Jared Leto: The Unlikely Triumphs of a Rock-Star Movie Star - Rolling Stone
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Jared Leto: The Unlikely Triumphs of a Rock-Star Movie Star

He was a wild child who became an Oscar winner — and with ‘Suicide Squad,’ the screen’s most iconic, anarchic supervillain

Jared Leto is wearing a preposterous straw hat this morning, a gigantic, not-quite-a-sombrero thing he bought for seven bucks at a corner store. And why not? He’s made it this far by committing fully, sometimes crazily, to everything in his life: Method acting, music-making, video directing, tech investing, not to mention the arts of being enigmatic, brainy and really, really good-looking. “I don’t dabble,” he says. “I dive in, 1,000 percent.” So if he needs sun protection for a hike, of course he goes big. In any case, Leto recently turned 44 — “old,” he calls it, with the subsequent qualifier “I don’t feel old” — and looks maybe 29, so his skin-care habits are probably not to be questioned.

It’s 11:15 a.m. on a Thursday in June, and Leto already got in some recording today for the in-progress fifth album from his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars, which played arena rock long before they reached actual arenas, with Leto fronting them under the apparent operating principle that Bono’s big problem is excessive bashfulness. Leto parks his unassuming vehicle of choice — a GMC Yukon SUV he’s owned since 1996 — on a dusty Malibu road, ready for a bouldering trek through one of his favorite paths, in a mountainous, 8,000-acre state park where everything looks familiar. With the panache of a tour guide, Leto points out spots seen in Planet of the Apes and M*A*S*H.

Under Leto’s unbuttoned chambray shirt is a NEPAL I LOVE YOU tee he owns in multiple colors — that nation’s post-earthquake recovery is a pet cause, though he’s never had a chance to go there. (He did pay a 2011 humanitarian visit to the similarly afflicted Haiti, where he spent time as a kid.) He’s got on slick North Face hiking pants, green hiking shoes with yellow laces, and one of the many pairs of striped socks he and his brother and bandmate, Shannon, exchange for Christmas every year. He’s strapped on a blue backpack that holds, among other items, trail mix and a big thermos of water. Over the course of an intense three-and-a-half-hour trek, Leto, a longtime vegan, nibbles a bit of the trail mix. (“I’m actually a cheagan,” he clarifies, “a cheating vegan. I don’t eat meat ever. But if someone’s mom made a cookie and handed it to me, I’d probably take a bite, or if I’m in Alaska and there’s wild salmon out of the river, I’d probably eat it.”) But he never drinks a drop of the water, which he brought for me — assuming, correctly, that I wouldn’t be smart enough to supply my own. “I usually don’t bring water,” he says. “I’m a bit like a lizard.”

He’s probably not an actual lizard-person, but there is something alien, almost unnerving, about Leto, and it’s not just the freaky gemstone blaze of his greenish-blue eyes, currently obscured by aviator shades. He’s warm and engaging, with none of the solipsistic remoteness that often comes with years of fame. But he also seems curiously self-perfected, as if he’s gone clear in some one-man Church of Letology, and sleeker than any Homo sapiens should be, moving with serpentine ease. He recently took a genetic test, with revealing results: “I have a lot of Neanderthal in me,” he says. “Maybe that’s why I’m so good at climbing.” There’s a telling scene in Artifact, Leto’s entertaining 2012 documentary about his band’s brave contract-disputing lawsuit against its label, EMI, where he half-jokingly bemoans the musical imperfections of “humans.”

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“Did you play sports in high school?” asks Leto, who didn’t. “I was too busy taking drugs,” he says. “Which was kind of a sport.” These days, he adds, he’s “essentially” straight-edge, and certainly doesn’t drink. “There’s all kinds of ways to change your state of mind or to get out of yourself,” he says. Like, with the occasional psychedelic? “No, only at Burning Man. Only if I’m having an orgy at Burning Man will I take that.” (He’s probably joking, but then again, he did go to Burning Man last year.)

Above, the occasional eagle flies by; a snake slithers on the trail ahead. The hike starts to get interesting as we scramble along a rock wall just above a creek where college-age kids are swimming. From here on, each movement is tricky, requiring precise hand and footholds, and Leto navigates it with speed and ease, all the while guiding me through dozens of specific movements.

