Jared Leto: Thriving in the Dark
Everyone talks about Matthew McConaughey’s comeback. Admittedly, the “McConaissance” was impressive, but Dallas Buyers Club also represented a massive comeback for Jared Leto. Leto had been best-known as the teen heartthrob on the short-lived TV show “My So-Called Life”. When that show was cancelled, he spent years trying to change his image. Rather than taking lead roles in light-weight romantic comedies (as McConaughey did), Leto took supporting parts in movies like Fight Club, The Thin Red Line and Panic Room. Over a decade before those efforts paid off in the form of an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Leto talked to Movieline magazine about his so-called career.
Surviving Young Hollywood is a challenge for even the most skilled actor, but it’s been especially difficult for Jared Leto, who was thrown an extra curve–“My So-Called Life.” Though the series lasted only one season, Leto developed such a massive cult following for injecting an appealing blend of rebelliousness, moodiness and sensitivity into high school student Jordan Catalano that he was still topping teen heartthrob lists years after the show was canceled.
Leto has steadily tried to slink away from being typecast as the small screens James Dean, just as Johnny Depp did when “21 Jump Street” threatened his chances at a feature film career. Leto made his first savvy move by starring in the title role of a cocky Olympic runner in 1997’s Prefontaine. He made more clever calls by taking small roles in either edgy or prestigious films. His bit part as a tense soldier in Terrence Malick’s critically acclaimed The Thin Red Line sufficiently jarred nerves. Allowing himself to get beaten to a pulp in David Fincher’s Fight Club, showed guts. And turning up for a few minutes as Winona Ryder’s lover in Girl, Interrupted and as Christian Bales nemesis in American Psycho was a message to Hollywood that he’d rather take minor roles in good material than be a sell out for starring roles in mediocre fare. When he took his first starring role in years, as a junkie in Darren Aronofsky’s bitter little indie Requiem for a Dream, it finally hit casting directors that Leto was a much-underused talent.
Characteristically, Leto did not use his newfound buzz to land a starring role in a flashy film. Instead, he’s chosen another supporting role, this time opposite Oscar-winner Jodie Foster in Fight Club director David Fincher’s nerve-rattling thriller Panic Room. He plays Junior, a disenchanted child of privilege turned burglar who torments Foster and her young daughter in a Manhattan brownstone.
When I meet Leto–who’s been dating Cameron Diaz for some time but would rather not discuss their relationship–over chips and salsa on the patio of L.A.’s Chateau Marmont, I notice he’s wearing the same braided cornrows he sports in the trailer for Panic Room. “I still have the hair because I just did some additional shooting yesterday,” says Leto of the film that started production in late 2000. “Making Panic Room has been a long, interesting ride. People on the set yesterday were joking, ‘All right! We just got picked up for a second season!'”
DENNIS HENSLEY: Would you be happy if you never wore cornrows again?
JARED LETO: I’m going to shave my head just to make sure there’s no fucking way I can go back on that set. [Laughs] As much as I love working with David, I’m ready for different material.
Q: Is David Fincher as intense as his movies?
A: David’s really intense. I hesitate to use the word genius because I think he’s too handsome to be a genius. He’s downright sexy. [Laughs] And he has got to be the most knowledgeable person I’ve ever met. He sets up a world that is filled with so much truth, from the tiles on the floor to the paint cracking in the corner, that it enables you as an actor to do your job.
Q: Did you get banged up while making Fight Club?
A: Yeah. I broke, like, three ribs. I had to fall and David wanted it to look real so he was off to the side of the camera throwing me down on the ground.
Q: He literally threw you down on the ground?
A: Yeah. [Laughs] We threw a couple of chairs at each other.
Q: And it was all worth it?
A: In all honesty, it’s so exciting to go to the set every day to be part of what he’s doing. Even if his movies aren’t your cup of tea, you can’t walk away from them without acknowledging the craftsmanship that goes into them.
Q: Is Panic Room really set in one room?
A: It’s set in one house and it takes place pretty much in one night. You know what that means, right?
Q: No, I don’t.
