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The Triumphant Return of Jared Leto (Don't Expect a Quick Encore)

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").

Rock Star Actor and His Latest Creation

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. 

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Reader Comments (12)

I thought the lowlife character he was playing in Panic Room was cause for his less attractive appearance and not the neatly groomed cornrows he was sporting.

December 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

He deserved an Oscar nod for Requiem, and quite possibly the win!

December 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBhuray

I'm glad he stepped back and came back with a new perspective. During the whole Chapter 27 haze, I felt bad for him, gaining all that weight and the film barely saw the light of day. Then, he got mixed up in the tabloids with Lindsay.

If he waits 5 years to turn in another great performance, I think that's fine.

December 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I loved Leto in My So Called Life and then he made me a bigger fan with
his amazing performance in Requium for a Dream. Looking forward to
see Dallas but Oscar winning actor Jared Leto sounds deserved and easy
In the ears....

December 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I'm not super crazy about the film, but I LOVED Leto in it. I hope we get to see more from him; I'd love to see him follow it up with more strong work.

December 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I thought he was fantastic in Requiem for a Dream. It was a fully fleshed out character displaying the love that he has for his mother and girlfriend while also using both of them to support his addiction. The performance felt so heartbreakingly alive with hope and yet so dead with hopelessness and loneliness. I remember watching it in awe years after it was released.

However, I didn't feel such emotions towards him in Dallas Buyers Club. I thought that he was good in the role, but I didn't feel that the performance itself really developed past the outline and caricature of the character. It may have been the way the role was written, but I felt like it missed that special something to really bring out the greatness and give me a sense of who Rayon is. Granted, I wasn't over the moon on the film as a whole outside of McConaughey's performance. Hopefully I have a chance to give it a second viewing soon.

December 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoey D

I like this guy and everything, and I don't begrudge him his success, but.... why is it that there's so much fucking groupthink among American film critics?

I remember being happy whenever a favorite actor of mine, like Helen Mirren or Christian Bale, would start sweeping the critics' awards, because I knew it meant the Oscar was as good as theirs. The great Cate can probably set aside a spot on her mantelpiece for Oscar #2 for Blue Jasmine as well.

But, dammit, why is there SO MUCH groupthink amongst critics? Is Jared Leto really THAT incredibly spectacular that they can't find any love in their hearts for ANYBODY else? Why is it that year after year after year, it always pans out the same way. The critics all line up behind one particular contender, that contender sweeps everything, and then, lo and behold, the Oscar also goes to them. What else could we expect the Oscar voters to honestly do? These people aren't gleeful sadists, after all. Christ, I'm not even much of a fan of Natalie Portman, but even I would've voted for Natalie in Black Swan that year, just because I'd feel shitty to crush the poor girl's dreams after she just finished winning thirty fucking Best Actress awards in a row. It would be impossible not to be devastated if you'd lost the Oscar after winning literally every other award in existence. I don't think she should've won, but I'd feel like a shit to make her feel like shit on Oscar night. When every single critics' collective votes for the exact same person, the Oscar voters have their hands tied. They can either be devastatingly cruel and sadistic, or they can simply go with the flow and rubber-stamp the critics' choice.

There's been one notable exception to this, of course: The Social Network losing the Oscar after winning everything with the critics. But The Social Network is a movie, not an individual performer. You don't have to see a camera zoom up on a shocked, hurt, bewildered face when you snub a movie rather than an actor.

It's really starting to piss me off, because it's a total herd mentality that destroys any kind of suspense. The Oscars used to be a genuine surprise. Who can forget Marisa Tomei's win or Juliette Binoche's win over "shoo in" Lauren Bacall, or Marcia Gay Harden's dazzling upset, or the shock of 10-year-old Anna Paquin winning? Yet, nowadays, what would probably happen is Kate Hudson or whoever would win 30 awards and Marcia Gay Harden none, and on Oscar night, it would be impossible for the winner to be anyone but Hudson. Harden wouldn't have a chance because no matter how the voters feel, they can't in all good conscience make a perfectly charming young starlet like Hudson go home empty-handed and devastated over her "impossible" loss.

I mean, it's absurd. Daniel Day-Lewis, for example, was not the only possible choice for Best Actor last year. The man already had two Oscars. What is it with this rock-solid uniformity of critical opinion? What about Jean Louis Trintignant in Amour? Everyone seemed to love Riva so much, what about him? Would it have hurt for some critics' group, somewhere, to have thrown Trintignant a ball? When everyone votes the exact same way, they essentially "ruin" that particular category for Oscar night, since there cannot possibly be any suspense or question mark surrounding the question of who's going to win. We all know, at least a month in advance, that the winner WILL be Day-Lewis. It cannot possibly be anyone but Day-Lewis. If the critics would be a little more original, varied, and independent in their choices, the Oscars could actually be exciting again. Thanks to critics' groupthink, they've become a totally predictable bore without a single true surprise in years.

Imagine how exciting this category would be right now if Leto had won a bunch, Bruhl won a bunch, Fassbender won a bunch, some other left-field contenders won some.

It wasn't always this way. It started some time in the new millennium. I remember the 90s and there weren't that many critics' groups in operation and it was always a question mark right to the bitter end who would actually win. That mystery and surprise is completely gone now, and it's the critics' fault.

December 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNormaDesmondsSwimmingPool

norma -- impassioned and true. it did start in the aughts and it is disappointing. i think it's a real mark against critics that they NEED this uniformity of opinion. think of how angry they get when someone doesn't toe the line (like as with The Dark Knight or Wolf of Wall Street or what have you.

i think part of it has to do with the democraticization of film criticism, self publishing on line and such. It used to be a profession and now it's kind of what everyone does and some amateurs go professional and i would think that more critics emerge via fandom (i dont want to say "are fanboys" because that sounds derisive and some new critics are great) than through anything else. I'd include myself in this of course. I did not study to become a journalist but i just loved movies too much to shut up and there was this thing called "the internet" where I could talk about them.

but yeah, groupthinkg is always disappointing and it does set up these inevitable coronations.

December 30, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

By far, one of the best performances of the year

December 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

I totally agree with the critiques. While Leto is sympathetic as Rayon, his solid performance is falling victim to undeserved hype. Rayon is the hooker(sub trans woman)-with-a-heart-of-gold that has been done - and done better - before. Wilson Heredia in Rent comes to mind. Maybe it's because I know drag queens and trans women in real life who are much more believable and three-dimensional? AND DON'T GET ME STARTED ON THAT FIVE O'CLOCK SHADOW

December 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBD

The frontrunners who dominate aren't that big an issue for me. The Oscars aren't supposed to reward upsets just for the entertainment value that you would gain over "surprises," Did Helen Mirren really need to win 30+ critics prizes (including the African American Film Critics Association, like really?)? Nah, probably not, but I'd never begrudge her those prizes leading up to her inevitable Oscar for "The Queen." I hate it when people treat the Oscars like some football game where the "underdog" needs to rally to the finish and there needs to be a compelling race to duke it out for the wins. Sure things don't have to be boring if they're deserving, and there's nothing to be done when everyone falls in line really. Under the radar critical darlings might get the shaft, but that's going to happen regardless for various reasons. So I don't concern myself with it all that much. Let frontrunners be frontrunners.

December 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKylE

I get where you're coming from Norma but the Oscars have always been very uptight and all about Hollywood patting themselves on the back. They want to keep it safe and self congratulatory and avoid any real controversy that puts their negative reality to light. They don't want any more Marlon Brando incidents where they are called out for their hypocrisy.

March 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJake

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