Jared Leto on 'Dallas Buyers Club' and the Pink Mohawk

'Not only does pressure make popcorn, it also pushes us to make great art'

Jared Leto
Matt Carr/Getty Images
Jared Leto
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Jared Leto has had many public identities, starting with his breakthrough role as the inscrutable (and illiterate) love interest of Claire Danes on My So-Called Life. Since then he's proven to be one of his generation's most committed actors, losing 28 pounds to star as a heroin addict in Requiem for a Dream and gaining 60 pounds to play John Lennon's assassin in Chapter 27. But Leto left aside a thriving film career – which also included Fight Club and American Psycho – to remake himself as the lead singer of the rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars. (Sometimes in that lead-singer role, he sported a pink Mohawk.) Recently, he's returned to film, starring in Dallas Buyers Club opposite Matthew McConaughey as the HIV-positive transgender character of Rayon, in a moving performance that's garnering lots of Oscar buzz.

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

Two days after Thirty Seconds to Mars played a sold-out show at the Hollywood Bowl, Leto sat down with us at his house for a Rolling Stone feature, nursing an infection and trying not to cough up a lung. His look these days: long hair and a beard. "He looks like Jesus," says Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée. "I'm a disciple." Excerpts from our extended conversation:

Tell me about that insane fringed jacket you were wearing onstage.
Oh, that's an Yves St. Laurent jacket. I'm fortunate because I don't have to adhere to a dress code, which fits in with my younger, rebellious self, the side that has authority issues.

Do you have a non-rebellious side?
There's an entrepreneurial side. There's the kid that excelled in math and science and that is excited about technology and business and sociobiology.

To play Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, you fully immersed yourself in the role, not breaking character during the shoot. Have you always worked that way?
Yeah. You don't want the process to overtake the result, but in this case, it served everybody well because the character was so far removed from who I am. There's a lot that I loved about the character. She was very open and loving, and I really fell for that. I can be very guarded and driven, so I hope to keep some of those elements on the other side.

Was it hard to strip Rayon away and become yourself again?
It takes a while. When you make that incredible commitment, it can be hard to let go. When I work on short films or documentaries, I get anxious towards the end because I'm losing the opportunity to continue that experiment. And you get conditioned. I remember after Requiem for a Dream, when I started eating again – everyone thinks, "Oh, you're going to eat some giant meal," but you can't, because after a teaspoon of whatever is in front of you, you're full. I ate half a vegan taco, got this flood of guilt, and pushed it away. I don't think I ate for another two days.

Has pursuing music made you a better actor?
You learn from anything that you do. Editing teaches you about songwriting. Being onstage teaches you about storytelling. A love affair in the south of France, a sunrise in Lebanon: the richer your experiences, the greater your challenges, the more you have to offer and share with the world.

To what extent is Thirty Seconds to Mars naked self-expression, and to what extent are you playing the role of the lead singer?
It's one thousand percent being who you are. When I go to a show, I want to know that the person onstage is willing to die for it and also has a sense of humor about it. When I'm onstage, I'm more of who I am than ever. I'm more comfortable up there with a guitar than I would be sitting and talking with someone one on one. I never would've thought that.

This wasn't supposed to happen. None of this. The film, the music, the worldwide success, playing in front of a hundred thousand people. What the fuck? We were supposed to fail, and we have so much gratitude. Throughout the entire journey, I've been full of doubt, fear, insecurity – but it's never stopped me from putting one foot in front of the other. The bridge between the dream and reality is work, work, work.

What's the biggest difference between you and your brother Shannon, who plays drums in the band?
I'm very methodical, sometimes to a fault. For my brother, it's about first choices, while for me it could be about the 500th choice.

What do you remember about Bob Ezrin, who produced Pink Floyd's The Wall and your debut album?
Ezrin is a great producer. We butted heads a lot, but I think that's his style. Conflict and pressure, like failure, should be taken out of the bad-word list and put on the good. Not only does pressure make popcorn, it also pushes us to make great art. So does failure, and so does conflict. Ezrin came in and ripped my songs to shreds: "Where's the chorus? There's nothing here." Because he didn't just say yes, he helped teach me to write a song. It was a very weird first album. I thought people hated it – just too weird, too prog-rock – but of course, now it's a favorite amongst a small group.

What are the pros and cons of having a pink Mohawk?
Part of the pleasure of having no dress code is you can do whatever the fuck you want. The problem with doing whatever the fuck you want is it's not always going to be aesthetically perfect. One day in New York, my buddy [photographer] Terry Richardson cut my hair, on a fucking whim. I said, "Man, I want to cut my hair." He says, "Great – back in the day, I used to cut all my buddies' hair." And then one day someone was dyeing their hair and the pink just happened. It was really fun onstage because when I ran into the crowd you could always see me. The Romans and the Macedonians – the reasons they had those feather plumes in their uniforms was so you could see who the commander was on the battlefield. It's a center-of-attention haircut. It was kind of a fuck-you and silly at the same time. Nobody took it very seriously, including myself. Now people at the show come with the "Mars-hawk," as they call it. I feel like I'm letting them down a little bit, when they show up and I don't have the Mohawk.

How do you feel about being touted for an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club?
People think I'm anti-awards ceremonies, but it's great to celebrate the movie. Most of the time you make an independent film, it doesn't all come together the way you hoped, and it breaks your heart. And when it does work it's like, "Fuck yeah, let's celebrate this." I love film, I love music, I love art. I want to turn the corner in MOMA and see something that drops me to my knees. Or watch a film that makes me want to quit everything I'm doing and be there with those people.

When my brother and I were young, we didn't have a TV. Maybe because we didn't have a dad around, or maybe because we had a hippie mom, we were never centered around trophies or sports or awards. The thing I've been criticized for the most, I've actually been awarded for the most. In the kitchen, I must have 15 or 20 MTV awards, and a ton of others for the music. And I never got an award as an actor until the other night – I've gotten two now for Dallas Buyers Club. The moral is that I never got an award that made me feel better about myself.

What do you think people get wrong about you?
It doesn't matter. But to indulge the question, what they get wrong is underestimating me.