“This is where my place is on the world.”
And he can’t get inside of it. Jared Leto is juggling the contents of his pockets along with a conversation about the universe, lingering in a London hotel hallway, denied entry to his place in the world—albeit a temporary one, for a handful of evenings, until an airplane pulls him back up off the grid and the phone in his pocket is as hidden from the satellites as much as the lint.
“Fuck. Do you have the key?”
Leto has endured multiple 15-hour days, ambling the gloom of British pavements, temporarily red-carpeted for the premiere of Dallas Buyers Club (a film for which he has rightfully been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and likely will have won it by the time you read this). His ability to not blink when a flashbulb shrinks his retinas to pinpoints, is not entirely an instinct, but likely mastered on stages throughout the globe, fronting his wildly popular rock outfit Thirty Seconds to Mars. Here is a man drenched more often than not in luminous floodlight. The lower-lumen sidewalk bulbs for film events are dim to him. One can imagine more evolved future ancestors of Leto’s marveling at how this creature managed to never blink in the face of a bright bulb, or the sun. Or, a challenge, for that matter.
Put another way: the muscles in his eyelids are barely used. Leto always appears aware. His eyes like cavernous wells of clear cerulean through which he can perceive his path; pre-destined and carved onto the parchment of an ancient scroll, the ink dripping down the quill barrel of a coal-black raven’s wing, staining the page like the tattoos that crawl up both Leto’s arms, ending at his neck. He has a map only he can see.
Certainly, this is a bit much. But we stand in the company of an individual entirely inhabiting his moment, and all evidence points to his luxuriating in it. This is a thankful and aware kind of pleasure, though, as a note of gratitude colors his every comment. It is interesting to listen to the soft-spoken Leto casually discuss being awarded over 30 prizes (so far) for his role as Rayon, the transgender AIDS patient who forms a business relationship (and unlikely friendship) with the homophobic and rodeo-rough Ron Woodroof (played by the also-nominated Matthew McConaughey). Leto did not cower recently, in Santa Barbara, when a film-festival attendee spoke out of turn, loudly from the throng, accusing him of “trans-misogyny.” (Leto responded with his own question: “Because I am a man, I don’t deserve to play that part? So you would hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian—they can’t play a straight part?”) Again, Leto does not blink, inviting the heckler backstage to continue their conversation in private.
So, among the things that have converged upon this place in the world—where Leto now stands, on the wrong side of a locked door in London—also include his recent music video for “Up in the Air” surpassing 17 million views (and counting), his entirely self-made documentary about battling the music industry (Artifact) climbing into the top ten most-watched documentary list on iTunes, and learning there are as many as 30 accolades to collect for a single supporting role, with more to come.
Something is clearly happening. Getting inside of this room is not it.
“The way that we think about our position in the world, in relationship to the planet, has changed because of the way we travel from place to place,” Leto says, plunging his thin hands into the pockets of his fur-lined, hooded parka. “We now look down on the planet rather than looking across. I met with the creator of Google Earth and he asked me, ‘What have you learned from using Google Earth?’ And, you know, I gave him some bullshit answer. But, actually, the thing that I learned is that we all see the planet differently now. We look down on ourselves. We used to look across the horizon. Now, we look down. We all have a map in our mind of where we may be and the ability to access that.”
And everyone else knows where he is, precisely, thanks to the phone in his hand. Jared Leto, like the rest of us, is but a pixel on a circuit board created by wealthy pale people in Silicon Valley.
“Exactly!” he exclaims, wide eyes widening more. “Your perspective changes because of location-based applications. Your perspective has now become, ‘This is where my place is on the world.’ Which is interesting. It’s from the top looking down. Which is kind of strange and interesting, that our perspective is from above. From space.”
These are odd thoughts coming from a star. A star is a dying thing. When someone is deemed a rising star, they are in fact dying at a faster rate than the ones merely flickering shyly in the deepest black. Where does that leave Leto?
