Jared Leto stands on the third step of a stairway that leads down to his pool area and recording studio. He is wearing what looks like a milkman’s uniform and a crewneck sweater made of AstroTurf, with a vestigial swatch of rubbery silver fabric peeking out from the bottom. A stylist and her assistant hover, poking and smoothing, while he stands with his legs spread slightly apart and his arms obediently away from his sides to facilitate any adjustments they have to make, like a kid wearing a snowsuit. When we’re introduced, he gives a long, generous moment of eye contact and laughs easily when I tell him it looks as if he just killed Oscar the Grouch and donned the Muppet’s pelt.
Between outfit changes, Leto dematerializes for a moment and reappears with a tray of Godiva chocolates, which he delivers in the style of a French waiter to everyone in the room. He remembers names and is courteous even though he’s feeling fragile. He spent all of the previous night editing the music video for his band Thirty Seconds to Mars’ new single “Up In the Air,” an eight-minute amalgam of contemporary imagery that includes but is not limited to: Dita von Teese riding a mechanical bull, Taiko drummers in Pussy Riot balaclavas, artist Maxwell Snow with a blowtorch, one of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings, U.S. Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber, and a dazzle of zebras. He takes a few minutes to explain to the shoot’s photographer why he loves the wall-sized, tar- and feather-covered mixed media installation by Dan Colen that hangs near his popcorn machine. When people address him, he sometimes puts a reassuring hand on their arm or shoulder to more properly convey the act of listening. If there were a puppy around, he’d probably be very nice to it.
The point: In every way except for the pubescent explosion of desire that comes from somewhere deep in the core of my hypothalamus upon seeing his smooth, beautiful, gravity-agnostic face, it is clear that Jared Leto is not Jordan Catalano. It was nearly 20 years ago that Leto was given his textbook Hollywood break playing the flossy-haired bad boy, and became the paragon of teenage longing in the criminally short-lived television series My So-Called Life. And it is a disservice to his enduring, variegated career to conflate Leto with his first memorable character.
Still, there’s a pretty good chance that when you say his name aloud to anyone who was breathing air during the 1994-1995 broadcast season, you’ll be met with the response, “Oh yeah, Angela Chase’s boyfriend.” Leto’s speaking cadence becomes matter-of-fact when asked to ruminate on how the show changed him, and he is quick to point out that his My So-Called Life gig only lasted a few months. “You know, I was a poor kid,” says the 41-year-old Leto, who was born in Louisiana. “I came out to California with a couple hundred bucks in my backpack. I slept on the beach, stayed at a youth hostel, did that whole thing. I was just happy to pay my rent, to tell you the truth.” Here he pauses for a long time. “How do I put this? That show taught me that the impossible is possible.” When an actor says a bromide like “the impossible is possible,” or, later, when he muses that there is “salvation in creativity,” one’s eyes start to glaze over. But coming from him, there is a plain truth to it.
Leto has changed into a soft gray shirt with the PBS logo on it and a pair of jeans. We’ve moved to the upper portion of his home in the Hollywood Hills and are now sitting at a diplomatic distance on a rose-colored couch, its petal-like puffs giving it a slightly vaginal tinge. Hanging on the largest wall is a blown-up photo of king palm trees set against a twilight background, taken by his friend, infamous photographer Terry Richardson. Instead of a coffee table there’s a six-foot pine casket piled high with books like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.
Eschewing the more conventional routes offered to actors listed among People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People (twice), Leto founded his career on deep, transformative character studies in mostly independent movies. He received critical buzz for dissolving into the role of long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine in the 1997 biopic Prefontaine. Three years later, he was nominated for a New York Film Critics Circle Award for his harrowing portrayal of a heroin addict in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. David Fincher tapped him for Fight Club, in which Leto’s Angel Face was so brutally pummeled that he spends the latter half of the film looking like Billy Idol after a run-in with Mike Tyson. Instead of relying on prosthetics, he put on more than 60 pounds to play John Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman in the 2007 film Chapter 27. Later this year, he’ll play a transsexual woman infected with HIV in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, the true story of Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), who fought the U.S. medical and pharmaceutical companies in the mid 1980s after being diagnosed with end-stage AIDS.
