Jared Leto's first claim on our hearts was, if you trust the fictional Angela Chase, the way he leaned. I've long maintained that Jordan Catalano would not be an easy part to play - it's all suggestion and no delivery required in order to satisfy every projection. The ability to embody the most beautiful blank slate that ever walked a high school hallway is a gift, but such gifts come with expiration dates. Leto's transition from dreamy heartthrob, a part he never seemed to cherish, to daring film star, a part to which he is obviously more aesthetically inclined, was long and haphazard. Many films went nowhere. The most successful of them, a pair of thrillers from David Fincher, even seemed like a direct revolt against his own beauty (consider the cornrows in Panic Room and the entire thrust of his Fight Club role -- "I felt like destroying something beautiful").
Instead Jared leaned into his second career as a rock star. After a long sabbatical from acting, he's returned to screens as Rayon, a transexual drug addict in the 80s set AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club. He's finally found the role to bridge that earlier divide and replace Jordan Catalano in the public imagination. To hear Leto tell it, as I did when we spoke over the phone just before he was (figuratively) buried in an avalanche of awards, we might never had had his Rayon without that time in the wilderness.
"I'm a big believer that we learn from everything we do." he explains. "I hadn't made a film in 5 or 6 years and in that time I was doing a lot of directing and editing and a lot of creative things, touring all over the world and on stage in front of millions of people from Lebanon to China to Africa and beyond. I think the five or six years I took and explored life made me a better actor. I don't think I would have been able to bring Rayon to life had I not lived a life."
Not that Rayon is without precedent in his filmography... [more]
Leto credits two previous roles for influencing this one: Chapter 27's extreme weight gain helped him with the discipline - "the extreme commitment and distance travelled to get to the character" -- though he quickly assures me that he'll "absolutely" never put his body through that again; and the unforgettable Requiem for a Dream for what sounds like thematic sympathies.
I think that Harry Goldfarb and Rayon have quite a bit in common. They're both dreamers. They both have really big hearts. They both are fighting for their lives and trapped inside unbreakable circumstances and fates."
But for the nuts and bolts of building the character, emotionally, the actor met with transgendered people to hear their stories which were often about "discovery and transition... and what it was like to tell their parents" he explains, considering the time listening to be crucial to his process.
I notice that the actor keeps mixing dichotomous adjectives, like "excruciating and amazing" or "painful and fun" and though his physical commitment is well documented, I wonder what kind of emotional difficulties are present in playing this kind of role. "I think it was playing a person who was addicted to drugs and dying of AIDS who was saying goodbye to the world, desperate to be loved and to love. Someone who had had a really challenging and short life. All of those things, you know, made it an incredibly incredibly difficult role to tackle. But really fascinating as well."
The actor famously stayed in character for the entire production process and though I don't hear any vestiges of Rayon in his voice, I wonder if she's still in there somewhere.
When you stay in character like that it's really just a period of training, of extreme focus and commitment. You're teaching yourself and training your muscles and your body to move a specific way, your mouth to speak a certain way. It becomes habit so you have to break habits whether it's an accent, register, a body center, a gait. So some things linger.
There's a lot that I loved about her as well. She was incredibly kind and funny and open hearted and full of charm and grace. And I like a lot of those elements so some of the things you kind of want to keep with you."
This leads us to the natural question of what his co-stars, who did not stay in character between takes, thought of all this? Did Jared have to reintroduce himself all over again on the promotional trail?
"I feel like I got to know them a lot more than they got to know me," the actor admits, grateful for their patience and support. "I was kind of on the outside looking in Or maybe on the inside looking out, I don't know." He skimps on details about the reintroduction but it obviously worked for him.
Leto's performance has already won him Spirit, Globe and SAG nominations and an Oscar nomination looks likely. So while his attention obviously hasn't been on his film career, what counts is getting there. And with the part of Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, he got there.
Which is why what he says next comes as something of a shock...
I hadn't read a script in years. And to tell you the truth I haven't read one since."
Turns out this fine but infrequent actor doesn't seem eager at all to contemplate his next role or even to let Rayon go. "I haven't been thinking about the future so much," he says, reiterating that Dallas Buyers Club is still very much on his mind "a big part of my life. The role of a lifetime for me" he adds to underline the point.
We'll dream of the future for him, then, until he himself arrives to it. That future could well include an Oscar.