He appears to be both rising and hovering, a kind of firefly that won’t be shooed. His mettle proven by just about every film he makes, primarily because of the great sacrifice—the risk—involved in every cherry-picked role. He knows when a film works or does not. Dallas Buyers Club works. The magical things aligned, fell into place, created a celestial pattern—if you will follow this thought through with us—a solar system, organized, with orbits, nothing colliding but a great story and its two lead actors at the peak of their all-or-nothing, take-me-as-I-am-or-not-at-all mid-career leaps into the wincing face of expectation. Leto once gained over 60 pounds and made a film we all forgot to go see (Chapter 27). He, as much as anyone else, is fine with that aspect of chance too: a risk without dividend.
“I’ve made a lot of films that have fallen short,” he admits. “Films where we had the right intentions. Independent art house films that we all had high hopes for, but fell short. Gaining sixty-seven pounds for Chapter 27. Yeah, I think I’m willing to risk everything. I don’t say that with any conceits. I say that as a fact. I don’t see there being reward in another way. At least any worthy one. So when they connect with people and the films resonate, or the performance resonates—it’s a really wonderful thing to celebrate that.”
You can see the risk in Artifact. In it, Leto betrays a particular brand of frustration that never crosses over into tantrum. He absorbs information, lays it all out, and determines exactly how he can manage to continue pursuing the things he desires most in his heart. He expects nothing, but appears willing to lose everything. Artifact is a film he edited himself, so without seeing what bits were cut to create this impression, a leap of faith might be necessary. But it’s a simple story that anyone could learn from, and aptly named, because it will likely be studied in the future by anyone left in the music business who cares to know what went wrong in this overlap between the old way and the new.
The film tells the story of how Thirty Seconds to Mars went to battle with EMI over an unfair contract and how the “tiny” band beat the giant corporation. (Sort of. They end up re-signing a contract with the very beast they sought to topple, albeit on somewhat better terms.) The film has the potential for catharsis, but falls short. The beast has been merely wounded. It can still crawl. And, it is still hungry. Which is why it’s worrisome that Leto has chosen the likes of Daniel Ek (aka, the Thom Yorke-battered CEO of the streaming music service Spotify) to appear in his film to discuss possibilities of future fairness.
“Daniel Ek’s participation is really to talk about some of the possibilities in the future and some of the opportunities that are out there,” he says. “I think it’s all one great debate to have. Everyone has a voice. And artists should have more of an opinion and a voice and participate in the digital architecture of tomorrow. So I think it’s great that Thom [Yorke] is speaking up and speaking his mind. I’m all for that debate. I think the biggest issue is probably that Spotify is paying labels and then the labels are not paying artists. It’s back to that same old issue of corruption. Treating artists unfairly. The funny thing is, there’s enough to go around. They could make fair, transparent deals. They could treat artists like partners. And they’d still make plenty of money. But, for some reason, they don’t. Maybe they will. Not everyone is bad.”
David Bowie has been able to do both, with varying levels of success. Prince can only play himself. Bruce Willis is a terrible harmonica player and Mick Jagger was only good in the 1970 film Performance (as himself). In this regard, you might have to look no further than Dallas Buyers Club to debunk the actor-musician curse. If not for Leto, then for his lover Sunny, portrayed by Deerhunter and Atlas Sound frontman Bradford Cox. The leap from rock stardom to screen stardom would appear, on the surface, to be effortless. They both demand a kind of theatricality, with each profession building up songs and stories as real places to inhabit. (Watch that Thirty Seconds to Mars video for “Up in the Air,” where the crossover is blissfully explicit.) Of course, there is also rock’s long legacy of androgyny for Leto to lean on too.
In the case of Rayon—as played by Leto—she memorably chides Woodroof for not recognizing a photograph of Marc Bolan of T. Rex. If you imagine that Leto might be reluctant to explore this particular area where the seams of his self-tailored suit (of music and film) are most tightly hemmed, you’ve forgotten (again) that Leto does not blink. He addresses the idea head on.
