If you were surprised at all by Jared Leto's performance in Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club, then you both shouldn't have been and are not alone. The film, which is set in the mid-1980s, tells the real-life story of Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), a hard-living, rodeo-riding, hetero- and hyper-sexual electrician who contracts HIV. After being abandoned by his friends and given a 30-day death sentence by his doctors, Woodruff embarks on a mission to procure drugs and other alternative treatments from Mexico for himself and a group of other patients. Among them, is Rayon, a waxed and plucked transsexual fellow AIDS patient played by Leto, who becomes Woodroof's unlikely confidante and business partner. Leto's work in the film—funny, sensitive, heartbreaking—has drawn not just praise, but gasps and whispers and all manner of suddenly awakening ticks and noises. The shock and awe has been amplified by the fact that Rayon is his first role in a film in nearly five years, an extended period of self-imposed sabbatical, precipitated by what Leto felt was his growing disenchantment with acting, Hollywood-style-which, if you're Jared Leto, you'd have had good reason to find embittering.
Up until recently, Leto—who is, amazingly, now 42—was probably best known, to greater and lesser extents, for three things: playing Angela Chase's grungily mopey and quasi-illiterate love interest/obsession Jordan Catalano on the short-lived but forever-beloved mid-'90s TV series My So-Called Life, a subject that he no longer likes to broach; his dark, shuttering performance in Darren Aronofsky's adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s addiction epic Requiem for a Dream (2000), which he will happily speak about freely; and fronting the spacey, emotive, Los Angeles rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars, in which he plays alongside his older brother Shannon.
Leto, though, should probably be known for three other things: his tenacity, his sticktoitiveness, and his grit. After My So-Called Life ended, he was already in his twenties, and understandably blanched at the idea of falling into a teen-hearthrob-y groove. Instead, he decided to patiently and diligently work to prove that he had more to offer—which he did, forgoing adolescent schlock in favor of starring inPrefontaine (1997), a biopic about Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine, and taking smaller parts in projects by filmmmakers like Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, 1998), James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted, 1999), David Fincher (Fight Club, 1999, and later, Panic Room, 2002), and Mary Harron (American Psycho, 2000), all of which led up toRequiem for a Dream. Around the same period, he also started Thirty Seconds to Mars at a moment when actors having bands was beginning to become a thing—and not necessarily one that was viewed charitably (if you want to get a sense of the environment back then, Google "Keanu" and "Dogstar"). It drew the wrong kind of focus—an actor with rock star dreams, in a field that was increasingly filling up with them (also Google "Crowe" and "Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts"). Leto, though, didn't buckle—or even bend—under the cultural pressure. He just kept writing songs and playing shows and, almost surreptitiously, became a kind of rock star—to the extent that Thirty Seconds to Mars has now released four albums that have collectively sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, and the group plays to packed stadiums around the globe. And when other opportunities to do the kind of work that he wanted to do as an actor proved scarce (mostly, because they are in general), Leto made do with the best available options, working with Oliver Stone onAlexander (2004), gaining a substantial amount of weight to play Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27 (2007), and taking on the role of a 118-year-old man in Jaco Van Dormael's sci-fi drama Mr. Nobody (2009), and then simply, quietly, quickly decided to walk away until the right thing came along—which turned out to take nearly half a decade, when the script forDallas Buyers Club floated into his orbit.
James Franco recently caught up by phone with Leto, who was on tour with Thirty Seconds to Mars in Portugal, to discuss his return to acting with Dallas Buyers Club, why he stopped in the first place, and where it all comes from. This being an art issue, Franco also volunteered to paint Leto's portrait, which he did the morning after their interview and which we've included here as an added piece of extra-special bonus material—and like Leto himself, it's a work of remarkable character and depth.
JAMES FRANCO: Last time we spoke, you were on tour. Are you still on the road?
JARED LETO: Yeah. I'm in Portugal now.
FRANCO: The Franco part of my family is from Portugal but I've never been there. Is it nice?
LETO: It's a great place. It was kind of one of the early places in Europe that we actually had really big success in with Thirty Seconds to Mars, so it's been a really special place for us.
FRANCO: Why do you think the band caught on there so early?
