Startlingly handsome Jared Leto may not be a household name, but it seems that that is by design. Leto first came into the public eye in the much-ballyhooed but quickly cancelled TV series My So-Called Life. The show launched him into the pages of Tiger Beat and Seventeen and thrust upon him the title of teen heartthrob. But Leto purposefully distanced himself from this distinction, preferring period pieces and indie cool to teensploitation flicks and popcorn movies.
The erstwhile hunk’s credits include How to Make an American Quilt, The Thin Red Line, Fight Club, Girl, Interrupted and American Psycho -- not exactly films that send swooning teenage girls to the theaters in droves. (Well maybe American Quilt and Girl, Interrupted should have, but that’s another subject.)
With Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s stunning adaptation of Hubert Selby’s brutal novel of addiction, Jared Leto puts his former heartthrob status to rest forever. In the film, Leto plays a Brooklyn junkie who eventually shoots up so much h. that his arm gets gangrene. Yummy!
I sat down with Leto recently to talk about the film, the lengths he went to in preparation for the role …and Batman.
This is a hardcore, f*cked-up movie to watch. How hardcore and f*cked-up was it to make?
I should have made t-shirts: “I Survived Requiem and All I Got Was This Lousy F*cking T-shirt.” It was brutal. It’s a tough, brutal film to watch. It was a thousand times more brutal to make because it was doing that for three months. It was four weeks of rehearsal and seven and a half of shooting. So it was miserable. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And the most rewarding and the most proud I am of anything at the same time.
At the end of the shoot, I shaved my head and went to Portugal and ate fish and potatoes for God knows how long, but I just had to get away from it. I went and stayed at this monastery in Portugal.
What’s the theme of the film to you?
We have this obsession with escapism, with getting out of ourselves. And we all, as a planet, are obsessed with progress. We need a faster computer, a better tape recorder. We need to go digital. It needs to be able to be downloaded to our PC. We need to do all this stuff. We keep pushing forward. But then we have to look at the side of ourselves, at the chaos we’re causing. This film is a journey into hell, I think. It really exposes. It puts a mirror up to ourselves and shows us a side of life that’s a fact. That’s what the film is about to me. It’s about just that obsession. Let me get out of, let me go forward, more, faster, better. We’re addicted to our dreams.
I love the way the film ends and the uncertainty there and the truth. And it is a giant f*ck-you, this movie. It’s not afraid to spit in your face. It expects you to sit there and watch and not do anything about it. And love it or hate it, it rings true, I think. I was on the streets with the people, and they’re living that life and having unhappy endings like that every second. They’re out there.
So how do you prepare to play a hardcore, f*cked-up role?
I put myself in every circumstance that my character pretty much was in. Pretty much in the East Village. And the Lower East Side. I wanted to understand everything that my character did. Hanging out with junkies at four o’clock in the morning. Holding someone’s arm while they were shooting up because they didn’t have a tie off. Or, you know, with a girl when she overdosed and finding out three days later that she died in the hospital. Getting robbed on the street. I was out there all the time in the weeks of rehearsal and the preparation, and I brought Darren (Aronofsky) with me a couple times; I brought Marlon (Wayans) with me a couple times and Jennifer (Connelly).
You never “experimented”?
Of course not, dude. I’m an actor.
But you did stop eating…
The whole time. I went to bed hungry. I woke up starving. Starving. Not just hungry, starving. Just miserable. You know how if you don’t eat lunch or breakfast and it gets late and you haven’t had lunch yet and you’re doing these f*cking interviews, you get a little irritable? I was irritable and miserable the whole time. And then I would have these days of like ecstasy because I was fasting. And I would have these moments of this feeling that were indescribable. It was pretty beautiful at that moment, but painful.
The interesting thing about losing the weight is when I decided to do it early on and I told Darren what I wanted to do it, there were a lot of happy accidents that happened. I was put in a place of constant starvation, which really made it easy for me to be in that place that my character was. He was always craving the high, the escape. And I walked different, I talked different. It changed my posture, and it was an interesting challenge. It was something I would never do again. And I would talk anybody out of doing it because it affected me physically, and I had to go to the hospital, and I started fainting, and my bone marrow got all messed up.
Jesus. How many pounds did you actually drop?
I lost twenty-five pounds. And I’ve only gained fifteen back. I’m at 140. But obviously when I lost the weight, I lost a lot of body fat too. It was pretty bizarre. When I came back to LA at one point and I saw some people and they kinda looked at me like, “Heyyyy, uh, how’s it going?” (laughter) They thought I was sick! It was bizarre. It was pretty painful for some family and friends to look at. But it was well worth it. This was an opportunity for me to push myself beyond my limits and to do something that was unique and challenging, and I’m really proud of the film and my work and proud to be a part of the movie.
Did Aronofsky seek you out to be a part of the movie?
No, I had to audition. I went in and read for him. On paper, the part didn’t scream out “Jared Leto” to some people, I think. Being the goyim that I am. It did to me because I related to it. But I went and fought for it and convinced him that I would work my ass off and do a great job for him. And I tried really hard. It was really fascinating to work with a peer -- like Darren is close to my age -- and work with someone who really likes to push himself as hard as I do because I like to challenge myself a lot. And I’ve found the bigger the challenge the greater the reward for me artistically, and Darren has a lot of artistic ambition. He really wants to throw himself as far as he can.
