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.”