Jared Leto on His Return to Acting: ‘I Needed to Go Away in Order to Have Something to Say Again’

Jared Leto Variety
kurt Iswarienko

'Dallas Buyer's Club' Golden Globe win comes after 6-year break

Jared Leto has a coffin in the living room of his Los Angeles home. Perhaps even stranger, he’s not sure exactly where it came from. “I think it’s from ‘Mr. Nobody,’ ” he says, referring to the recently released film he shot back in 2007. “But I can’t really remember.”

The “coffin table” is stacked with hundreds of books, from classics like Homer’s “The Odyssey” to works by Stephen King.

Leto’s eclectic taste in titles, along with his wide collection of unique art from all over the world — including a sculpture inspired by the Moloko Bar in “A Clockwork Orange” — reflects a man and artist who is not easy to pigeonhole.

His co-star in “Dallas Buyer’s Club” instantly discovered that about Leto when they first came face to face: “I met a performance artist,” Matthew McConaughey says. “He is not someone bound by one certain craft — acting, singing, dance. He is a performer, whether it’s a reality, a slight of hand, a spirit, or a rock ’n’ roll show. He is thoughtful, committed, understands the context, shows up to do it, not discuss it. He performs.”

In 2013, Leto showed up in a big way, after a six-year absence from movie screens. During that time, the 42-year-old hyphenate was busy focusing on his flourishing music career as the frontman for the popular band 30 Seconds to Mars.

Since the premiere of “Dallas Buyers Club” at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, buzz has been building for his performance as Rayon, a transgender woman dying of AIDS. Leto dropped down to 114 pounds for the role, but the performance is more than a physical transformation.

Feminine, flirty and fierce, Rayon is a gentle soul who nonetheless isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with her homophobic business partner, Ron Woodruoof (McConaughey). Leto is so convincing as a woman trapped in a man’s body that in one scene, when Rayon dresses as a man to speak to her father, the image of Leto in a business suit is both uncomfortable and jarring.

The role won Leto the Golden Globe for supporting actor; prior to that, he had racked up a handful of critics’ awards in addition to a SAG nomination.

Yet, one week before the Globes ceremony, Leto wasn’t willing to even contemplate his chances of winning.

“I’m the dark horse, man. They don’t invite me to these things unless they have to!” He laughs, but he’s not entirely joking. “I always feel that way. I always feel like the outsider. Even now.”

Even after his Globe win, Leto remains self-effacing. “Well, obviously I didn’t prepare a speech,” he says backstage.

When Oscar noms are announced Jan. 16, many consider Leto a lock to win the prize. But what’s most important to him is that his movie is reaching an audience. “I’ve made a lot of small films, and they don’t always work,” he admits. “But when they do, it’s wonderful to celebrate it.”

After more than 20 years in the business, Leto knows about having films not quite work. The Louisiana native and his brother Shannon (a bandmate in 30 Seconds to Mars) were raised by his mother, Constance, an artist. From a young age, Leto had aspirations to be a filmmaker, but he left the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1992 to move to L.A. “My flawed thinking was, ‘I bet I can get a job as a director if I get a job as an actor first!’ ” he recalls with a laugh.

For many, Leto will always be known as bad boy Jordan Catalano from the 1994 TV series “My So-Called Life,” which launched his career as an actor. Stardom followed, including high-profile romances with actresses Scarlett Johansson and Cameron Diaz. Onscreen, there were memorable turns in “American Psycho,” “Requiem for a Dream” and collaborations with David Fincher (“Fight Club,” “Panic Room”) and Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line”). But there were also missteps, such as Oliver Stone’s bloated “Alexander” epic, or small pictures that didn’t find an audience, such as “Chapter 27,” for which he gained more than 60 pounds (which gave him gout) to play John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman.

“I have largely made independent films, small films, and these movies can break your heart,” Leto admits. “You’re not just putting your work into them, you’re pouring your heart and soul. And when they don’t meet expectations, it can break your heart and your spirit.”

That heartbreak was part of the reason Leto hadn’t made a film since “Mr. Nobody,” a beautiful but offbeat sci-fi film in which Leto plays a man who ages from 9 to 118. He was also engrossed in handling lead vocals, guitar, bass and keyboards for 30 Seconds to Mars.

