Morphing Into ‘Morbius’: How Jared Leto Sank His Teeth Into Marvel’s Vampire Anti-Hero

Photographs by Caleb & Gladys for Variety

Jared Leto has done the comic book thing before.

Playing the Joker in the 2016 film “Suicide Squad” and again in Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” is a memory the 50-year-old actor looks back on fondly. “That role was an opportunity of a lifetime,” he says. “And I got a chance to do it twice.”

Getting to dramatize a villain as ubiquitous as the Clown Prince of Crime is delicious, but it doesn’t always leave a lot of new ground to break. Leto’s turn as the Joker came after Heath Ledger (in 2008’s “The Dark Knight”) and before Joaquin Phoenix (in 2019’s “Joker”), who both won Oscars for their interpretations.

Jared Leto Variety Cover

So Leto was eager to get an offer for the lead role in “Morbius,” a superhero tentpole set in Sony Pictures’ Universe of Marvel Characters, whom no actor has ever played in a movie or a TV show. Channeling the part of Spider-Man’s eventual foe, a living vampire, would allow Leto to really sink his teeth into a bad guy with a blank slate.

“I loved that it was the very first time this character was going to be on screen,” Leto says. “I’ve always been interested in transformation, and this was a way to explore that territory in a big Marvel film. It was impossible to say no.”

After a series of pandemic-related delays, “Morbius” will finally open in theaters on April 1. Sony executives are hoping the movie, which cost $75 million to produce, will turn a profit by continuing the box office hot streak of comic book adaptations, including “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “The Batman,” starring Robert Pattinson.

“If it doesn’t work out, we have a good excuse,” Leto says with a grin over a lengthy Zoom conversation. “We waited too long.”

The long-anticipated arrival of “Morbius” in theaters represents a pivotal moment in Leto’s 30-year career, marking his first solo starring role in a big-budget Hollywood movie. “It’s time,” Leto says. “I feel ready for the challenges that come along with this sort of thing. I have perspective and balance now that I don’t think I had when I was younger.” He adds, “I’ll never regret taking a swing.”

The young man who got his start in his early 20s playing the high school heartthrob Jordan Catalano on the ABC series “My So-Called Life” has built a filmography with a lot of range — and that’s an understatement. He’s played a burglar in David Fincher’s “Panic Room,” a drug addict in Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” and a transgender woman dying of AIDS in Jean-Marc Vallée’s melodrama “Dallas Buyers Club,” which won him the Oscar for supporting actor in 2014. And most recently, no one could stop talking — in a love-it-or-hate-it way — about his gonzo, prosthetics-laden disappearing act as Paolo, the black sheep of the Gucci family, in Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci.”

That performance brought Leto, who has a second gig as the frontman of the rock band 30 Seconds to Mars, a SAG nomination and a friendship with another singer-actor, the artist known as Lady Gaga. “It was a shock and a surprise,” he says about Gaga’s Oscar snub in February for portraying the socialite Patrizia Reggiani in the film. “By the way,” Leto says of Gaga, “she should get an invite to every Oscars, just to have her there. She’s an amazing artist [who does] such brave work. She should be celebrated for everything in my book.”

He might have to be fielding his own compliments soon. Leto is an early front-runner in this year’s Emmys race for “WeCrashed,” where he plays Adam Neumann, the morally questionable businessman who co-founded the workshare office space company WeWork. The limited series, which premiered at SXSW over the weekend to strong reviews, will debut on Apple TV Plus on March 18.

Jared Leto Variety Cover Story

Leto isn’t one of those actors whose only life experience comes from movie sets. Eight years ago, in his Oscar speech, he paid tribute to “dreamers” in Ukraine — a message that has renewed resonance given Russia’s recent invasion of the country. “As you struggle to make your dreams happen, to live the impossible, we’re thinking of you tonight,” he said that night as he was about to go back on the road with his band.

“I mentioned Ukraine in my speech because I had a show there four days after the Oscars,” Leto says. “And then I had a show in Russia.” He found himself in the region during the early days of the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian war. “I was on the ground when buildings were burning. The streets were barricaded. You showed up at the airport; there’s no customs. You just walk right through. There were civilians with AKs. It was a wild thing. Everyone told us not to go.”

Music gave him a nuanced perspective. “You learn about audiences while you’re onstage or while you’re in town passing through. And you hear those voices, and it’s a powerful, beautiful thing.”

How does one reconcile this Leto with the one who’s about to star in a comic book movie? The actor admits to being “a bit of a snob when it comes to film,” but he’s also concerned about the financial health of the entertainment industry.

“If it wasn’t for Marvel films, I don’t even know if theaters would exist,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like there’s room for everyone, and that starts to become a little heartbreaking.”