“The Marc Bolan element and the glam rock element of the film was the director’s contribution. I actually opposed that,” Leto says, matter-of-factly, absent any malice or ill will. “There was more of that in the film originally. And I think that for the director [Jean-Marc Vallée], that was his throughway. That was his kind of guidepost into the world that Rayon lives. It was a way for him to understand her. I think it probably made a really interesting aspect of the film, to have that connection and to have Rayon have one of his heroes be Marc Bolan. That’s great. Marc Bolan was an awesome person. But, for me, I made it very clear early on that I saw Rayon as a man who wanted to live his life as a woman, not someone who enjoyed putting on women’s clothing. If they wanted that kind of performance—or anything glam, or anything drag queen-y—I wasn’t the person for the part.”
When Leto speaks of Rayon, you hear the sound of someone recalling time spent with a loved one. Rayon is a person. She is a friend. Herein is what might make him the actor that he is. That Leto can long for a person who exists but cannot be pinpointed, never tied to a coordinate, but living on inside of him, as strong as the memory of a mate whose address has long ago been misplaced, back when people saved envelopes and tucked them in between the pages of overstuffed address books. What an old, cluttered, faraway analog world that seems to us now. A wonderful place, in other words.
“She’s an incredible, empathetic, beautiful dreamer,” Leto says of Rayon. “A heart the size of an ocean. She’s an absolutely one-of-a-kind creature. So, a lot of love and support for her as well. I feel like she became a person, a real person. Especially because I was so deep inside of her. I really feel like I got to know this person. It became like a living, breathing life. It was a once-in-a-lifetime role.”
Door unlocked, Jared Leto is reclining inside his hotel room above the streets of London. It is dark. He has fielded questions from strangers and answered each one, from the banal to the belligerent, with nary a blink. Eyes wide, errant locks of long hair occasionally pushed behind an ear to get a better look, angling beneath the floodlights to get a good glimpse of his interlocutor. The fact is: Jared Leto doesn’t do what you are supposed to do and he gets away with it. Makes films when he wants to. Records when the time is right. It might be luck, it might be talent, it could be hard work, or it could just be fueled by the naïve optimism that comes from a once-broke Louisiana kid who was told early on that being creative might not make you any less broke, but it might make being broke a little less shitty. It’s why his eyes are wide and blinking them is a waste of precious time. There’s too much to take in, too much to see. Fuck Google Earth. Technology is a weed. It blocks pathways.
“This is a crazy time in my life, but it’s a focused time,” he says. “It’s not like it’s out of control. You only get to do this once and in this case once may be the only time you get to do it. It’s a funny way to say it, but it’s kind of true. I’m acutely aware of that and very respectful of the path I’m walking down. I’m glad that this happened to me now and not when I first started. It’s a really good thing.”
Jared Leto, long of hair and full of beard, is sitting in the lobby of The Bowery Hotel in Lower Manhattan in a chair so ornate it could be more accurately described as a throne. Tapestried cushions rest atop elaborately carved mahogany that pirouettes every which way, culminating in two lions’ heads, one on the end of each of the arms upon which his delicate hands currently rest. He surveys the dimly lit room: low-slung, velvet-covered sofas in rich burgundies and emeralds, assorted oriental rugs, low wood-beamed ceiling, leather-paneled walls, logs crackling in a massive stone fireplace, and, right in front of him, Deepak Chopra.
“You see that?” the 42-year old says in a hushed whisper. “Deepak Chopra!” His excitement at the presence of the holistic guru is as visible on his face as it is audible in his voice. “Hold on, this is hilarious. I gotta tell my buddy.” He fires off a quick text. In this hotel—a place where celebrities seem to love to be interviewed almost as much as they love to sleep—Leto seems to be the only one focused on Chopra; everybody else is more interested in him.
It’s just a week before he’ll win a Golden Globe for his astonishing performance as an AIDS-infected transsexual with a drug problem in Dallas Buyers Club. And although the subtle nudges and stolen looks and—in one particularly bold case—a request to sit on the couch next to him, are nothing new, this kind of attention is new, even for Leto. That is saying a lot for the man who, as the lead singer of arena rock titans Thirty Seconds to Mars, has sold 10 million records, holds the world record for longest-ever consecutive tour, recently played to 150,000 people in Brazil, and who, as an entire generation will apparently never be able to forget, was Jordan Catalano in the cult TV hit My So-Called Life. Leto is so hot, in fact, that Liza Minnelli even wants a piece.
