There’s a moment in Dallas Buyers Club when actor Jared Leto slips quietly away. Instead a transgender woman named Rayon is in a hospital room, pulling back Jennifer Garner’s hair like teenage girlfriends do, especially girlfriends who’ve known each other since middle school and one is now dying of AIDS. It happens so early in the film that you forget until the credits roll that this is Jared Leto, the front man for the rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars, the guy who first entered the public consciousness playing hunky high schooler Jordan Catalano in the ’90s TV drama My So-Called Life opposite current Homeland star Claire Danes. While he was beautiful and talented, with amazing eyes and outstanding pecs, there was little in his performance as Jordan to prepare viewers for the career that would follow.
A “food-stamp poor” kid from Louisiana, Leto had been in Los Angeles only two years when he got the gig on My So-Called Life, and he followed it with a series of film roles that required transformation and total immersion, from Olympic athlete Steve Prefontaine in 1997’s Prefontaine (which got the actor running) to an emaciated heroin addict in 2000’s Requiem for a Dream (which required weight loss) to John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, in Chapter 27, a role for which he gained 67 pounds, causing him to develop gout and need a wheelchair to cover long distances.
But no role has been as immersive as that of Rayon, a transgender woman in 1980s Texas whose relationship with the once-transphobic main character, Ron Woodroof, is essentially the heart of Dallas Buyers Club. For the role, Leto dropped to 116 pounds, almost skeletal proportions, to play a woman whose body is under siege not just from AIDS but also from drug addiction.
The other investment Leto made was to get into character as Rayon before he even got the role. Director Jean-Marc Vallée says he “never met Jared Leto. I met Rayon; I don’t know Leto. Jared never showed me Jared. During our first meeting he was Rayon, and he tried to seduce me. He was so into the character and had dressed as Rayon.”
Leto stayed in character throughout the film, something that impressed his colleagues, including Woodroof portrayer Matthew McConaughey, who says, “Some people may have been put off with Jared’s ideal of being in character the entire time. Well, too bad, it was good for him and it was good for me; it would have been easy for an actor to caricaturize in this role, but Jared kept Rayon grounded in her eccentricities. Jared went for ‘human,’ and that made him so much easier to act with and more truthful.”
We met with the actor turned rock star (Thirty Seconds to Mars has sold more than 5 million albums so far) to talk about the film, watching his roommate die of AIDS, and the reaction Dallas Buyers Club is getting in theaters.