Nylon Guys – March 15, 2005 by April Long Photographed by Melodie McDaniel
FATAL DON’T MISTAKE THIS GUY FOR JUST ANOTHER PRETTY BOY ACTOR. JARED LETO HAS LOOKED DEATH IN THE FACE – SEVERAL TIMES – AND HE LIKES WHAT HE SEES.
When the slim, di-sheveled young man in the baggy camouflage trousers and torn plaid shirt strides into the restaurant – an upscale, foie gras-and-fancy mushroom, you-really-should-wear-a-tie-in-here-sir kind of place in Silverlake, L.A. – everyone in the room glances his way. Heads incline in acknowledgement, elbows nudge other elbows, voices lower into whispers. No one seems quite able to place him (this is an older clientele), but they know they’ve seen him somewhere – and hey, anybody bold enough to walk into this joint without a suit on must be important. Jared Leto has always kept a low profile. He’s held the reigns tight on his fame, never letting it gallop away on the back of blockbusters or romantic comedies or any of the handsome leading-man roles that his face – dainty upturned nose, cobalt blue eyes, chiseled chin – could easily grant him. Instead, he’s made a point of choosing dark, difficult material: the aptly-named thug Angel Face in Fight Club, the cornrow-sporting vandal in Panic Room, the rancid-armed heroin addict in Requiem for a Dream, and, most recently, Hephaistion, the best friend/lover to Colin Farrell’s titular hero in Oliver Stone’s spears-and-sandals epic Alexander. For many, Leto will forever be associated with his 1994 debut as the brooding, inarticulate object of Claire Danes’ affection in the short-lived series My So-Called Life. Even now, as the conversation meanders from books (his favorite is Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha) to lentils (he got hooked on them while filming Alexander in Morocco) to dreams (Leto’s usually star evil robots, aliens, or sharks), it’s hard not to look at him and think (cue small, wistful sigh): Jordan Catalano. A decade later, he still looks pretty much exactly as he did in that role – the same grunge-isn’t-dead wardrobe, shaggy rocker haircut, and intense, slightly distracted expression. ”Jordan Catalano?” Leto jokes. ”Who’s that?” Then he demurs, ”I’m grateful that’s where I got started. It could have been the fucking Mickey Mouse Club or something.” After a pause, he adds, ”No, actually. It coulnd’t have been. I wasn’t exploring those themes at that age.” Leto was born in Bossier City, Louisiana to an artist mother and an absentee dad on December 26, 1971. His family lived on a Colorado commune, then spent time in New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Alaska, Wyoming, Virginia, and Haiti. He studied painting at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Beyond these few facts, the details of Leto’s past are hazy, and his sentences become stilted and cluttered with ums when he’s asked to clear them up. He claims that he lived on the streets and raced cars in a demolition derby, and that his older brother Shannon ”cleaned up” for a coroner (”Have you ever seen a dead person?” he asks. ”It’s fascinating to look into the face of death.”). He makes glib comments like, ”I grew up smoking crack, not reading books,” and contends that he ”got into some trouble and was arrested,” but refuses to elaborate. Leto may be playing for effect, but there is something restless and cagey about him; he acts like a man guarding a secret. ”Let’s just say I had a very colorful youth,” he says, and then focuses on his lentil soup with subject-closed intensity.
Asked to describe himself in five words, Leto says: ”Driven. Focused. Obsessed. Creative.” Long pause. ”Sexual.” He’s in constant motion: shifting around as he speaks, swinging his high-top-clad feet up into the restaurant booth so that he’s half-reclining. He fiddles with the buttons on his shirt, and repeatedly rubs a mark on his left shoulder that looks suspiciously like a human bite. ”A bite?” He inspects it for a moment. ”Maybe. I’m not averse to a good nibble.” The actor is prone to non sequiturs, like ”It’s funny. I don’t like onions but I like onion rings. What’s up with that?” He rarely smiles. Sometimes he stops speaking and stares at you, blankly and intently; usually when he doesn’t want to answer a question (i.e. anything about former girlfriend Cameron Diaz or current squeeze Scarlett Johansson). He can be slightly fatuous (”I think in my head,” he declares at one point, ”I’m always creating”), but every time he starts to sound too full of hot air, he’s the first one to stick a pin in the bubble. ”I sound like Christopher Walken!” he groans, after a long-winded explanation of ”photocopy-based art pieces” that he’s been making recently. ”What do I know, anyway? Nothing.” Leto has never watched any of his own films, except Requiem for a Dream (”I haven’t seen Alexander yet,” he confesses. ”Is it complete dog shit?”), but he loves talking about them. ”I had so much respect for the characters and history of Alexander,” he enthuses. ”These men were such incredible warriors; they were compassionate, tough, and educated by Aristotle. They could talk about Plato and then slit your fucking throat. Today’s leaders have nothing on them.” The big question before the film’s release was whether or not there was any controversially graphic man-on-man action between Leto and Farrell. Now, Leto says, people are complaining that there wasn’t enough (they don’t even kiss, just make moony eyes at each other and hug). ”It’s not about us fucking up against a wall,” he says. ”It’s about the tangible love and friendship and support, politically and emotionally, that these two men shared.” Leto laughs and smacks the table with his palm when he’s told that he looked truly smitten with his costar. ”Did I really? I have very strong feelings for Colin as a person, so it was easy for me to be full of love. I understood what it was about.” ”There are a lot of actors who would be uncomfortable exploring that territory,” he adds. ”Or who would feel like they have to protect a certain image. I don’t give a fuck. I think that as soon as I have an image, it’s time to die.” Speaking of image: Hephaistion rocked some serious eyeliner, which got thicker as the film wore on. ”There’s a reason for that!” Leto exclaims. ”As Alexander’s army headed into places like Egypt and Babylon, Hephaistion really embraced the local people and took on their customs. Does that not come across? Does it seem weird? When you’re watching the film, is it like ’Why’s he doing Pirates of the Caribbean all of a sudden?’”