“I like a good challenge,” he says. “I read a lot about climbing Mount Everest. I’m interested in potential and how far we can push ourselves. When I read about people who summit these mountains around the world, it’s often a very unenjoyable experience. It’s painful. They’re sick. They lose a finger, or more. They die. They hate it every step of the way. And even when they get to the top, some people are like, ‘Okay, let’s get down now.’ There’s not even a moment of celebration. But I think that sometimes there is a moment—there’s a sense of fulfillment that arrives. You’ve walked a different path and you’re greater for it.”
In 48 hours, Leto will leave Los Angeles for Europe to debut LOVE LUST FAITH + DREAMS, the fourth studio album from Thirty Seconds to Mars, a three-piece rock outfit fronted by Leto, with his older brother Shannon on drums and Tomo Milicevic on guitar and keyboard. LOVE LUST FAITH + DREAMS will be the band’s second offering since EMI slapped them with a $30-million lawsuit in 2008 for failing to deliver the third of their five contracted albums. (“There was a point after we had sold millions of records around the world, where not only were we never paid a single penny, but we learned that we were millions of dollars in debt,” Leto has said of their reason for cutting ties with the record label.) After 200 days of dispute, the band and label reached an agreement, and Leto sublimated his angst into the 2009 release This Is War and the documentary Artifact, which Leto directed under the Seussian pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins. The film chronicles the brouhaha with EMI, and earned a coveted spot at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the 2012 People’s Choice Documentary Award.
But critical ambivalence surrounds the band: the BBC called Leto’s vocals on This Is War “nondescript” and his lyrics “hackneyed,” while Alternative Press hailed it as an “artistic triumph.” Slant, meanwhile, conceded that the album was “made serviceable by its polished showmanship.” Add to that the kneejerk skepticism that comes from any actor assuming the mantle of musician and you’ve got a challenge that matches climbing Mount Everest. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—Thirty Seconds to Mars is a ludicrously successful undertaking, and has the stats to back their legitimacy: a decade of profitable touring, a handful of Billboard hits, 10 million albums sold, and an MTV Video Music Award for Best Rock Video. In 2011, the band made it into Guinness World Records after playing 311 shows in a little over two years—the longest concert tour ever by a rock band. “I’m just a working stiff, to tell you the truth,” he says. “I’m not basking in the glory of access to some VIP room, which I could give a shit about.”
Anything but ambivalent are the fans of Thirty Seconds to Mars, who call themselves The Echelon, after the sixth track off the band’s self-titled debut album. In March, a particularly diehard fan allegedly sent Leto a severed human ear with a note that read, “Are you listening?” Though certain Internet sleuths claim it’s a hoax, there was a reliable-looking shot of it on Leto’s Instagram account (it’s since been deleted) with a hole punched through the top so that he could wear it around his neck on a rope if he so desired. I ask him if he’ll show me the ear. “It’s in safekeeping,” he says. I promise not to tell anyone where it is. “I don’t think that would be safe. Besides, I’ve gotten stranger things. Like vials of blood. I’ve gotten very expensive items—like very rare collectible books made of metal.” But none of that matches the grotesquerie of a severed ear. “It’s true,” he admits. “Those things are titillating and odd and funny and bizarre, but people make a lot of creative things, whether it’s photos or drawings. There’s a big art and design community around Thirty Seconds to Mars. Some people have screaming girls, but with us you’re more likely to find someone who brought a piece of art to a show than someone who wants to come back to your hotel at night.”
Photography by ERIK HART & TATIANA LESHKINA, Styling by KATIE BURNETT
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