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."
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.'
"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."
Two nights earlier, the other side of Jared Leto is on full ear-ringing display at the Hollywood Bowl, where Thirty Seconds to Mars are leaning into a sold-out hometown gig. "I believe in you, California – do you believe in me?" Leto asks the crowd. (Spoiler alert: They do.) The hugely entertaining show features giant color-changing balloons cascading through the crowd, a worm-shaped dirigible, multiple confetti cannons and elaborate videos that include the message YES THIS IS A CULT.
Thirty Seconds to Mars make large-scale theatrical rock music; like their fellow travelers Panic! at the Disco and the Killers, they are successful in the States but even bigger in Europe. After 11 years, they've tallied four albums, 10 million copies sold and one protracted $30 million lawsuit with their record label that ended with the band extending its label deal. "I fail all the time," Leto says. "Every time I make an album, you hear the 10 best songs. I wrote a hundred songs for the last album [Love Lust Faith + Dreams]. Failure isn't the enemy – success often is."
The band has allowed Leto tons of latitude to explore his various interests outside music, especially filmmaking – he directs the group's elaborate videos, which often end up more like short films. "To tell you the truth, I edit more than anything else," Leto says. For "City of Angels," he interviewed a bunch of performers on the topic of fame, from Kanye West to a Michael Jackson impersonator; for "A Beautiful Lie," he shot on Arctic glaciers and edited the footage for six months. His pseudonym on these projects is Bartholomew Cubbins (a name borrowed from a Dr. Seuss book). "I made up the story that he's some insanely obnoxious Danish albino," Leto says. Cubbins' Twitter account gives Leto a safe place to vent his spleen, with erratically capitalized sentiments such as "ChEW mY coCKcuMBer u FaRTing bUtWhiSTle!"
After the show, the bandmates (a core trio that include multi-instrumentalist Tomo Milicevic and Jared's older brother Shannon on drums) sign CDs for thousands of fans, who have come from as far away as Portugal. An attractive brunette tells Leto, "My husband threw his wedding ring at you when you were in the crowd – did you happen to find it?" Her husband, who apparently was trying to also propose some kind of rock & roll marriage to Leto, is a big guy sporting a pink mohawk like the one Leto used to have. Leto doesn't accept the proposal, but he does sign his CD with an extra flourish.
Leto didn't have a serious girlfriend until he reached his twenties: "I was never very proficient with the ladies when I was younger, but I started making up for lost time." (He dated Cameron Diaz from 1999 to 2003; the couple were engaged before they split up.) And he doesn't think he's particularly good boyfriend material at this point in his life: "I'm too obsessed with my own creative ambitions and my own goals."
After thousands of autographs, Leto ponders his own life. "In five or six years, I might disappear," he muses. "How many people do you need to love you to feel OK about yourself? How many times do you need to stand in front of tens of thousands of people who are singing your songs? How many filmmakers need to hire you – how many Darren Aronofskys and Oliver Stones and David Finchers and Terrence Malicks need to say, 'He's good enough for me,' before you're good enough for yourself?"
This story is from the November 7th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.