It’s too soon to add the words “Academy Award-winning actor” before Jared Leto’s name, but if there’s any justice in Hollywood that will change next March. The 41-year-old entertainer, who first endeared himself to a generation of teen TV viewers in 1994 playing blue-eyed bad boy Jordan Catalano on the still-beloved series My So-Called Life, is garnering unanimous raves for his richly-detailed performance in director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. In his first acting work since 2009 (he’s kept kind of busy selling out arenas around the globe with his rock band 30 Seconds to Mars), the actor delivers an astonishing turn as Rayon, a transgender HIV patient. Set in in 1985, the fact-based drama (opening in theaters this Friday) focuses on Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), a real-life antihero who, when diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live, enlists Rayon to help him sell the alternative treatment drugs he smuggles from Mexico. Leto chatted with Queerty about how making the film changed him.
You hadn’t made a film in several years. What made Rayon and Dallas Buyers Club so appealing?
The script was sent to me and I ignored it a few times. Then I decided to read it and I fell in love. It was an opportunity to bring to life a real person, not a cliché as we typically see with this kind of role. I was excited by that challenge.
Ron Woodruff’s story is true but is Rayon also based on a real person?
She’s a fictional character. This was great for me because it gave me the freedom to be inventive and not be tied down by the parameters that come with representing a real person.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you were partially inspired to play Rayon because you knew someone living with AIDS when you first moved to L.A. What do you remember about this person?
What I meant was I was informed about an experience I had. I rented a room in an apartment and one of the other rooms was rented by a man in his 40s who was dying of AIDS. I think that exposure and watching him struggle to walk to the grocery store to buy vegetables to put in his blender so he could stay healthy…that really exposed me to the challenges.
What sort of research and preparation did you undertake to play her so effectively?
I did a lot. The first thing I did was to meet with transgender people and listen. I heard stories of trial and tribulation and what it was like to tell their parents who they really are. I heard what it’s really like to transition. I learned the difference between a drag queen and someone who wants to live his life as a woman.
What advice did they give you? I think your performance is remarkably sensitive and probably the most authentic I’ve ever seen of a straight actor playing a transgender character.
I appreciate you saying that. It means a lot. I had help from people who were generous and taught me about simplicity and honesty and not overdoing it. That was really important. I had a wonderful experience.