For over four years, Jared Leto has been absent from the big screen, focusing instead on his band 30 Seconds to Mars and whatever else it is that Jared Leto does in his spare time (he’s notoriously elusive). This week, however, the actor returns in the Jared Leto-iest of ways: as a transgender AIDS victim in the highly anticipated Dallas Buyers Club.
Leto lost about 40 pounds to play the sassy Rayon—a stark contrast to the considerable weight he put on to play Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s killer, in 2007’s Chapter 27. This time, however, the extreme physical transformation seems to have paid off: Leto is already receiving Oscar buzz for his performance. In honor of Leto’s return to delightfully bizarre acting roles, we’d like to revisit a characteristically strange interview between Leto and David A. Keeps concerning his cornrows-sporting role in the 2002 thriller Panic Room. At the time, rumors surrounding Leto’s forays into music were swirling and he was said to be in a long-term relationship with Cameron Diaz. How times have changed! —Allyson Shiffman
Jared Leto: His recent roles have been dark, but his future is brightBy David A. Keeps
Jared Leto is lying down, relaxing after a hard day of shooting an Uzi at his local gun range. Or so he says. There is no way to verify this since: a) he is calling from his home in Los Angeles (so he says); b) stories about his life are so colorful that it’s hard to determine what is actual and what is apocryphal (so I say); c) he enjoys a bit of contradiction and sarcasm just to keep people guessing (so we both say).
Offscreen, Leto has an intriguing way of presenting himself to the public. He seems at once grateful about his success and ambivalent about his celebrity. He rarely does interviews and certainly does not prescribe to any conventional approach to answering or avoiding questions. Ask him about the art of cinema and he’s as articulate as any former art student might be. But try to lift the lid on his personal life, and he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.
Leto’s the kind of guy you’d want in your corner but not at your poker table. Having spent some time up close and personal with him, it seems that his mouth says one thing and his eyes say another. Which is not to say he is disingenuous or dishonest, just to say that, perhaps, he has learned the secret of career longevity: Always keep ’em guessing. Having been a high-profile TV heartthrob on My So-Called Life and the down-and-dirty star of independents like Requiem For a Dream (2000)—not to mention, but we will (for the tabloid-challenged), the long-term paramour of Cameron Diaz—Leto plays his cards close to his chest.
Take, for instance, the persistent rumors that he’s been working on a music project. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Leto, who recently completed this month’s Panic Room, his second film with director David Fincher. The film, however, he’ll talk about.
DAVID A. KEEPS: Tell me about Panic Room.
JARED LETO: It’s the story of three people who break into a house to try to recover some hidden money. We think it’s empty and once we get in, we realize there is a woman [Jodie Foster] who has locked herself in the very room we need to get into; the panic room. It’s a state-of-the-art, totally barricaded facility made for the sole purpose of keeping people out. I play a complete asshole named Junior. Of course he doesn’t think he’s an asshole, but we all know he is.
KEEPS: Don’t sugarcoat it, Jared; tell me how you really feel about him.
LETO: [laughs] Junior is the black sheep of a wealthy family. And you know, it’s really painful to be born with a lot of money and opportunity—I tell you that realizing that sarcasm doesn’t read in print at all. And I’m being really sarcastic.
KEEPS: You? Sarcastic? [Leto laughs] So Junior’s un petit peu pretentious?
LETO: Pretentious, annoying—you might want to punch him in the face a few times.
KEEPS: Who are the other two guys in the posse breaking into the house?
LETO: I would hesitate to call it a posse. It’s a small clan joined by greed. There is Dwight Yoakam, who plays Raoul, and there is Burnham, played by Forest Whitaker, who works at a security company and knows how to break into the panic room. And my character is a member of the family that used to own the house. And while my grandfather was sick in bed, dying, I suffered through changing his colostomy bags so I could find out where he hid this missing money. Well, it’s not exactly money, it’s some valuables. You know, in the interest of good entertainment, I wonder how much of the story I should be giving away. Fincher might have my head on a plater.
KEEPS: Funny you should say that. In one of Fincher’s earlier films, Fight Club , you played a character called Angel Face, a blonde pretty boy whose face becomes horribly disfigured. Presumably you’ve forgiven Mr. Fincher?
LETO: [laughs] Of course. But Panic Room was a great opportunity for him to inflict some more damage on me. There are definitely some mangled body parts. But he’s a great person to work with, so knowledgeable about what he’s doing every second of a day, that it’s a pleasure to be in his world.
KEEPS: Even if it means wearing your hair in cornrows, as you did for this part?
LETO: [laughs] They were really painful initially—I couldn’t sleep the first night, it was so excruciating. And it was all one hundred percent human hair. My hair. But the woman who did [the braiding], named Candy—who has a salon in L.A. called Candy for Hair, appropriately—got it down. What would take some people four to six hours to do, she was doing in an hour. And I actually enjoyed it once I got used to it.
KEEPS: You were a teenager in the ’80s. I get the feeling you had a mullet. Am I right?
LETO: And when I was a kid I was the king of mullets. If you’re wearing a rock T-shirt and you’re a fan of Rush—one of the greatest bands in the universe—you’ve got to have a mullet.
KEEPS: [laughs] You’re a card, Jared. Why haven’t you made comedies?
LETO: I’d love to. Maybe. I’m not opposed to working with Alexander Payne or Wes Anderson. Or maybe I’m just lying and like these dark, kind of masochistic experiences. I feel proud of what I’ve done recently, and that’s a nice feeling. I haven’t had that too often, you know? I have films [in my background] that I refuse to utter the title of. I’d better stop, I’m being too honest.