“Stay superclose to me,” he says, “and just replace my feet and my hands. And stay super-relaxed. Don’t overgrip. Just really trust your feet. There you go! You’re alive!” That guidance, delivered over the course of hours, takes extraordinary patience and focus, but he enjoys it, constantly taking new people on this path — there are paparazzi shots, for instance, of him navigating it with a couple of young women. This kind of climbing is nothing for him, anyway — the 3,600-foot-tall El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, is more his speed.


Leto is fond of rock-climbing metaphors, so maybe it’s not too on-the-nose to note that the course of his showbiz career has been as jagged as the kind of terrain he’s fond of traversing. A decade ago, he was heading toward his mid-thirties as a respected but hardly box-office-smashing actor on an uncertain trajectory, with a fledgling, eyeliner-enhanced music career that most non-teens considered a vanity project at best. “There were so many people that didn’t understand,” Leto says. “There were people in this town who thought it was insane. There were films that I decided not to do because I had tiny little tours, and people would just lose their minds. And some of them turned into the biggest movies ever made.” 

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Now, thanks to his band’s steady, hard-won progress; a 2014 Oscar for his bravura turn as a transgender woman with AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club; and his key role as the murderous Joker in August 5th’s supervillain-centric potential blockbuster Suicide Squad, he is both an actual rock star and an A-list movie star — a double brass ring that no one else in his generation has come close to grabbing. “More than one Academy Award-winning actor has walked into my office,” says Leto’s music manager, Irving Azoff, “and said, ‘I can be a successful rock star, help me!’ He’s the only one that pulled it off.”

Remarkably, Leto’s acting career is only now hitting its stride, after beginning in 1994 — before some of his band’s fans were born — with his indelible My So-Called Life role as literacy-impaired high-school-boiler-room make-out king Jordan Catalano. And his newfound status follows an unheard-of six-year break from acting — between 2006 and 2012 — to focus on his music. “He’s not bound to anything,” says his Dallas Buyers Club co-star Matthew McConaughey. “He’s on his own trip. If he considers what might be the next best move for himself, he sure does disguise it. At the same time, he’s very aware of what he’s doing.”

Trotting down a trail, Leto pauses, finds a foothold, and starts a catlike ascension of high, vertical mountainside. The route seems impossible, deranged, even, but he’d been so trustworthy and steady up to that point that I shrug and start to follow. After a moment, he cackles, hops down and moves to a more reasonable path. “I’m just fucking with you,” he says, still laughing. “You’re crazy! How come you didn’t say anything?” It’s funny as hell, no doubt — a glimpse of the Joker, perhaps, and also not completely unrelated to certain lyrics in the Thirty Seconds to Mars oeuvre, such as “I’ll wrap my hands around your neck so tight with love” and “I punish you with pleasure/I pleasure you with pain.”

“I was watching real violence. There’s a lot you can learn from seeing it. People can be calm. It’s methodical and sometimes even hypnotic and deliberate.”

Soon, we’re 300 feet above the creek, moving from one uncertain perch to another, with long, deadly gaps in between. “If you fall down, you’re gonna break your head open,” Leto says, noting that a professional guide would “probably” use a rope for some of it. He used to assume he would die young, though not so much anymore. “It’s a pretty common thought, especially for any maniacal narcissist,” he says, smiling. “And if you live a life with some risk, or have seen people die young, it’s easier to understand that could be a possibility.”

Reaching a safe spot, we pause, and Leto takes in the green-topped mountains and vast, azure sky. A tiny bluebird lands on a nearby tree branch before fluttering away, leaving us as the only living creatures in sight. “Isn’t it nuts?” Leto says, leaning against some rocks. “Any day I have at least a few moments in nature, I kind of feel better.”

The son of an artistically inclined hippie mom and an absent dad, Leto has always had a hunger for risk, with the teenage arrests to prove it, and the patience for long climbs — Thirty Seconds to Mars played so many dates on their 2010-11 tour that they ended up in Guinness World Records. “When you commit to something that’s seemingly impossible,” he says, referring to ascents both metaphorical and literal, “and you’re pushing through things that are seemingly hostile, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, we did that,’ that’s a great feeling. And a little bit of pain isn’t a bad thing.”

