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Jared Leto Gets Back

At home with the musician and actor as he returns to movies

October 24, 2013 11:00 AM ET
Jared Leto
Jared Leto
Illustration by Phillip Burke

In the department of pet names that don't require deep metaphorical interpretation, there is Judas, a wolf – yes, a wolf! – that Jared Leto used to own. "He never hung with the dogs," recalls the rock star (his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars, just played a triumphant show at the Hollywood Bowl) and actor (he stars in the acclaimed new Dallas Buyers Club). "He always had one eye on the hills. Such a special animal, and a killer. One time, I had rolled down the window in the car. He jumped out, took off running and took down a Canadian goose."

See Why Dallas Buyers Club Is One of Peter Travers' Must-See Fall Movies

Even though he's a longtime vegan, Leto was impressed. But the important thing to take away from this story is that Jared Leto is the kind of guy who would have a wild animal as a pet. The kind of guy who doesn't accept the idea of limits. At 41, Leto has been famous since the Clinton administration – he broke through as Claire Danes' dreamy bad-boy love interest on My So-Called Life. Since then, he's appeared in more than 20 movies, including American Psycho, Fight Club and Requiem for a Dream. But in 1998, he launched Thirty Seconds to Mars, even though he knew he'd be labeled a dilettante, or worse. And about six years ago, against all expert advice, Leto shut down his movie career to focus on his music. "I recommend it for anybody in any profession – go pursue something else," he says. "I think it made me a better person, but it certainly made me a better actor."

Leto, eating popcorn and drinking coconut milk straight from the carton, is sitting upright on a sectional sofa in his sleek Hollywood home. The walls are covered with hip modern art – lots of Banksy – and the massive coffee table threatens to buckle under the weight of dozens of books: Plato, Stephen King, art photographer Taryn Simon, an edition of Guinness World Records that includes an entry on Thirty Seconds to Mars ("Longest Concert Tour by a Rock Band"). "I'm just as likely to read a book about business or sociobiology as I am something for fun," says Leto, who takes special interest in technology and e-commerce, and has a team of coders working on a live-streaming site called VyRT. "I think it's really important for creative people to be part of the conversation about the digital architecture of tomorrow."

The movie that lured him out of retirement is Dallas Buyers Club, one of the fall's most anticipated releases. Leto plays a transgender woman named Rayon, who partners with a homophobic HIV-positive cowboy (Matthew McConaughey) to distribute experimental AIDS drugs in Texas in the 1980s. Leto took an immersive approach to the character, from the moment he arrived in Louisiana for the shoot: Every day, he showed up on set in women's clothing, and then changed into his wardrobe for the day. "He got off the plane in a dress and high heels and a wig," says director Jean-Marc Vallée. "The first week was awkward, because I didn't know what to call him. Her? Jared? Rayon? But I got into it. He was a she, and she was nice. At the end of the shoot, I gave her a female gift: a woman's T-shirt with Marc Bolan on it."

With raw, funny performances, Leto and McConaughey totally upend the Hollywood cliché of the sassy drag queen imparting life lessons. (They're both widely expected to get Oscar nominations.) But even though his character displays remarkable joie de vivre in the face of death, Leto found the role taxing, physically and emotionally. "The only way I can do what I do is by going headfirst and diving deep," Leto says. "I get out what I put in. If you're playing a transsexual drug addict dying of AIDS with a dialect, with all those circumstances and emotional conditions, I don't understand how you can let all that go when someone says, 'Cut.'

Jared Leto Makes a Beautiful Woman in Dallas Buyers Club

"There was a lot of discovery," he adds. "But I was counting down the days until it was over." So has he lined up his next acting gig? "I haven't read another script since," he says, grinning. "Not one."

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