KEEPS: [laughs] Have you always wanted to be an actor?
LETO: No. I wanted to be a visual artist because I grew up around a lot of painters and photographers and had a very artistic uprbringing. And I fantasized about being a drug dealer when I was a kid. I thought it would be a good opportunity; I knew the market would be strong. Is that bizarre?
KEEPS: No more bizarre that the rest of this conversation. Is it true you were a graffiti tagger?
LETO: I went through a little phase, and had a few different tags. But I never got to where I was internationally recognized by the graffiti commission. Mostly I was just huffing the paint, but I went out and dabbled a bit.
KEEPS: I read a bio of you that says you led a “peripatetic childhood.” What does that mean?
LETO: I would think kind of vagabondish. I was raised by my mom and we moved many, many times. There were some interesting living situations. When I was 12 we were in Haiti; that was an unforgettable experience. It’s a sophisticated country in some ways, but at the same time it’s also the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. While I was there I was climbing mango trees and just having a freak-out on the whole place.
KEEPS: Not to mention having to deal with the onset of puberty you must’ve been going through at the time.
LETO: You know, I heard some interesting theory recently about women these days starting their periods earlier because of the exposure to sexual content in media—television, film, teen magazines… It’s triggering something in the brain.
KEEPS: We’re getting an idea of what you’re like as an adult, but what were you like as a kid?
LETO: I was very much in my own world, never the popular kid. But I had a great family, a great brother and mother.
KEEPS: How did you get started as an actor?
LETO: I was studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York and left to join my brother, who was doing demolition derby, in Indiana. He was teaching me and I was out there for a while with him. Then he got into a little trouble with the law and got locked up, so I came to Los Angeles with a backpack and couple hundred bucks in my pocket.
KEEPS: That’s almost unbelievable.
LETO: I’m telling you the truth! He’s really good at demolition derby. And my mother, when we were kids, was a circus performer! She was an acrobat and trapeze artist.
KEEPS: Come on.
LETO: I’m telling you! This is a magazine—I would never ever lie in a magazine!
KEEPS: Glad to hear it. So I hear you’re putting out a record this year.
LETO: A record of what?
KEEPS: [laughs] A musical record.
LETO: Nooo. Who told you that?
KEEPS: Your publicist told my editor. So, you’re not making music?
LETO: Only when I’m making love.
KEEPS: Come on, get real.
LETO: I’m being real! How’s New York?
KEEPS: I’m in L.A., and Jared, you are not dodging this question!
LETO: I’m not prepared to take about that yet. Look, it’s such a horrible cliché—I don’t want to be some actor talking about how he wants to be a musician. It’s something I’m really passionate about and I don’t want to be spouting off at the mouth about something before it’s out there and can speak for itself.
KEEPS: Ok. So on this recording project you don’t want to talk about, you’ll be playing guitar?
LETO: You’re killing me, dude. I play a lot of things. The xylophone. I’ve been known to pluck a harp a few times.
KEEPS: We’ve done an interview together before, but it’s been so long since we’ve talked, I’ve forgotten that it’s kind of like playing chess. [Leto laughs] So what are you listening to these days?
LETO: I listen to a lot of ‘80s soundtrack music. Sometimes The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink but more of the Tangerine Dream-type stuff. Aphex Twin is always fun to sleep to. I’ve always loved Björk, and Peter Gabriel’s Passion [Music For the Last Temptation of Christ] is one of the most amazing albums I’ve ever heard.
KEEPS: And what will you be doing next, after Panic Room and after you don’t release a record?
LETO: I think I’m going to take some time off from making movies and explore some other things in life. I might just get in an RV, or my car, and go visit all 50 states. I’ve got to get off the phone with you momentarily: My mother is making some food, and she, my brother, and an old friend of the family—an artist named Larry Slezak, who has come to visit—and I are going to eat a nice home-cooked meal, for a change.
KEEPS: So you’re not culinarily inclined?
LETO: I usually eat out, but I’ve been eating at home more and more. I don’t like to leave the house, unless I have to. I would prefer living in a cave, with a door. Maybe a giant hobbit cave, with furry rugs. Something really cozy, with a fireplace—something you could stay in for six to 15 months at a time.
KEEPS: You have a wild imagination. Do you have vivid dreams?
LETO: Yes. I have pretty apocalyptic, insane dreams. I dream frequently of sharks in the sea underneath me, biting me in half. I dreamt last night that I was an alien creature, kind of like a phoenix or a griffin or something, and my skin was made of fire, and I was battling another creature above the earth, and I could see the curvature of the world. That was pretty on par with most of my dreams.
KEEPS: What’s your personal catnip?
KEEPS: What is it you like about sex?
LETO: Oh, come on! What is it you like about water? It’s part of life.
KEEPS: Does your girlfriend feel the same way?
LETO: Oooh! I really thought I was going to get away without getting a girlfriend question! All right, man, I’ve got to go. My mom just opened the door and said the food’s done. I’m glad we did this together.
KEEPS: Let me ask you one final question: When all is said and done, what would you like it to say on your tombstone?
LETO: I don’t want one. I want to be taken to the middle of the forest and have a hole dug in the fresh dirt and have my naked, freshly dead corpse tossed into the ground with a light layer of dirt spread over it so the animals could come and just kind of gnaw away at me.
KEEPS: That’s gross, Jared.
LETO: That’s me.
THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY RAN IN THE MARCH 2002 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.
New Again runs every Wednesday. For more, click here.