Toward the end of our journey, we traverse a tight trench with a nearly 90–degree slope. Leto scrambles upward, arms spread wide and spiderlike, while encouraging me to use a chain someone left there. “That was, like, a Home Depot garden chain,” he tells me, a full 24 hours later. “Not necessarily a chain that you want to trust your life with.” It is, perhaps, a little late to be sharing this information. “And right past it is a little dirt spot, and it’s only a matter of time until that dirt decides to come down. So a lot of it is a matter of luck.” He laughs, and asks, “But did you have fun?” 

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I did, though it is hard not to think of an Angela Chase/Claire Danes line from My So-Called Life, as distant a memory as that show is for Leto: “Why are you like this?”


Then again, it could be worse. “If the Joker did this interview,” Leto says at one point, pretty much out of nowhere, “he’d definitely castrate you and make you eat your own testicles. Just for fun. That’s if he liked you.”

Leto had a lot of fun playing the Joker, way more fun than he usually does on movies — even though he injured himself pretty badly on set, tearing his labrum while hanging from a helicopter. He did his usual physical transformation, but this time it was normal Hollywood stuff, putting grilles on his teeth and lifting weights to add muscle, rather than the downright dangerous games he’s played in the past, starving himself to a near-skeletal state for Dallas Buyers Club and gaining 67 health-damaging pounds of fat to play John Lennon’s deranged assassin in 2007’s ill-fated Chapter 27. “I think I felt before that you have to suffer a bit to get something worthy,” he says, “and that’s ridiculous.”

When Leto first moved to Los Angeles, he signed up for a 12-week acting course and barely showed up for it. That is the full extent of his formal training. But he more than compensates with his extreme Method acting, a quest for verisimilitude that has led him to some scary places. He spent weeks living on the streets of New York’s East Village with a group of junkies to prepare for his role as a dude who does so much heroin that doctors have to cut off his arm in Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 drug nightmare Requiem for a Dream. Leto didn’t actually do drugs during his time on the streets, but “they would shoot up dope and I would shoot up water,” he says. “People would be uncomfortable if they’re all shooting up and you’re not. I wasn’t sharing a needle. To shoot up anything is intense. That was a long time ago. I wouldn’t do that again.”

“If the Joker did this interview, he’d definitely castrate you and make you eat your own testicles. Just for fun. That’s if he liked you.”

After his long break from Hollywood, most scripts had stopped coming at all, but Leto did read the Dallas Buyers Club screenplay, and was entranced by the character of glam-rock-loving Rayon — whom he saw as a transgender woman rather than as the transsexual man the script suggested. He made his first contact with director Jean-Marc Vallée in a Skype call, and was already in character as Rayon, even though he didn’t have the part yet. “He was dressed as a woman,” Vallée says, “and he was hitting on me. And he kept it up for 25 minutes.”

Vallée and McConaughey never met Leto on set, only Rayon. “He tried to steal things from me,” says McConaughey. “Literally, my pocketknife, lighters, et cetera.” For Vallée, trying to direct an actor who wouldn’t acknowledge he was acting was disconcerting. “He got me out of my comfort zone,” says Vallée, who wasn’t even sure what pronoun was appropriate to use for Leto. “I didn’t know how to address him or her because he was such a lady. He was such a girl, and he was sexy!” At one point, Vallée recalls, McConaughey — also doing a certain degree of Method work as his homophobic-but-learning character — looked at Leto shimmying onto the set and said, “I don’t know whether to kick your ass or fuck it!” The day the film wrapped, Leto shared a single out-of-character moment with McConaughey, but didn’t let Vallée meet Jared until months later.

It was Leto’s Dallas Buyers Club performance — along with his musical career and generally bonkers reputation — that helped Suicide Squad director David Ayer (Fury) think of him for the Joker. “I think you have to have a little bit of madness to take on something like this,” Ayer says. “And his showmanship, knowing how to control a crowd, seemed like an interesting skill set to bring into the Joker.”