LETO: I don't know. It was just one of those things that happened. But it's nice that it happened in such a unique place. It happened in Portugal and the U.K., and then things grew from there for us in Europe. I love it here, though, man. You can take a drive and be in a totally different country, and there are so many things here that I never imagined I would see as a kid, so it just kind of blows my mind. We're actually staying in a fortress that has been turned into a hotel overlooking the ocean. It's just nuts.
FRANCO: It's interesting that it doesn't matter that you sing in English—that you can still go to places where English isn't the first language and perform, and people will still get something from it. The fact that you're singing in a language that they might not understand just doesn't matter.
LETO: Yeah. With music, it doesn't really seem to matter at all. You can play in China or Africa or the Middle East or Texas and still communicate. It's one of those things that I love about music. I guess that visual art is sort of similar in it's ability to communicate beyond language.
FRANCO: The first time I met you was probably about a year ago at Terry Richardson's show at OHWOW in L.A.
FRANCO: And I can't remember how it came up because there were tons of people there, but I remember you saying to me in passing, "I'm doing music now. I'm not really acting." And I said, "Why? Why would you stop?" And you said, "I didn't really like acting that much, and I felt like I wasn't that great of an actor." Now, of course, you've come back to acting in such a strong way with your performance in Dallas Buyers Club. But what was going on around the time we met at that party? And what happened subsequently that made you want to do Dallas Buyers Club?
LETO: When I saw you back then, I hadn't made a film in more than a few years. I think, all told, it was almost five years between films, and during that period, I had a lot of time to think about things. I was incredibly busy with Thirty Seconds to Mars. We'd had more success with the band than I'd ever dreamed was possible—we were playing arenas all over the world. It was an incredibly exciting time for the music—and still is. I mean, I'm in an arena in Portugal right now, about to play for 19,000 people. That's not supposed to happen for a couple of kids from Louisiana on food stamps. So we were pursuing things with the band for many years, and I think, in the downtime away from movies, I did start to question what I had to offer as an actor. I don't think that I considered myself to be a very good actor or to have much to offer during that time. But the five years away from film made me not only a better person, but a better actor. It gave me more confidence. I also think that art is really predicated upon the experiences that you've had in your life. You only have to share what you've consumed. We've certainly experienced quite a bit over the past five or six years, and I poured all of that into Dallas Buyers Club.
FRANCO: I'd imagine that during that five-year period you had other offers to do movies. So how did Dallas Buyers Clubcome to you, and why did you ultimately say yes to doing it?
LETO: Well, I have had other opportunities—and those are great to have. It's always nice to be wanted. At first, people think you're full of shit and you're going to come back groveling or something. But after a few years, people start to get the point and then they just think you're never going to do anything again. I hadn't read a script in years—literally. But someone sent me this one for Dallas Buyers Club. I'd heard about it before—and I'd even ignored a few e-mails about it. But eventually, I took a look at it, and I just fell in love with the opportunity and the role. You know, I hadn't made a film in five years—and I didn't know if I was ever going to make a film again—but I do love film. I love performing. I love acting. I love editing. I love cinematography. I love so much about the process that I thought I owed it to myself to try it one more time to see what it would be like. So Dallas Buyers Clubwas really a test, in some ways, for me. I should also note that I've been behind the camera quite a bit in the past five or six years. I've been making documentaries, short films, music videos, and commercials and directing quite a bit. I'm surrounded by editors and shooters and making film all the time. So that part of things didn't ever go out of my life. But the opportunity to bring this character to life was so compelling that I couldn't say no. By the way, I saw you in a video store once before we actually met. I told you that, right? Remember the video store on La Brea and Melrose?
FRANCO: Oh, yeah. Rocket Video.
LETO: Yeah. We were just two dudes looking for a weird film or three. I saw you there because I used to live on Melrose and Citrus. I lived there for eight years in this 1,000-square-foot house I rented that had a little garage that I used to rehearse in. But I would walk down the alley there to Rocket Video.
FRANCO: Rocket Video was the place. Before Netflix, that was where you could get all the weird stuff.
LETO: By the way, I want to thank you again, for being a part of that piece that we did for "City of Angels." It really turned out beautifully.
FRANCO: I heard it came out well. We should probably explain for people that I did an interview for you for this video for the Thirty Seconds to Mars song "City of Angels."