Jared Leto stands in the art-deco lobby of a lower Manhattan hotel at 11 A.M., holding a half-consumed bag of cereal and a vegan muffin. "Have we met before?" he asks.
I tell him we met once for three minutes at a fashion week party for Alexander Wang, and he gives me a hug. Leto's cheek bones are still steep enough to ski down, but he's slowly filling out his denim shirt and dark jeans after losing nearly 30 pounds – consuming only about 400 calories per day – for director Jean-Marc Vallée's forthcoming film Dallas Buyers Club, due in theaters this December. Leto goes "hairless and in heels" for his role as a transgender person dying from AIDS alongside an equally waif-like Matthew McConaughey and a retro-garbed Jennifer Garner. It's Leto's first role in four years, and he says he took it for the challenge. But that's a conversation for the Oscar campaign. Today he's here to discuss Love, Lust, Faith and Dreams (out this week), the fourth album by his rock band, Thirty Seconds to Mars.
"[2009's] This is War is all about conflict and survival," Leto says of the band's previous release. "And this album is a new chapter. It really felt like a new beginning. It feels like a new band, like we let go a lot of the past. It's not just a rock record – it's more expansive, it digs deeper. It gets a lot more involved. I think it's going to surprise a lot of people."
The band, which includes Tomo Miličević on guitar and Leto's older brother Shannon on drums, recorded the album all over the world – India, Malibu, Berlin, Paris and Tokyo. They took inspiration everywhere from the funeral pyres of Varanasi to the "fire-burned hills" of Los Angeles.
"I was going for something much, more focused and decisive, and at times minimal and not as bombastic – really revealing and personal and lush, atmospheric," Leto says. "I feel like we've made the best album of our lives, hands down, because we've learned a lot about who we were."
Like This is War, the new LP is produced in part by U2/Dave Matthews Band collaborator Steve Lillywhite, whom Leto describes as "completely out of his mind," in a good way. (Sadly, there's no sign of Leto's friend and occasional collaborator Kanye West. "If we did it again," he says, "it'd be a side project.") The tracks feel even more faith-filled, hopeful and anthemic than the ones on Thirty Seconds to Mars' last album, which was recorded while the band was being sued by their label, EMI, for $30 million. That battle is depicted in Leto's documentary, Artifact, due out later this summer. (At the moment, he has nothing bad to say about his current relationship with EMI, with whom he still has a contract.)
The first post-tour recording session for Love, Lust, Faith and Dreams took place in India's blue city of Jodhpur. The band built a remote studio so they could record in impromptu moments. "We were on a cliff with a fortress behind us," Leto recalls. "It was sunset, and we had kind of climbed up the top of the rock, and we're overlooking this city. I started recording a song, and kids started hearing it and climbing out on the rooftops. Pretty soon they were climbing up the mountain and singing and dancing around us. That's one example of how experience can inform art."
Sitting down with Leto is something like how I'd imagine it might feel to hang out with the Dalai Lama – if the Dalai Lama looked like Jordan Catalano and had a vibe like Mr. Rogers. He seems genuinely interested in knowing the person he's talking to and is surprisingly thoughtful. His energy up-close also helps explain the band's cult following, known as the Echelon.
Despite Thirty Seconds to Mars' strong record sales (their last two albums went gold and platinum), critical acceptance has been more elusive, perhaps because of the actor-slash-musician thing. "On the one hand, how many people do you need to love you before you feel OK about yourself?" Leto asks, both hands gripping a straight-backed armchair like a mystic philosopher. "There are always going to be people that are judgmental that are going to say, 'Well, he was an actor first, so he doesn't have the right to be a musician,' or, 'I know him as this, so therefore I will never accept him as that.' I can't change those people. I can only be myself. And I can only keep making art. I can only do the best that I can. I am not going to spend my life trying to silence the critics. I'm going to do what I'm passionate about and follow my dreams."
To further the point, he quotes Andy Warhol: "Labels are for cans, not for people."
That evening, when Leto bursts into the spotlight at St. Peter's Church in Manhattan, playing "The Kill" before a crowd of 300, there doesn't seem to be a critic in sight. The band has been performing a series of free shows in Philly, D.C., Boston, Chicago, Toronto, and New York, drawing fans from around the world. Teens with electric blue hair stand on pews and moms in baggy t-shirts extend both arms out, palms forward, head bowed slightly. Someone waves a Brazilian flag.
"Thank you for coming to the Church of Mars," Leto says, clad in dark aviators, standing in the low-lit nave. "I can't wait until we have people in the aisles speaking in tongues."
He cues a live string section and moves through a short set featuring new and old tracks including "Night of the Hunter," "End Of All Days," "Alibi," "Northern Lights," "Hurricane," "Kings and Queens" and "City of Angels."
"It's a great source of pride we have to share this. It's a family – a big, big family," Leto says. "In the spirit of love and faith and dreams, turn to the person next to you and give them a hug." The audience complies.
"Church is a place for celebration, a place to show that you belong," Leto continues. "I want you to freak out and dance so badly, like you're your at your Aunt Mildred's wedding." Leto breaks into the new single, "Up In the Air," as a twenty-something fan in a Sticky Fingers t-shirt breaks out of her pew and approaches the altar. She seems unsure whether to dance or take a video, so she does both at the same time.
After the show Leto invites me backstage. "I'm glad you had a chance to see this," he says. "I have to be honest, I felt a little defensive talking to you earlier. But I hope this can be the beginning of a long and productive relationship."
And with that, he gives me another hug.