The last guy to play the Joker, of course, was Heath Ledger, in an astounding, terrifying turn in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight that grew all the more legendary when Ledger suffered a fatal pill overdose shortly after completing the film — and then won a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, the same prize Leto took home five years later. “Heath did an impeccable, perfect performance as the Joker,” says Leto. “It’s one of the best performances ever in cinema. I had met Heath before. I didn’t know him well, but he was a beautiful person.”

Leto had his moments of doubt about taking up Ledger’s mantle, but was buoyed by the fact that the character had already existed in multiple incarnations before him, from the original comic books to Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson to Mark Hamill’s cartoon voice-overs. “I think had it only been portrayed by Heath and it was never a comic book, maybe I would have felt that would be inappropriate,” Leto says. “But I thought that given the history, it was OK. The good thing about other people having done this is that you know what direction not to head in.”

Predictably, Leto’s process got weird fast. He started watching footage of actual violent crimes on YouTube, until he had to stop himself. “The Joker is incredibly comfortable with acts of violence,” says Leto. “I was watching real violence, consuming that. There’s a lot you can learn from seeing it. Not every act of violence is committed with frenzy, either. I remember learning that. People can be calm. They’ve made their choice and go and do something, and it’s not in a frenzy.” His eyes have gone cold. “It’s methodical and sometimes even hypnotic and deliberate.” 

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On set, everyone called him Joker, or Smiley, or in Ayer’s case, Mr. J. Even the crew driving cast members around played along. Leto pulled a set of pranks that have already become infamous, sending a live rat to co-star Margot Robbie’s trailer while delivering bullets and what Leto has described as “used condoms” to other cast members. “Look, they weren’t used condoms,” says Ayer. “Let’s be real here. They’re removed from their packages, but it wasn’t actually used. And, of course, I was mortified. Like, ‘Jared, put that stuff away — get that out of here, what are you doing?’ ”

The Joker was a popular presence on the Suicide Squad set, borderline harassment and all — people would applaud when he showed up. Leto was constantly improvising. “The Joker became entertainment for a lot of the crew,” he says. “So I think we all kind of bonded, even though I was in this place.” He got along particularly well with rapper-actor Common, who has a small henchman role in the film. “He was not afraid of being all up in my face looking like he’s ready to kiss me,” says Common. “You could feel the danger, you could feel the sexuality, the craziness, but there was something still cool about him.”


“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple-choice.” That’s the Joker talking, in a famous-among-geeks bit of comic-book dialogue, but it’s not hard to imagine Leto saying it about his own life. Since his earliest interviews, he’s been vague and occasionally deceptive about the details of his childhood. “I lied about it so much, I don’t know what the truth is,” he claims. “I remember River Phoenix saying in an interview that he tried to lie as much as possible, and I just took that approach ever since.”

As he told a bit of his story in his Oscar acceptance speech, Leto seemed on the verge of tears. His mother, Constance, was a teenager in Bossier City, Louisiana, when she had Jared and Shannon. From there, they lived a peripatetic, bohemian, sometimes poverty-stricken existence, spending time in communes and eventually even in Haiti, where his mom was volunteering. (There was also a period when she was married to a dentist who reportedly adopted Jared and Shannon, giving them his last name. But the couple divorced, and Jared never speaks of that time.)

Constance’s friends tended to be artists of various stripes — painters, sculptors, performance artists — and from early on, Jared and Shannon both felt invited to create. “There were no limits,” says Shannon. “No boundaries. We have this tape of me banging on pots and pans and Jared’s banging on a guitar and he’s screaming, at five years old or something.” Leto learned piano on an instrument he rescued from a curb that was missing the “tops of about half the keys.”

“My experience with drugs? A lot of them were really fun, but the risk versus reward is out of line. I just saw too many examples of what not to do.”

As a kid, Leto had no ambitions of stardom — the only occupations he could imagine were artist or drug dealer. “They both had their own risk and reward,” Leto says, with a small smirk. “I didn’t even know the word ‘celebrity.’ I didn’t have posters of people that I loved on my wall. Like, I must have listened to Led Zeppelin II 16,412 times. I didn’t even know what the fuck they looked like. I thought musicians and actors and these types of people were like magic. It was royalty or you were born into it, or it was some stroke of luck or genius.”

