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Jared Leto goes method

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For Dallas Buyers Club, Jared Leto lost a total of 40lbs. Tom Ellen meets a man of method

Jared Leto inspires mixed feelings for men of a certain age. If you were a teenager in the mid-Nineties – when Leto achieved global pin-up status for his Byronic glances and outsized lumberjack shirts in moany teen drama My So-Called Life – the actor was notable solely for being that irritating bloke every girl seemed to fancy more than you.

Fast-forward 20 years, and every girl still fancies him more than you. The difference is that you’ve started to warm to him now, too. The reason for this is simple: since – and, possibly, because of – his floppy-haired TV days, the 42-year-old has apparently made it his mission to tackle only the oddest and most challenging roles around.

He popped up in Fight Club and American Psycho, gained 60lb to play John Lennon’s killer in Chapter 27, and lost 28lb to play a junkie in the brilliant-but-superhumanly depressing Requiem For A Dream.

However, all these roles pale in the odd/challenging stakes compared to his latest. For Dallas Buyers Club – the true story of a homophobic cowboy (Matthew McConaughey) who forms an illicit medicine ring upon contracting Aids – Leto dressed in drag and dropped 40lb to play Rayon, a drug-addled, HIV-positive transsexual. Was it worth the effort? As his recent Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win would suggest, it very much was.

When ShortList sits down with him in London, Leto’s in buoyant mood, his shoulder-length hair and straggly beard giving him the air of – to borrow a phrase from Alan Partridge – a “scruffy Christ”. He’s due at The O2 imminently, ahead of a gig with his ludicrously successful rock band Thirty Seconds To Mars (the band’s constant touring is the reason Leto’s big-screen appearances are so sporadic), so, with no time to waste, we crack on…

What was your reaction when you first read the Dallas Buyers Club script? Did you initially have any reservations about losing 40lb and dressing in drag for the role?

No, I thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was impossible for me to say no. What an incredible challenge, what a beautiful part.

Your co-star Matthew McConaughey also underwent extreme weight loss for his role in the film. Did you support each other through the process?

Not really, we were both in our own worlds. I was in character for the whole shoot. I even did my audition in character, over Skype, wearing lipstick and a little pink sweater. I didn’t meet the director [as myself] until after filming was over. I went deep.

Did you actually wander the streets in drag, too?

Yeah, I did that a lot and – as pretty a woman as I thought I made – I didn’t fool anyone [laughs]. I went to the supermarket [in drag], mainly to stare at food because I wasn’t eating, and I got lots of looks. Some were just like, “Wait, is that… that guy from films? Dressed as a woman?” But I also got a look that was like, “I don’t know who or what that is, but I don’t f*cking like it.” A judgement, a condemnation.

You gained a lot of weight in order to play John Lennon’s killer Mark Chapman in 2007 film Chapter 27. Which did you find worse – weight loss or weight gain?

Gaining weight is far more difficult and damaging. It changes you so much, it’s wild. For Chapter 27, I was drinking melted Häagen-Dazs, olive oil and soy sauce. Not fun. My cholesterol jumped up and they wanted to put me on Lipitor, a cholesterol drug for older people. To play Rayon, I just ate nothing for weeks. But I think both of them [weight loss and weight gain] are less about how they make you look, and more about how they make you feel. In the case of Dallas Buyers Club, the weight loss provided a fragility for a character that’s addicted to drugs and dying of Aids, but it’s not like you lose the weight and then you’re automatically able to deliver the performance. It’s just one component in the whole process.

Did you speak to any transgender people in preparation?

Yes, and it was incredibly impactful. I talked to them about everything from the voice, to the heels, to what it’s like to tell your parents who you really are. I learned a lot.

I read an interview with you once where you said you didn’t really like acting. Is that still the case?

Well, there’s a lot to not like about it. Losing 40lb – that’s not fun. Let me be clear: there’s no fun making a movie like Dallas Buyers Club [laughs]. I don’t think one joke was cracked the entire time. Obviously, there are funny bits in the film – I don’t think it made the final cut, but there was a great scene where I pulled out my tit and said, “Suck it, it’s your mommy’s milk” – but on the whole, the process of acting can be very tedious. For this movie, I was in make-up for eight hours. Twenty minutes is annoying, y’know, but eight hours?

So, why keep acting?

Because I love film. I love the end product. So, no matter how hard it is, the rewards are always worth it.

You’ve spoken in the past about being a tearaway as a kid. What exactly did you get up to?

We did everything. Got a car? We’ll steal it. We’ll take your wallet, too. I don’t want to say we were bad kids, but we were rambunctious and wild. For us, if you looked up ‘fun’ in the dictionary, the definition was breaking the law. I can think of no better feeling in the world than running from the cops and getting away. I wish everyone could experience that once, because that’s true freedom. That happened to me many times.

Did you ever get caught?

I was arrested plenty of times, but if I ran I usually got away. Once, I got arrested, and then I ran [laughs]. They hadn’t cuffed me, and the cop went to clock me with his nightstick, but he missed and I got away. He must have felt like a punk. Some skinny-ass teenager getting away from him; he must have been real embarrassed.

What had you done to get arrested in the first place?

Man, if I got into that I’d probably have to go back and spend some time in the joint. But that was all when I was a kid, so there’s more to forgive there. The consequences would be much more hurtful if I was still doing that stuff today.

Do you still get approached by female fans about My So-Called Life? When I was growing up, pretty much every girl I knew was totally obsessed with you.

Interesting. Have you seen a therapist about this?

Well, arguably, this is a kind of therapy now. I’m telling you face to face…

[Laughs] That’s true. To be honest, these days it’s not about My So-Called Life, it’s more about Requiem For A Dream or Thirty Seconds To Mars. We [the band] have been doing it so long now – we’re on our third UK arena tour – and we’ve had a lot of success. I’ve been waved through customs in foreign countries by people who’ve pulled back their shirt to show me a Thirty Seconds tattoo. Our fans are involved 1,000 per cent. I even spoke to some US soldiers who’d served in the Middle East, and they told me that all they had was our album to keep their spirits up when they were locked down a foxhole. That’s a wonderful thing.

You’ve done some campaigning for the Democrats in the past. Are you in touch with President Obama?

Oh, he only calls me when it’s really important. When he needs my advice on really difficult foreign policy questions. Cleaning up the NSA mess – obviously he gave me a call [laughs]. No, he’s not bothered about me, but I’ll always support whoever I think is the best person for the [president’s] job. That’s what we do in a democracy, we make our voices heard.

Finally, what’s the strangest rumour you’ve heard about yourself?

I heard years ago that I was dead. It was reported on the news in Ireland. I’d love to get a copy of that video, if anyone can dig it up. It’d be fun to put that online. It was 1995, I was in Ireland shooting a movie, and these kids kept coming up, saying [adopts extremely accurate Irish accent]: “We just had a f*cking funeral for ya! Jesus f*cking Christ, man, you’re alive!”

Dallas Buyers Club is at cinemas nationwide from 7 February

(Image: All Star)

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