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‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ ‘Mr. Nobody’: Two Sides of Jared Leto

The versatile thesp opens a pair of weekend pics, one with Oscar buzz, the other with a long past

Audiences can see Jared Leto on Nov. 1 in the role that could win him an Oscar, as Focus Features releases “Dallas Buyers Club.” By a happy coincidence, Leto’s previous film — a mind-bogglingly obscure $44 million sci-fi epic called “Mr. Nobody” — opens the same day via Magnolia Pictures.

“It’s a miracle,” says Leto, who is fiercely proud of both films, but had nearly given up hope that “Mr. Nobody” would ever get a U.S. release. (The crazy ambitious project was Leto’s last acting gig before stepping away to focus on his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars.)

Since the Toronto Film Festival, critics have been raving about Leto’s performance in “Dallas Buyers Club.” The 41-year-old chameleon slimmed down to 112 pounds to play Rayon, the raggedly charismatic transsexual who helps Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) hustle unapproved meds to HIV-positive men.

Though not an awards contender, “Mr. Nobody” posed an even greater challenge: Leto plays Nemo Nobody from his late teens until the age 120. As Nemo recalls his past memories from the year 2092, the film jumps around in time, forking at the point of each impossible dilemma he faced, resulting in nine different versions of the same character. The effect is like “Sliding Doors” on steroids.

Looking back, Leto describes the project as an “insane and amazing” experience: “The film raises a lot of questions, doesn’t give any answers, but leaves you with a sense of wonder about life and love that is hard to shake,” he says. “My roles (as the multiple Nemo Nobody s) are a representation of the choices we make or could have made,” Leto explains. “I could have played 1,000 different roles, as our choices and results are endless.”

Few movies pose such a daunting acting challenge, as Leto minutely calibrated his accents, posture and speech patterns to reflect Nemo’s varied life experiences (including a primitive caveman version of the character). “Playing the 120-year-old man was very special to me,” he says. “For some reason, I really connected with that character. I think that’s some of the strongest work I’ve ever done.”

For Jaco Van Dormael, the film’s director, there was never anyone but Leto for the part. “The reason I chose him is because he completely disappears into every role,” says the helmer, who’d seen “Panic Room” without recognizing Leto. “At that moment, I realized he was the perfect actor to do (‘Mr. Nobody’).”

At the time, a bigger star might have boosted the film’s B.O. potential. Shot in English with mostly French money, the international co-production also features such familiar (but not necessarily bankable) names as Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Rhys Ifans and Juno Temple.

Romantic comedy, detective story and science fiction commingle in Van Dormael’s existential masterpiece, an astounding meaning-of-life movie on par with “Inception” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Synecdoche, New York.”

So why haven’t you heard of it?

Like “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Mr. Nobody” was a passion project more than two decades in the making. Its inspiration dates back to Van Dormael’s award-winning 1985 short “E pericoloso sporgersi,” in which a boy standing on a train platform is forced to decide between his parents, flashing forward to imagine how his life would turn out in either case — the Big Bang scenario that gave rise to “Mr. Nobody’s” universe.

“Mr. Nobody” illustrates the unusual power of the Cannes Film Festival on the French movie industry. According to Van Dormael, French distrib Pathe was delighted with his 157-minute cut, which was subtitled into French and prepped for theatrical release on the assumption it would be accepted into competition at Cannes, where the director’s previous two pics, “Toto the Hero” and “The Eighth Day,” had both won major prizes.

But Cannes passed on the pic, and virtually overnight, Pathe and the sales agents at Wild Bunch lost faith, demanding Van Dormael recut the movie. After a battle of wills between the director and his backers, a shorter version played the Venice and Toronto festivals and opened in a few overseas territories. But the film skipped over the U.S. entirely until earlier this year, when Magnolia acquired rights for VOD and theatrical release.

“A movie is like a message in a bottle that you drop in the sea. I never know who will see it,” says Van Dormael, adding, “?‘Mr. Nobody’ is the film I’m most proud of. Financially, it was a failure, but artistically speaking, I think it’s the best thing I can do in my life.”

Rather than allow himself to get stuck in the French equivalent of “movie jail,” Van Dormael scaled back his budgets and poured his energy into an experimental theater piece called “Kiss & Cry,” in which he creates an “ephemeral film”: a love story acted onstage, shot and screened as it happens for a new audience each night, but never recorded.

He is also prepping his next — and considerably less expensive — feature, “Le tout nouveau testament “ (The Brand New Testament), a satire in which God exists, He lives in Brussels, and He’s kind of terrible guy who beats his wife and daughter.

“These days, all my work involves leaving the symphony orchestra to go play in a garage band with four people,” he says. “It’s possible with the cameras we have and the right actors to make films with less money.” And nobody is going to stop him.

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