By his teenage years, Leto was getting in various kinds of trouble. “My experience with drugs?” he says. “I did them, lots of them. A lot of them were really fun. There are just those few that tend to kick you in the ass. I guess at some point, too, there’s a decision: Is this going to be my life? I made a choice to pursue other dreams. I guess that’s just the kind of fucked thing about a lot of drugs: The opportunity cost is too high. Some drugs are incredible, but the risk versus reward is out of line. I just saw too many examples of what not to do.”

There was also some petty thievery, and maybe worse – he says he was arrested a few times, and has hinted at an incident “involving a gun and some cocaine.” He never got caught stealing, at least. “I was always really fast,” he says. “I guess there were some undercover cops at one store, and they came out running after us. My friend ran out of steam and kind of slowed down. They grabbed him and threw him to the ground, and I just kept running. There are few greater feelings in the world than running from the police and getting away.”

Leto dropped out of his Washington, D.C., high school in 10th grade, but reconsidered his decision and returned. From there, he transferred between several arts colleges, ending up at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he studied painting and photography. “I had thousands of negatives that I processed myself,” he says. “I would go in the darkroom and come out, like, eight hours later – where did the day go? I loved the darkroom.” (His collection of negatives was lost, or stolen: “If anyone out there has them, please call.”) The photography, and frequent trips to local art-house theaters, got him thinking about a career as a movie director – so he dropped out after his junior year and headed to L.A., with the vague thought that he might get some acting work that would lead to directing.

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Instead, he was almost instantly cast in ABC’s My So-Called Life. The show, rivaled only by Freaks and Geeks as the greatest high school series ever, lasted a single season, in 1994-95, but reran endlessly on MTV. Leto still has trouble grasping its impact on his image and career, since he spent only a few months filming it. “I feel like it was such a short period of my life,” he says. “Let’s face it, I barely spoke! I have a lot of gratitude for starting there, but they made such a big deal of the character in the show. I think for some people, especially girls at that time, it mirrored something in their lives. I don’t know. It did make an impact for people, but it’s always been so imbalanced with what the experience was for me in my own life.”

I point out that Leto was almost objectified in the show — in a progressive move, he played a lust-object role usually reserved for women. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “It was about time. I’m happy to have taken that, uh, baton or whatever.”

My So-Called Life made Leto a hot Hollywood property, and he carefully chose his first starring role: 1997’s Prefontaine, a bio about the doomed college runner Steve Prefontaine. It flopped, and Leto is far better in it than the film deserves. “That’s the thing about movies,” he says. “They break your heart.”

Leto made his public musical debut as part of the fictional band Frozen Embryo on MSCL, but was writing songs for real the whole time. He encouraged Shannon, who had just gotten past his own troublemaking period, to move to L.A., and they started making music together, signing a record deal in 1998. “We wanted the music to speak for itself,” says Shannon. “We started choosing different band names” — Life on Mars was one early one — “because Jared didn’t want to be known as the obvious ‘Jared Leto in this band.’ We would pack our cars, and we’d play in the cellars of pizza places.”

These days, Thirty Seconds to Mars headline festivals overseas and large theaters in the U.S. – but early reaction was skeptical, to say the least. “Jared Leto has a band,” wrote the punk-rock gossip site Buddyhead in 2002, around the time the band finally released its debut. “Yeah we know, who doesn’t have a band. They’re called Thirty Seconds to Mars since the Frozen Embryos broke up. Even though none of us have heard their songs, we know they eat shit.”


Leto recently purchased, as one does, a former secret Air Force base in Los Angeles, which he’ll soon call home. Topped by its own control tower, the compound once housed more than 250 staffers, some of them working with top-secret footage of atomic tests. A previous owner half-converted it into some version of a house, adding a pool in back (“It’s the poor man’s Playboy Mansion,” Leto says) and other touches. “It’s unconventional,” says Leto. “But I think when I’m done with it, it’s going to be pretty homey. Well, it’s not going to be someone’s grandmother’s house, but it will be a fun place to live. It’s like a giant playground.”

Walking through the place is dizzying: At 100,000 square feet, it is literally 100 times bigger than my apartment. It’s Leto’s own Paisley Park, but bigger, nuttier and, for now, emptier. The control tower is four stories high, offering spectacular views; downstairs is one weird subbasement after another, extending so far into the earth that it’s naturally chilly down there.