Not just an actor’s vanity band, 30 Seconds to Mars has achieved worldwide acclaim critically and commercially, “much to my surprise and the surprise of many others,” he notes. With hit singles such as “Kings and Queens” and “This Is War,” the band has sold more than 10 million albums. “I was touring and making albums and directing musicvideos and commercials,” Leto says. “We never thought any of this would happen the way it has. It’s something you don’t even dare dream about, because the conceit of that dream wouldn’t even feel right.”

There was also time spent battling a $30 million lawsuit that the band’s record company, Virgin/EMI, served when 30 Seconds tried to switch labels. But Leto channeled the experience into the documentary “Artifact,” which he appears in and directed under the pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins, a Dr. Seuss character. (Another reason Leto’s been so busy: “When you have two or three alter egos, your time is limited,” he deadpans.) “Artifact” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012, winning the People’s Choice Documentary prize, and was released on VOD Dec. 3, 2013, by digital entertainment firm FilmBuff.

But what mostly kept Leto off the screen was, simply, life. “I talked to Terrence Malick about it once. He took 20 years off from movies and said, ‘Life just happened,’” recalls Leto. “He was writing, and one day he put his pen down and 20 years had passed.”

During this time, Leto notes that his agents at CAA, Mick Sullivan and Jim Toth, were extremely patient. “They deserve an award just for sticking around for almost six years making absolutely no money — which in Hollywood is a real sign of faith.” He is quick to add that CAA also handles his music booking, “so I think they’re very happy.”

Leto believes his hiatus actually made him a better actor. “I think I needed to go away in order to have something to say again,” he notes. By the time the script for “Dallas Buyers Club” came his way, he instantly fell for the writing and the character of Rayon. “I said to myself, ‘Let’s go make this film and see if there’s anything left in there for me. Is it going to be another experience that falls short? Am I going to have my heart broken again?’ It’s kind of like a relationship: Let me see if I can love again.”

“Dallas Buyers Club” had been in development for more than 10 years, with a string of directors and actors attached. Things finally fell into place when McConaughey and helmer Jean-Marc Vallee (“C.R.A.Z.Y.,” “The Young Victoria”) signed on. Gael Garcia Bernal was originally cast as Rayon, but left the project shortly before shooting began. Rich Delia, who cast the film alongside Kerry Bardem and Paul Schnee, says Leto’s name came up just weeks before shooting was set to begin.

“We said, ‘Look, he’s been focused on his music, but if ever someone was to come back for a role, this is the kind of role that someone wants to come back for,’” Delia notes. “Rayon is such a beautiful character, and someone like Jared would see her beauty and portray that character with a strength and integrity without judging her.”

A Skype call between Vallee and Leto, who was in Berlin on tour, provided the director with a surprise. When Vallee signed onto the call, he found Leto already in character. “He was dressed as a woman, as Rayon, with makeup, for this 20-30 minute call,” the helmer says. “I thought he was going to stop the masquerade after five minutes, but he didn’t. He was talking as Rayon and creating the character in front of me.”

Says Leto: “I remember connecting, and reaching out to pick up some lipstick. I put it on and I could kind of see his jaw drop. I undid this big winter jacket and had a pink furry sweater on and pulled it down over my shoulder.”

Vallee admits to being stunned. “He was even hitting on me. He’d say, ‘Oh, Jean-Marc, I love your voice and your eyes; you’re so masculine!’ ” he says with a laugh. Vallee says he got off the call and told the producers and McConaughey, “I think we found the guy.”

The role was originally written as more of a flamboyant drag queen type, but Leto pushed to play Rayon as a transgender woman. “I thought Rayon would be more of a guy, dressed in pants sometimes,” Vallee admits. “But every time he came to set, I’d say, ‘All right. Jesus, you’re sexy, man.’”

“Dallas Buyers Club” was the first script that Leto had looked at at that stage of development — and so far the last. “I haven’t read a script since,” he admits. Unlike many actors who might be eager to capitalize on the moment, Leto says he’s taking his time: “I’m not actively looking.”

Ironically, he says that he is now dealing with people who know him as a rock star-turned-actor. “There are people who think ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is my first movie,” he says. “I’ve become a musician looking for an acting job, rather than an actor looking to make an album.”

He does plan to direct a movie within the next two years, and says he’s looking at several projects. But will he act again? “Yes,” he declares. Then a long pause. “But it’s got to be great. It’s got to be a genius director, an impeccable script and an absolutely incredible role with a team of wonderful people. Those are the parameters. And it happens.”