Were you thrilled when you found out you were working with Jennifer Connelly? I mean, not only is she the most beautiful person on the planet, she’s a great actress going back to Labyrinth even…
God, you guys love Labyrinth, don’t you? Wow. You know. I can’t really remember that, but you know what? She stole my heart in Once Upon A Time in America.
Oh, hell yeah.
It’s funny because I had seen Dark City too, but I hadn’t seen a lot of her work. And when she came in to audition, man, she was just so powerful, so present and beautiful and talented and full of emotion and really gives a bold, brave performance in this, I think. She really puts it all out there.
She always does. You’ve worked with both Aronofsky and David Fincher, two filmmakers known more for their visual style. How do they pull such amazing performances out of their casts?
Darren’s really concerned with the emotional content of the scene. I think some people might have thought he was a cerebral kind of visual filmmaker, but I think it’s obvious in Requiem that he’s concerned with emotions and he was always right there. In between every scene, he was always right there, picking the scene apart, talking to us about stuff: “What are we doing? Where are we going?” He’s really involved in that which is a unique combination to be so strong visually and have such a unique perspective and then to be an actor’s director on top of it.
And I think Fincher is very much an actor’s director, too. I think people look at him like a visual kind of mastermind. That, he is, but he’s really curious and in tune with the psychology of the scenes. And I’m going back to work with him right now on a film called Panic Room with Nicole Kidman, Forest Whitaker and Dwight Yoakam. I couldn’t be happier to go back to work with a guy like Fincher. You know, go from Fincher, work with Aronofsky, back to Fincher. It’s like I’m getting spoiled.
Now that Aronofsky has been nabbed to direct Batman: Year One, are you entertaining fantasies of playing the young Dark Knight?
I don’t know. I would love it if he did. I think it would be a fascinating Batman especially after seeing what he’s capable of. I think he could actually make a really bad-ass f*cking Batman. They’ve got balls if they give him that part. They got balls. But, I believe he’s one of the great filmmakers of my generation. I think he’s just so terrific. And I’ve had the good fortune to work with people like Fincher and Terrance Malick and James Mangold -- some really good filmmakers, great filmmakers. I put him right up there with those guys. But, I don’t know if I look good in tights, dude.
Your resume is impressive, but it’s mainly noncommercial or strangely commercial films. Have you been offered popcorn movies?
Yeah. Yeah, I’ve rejected lots of commercial films that have gone on a make a hundred million dollars. Because they make those movies every year. They’re what pays the bills, and they’re always around. You can always go make a commercial, big, bloated movie.
I’ve made mistakes in my past. I’m not gonna name names, but I’ve made a film before that I’m really not proud of that was a pure commercial film. I did it for fun at a time in my life when I was like, “I just want to go out and have a good time and approach things differently and not look for the most challenging this or that. Let me just go have fun.” And it was fun, but it didn’t make me feel that great. So I didn’t choose to follow that path. I love popcorn movies. I go see them all the time. The Jerry Bruckheimer movies are a blast sometimes, and I’m all for it. You just gotta go with what makes you feel good, I guess.
Would you ever consider doing comedy?
I would love to do a comedy. You know, only problem is I’m really not that funny. You know? But I’d love to do a comedy with -- there’s some really interesting, funny people, directors out there -- like the Alexander Paynes of the world that are really talented. And maybe me and Darren will do a remake of Smokey and the Bandit.
You were at Cannes with this movie. What was that experience like for you?
It was great to go to Cannes and see the film for the first time. Walk up the steps of the Palais -- there’s fourteen hundred people in the theater and we’re shitting our pants because this movie is a tough film and the French, they’re not afraid to walk out or boo. We expected a little bit of a ruckus, but we didn’t get any of that. We got a really really strong response. You know, actors in theater, they get that. They come out and you can tell immediately if people liked it or appreciate you. I’d never been in that situation where people stood up, and they were all applauding, and I’m looking around, and I’m applauding the film and I see people applauding me and giving it up, and it was very genuine and was touching. It was great. It was… “Bravo!” That whole thing was like a f*cking movie.
So with a string of critically-lauded films like this movie and Fight Club and Girl, Interrupted to your credit, do you think that you can put your teen heartthrob status and My So-Called Life behind you forever?
I could have! If you hadn’t brought it up! (laughter) It’s funny, very few people bring it up anymore. It was a great place to start. I know I definitely have put that to rest. I’m sure there are people out there that maybe haven’t. I don’t know, and I’ll take that as a compliment. People in the press can knock me or talk about me as far as some teeny heartthrob thing, but you gotta understand from my perspective I equate that stuff to tabloids. I don’t have anything to do with that stuff. It’s a life of its own. They have their own agenda, and they want to sell their own magazines to their own little kids. It’s not something that has bothered me, and it didn’t stop Darren from giving me what I consider one of the best roles out in a long time for me. I really don’t have any complaints, you know? I’m a really lucky, lucky son of a bitch. I know that there are a thousand guys out there that would love to be doing the projects that I’m doing. Yeah, I’ve had a pretty easy time.