Somewhere in there is a gym where Leto did his Joker workouts — leaning against a wall are framed comic-book images of the character, plus photos of Bruce Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nearby, there is an actual guillotine, “for people who misbehave.”

“You know what I’ve learned about women? [That] I know absolutely nothing about women. The older I get, I just see people.”

There’s a soundstage, multiple screening rooms and an office space decorated with a giant Napster logo that hung in that company’s original headquarters — Leto bought it at a charity auction. There are numerous vaults marked top secret. “There are all sorts of rumors about this place,” Leto says, pointing to a spot and deadpanning, “This is where they shot the B-roll for the moon landing.” (Given the base’s history with military propaganda films, some conspiracy theorists have actually proposed this as a possibility.) Nearby is a toddler’s tricycle, and a wooden chair covered in what looks like blood — he insists that these were here when he bought the place.

He threw a raucous, celebrity-studded Halloween party here last year (he dressed up as the pope), using a screening room to show scary footage. “There was a haunted hallway set up, and it ended in this S&M bondage room right here,” he says. “It was interesting — all the people who were lining up to volunteer to get spanked were, like, my tech buddies.”

We sit and talk in a vast, sunny great room with exposed pipes on the wall, where a couple of gray-cushioned couches, wicker chairs and a simple wooden table sit amid an otherwise empty sea of gray-and-white-tiled floor. Our voices echo.

Coming up with the money for the house, and the endless renovations to come, probably wasn’t tough for Leto. Showbiz earnings aside, he’s become a savvy and much-sought-after technology investor, most notably taking an early stake in the smart-home company Nest, before its purchase by Google for $3.2 billion. He also has stakes in Reddit, Uber, Airbnb and Slack, among others — and has started companies of his own, including the site Vyrt. He admits that “eventually” these investments may prove more lucrative than his music and movie careers combined. Leto paints it all as just another personal passion that happened to pay off. “In technology, there’s an unbridled sense of optimism about what we’re capable of doing,” he says. “I like when I encounter that. I’m a supercurious person, and I get to learn and interact with really smart people, which is always inspiring.”

Leto jokes that his frenzied mix of activities is “designed to distract people, so no one asks about the marriage I’ve been in for 10 years and the two kids I have in Arizona.” Though it’s safe to say Leto has a busy, varied, at-least-DiCaprio-level social life, it’s been a while since he has been in an even semiconfirmed public relationship: Years ago, he dated Cameron Diaz and Scarlett Johansson. “Even if I was in a relationship or maybe if I was having kids, I don’t know if I would share that information publicly,” he says, later adding, “You know what I’ve learned about women? I know absolutely nothing about women.” There are no truths, he suggests, that apply to women as a group. “The older I get, it’s just people. I just see people.”

He hasn’t decided whether he’ll ever get married. “It’s just how things are,” he says, referring to his extended bachelorhood. “I don’t think there’s a definitive decision that I’ve made.” Then again, he notes, maybe he does have a kid out there. “You never know,” he says. “Someone could always come up to a show and give me a little surprise visit. ‘Dad?’ In a way, that would be kind of fucking beautiful.” He seems almost wistful as he ponders a surprise visit from this theoretical child. “What an incredible surprise that would be!”

Leto doesn’t think much about his legacy or mortality, though he is curious about the afterlife. “It’s exciting to imagine what the next step is, you know,” he says, eyes even brighter than usual. “I don’t think there’s a consciousness there. Not as we would think about a consciousness. There could be a reconnection to the universe. But this could all be some big game, as well. Who knows if this is even real as we perceive real to be.” He was struck by Tesla founder Elon Musk’s recent argument that we probably live in a Matrix-style simulation — he has long had the same thought. “It’s certainly possible,” Leto says, pointing to advances in virtual reality. And the way things have gone for him, who could blame Jared Leto for seeing life as a video game he’s on the brink of mastering?

I ask if people have underestimated him. “At their peril,” he says, utterly serious. Then he laughs. “I’m just kidding. That’s a joke! Make sure you say ‘he laughs.’ Put a period there.”

In This Article: DC Comics, Jared Leto


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