”ALL OF MY ROLES HAVE HAD THEIR OWN UNIQUE SET OF CHALLENGES, AND I ENJOY THAT IN SOME PERVERSE, MASOCHISTIC WAY. I’M ALWAYS DYING, THOUGH! MAYBE I HAVE SOME KIND OF FETISH.”
During the movie’s most critical battle (in which Alexander’s army are quashed by elephant-riding Indians), Hephaistion sustains a really nasty blow… ”To my cock muscle?” Leto interjects. That’s the medical term, yes. ”Yeah, I injured my fucking rod. I took one for the team there, I really did. And at the last minute, Oliver wanted a bigger gash, so the makeup artists fashioned it out of handiwipes. They molded them on my inner thigh – my shaved inner thigh, I might add – and it really looked like guts.” In preparation for the film, Leto spoke only in an Irish accent for six months (the dialect in the film was skewed toward Farrell’s native lilt), put on 20 lbs of muscle, and learned to ride a horse, bareback, in a skirt. ”Alexander changed my life,” he says emphatically. ”Even if the movie is a bomb artistically and financially, I would go back and do it again. It was an incredible experience, being in Morocco. Do you know how many times I drove to the set at five in the morning and watched the sunrise over the desert? Living in a tent, being in boot camp with a big group of men; those circumstances have a tremendous effect on you. And just seeing all that poverty was eye-opening. It makes you grateful for what you have.” He stops himself, and straightens up in his seat with a mischievous grin. ”Before I start sounding like Deepak Chopra, maybe we should talk about my injured cock some more.” Pretty much every role Leto has ever played (post-Catalano) has involved mutilation, madness, or death. He’s been beaten beyond recognition (Fight Club); butchered with an ax by Christian Bale (American Psycho), set on fire by Jodie Foster (Panic Room), hit by a car (Prefontaine), and had an arm amputated (Requiem for a Dream). In his next film, Lord of War (with Nic Cage and Ethan Hawke), he plays a drug dealer who loses his mind, and he’s currently preparing to portray a man in need of a heart transplant in director Joby Harold’s thriller Awake. ”It’s what I’m inspired by,” he shrugs. ”All of my roles have had their own unique set of challenges, and I enjoy that in some perverse, masochistic way. I’m always dying, though! Maybe I have some kind of fetish.” He chews thoughtfully on a piece of bread, then adds, ”What if I die soon? Then people will talk about this moment on the Internet. They’ll say, ’he talked about how he dies in his movies in that fucking NYLON interview, and then he died. It’s the curse of Jared Leto!’” He laughs, and nods happily ”I’d be famous for cursing myself. That’d be nice.”
For Requiem, Leto dropped down to a fragile 123 lbs (”It’s was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, physically,” he winces) in order to cultivate the hollow, wild-eyed look of a drug addict. ”I started fainting on the set,” he says, poking at his salad. ”They had to take X rays of my heart, because they were concerned, basically, that I was eating my heart. Your heart is a muscle and when you lose too much weight… well, my heart was shrinking.” Although he swore he’d never do it again, he’s currently losing weight for Awake. ”What am I doing?” he shakes his head. ”Maybe it’s time to do something where I actually enjoy the process. Something light. Like, I don’t know, a Winnie the Pooh movie.” After dinner, we walk down the street to a recording studio where Leto is currently finishing an album with his band 30 Seconds to Mars (he sings and plays guitar). He confesses that he ”cringes a little bit” about the band’s prog-rocky 2002 self-titled debut. ”I created a world and hid behind it, because of who I am. But on this record, I’ve thrown all of that away. It’s very personal and intimate.” Does he worry about being tarred with the same brush as other Hollywood hobbyist stick-to-acting-please ”musicians” like Keanu Reeves or Russell Crowe? ”Of course. There have been a lot of people in a similar position to me who have made embarrassingly bad records. It’s hard to put myself out there. But, whatever. There are people who hate the fucking Beatles, and people who love Menudo. I don’t need to make everyone in the world fucking happy. That’s not my job.” Leto used to say he wasn’t that into acting – that he might make his band a full-time job, or decamp to the mountains, never to be seen again. That was either spin or he’s since changed his mind. He now talks about acting reverently, reiterating how much he loves transforming himself and taking risks. ”I always want to move forward,” he says. „I believe in creative progress, emotional growth. Yes, I’ve had some ambivalence about acting in the past. That’s why I only made three movies in five years. It’s hard because I want to make films that I’m proud of, and that I find interesting, and those seem to be few and far between. But I have been more inspired lately.” While appearing in a $150 million historical epic might seem to be an uncharacteristically commercial choice (”If you can’t say yes to Oliver Stone, who can you say yes to?” he explains), Leto remains distinctly individual and umcompromising. Like Johnny Depp, whose cheekbones are a trump card he refuses to play, Leto has chosen to take the road less traveled – delving into idiosyncratic roles that deflect attention from his looks and focus it on his acting. In the process, he’s become a surprisingly unpredictable and edgy actor. Unlike his more cautious peers, he wouldn’t flinch at even the most punishing role. In fact, he’d eat his heart out for it.