities—of how they think things should be.
Do you consider yourself a leading man?
Uh, I think that’s probably for other people to decide. For me, the term “leading man” is just a colloquialism for someone who’s starring in a movie. A guy who carries the film. Tom Hanks or Harrison Ford or Denzel Washington, leading man. You know? Matt Damon, leading man. McConaughey, leading man. But also Johnny Depp, leading man. But is he what Hollywood calls a “leading man”? I don’t know. He’s great. Whatever he is, I like him.
Do you think America would accept a gay leading man?
A gay leading man?
I think so.
Do you think so, or do you hope so?
Uh, I hope so.
What do you think?
I definitely don’t think a gay leading man would have the same opportunities as a straight leading man. I don’t think that. Not for a single second. I don’t know if that’s offensive or not, but that’s my thought right now. It shouldn’t be that way. I don’t think you’ll have as many opportunities. And I think you could say the same for minorities. What a word, “minority.” Have we taken that word off the list yet? ‘Cause it should be. Anyway, no, I think that this is still a very conservative business.
Are you guys doing a Suicide Squad 2?
I don’t know. I think it depends. I think there’s a lot more for the Joker to say.
Jared Leto’s Joker.
Yeah. This is the new Joker era. I think this story is just the beginning. Suicide Squad is really just a reintroduction. I hope it’s the first of more to come. ‘Cause it was the role of a lifetime.