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  1. rowana says:

    He looks like Jesus, so he’s a little shocking without the antics he usually does. He’s talented by the music. I watched “Alexander” is how I learned of him. I loved that movie and can’t believe the movie didn’t do well. Collin Farrell is another one they don’t put in big productions, but he seems to enjoy the less corporate controlled movies. So also does Ben Chaplin who does B movies. It’s what you make it and you get more control over your movie if you do those kinds. Emmy people don’t listen to music and it was years before Grammys acknowledged what hard rock was. I remember they thought Eric Clapton’s “Tears” was the best heavy metal song. These kinds of people are lost in their media and don’t know music in any way, so being a black sheep to them is a good thing. Jared Leto is talented and I hardly think sensitive by what others are saying! LOL! He’s a resident rowdy bad boy from some of his tweets. Sensitive doesn’t come to mind, but anyways he’s talented. Wish I had the drive this guy did. Congrats to him being picky on the roles. I like the b movies better and it would seem he could direct a whole lot faster than waiting for a big corporate job.

    I hope he doesn’t play the Joker in Batman. Remember Heath Ledger and now Robin Williams, that’s role left to someone with a death wish. Good luck to him, what a talent.

    • prettygirl1973 says:

      I think Jared is very sensitive. It’s in his beautiful aqua eyes. I think he’s a good man. Celebrities are very controlled. Especially the ones who are as popular as Jared. A-Listers pay a price that just isn’t worth it for their fame. Roseanne Barr referred to Hollywood as a “culture of fear.” That’s not her full quote but I just don’t want to weird you out.

      I have so much compassion for Jared and so many other celebs. Things aren’t necessarily what they seem. I hope he doesn’t play the joker either, but I think he may. I hate what happened to Heath and Robin too.

  2. Matilda says:

    Jared, you are wonderful…this Interview makes me smile & cry… you are such a sensitive, lovely person…. A rare Butterfly in a grey, rude world. *At the 7th, I will be there in London/at the Empire [with some other Echelon]. I’m very excited about this movie and the role you play. XxO

  3. MCS says:

    Yes, my 17 yr. old son is one of many in that group which recognizes Jared Leto only as the frontman for 30 Seconds to Mars and nothing else. So, when we were watching the Globes, my son exclaims “Oh wow! He acts?!?” Then I turn to him (I’m 45) and exclaim in return (since Leto hasn’t been acting for some 6 years) “He IS an actor! By the way, do you know him? How do you even know him?!?” My son shoots back “He’s in one of the most awesome bands ever Mom! Did you not even KNOW that?!?”

    So I guess Jared Leto can also add this to his ever increasing resume – generation-connector (or something to that effect.)

  4. JARED DESERVE MORE & MORE TO BE RECOGNIZE ‘CAUSE ALL STUFF DOING BY HIM IS THE RESULT OF AN ASTOUNDING,SENSITIVE, TALENTED HUMAN BEING….
    GO FURTHER LIKE THIS JARED
    ‘CAUSE
    YOU ROCK AS HELL……..

  5. Angela Buffkin says:

    I have been a fan of Jared’s since his 1rst album with TSM. He has shown how amazingly talented he is threw music, acting even behind the camera. Jared has a drive that sets him apart and above.congrats on to him on his performance on Dallas Buyers Club. I have and always be a huge fan of Jared Let and TSM.

  6. Monica says:

    great article! thank you. i can’t find Variety on any newsstands in my area so this is wonderful!

  7. KAREN PEDERSEN says:

    I honestly cannot think of a single soul that is as good at everything he does…as Jared Leto.

  8. Jared Leto portrayed beautiful, witt, sophistication and true talent. I can’t wait to see who he’ll portray next. Congrats Jared on your win!!! Fingers crossed for an Oscar!

  9. Leticia says:

    I’m 20 years-old and since I was 10 I’ve been following the steps of Jared. I’m very proud of him, he is in a best moment of his life where his music and his job as an actor is finally winning the attention that it worth. He was always an excellent actor, I’m from Brasil and here it was very hard to find “Mr. Nobody” at time, but thanks to the internet I found it and I have to say that “Chapter 27” and “Mr. Nobody” are my two favorite movie, always! Keep working and rocking Jared, your work, even when it doesn’t shine on Hollywood, is great and change lifes!

  10. Daryle says:

    Very, very nice article. I knew nothing about Jared Leto except that he was rumored to have given a great performance in Dallas Buyers Club. It is terrific that both he and Matthew McConaughey are getting some well-earned attention. And if you haven’t seen “True Detective” on TV – check it out! The premiere was terrific, and both McConaughey and Woody Harrelson (another underappreciated talent, in my view) are astonishingly good.