“There was a luncheon today for the film, and Liza Minnelli hosted it. You know what she said to me?” Leto says, uncrossing his legs and planting his feet, clad in tight-fitting climbing shoes, squarely on the floor. “She said, ‘I haven’t felt this way since I saw On the Waterfront.’ And she stood up in front of everybody and said, ‘Jared, when I was watching your performance, I felt the way that I do when a friend is going through the hardest time of their life. I felt like I knew you and that I cared for you in the way I would a dear friend.’” His pride here isn’t tempered with arrogance. He says, “If I can support this film, then I’m happy to do it. Perspective and gratitude have a lot to do with it: I don’t make that many films. I don’t know when I’ll next make a film or when I’ll next be a part of this process. People have been rather lovely, supportive, and kind.”
Some of those people, like, say, the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have also recognized Leto’s
accomplishment in the film in a more tangible way: As well as the Golden Globe, accolades he has racked up so far include a SAG win and an Oscar nomination. If he keeps up like this, Leto, who lives alone in Los Angeles (“One of my favorite things to do is go for a hike in California… I could get homesick for that”), is going to need a bigger mantelpiece.
“I think there are a number of reasons [Dallas Buyers Club is doing so well],” Leto says, after sending back his undercooked salmon. (“I want it like jerky, like cardboard, please,” he says.) “One is the story. Healthcare is an important issue. At the core there’s a classic fable there: A small group of people are willing to fight for their lives and refuse to say no. We all want to be the kind of person who says, ‘No. I’m going to find a way. I’m going to fight for my survival.’ The other reason is Matthew McConaughey. People love to watch him, he’s a huge movie star, and he’s doing really interesting work. And I thought if it was good enough for him to do it, then it was a good enough project for me to be involved with, because I know that he’s been making really smart choices.”
McConaughey and Leto deliver extraordinary performances in Dallas Buyers Club, which begins in 1985 and is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, a heavy-drinking, bull-riding Texan who gets diagnosed with AIDS and starts to experiment with new treatments not yet available in the United States. Woodroof starts smuggling in drugs and sets up a club so others can have access to the unapproved substances. While in the hospital, Woodruff (McConaughey) meets Rayon (Leto), a transsexual who becomes his business partner and gets progressively sicker, largely on account of her continued drug use. But the impact of this conflicted redneck would be diffused, if not lost, if it weren’t for Rayon, who acts as the mirror in which Woodroof sees the error of his ways and his terrible, inevitable future. In Leto’s hands Rayon is never ridiculous, and even though she provides some comedic moments, it’s a sympathetic, insightful humor delivered pitch-perfectly.
“Rayon could have been played campier, more of what we think of as a ‘drag queen,’” Leto says. “Someone who’s very over the top, external, basically playing dress up. But I had met some transgender kids while on tour, and I learned about them—being a filmmaker, interviewing them. That was the beginning of Rayon for me,” he explains. “I remember sending an e-mail making it very clear that I saw Rayon as someone who wanted to live life as a woman, not someone who was a glam-rocking drag queen. I had no interest in playing that part, and if that would have been the case, I would have said, ‘No, thank you.’”
As it turns out, Leto says “No, thank you” quite a lot. Dallas Buyers Club is his first major film to be released since 2007’s Chapter 27, for which he gained 60 pounds to play Mark David Chapman, the convicted murderer of John Lennon. This time around, Leto lost 30 pounds (McConaughey dropped 50), consuming just 300 to 400 calories a day, and Rayon’s sinewy, emaciated body lends her character a tragedy that is evident in every shot of her hollowed eyes or concave stomach. “Losing weight like that changes the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you think, the way you breathe, the way you feel, the way people treat you,” says Leto, who has gotten back to a healthy weight now and is currently training to hike the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail (when he will find the time to do this is anyone’s guess). “So that makes it a great asset. You set a bar for yourself where you say, ‘Okay, I’ve done this, so I’ve got to make sure I do all the other things well.’”
As for the gap between films, it wasn’t for lack of offers, but as the scripts piled up, Leto was busying himself with fighting a lawsuit (EMI famously and unsuccessfully sued his band for $30 million), making records, directing videos (he makes all of Thirty Seconds to Mars’s films under the pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins), exploring technology with various ventures, including VyRT, Adventures in Wonderland, and The Hive, and, night after night, playing the biggest stadiums in the world.