But it’s easy to see why Leto became Sony’s de facto choice to portray Morbius, whom he describes as “a bit of a dark horse, an outsider.” When audiences first meet the renowned biochemist Dr. Michael Morbius, he’s dying from a blood disease. But after an attempt to cure himself goes wrong, he turns into an otherworldly bloodsucker with an unquenchable thirst for the living. It’s a dark and disturbing metamorphosis, one that is more Jekyll/Hyde than Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

“He’s not the quintessential superhero,” Leto says.

•  •  •

In conversation, Leto eschews the performance art he regularly inhabits on screen and comes across as comparatively laid-back. He has a good sense of humor, poking fun at himself in a way that indicates he doesn’t take himself as seriously as he takes his job. He’s on the Zoom call from a nondescript room in his Nevada house, sporting blue nail polish and wearing a casual plaid button-down and Ray-Ban Wayfarer glasses. “Gucci, of course,” he says, even though the logo on the side of the plastic frames says otherwise.

Leto splits his time between Los Angeles and 35 minutes outside Las Vegas, but he doesn’t count himself a resident of Sin City. He prefers to say his second home is in Red Rock Canyon, a scenic conservation area with plenty of hiking trails. These days, he barely has any free time, but when he does he likes to go rock climbing with Alex Honnold, whose daredevil exploits were immortalized in 2018’s Academy Award-winning documentary “Free Solo.”

Lazy loaded image
Caleb & Gladys for Variety

“You have to be present,” Leto says. “That’s the thing I like about it. Also, you don’t get cellphone service. It disconnects you from the world.”

At various points in our conversations, Leto gets meta, in this instance questioning how often he brings up going to mountainous national parks. “I’m always talking about climbing now. Maybe there’s something else I could talk about? But it’s a big part of my life.”

Plus, it’s nice to have hobbies.

“I was never a fan of hobbies,” he clarifies. “I always hated that word, even … ‘hobby.’ I think if you’re going to do something, you do it.” He pauses before continuing the thought. “But as I’ve grown up, I come to appreciate that term a little bit more.”

No matter what he does, Leto lives to push his brain and body to the limit. Whether he’s taking on a villain drawn from the pages of a graphic novel or WeWork’s Neumann, his approach is the same. He’s part of a class of actors — including Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis — who operate on the belief they have to re-create a character’s reality in order to capture the person on screen. Just don’t refer to it as Method acting. “Immersive work, as I call it,” Leto says.

In the case of “Morbius,” he may not have shaved his teeth into tiny Dracula-esque daggers, but he did extensive research by meeting with doctors and patients who could teach him about living with a rare, incurable blood disease. Once he had the psyche down, he delved into the physicality of capturing a tortured monster. For example, Morbius struggles to walk so he uses a cane for support.

A different actor, Leto suggests, may have taken an obvious approach and put a pebble in their shoe to help them hobble around set. “But for me,” he says, “it’s an opportunity to learn.”

In the end, it’s not clear what technique Leto employed to master Morbius’ limp. “I don’t want to get too specific because I’d like to keep some of that for myself,” he says. “But I leaned in — no pun unintended. I’m a sucker for a pun, but I didn’t mean that. I worked with people who had this specific physical challenge and modeled it after that.”

Adria Arjona, who plays the love interest of Morbius, scientist Martine Bancroft, recalls being concerned by Leto’s commitment to using crutches and contorting his body even when cameras weren’t rolling.

“I remember fearing for this guy’s spine,” she says with a laugh. “There should have been a physical therapist on call.”

Lazy loaded image
Caleb & Gladys for Variety

“Morbius” director Daniel Espinosa, who drew inspiration from the 1987 supernatural black comedy “The Lost Boys” and the cold-blooded classic “Nosferatu,” says filming often became an intensely visceral experience. He brings up a sequence where Morbius locks himself in a room to resist the urge for blood.

“I got scared for Jared,” Espinosa says. “He really commits. You have to watch out for it.” In another scene involving Morbius shattering glass, “I could sense the crew backed off,” Espinosa recalls. “It was a bit spooky.”

Lest that sound tiring or maybe even irritating to work with day in and day out, Leto’s colleagues speak highly of his borderline-obsessive techniques, insisting they only encourage everyone else to elevate their game.

“I found it electric. He is saying to you, ‘For the next four months, I’m going to inhabit this person,’” says Lee Eisenberg, who co-created “WeCrashed” with Drew Crevello. Crevello adds, “The highest compliment I could pay is that it felt strange to call him ‘Jared’ after production.”

Although the future of “Morbius” hasn’t yet been decided by the box office gods, Leto says he’d continue playing the character in potential sequels. He also expresses interest in having his big-screen baddie interact with Venom, Spider-Man and other Marvel heavyweights. “That’s half the fun,” he says.

But he (reluctantly) admits he’s a little behind on his comic book viewing. When asked if he’s seen Tom Hardy in “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” the most recent standalone adventure set in Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters, Leto pretends that his internet connection cut out.

