Actor, musician and director Jared Leto’s two decades of work as an artist have encompassed a host of intense and transformative performances, but his latest role playing Rayon, a transsexual courageously fighting AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club, is one of his most impressive. Rayon becomes an unlikely ally with fellow AIDS patient Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a homophobic rodeo cowboy. Together, they pioneer a “buyers club” that gives H.I.V.-positive people hope by offering access to non-approved medicine. Opening in limited release on November 1st, the electrifying drama inspired by true events is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and also stars Jennifer Garner.
At the recent press day, Leto talked about how AIDS touched his life when he first moved to California, his total immersion into the character, how he transformed for the transgender role and helped design Rayon’s look, attitude and voice to bring her to life, his collaboration with Vallée, the intensely vulnerable scene they shot that almost didn’t happen, the challenge of letting go of the character after filming ended, finding the time to balance his music tour with promoting a high profile film, and his conversation with an 80-year-old woman at the Mill Valley Film Festival whose perspective was altered after seeing the film. Hit the jump to read the interview.
JARED LETO: Not too far away from here when I first moved to California, I rented a bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment. One of the rooms was rented by a man in his forties who was very frail and obviously not well. I remember starting to see sores on his forehead and then I learned he had AIDS. I watched week after week as he withered away. I used to walk with him to the grocery store sometimes to get vegetables that he would put in a blender trying to get vitamins to stay alive. But he ultimately passed away. That was a pretty intense experience. He was full of humor and charm and grace, a lot like Rayon. That was pretty impactful.
Do you remember the moment reading the script when you decided that Rayon was the character that you needed to play?
LETO: It was pretty immediate. I thought what an opportunity here to bring to life a really special person. I immediately saw the role as a transgender person, not a transvestite.
We’ve been hearing a lot about your total immersion in the role. Has that always been your technique or was it something specific for this particular part?
LETO: Generally, it’s been that way. It depends on the project. I could imagine if projects spread out over a long period of time, if it was a romantic comedy, maybe you could approach it differently, a little lighter. But for this, the severity of the transformation was so extreme, I had to hold onto as much as I could. Maybe a better actor would have been able to let go of the voice, the dialect, the behavior, the movement, the circumstances, and the emotional condition and been able to recall that at a moment’s notice when the director yelled, “Action!” But that doesn’t really work for me. I had to stay as close as possible just so I could do a good job. That was the motivation so I could contribute in the best way possible.
When you take on a role like this and you have a total transformation like you did, how much do the make-up, the costume, the voice and all that do the work for you? Or is there a lot more emotional preparation that you have to do as well?
LETO: Well, you hope that it does a lot of the work for you. I remember hearing Anthony Hopkins say something like that. Sometimes you can find a way in through the outside and that’s interesting. But, in this case, there really wasn’t one part of it that was frivolous. Everything had its purpose from waxing my eyebrows to losing 30-40 pounds. It all played a part.
Rayon is such an intense, immersive character with a great attitude and filled with heart, but who also has a great fashion sense. How much influence did you have in designing not only Rayon’s attitude but also her entire look?
LETO: Well I had a great team, a really inspired team of make-up artists and wardrobe people. 1985. It was probably a struggle to find a size 12 heel in Dallas, so a lot of thrift store shopping for her. But you start to find things that make you feel a little more connected to the character. It’s hard not to get personal about these things. You start to feel like you connect a little bit more. I liked getting rid of the wig and just wearing the scarf. So I pushed for that a little bit. I think she was in the place where she was trying to figure out who she was. That’s why there’s so many wigs. “Who am I as this woman?” So that was interesting. But yes, [there was] contribution and collaboration.
What was your “in” to finding Rayon’s voice considering how much you work with your own voice singing? Did you work with it a lot to try to find a very specific sound for her?
LETO: I did. The voice was key. I was born in Louisiana, next door to where Rayon lived, but not too far. So that melody is pretty familiar. I had the dialect and then I also had this register. I had toyed with the idea of keeping her voice down low, like maybe she hadn’t found her voice yet. But ultimately, it was a trial and error process. I don’t think I could even do it now though. I’ve kind of forgotten what it was like. It’s a muscle like anything else. You just exercise it a bit and then it seems normal after you talk like that for a little while.
What was it like working with Jean-Marc Vallée throughout this process of making the movie?
LETO: Well it was great. I stayed very, very focused. I stayed in the place I needed to be. Jean-Marc was a great director. He led the charge. He had a vision. He was very decisive, very confident, and he knew the story he wanted to tell. I think him and Matthew were great partners in that way. I was just happy to contribute. I looked at it like it was a great opportunity to contribute to a really special story. I’m very proud to have been a part of it.
Was there a day or a scene that was particularly challenging for you and perhaps something that you learned about yourself that helped you get through it?
LETO: I think the scene with my father in the bank. That was really challenging because it was the first time I was out of [costume]. I didn’t have my armor on – my make-up, my eyelashes, my wig. It felt like in that scene I was dressing up in drag. It wasn’t me. It didn’t feel like me. I knew it was a really important scene. I remember I did the first take and I just bombed. It was terrible. I had that rush of panic. I felt like, “Oh man, this is not going to happen.” There are only usually two or three takes on a movie like this. I did Take 2 and something happened. The director came over, took off his headphones, tears running down his face. I was like, “What? What’s wrong?” He said, “You did it. You did something beautiful.” So that was nice. It’s nice when it works like that. That was an intense and very vulnerable scene.
LETO: It’s kind of hard to let go because you make an enormous commitment. Any time you commit like that, at least for me, it’s hard to stop. It takes a little while sometimes. I remember eating again can start to be a little like you think you’re going to eat a big meal, but you can’t, because you take half a bite and you’re full. I swore I was going to eat a Thanksgiving dinner. I was all geared up, and I watched everybody eating, and I took one bite and just pushed it away. I couldn’t do it. So yeah, it takes a little while.
We don’t see your character die. Was there any desire on your part to have a deathbed scene? Or did you actually shoot it and it didn’t make the final film?
LETO: I did shoot a deathbed scene in the hospital where I reach over and I grab lipstick and I put it on. So I guess it’s not in the film anymore. Ah, bastards! (Laughs) Maybe it’ll be in the DVD extras.
You tend to alternate between film, album, film, album. This time you’re touring and you’re also promoting this high profile film. Is it an especially challenging balance to find this time around?
LETO: The hardest thing really is time. It’s finding the time. That’s why I didn’t make a film for five or six years. That’s the biggest battle. It’s time, but great problems.
What do you hope the audience takes away from this film?
LETO: I spoke with an 80-year-old woman in San Francisco the other night who had seen the film at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and she said, “I don’t really know these people.” By these people she was talking about Rayon or people in her community. “I don’t really know these people but I’m really glad that I do now.” I thought that was really great. After 80 years on the planet, you could tell she had an opinion about certain types of people and it had altered her perspective. Film can do that. It’s done that for me. It’s showed me parts of the world or people that I’ve never seen before. It’s a lofty goal but I think it’s wonderful how stories can change us.