“As a band, we had more success than we could have dreamed of, but on top of that, I was making things, making art, exploring entrepreneurial interests in technology; my life was full. The most important part of it all is that the time away made me a better artist. It gave me a fuller life to share. I feel like I’ve started again,” Leto says, pushing his hair back and removing the skin from his newly delivered and extremely well-done salmon. “I’ve never been in a hurry. I’ve always wanted to make the most interesting and challenging work and to be proud of it and to contribute to something special and meaningful. I’ve seen the world many times over. You live a life. But it’s a long race, so you learn to maybe run smarter.”
Such emphatic statements might seem slightly overwrought coming from a man who hasn’t achieved the kind of global, cross-platform success Leto has or who—let’s face it—looks a little less like Jesus. But there is a genuine sageness about Leto, who seems to have changed both emotionally and physically since I last interviewed him five years ago. It is hard to imagine a man with that spiky, Emo haircut accepting an Oscar; yet now, with a ponytail, it seems, somehow, entirely feasible. His demeanor is so calming that I suspect the guy across the room interviewing Deepak Chopra is having a far less philosophical time.
“I learned a long time ago that, as a visual artist, the process informs the process in the same way that you can run on a treadmill and it’s never going to prepare you for a triathalon or a marathon,” Leto says. “You’ve got to get out to the street. You’ve got to learn about obstacles. You’ve got to make mistakes, because in doing that, wonderful things happen. You can sit around and plot and plan about Rayon or Thirty Seconds to Mars, but it’s not until you do it and fall flat on your face that you learn. Sometimes you don’t make mistakes. Sometimes you make an accident that’s beautiful, wonderful. There’s a moment in the film where I say, ‘I don’t want to die,’ and it’s improvised. I just said what was in my heart and in my mind. But that’s something you only get by doing, and I do believe that in the doing, we discover what things are.”
And with that, it’s time to leave, to go and do something else. Leto gets up, looks across the room at Chopra and asks, conspiratorially, if we should say hi. Before I can answer, he shakes his head, thinking better of it, and then says goodbye. He smiles, saying, “But it’s not really goodbye, of course.”
Web Extra: Jared Leto Talks Taking a Break from Acting; Love for LA
Spring cover star/Oscar hopeful Jared Leto recently shared on what it was like to play a transsexual drug addict diagnosed with AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club, the success of his band Thirty Second to Mars, and more. In below’s exclusive online excerpts, Leto talks taking a break from the spotlight, making a megahit under time and budget constraints, and his love for Los Angeles.
On being selective about scripts and taking a break from acting:
JARED LETO: I think Daniel Day Lewis always had it down pretty good. He seems to work when he’s passionate enough about something. Of course it’s not always an easy thing to do because the common thought is that you work and build momentum and that work gets work is what they say. But I’ve never been in a hurry to make the most films. […] I’ve always wanted to make the most interesting and most challenging [films], and to be proud of my work and to contribute to something meaningful and special, to work with an interesting group of people. That was always the intention every time now, and it’s still the way that I feel about it.
On making Dallas Buyers Club in a short amount of time and on a tight budget:
JL: It’s nice to know what can be done in that short amount of time, what can be done with that amount of money, what can be done without any lights, what can be done with a good story, a great script, and a group of people that are willing to work really hard. I think that’s a wonderful lesson—to take a film that took 15, 20 years to finally get made and then this happens. That’s what’s great about this business and this art form and telling stories like this. It’s really special.
On Los Angeles:
JL: What’s interesting about LA is in that urban sprawl, you can find nature and you can know and love that place underneath the blanket of concrete and steel.
On making the “City of Angels” video for Thirty Seconds to Mars:
JL: I think that’s one of the most amazing film experiences I’ve ever had as a filmmaker and a director—making “City of Angels.“ People shared things with me that they’ve never shared with anyone, people who did interviews all the time. We painted a portrait of the city, both celebrities and people who live on the street. I think that was really unique and I’m really proud of it.