A: I have to wear one outfit during the entire film, though there are several copies of it. I had black leather gloves, from Barneys, of course, a long corduroy brown trench coat and Prada shoes.
Q: That’s pretty stylish for a burglar.
A: This guy comes from a really wealthy New York family. He’s the black sheep, kind of a jaded Catcher in the Rye wannabe.
Q: Forest Whitaker and Dwight Yoakam play your partners in crime. What are they like?
A: Forest can show the most subtle of emotions in his face. I like to watch his takes when I’m not in the scene. And Dwight, he’s playing one of the utmost son-of-a-bitches on the planet, and he does it really, really well. He’s horrifying.
Q: This movie has had quite a rocky road to the screen. Was there a point when you thought it might not happen?
A: There were several points. Nicole Kidman was originally in the film. David started rehearsals and then she hurt her knee so we shut down for six weeks. We started up again and she hurt her other knee. So Jodie Foster came onboard and a few weeks later it comes out that she’s pregnant so that was another challenge to shoot around because she was starting to show.
Q: Did you get to rehearse with Nicole?
A: Just a bit. I thought she was fantastic.
Q: What was it like working with Jodie?
A: She’s in one side of the house and we’re in another so we were separated for most of the shoot. But she’s very interesting to watch. You respect her. You can see her thinking, which is good for this kind of character in a thriller.
Q: You play a thief in the film. Have you ever stolen anything?
A: I once stole $12 million from a school for the blind. [Laughs] Not really. I stole a lot when I was a kid, but I wouldn’t steal one candy; I’d take the whole carton. I also used to like to break into other people’s houses and sit in their rooms. I found it very comforting to be in someone’s empty house.
Q: Would you pick a nice house or just any house?
A: Whatever house I could get into. It was so weird. But I’ve stopped doing that. [Laughs]
Q: What do you hope audiences get out of Panic Room?
A: I think that all the subliminal imagery that David put in the film will disturb people. It’s very classic, Hitchcockian and suspenseful. It keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s the kind of movie I’d want to see.
Q: When you’re at your most stressed out making dark movies like Panic Room, do you ever think, “I should just make some high paying Garry Marshall comedy and take it easy for a while”?
A: Sometimes I do question, “What is wrong with me?” Some people I respect a lot have a great time making films that are light and fun, and I think that’s fantastic, if that’s what makes them feel good. Maybe they’re having more fun than I am. That’s what I question. Right now I want to work on projects that take chances and aren’t afraid to be unconventional. You have to do what moves you. I liked working with Darren Aronofsky on Requiem for a Dream. I would be happy going back and forth between Darren and David Fincher for the rest of my career. But I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to do something light. I probably will at some point.
Q: I read that you lost a lot of weight to play a junkie in Requiem for a Dream. How did you do it?
A: I didn’t eat. I’d have broccoli, cucumber, but just a few bites of little things, never more. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done to myself, willingly. It was really painful starting to eat again after that. I was filled with a lot of guilt. It can be an addiction to not eat when you make such a strong commitment to that. I heard this story about an English woman who was in a sailboat race for months around the world. At the end of the trip, she said it was so hard to step off the boat. She wanted to go back and do it again, and that’s how I felt with Requiem. I was just bawling uncontrollably the last few days of shooting. I’d look at Darren and start crying. But there were moments of such reward.
Q: Could you have been less committed, say lost less weight, and still pulled it off?
A: I don’t know. I did what I thought I had to do because I wanted to make myself proud and make everybody else proud, though I was miserable to be around. I was talking in this obnoxious accent all the time. Some people got a little scared. I apologized to Jennifer Connelly and I apologize again right now because she’s so sweet. We had scenes where Darren was giving us direction in private and well, I just hated her.
Q: Did you reward yourself when it was over?
A: It was difficult. I walked around New York City for a while. Ultimately, I went to Portugal and stayed in this old monastery for weeks and ate fish and potatoes.
Q: To research your role, you spent time with junkies in New York. What surprised you about that world?
A: You see that no one starts out as a junkie. They’re lawyers, or married couples.