  11. Hotto says:

    I’m so proud of him! Jared is a wonderful actor and a singer without comparison. I’m a fan of the band since 2006, when I met The Kill, but I only discover Jared as an actor after watching the film Lord Of War and I was completely in love with his work! Since then, I try to watch every movie in which he acts, the work of Leto is something untiring! This Golden Globes was more than deserved, was the recognition of years of great work. Oscar is already his, he deserves much!

  12. razak echelon says:

    I hope to see Jared leto in epic movie again , he’s a genius , I love 30stm , i love my band , i love my echelons

  13. Leto is amazing with everything he invests himself into – movies, photography, music and more. He was brilliant as Rayon. I remember my jaw dropping at my first glimpse of her (him) on screen. I hope he finds his perfect script soon. Of course, I am a fan and I love Mr. Nobody and the more times I’ve watched that film, the more details I’ve discovered. Maybe he is considered the odd man out by some, but I don’t think it will last forever. His talent is impeccable and he has too much to offer.

  14. Jared Leto is such a beautiful person, wonderful actor and RIGHTEOUS musician! He will always hold a special place in my heart! I will always remember seeing 30STM in Köln Germany! Congratulations Jared on your Golden Globe, it is WELL deserved!!!! <3 One of the Echelon!!!!

  15. It’s really going to find love, and I love loans. And Rayon was a ray of sunshine, it was executed with great dignity. Proud.

  16. Laurel Carter says:

    Jared is amazing and you can see he would be an excellent director from theirs (30 seconds to mars) Videoclips. They are full of hope, dreams, but mainly full of great and real ppl .. They make you think about yourself and your life.
    The movie Dallas Buyers club is really great. Even though I had to wait a long time before Jared appeared in the story it was totally worth to watch the whole movie and his performance. I was speechless. He did an amazing job. I guess I would never watched this movie if there wasn’t for him so thank you!

  17. Linda Warren says:

    This film hasn’t played locally so I’ll probably have to wait until the DVD is released . Jared has always morphed into the character he portrays from Jack in Highway to Hephaistion in Alexander & I expect the same with Rayon . I know I won’t be disappointed . Thank you VARIETY for this informative & interesting article on a multi talented performer & artist who is finally receiving the recognition he deserves .

  18. Alix says:

    It’s Ron WoodrOOF not Woodruff. Jared is amazing. He’s good at so many things. I would love to see him direct a film.
    Mr. Nobody was an amazing performance. I hope the DVD becomes more available now.

  19. Kathleen says:

    Good one!

  20. Reblogged this on Echelon Community Official ® and commented:
    Check out this article made by Variety Mag.

  21. Lisa says:

    His Mother’s Name is Constance not Mary

  22. MissEmilyRose says:

    This read is incredible. Just shows even side of Jared being his artistic side and his silly, childish side but either way he can make both work to his advantage. He’s an incredible actor and I loved the way he auditioned for Rayon on Skype. So different, so dedicated.

  23. Louanne says:

    I can’t understand why Mr. Nobody didn’t received the attention it deserved. It is such a beautiful, insightful and unique film. Like no other.
    Jared Leto is a very talented man and a free spirit, pretty truthful to himself. His mother’s name is Constance, not Mary.

  24. Dollface says:

    Sounds like a very deep and thoughtful artist, different from the douchey roll n rock frontman image he has built for himself. I loved one song from his band. The King and Queen song. Brilliant video too. That bad boy image of him in the press over the last few decades with always no smile or laughing….makes him more scary and not immediately likeable. Do not like that “long hair, don’t care” look on a male. Creepy. I remember him at “Jordan”. He was a good looking dude.

  25. Jared has been a talent for years. Not mentioned is “Prefontaine,” in which he was excellent.

    Jared and Stuart Townsend bear a striking similarity in appearances; and both are fine actors. Townsend is currently starring in the ABC thriller, “Betrayal”; however, he was great as a comedic actor earlier in his career.

    • I agree – so talented, so smart. I loved him in Prefontaine also but I noticed that there was another movie about Prefontaine with a more popular actor at the time. Anyway, I have always loved Townsend too and am so happy to see him again – even though it’s the TV screen.

  26. Thank you for such a delicious article about Jared. Can’t wait to see what he puts forth when he directs his first movie ! Please, however, correct the name of Jared & Shannon’s Mother. Her name is Constance, not Mary.

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