“There’s a thing you could do online,” he says, contorting his smile for dramatic effect. “If you just make the worst face and then hold it, people think it’s frozen.”

He’s not evading the question, but “it’s been a busy time,” he protests. To be fair, he’s been going nonstop during the pandemic, between his acting gigs and putting the finishing touches on a new 30 Seconds to Mars album, which he hopes to take on the road in 2023.

“I am going to watch it,” he promises of the “Venom” sequel. “I’ve been waiting to see it in a theater.” He adds, “The first one was a lot of fun, and Tom was fantastic. He built this role that looks like it was a blast to play.”

Leto also allows that he’d be open to reprising the Joker if Warner Bros. came calling. “Never say never,” he says.

As an actor who invests so heavily in each role, Leto explains that shedding a character after only a short period of production feels like a painful breakup. “For me, they’re like living, breathing people,” he says. “I know they’re not, of course, but I get attached. It’s a shame to never do it again.”

•  •  •

Leto especially appreciated the longevity of playing Neumann, the eccentric Israeli businessman who founded WeWork, in eight episodes of “WeCrashed.” Compared with the actor’s roles as, say, suspected serial killer Albert Sparma from “The Little Things” or sinister CEO Niander Wallace from “Blade Runner 2049,” Adam may appear to be more grounded. But that doesn’t mean viewers should prepare themselves for anything less than the full Leto.

As part of his prep, Leto met the real-life Neumann in person and recalls being charmed. Early on, Leto told “WeCrashed” creators Eisenberg (“The Office”) and Crevello (“Deadpool”) he wasn’t interested in making a hit piece or crafting a caricature. “It’s low-hanging fruit,” Leto says. “Everyone has their complexities.”

Lazy loaded image
Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway play WeWork founder Adam Neumann and wife Rebekah in the Apple TV Plus series “WeCrashed.” Apple TV+

Still, he advised Neumann not to watch the show, which hinges on the love story between Adam and his wife and muse, Rebekah (played by Anne Hathaway). Their romance plays out as Neumann’s grand utopian vision to turn shared workspace into hubs of innovation collapsed under extravagant spending and crushing debt.

“I don’t even watch it,” says Leto, who doesn’t like to revisit his own projects. “So why would I tell him to watch it?”

It’s not meant to be a takedown, but “WeCrashed” is certainly not a love letter to a prodigal businessman. Even so, it’s evident that Leto can find humanity in Neumann, a hard-partying megalomaniac who is more granola than tech bro. In one episode, Leto’s Adam (wearing a werewolf mask for no apparent reason) mixes up his favorite coffee order. It’s a reference to a widely circulated story about baristas at WeWork headquarters who apparently swapped the meanings of “latte” and “cappuccino” at the company’s java shop rather than tell their boss he had been ordering the wrong drink.

“I don’t know the difference between a latte and a fucking cappuccino,” Leto says. “But I also don’t order them every day.”

Leto found it surprisingly challenging to play Neumann, who seems to bounce with energy (just watch his old keynote speeches on YouTube). Leto is not Jewish, but he participated in Shabbat dinners and hired a team of five Israelis so he could rehearse lines and “hear that voice all the time.”

“A couple of times, strangely towards the end of shooting ‘WeCrashed,’ Paolo’s [accent] started to come out a little bit,” Leto says. “It was very bizarre. I don’t know if it’s because I got tired or if Paolo was just demanding my attention, but that can happen.”

Still, he stayed in character between takes, according to Hathaway. “I didn’t really work with Jared,” she wrote in an email. “He was only ever Adam. It was fun. Wild and focused. Inspiring.”

Another source of inspiration while filming was Katy Perry’s hit song “Roar,” which is used heavily throughout the series to great effect.

“It was played quite a bit [on set]. If anything can get you raring to go for the day, it’s that that — and a cappuccino … or a latte,” Leto says, slipping into Neumann’s thick Israeli inflection. “Maybe a little ashwagandha, or maybe green juice. Would you like a green juice?”

“WeCrashed” is Leto’s first starring role in a TV series since “My So-Called Life.” In the early days of the pandemic, as nearly every movie or TV show cast reunited over Zoom, so did the actors from “My So-Called Life.” But Jordan Catalano was not in attendance.

“No idea,” Leto says when asked why he wasn’t there. “I hope everyone had a good time without me.” But he had to have been invited, right? “I’m sure I was. I would’ve hoped. Maybe I wasn’t. No, I’m sure I was. What a crazy time we’re in. Not everyone’s able to make everything.”

Stylist : Dani Michelle/The Only Agency; Stylist Assistant : Cameron Quittner; Skin: Jamie Taylor/The Wall Group; Hair: Larry King/A Frame Agency; Look 1 (cover): Jacket and Pants: Gucci; Look 2 (at cactus): top, jacket, pants and necklaces: Saint Laurent; Look 3 (inside, checkered suit): jacket, pants and shoes: Gucci; necklaces: Saint Laurent