Q: Did it depress you?
A: No, because I don’t really live in a bubble.
Q: Were you relieved when the film was well received?
A: It was great to be at Cannes and see that film for the first time with 1,400 people. I was shitting my pants because people at Cannes will boo and walk out of a film if they don’t like it. And there was a standing ovation afterwards that went on and on. That was really moving. It’s a nice feeling to be a part of a film people respond to. I haven’t had that feeling often.
Q: A few years ago, you and Billy Crudup both played runner Steve Prefontaine in competing movies. Did it bother you that there was another film being shot?
A: Pre was my first major part and I was pretty much operating under the assumption that I was going after the Olympics. [Laughs] I was so gung-ho and trying to do everything I could to be this guy. Plus, Prefontaine’s family was around often, so it was a moving experience.
Q: You and your brother were raised by a single mother and spent many years living in different places as part of a commune. What do you remember about that?
A: It was creative. One memory I have is there were a lot of dogs at this one place and my brother got in a horrific fight with a dog and the dog bit his toe off. They became fast friends after that. He lost a toe and gained a friend.
Q: You lived in Haiti for a while. What was that like?
A: I was 12. It’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It was horrible to see people living in the street, in shacks, and bathing in sewer water and drinking bad water and begging and starving. It was unforgettable.
Q: Do you think being raised by a single mother gave you insight into women?
A: Yes. I love women. [Laughs] I remember my mother showed me and my brother and some other kids on the commune a film on pregnancy. She sat down with an 8mm projector and showed it on the wall in the bedroom.
Q: Before becoming an actor, you studied film at the School of Visual Arts in New York. How did that experience affect your sensibility?
A: It was very anti-Hollywood, we did a lot of experimental films. It was worthless making conventional Hollywood melodramatic narrative pieces.
Q: Were you in any of them?
A: No, I was on the other side.
Q: What movies impacted you in your youth?
A: Blade Runner, The Last Emperor. Recently, I’ve been watching George Lucas’s THX 1138. It’s just a phenomenal film.
Q: You came to Hollywood at 20. What was your first impression?
A: It was wild. I had never been to California and it was always a magic place to me. My brother was racing demolition cars in Indiana and he got in trouble and got locked up. So I came out here. The first night, I slept on Venice Beach.
Q: What was it like when you first started going out on auditions?
A: It was challenging and nerve-racking. I remember hiding behind an overturned desk, shooting imaginary guns at people. One time, I stopped and said, “I can’t do this. I feel like I’m in a bad high school play. I’m sorry I’m wasting your time, but I’ve got to go.”
Q: Do you still audition a lot?
A: I haven’t auditioned for a year. Auditioning can be exciting, but most of the time it just makes you sick. I’m really not interested in being the guy who works the most. I could see taking several years off.
Q: What’s something you’re good at that might surprise people?
A: Messing with computer hardware. I take computers practically apart and put them back together. I have a supercomputer I built over the years out of different computers.
Q: Do you have a favorite tabloid story about yourself?
A: I haven’t had any horrible ones. Years ago, there was a rumor going around that I was dead because I was working in Ireland. Once I got back, people who seemed very upset would come up to me and say, “We thought you were dead!”
Q: Have you had any memorable spring break adventures?
A: I never really did the spring break party thing. But once, I ended up in a hotel in Palm Springs. Someone opened the door and this girl that was in the room rushed over to close it and the people on the outside slammed it. The door reopened and the girl rushes over to the sink and I see this other girl bend down and pick something up. I’m like, “What is that?” It was one of the girl’s fingers.
Q: Did she stick it back on?
A: I saw the girl later in the evening looking at the other girl all pissed off, you know, drinking a beer with her fingers all wrapped up.
Q: They say Hollywood is like high school with money. Where do you fit in that metaphor? Drama geek? Computer nerd?
A: I’m the guy who’s ditching. [Laughs] And the teacher’s calling out, “Leto? Leto? Leto? Where’s Leto?”
Dennis Hensley interviewed Oded Fehr for the September issue of Movieline.