The Queerty Interview

Jared Leto Says Playing A Transgender Character Changed And Inspired Him

2013 MTV Video Music Awards - Celebrity Sightings

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.

jared LSo I take it you lived as Rayon even before filming began.

I started living as her as soon as possible. I was always trying it out. One of the great things about staying in character is you get to experiment all the time.

Your director and costars said you stayed in character throughout the shoot and they didn’t actually meet Jared Leto until the film premiered. Why was it necessary to commit to this character so thoroughly?

It was necessary to commit because of what was at stake. I wanted to deliver the best possible performance. In order to do that I needed to commit in a really severe way. I was doing what I had to do.

Did you miss Rayon when filming ended?

Yes, there’s a lot I loved about her. She was a beautiful soul with a big heart, who just wanted to love and be loved. She was funny and charming and full of levity and grace and generous. I liked her a lot.

I believe Dallas Buyers Club has potential to bring discussion of the AIDS epidemic back to the forefront again.

I think it will add to the conversation, which is a good thing. I think people who have been affected by AIDS will appreciate this film and the conversation that it continues. I think film can change and inspire us. This film certainly changed and inspired me.

You first came to public attention with My So-Called Life, which was profound to a generation of people and now this film seems to striking a chord with audiences. Since you don’t act much lately, do you look choose projects that are meaningful?

Yes, I think this is an important film to be a part of. It’s nice to be a part of something so special. It’s rare. I hadn’t made a film in five or six years. I was touring with 30 Seconds to Mars and we had more success than we ever dreamed of and playing arenas all over the world. I wasn’t really looking to go back to work in film and this just kind of happened. It’s a really amazing time right now.

Most film awards pundits are predicting you’re the one to beat for supporting actor honors this year. You could become the first full-time musician since Frank Sinatra to win the supporting actor Oscar.

That’s a wonderful thing to say. You’ve kind of made me speechless for a second. It’s been incredible. To have gone from a dream to a reality with both music and acting, I’m just so lucky and grateful.

Photo credit: Getty, Focus Features

Watch a clip from Dallas Buyers Club below.