Toronto Film Festival 2013

09.10.13

Jared Leto on His Brilliant Performance as a Transsexual in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

Jared Leto gives an awardworthy turn as an AIDS-stricken transsexual drug addict who helps Matthew McConaughey peddle HIV meds in ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’ He sits down with Marlow Stern at TIFF to discuss the gender-bending role, his own struggle with drugs, and ‘My So-Called Life.’

There’s been plenty of awards chatter for Matthew McConaughey’s riveting portrayal of Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and loosely based on a true story, Woodroof is a sexual tyrannosaurus who is diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and given just 30 days to live. With his treatment options limited by FDA regulations, he begins smuggling nontoxic, non-FDA-approved antiviral medications from foreign countries into the U.S. to distribute to AIDS patients—much to the chagrin of his doctor, played by Jennifer Garner. Soon, he establishes the Dallas Buyers Club, charging “subscribers” $400 per month for meds. And McConaughey continues his midcareer “McConaissance” by dropping 38 pounds for the role, which he knocks out of the trailer park.

But it’s Jared Leto, as Woodroof’s right-hand lady, Rayon, who steals the show. Rayon is an HIV-positive transsexual drug addict who helps Woodruff get his business up and running, peddling antiviral HIV meds in the local gay clubs. Soon a strong bond forms between the homophobic Woodroof and his dress-wearing gal pal, who is the heart and soul of the film.

It’s Leto’s first film since 2007, when he gained 60 pounds to portray John Lennon’s demented assassin, Mark David Chapman, in the poorly received Chapter 27. In the interim, he’s been rocking out with his band Thirty Seconds to Mars, which released their fourth studio album, Love Lust Faith + Dreams, earlier this year, and he just took home an MTV VMA for Best Rock Video.

So, Rayon ...

Yes, darlin’? [Laughs]

How did you summon your inner transsexual for this role?

It’s inside of all of us, our inner trans. It’s about identity. All of us, at some point in our lives, ask ourselves who we really are. But I started by listening—meeting with transgendered people who were so generous and shared very private, personal aspects of their lives with me. And I worked, and I worked, and I worked.

Did you have any say in the outfits you wore? “Oh, no, that won’t do.”

Of course! You start to get involved. “That’s not going to work for me.” There was one area where I kind of stood my ground. We had a fantastic wardrobe department, but they were encouraging me to wear women’s pants, but I didn’t want to do it. I really wanted dresses, because for me, in that short period of time filming, I wanted to feel as feminine as possible. It’s a rare thing that you feel your legs touching in that way ... unless you sit around naked a lot. But it was a wild process. Things like that can be really important. The heels make you walk differently, having a handbag over your shoulder makes you carry yourself differently, and if you lose 30 pounds and weigh just 112 pounds, you’ll walk differently.

You lost 30 pounds for the role?

At least 30 pounds. I stopped counting at 30.

Was it tougher to lose 30 for Dallas Buyers, or gain a ton for Chapter 27?

Gaining is the hardest, and it’s the hardest on you, because it changes you forever. You can never recover from that, in a way. It’s still with me. It affects your body and your health in a really bad way. It’s very dangerous. And I’d gained 60 pounds.

Do your friends just pull up a picture of fat Jared from Chapter 27 to rag on you sometimes?

[Laughs] I enjoy the transformative process. I would have it be that way every time, although I kind of do, I suppose. It seems to be an area that I enjoy. I like pushing into the unknown.

“As far as the drug usage and dysfunction, my own personal experiences with that helped me inform the performance.”

Is this the first time you’ve ever tried on women’s clothes, or have you ever had an Ed Wood moment?

An Ed Wood moment ... or three? [Laughs] I remember when I was a kid, I put on lipstick once. I was goofing off, and I put it on, and then I stared at myself in the mirror for a moment just being startled, in a way. I think lipstick is really powerful; it’s a signifier. Someone might wear eyeliner on a stage, but lipstick is your mouth, it’s where you communicate, it’s a very sexualized thing, and if you kiss someone, you’ll leave your mark.

But isn’t it armor, in a way? When I’m out with a girl and she’s wearing heavy lipstick, I think, shit, this is going to leave marks all over me.

Sometimes that’s a good thing, man!

Touché. I read that you, like Rayon, had your own personal battle with drugs during your teenage years.

I did. As far as the drug usage and dysfunction, my own personal experiences with that helped me inform the performance. It was actually a blessing, because all that stuff back in the day helped me prepare, so I didn’t have to do that stuff.

Everyone experiments, but how bad did it get?

I would say I moved past the experimental phase pretty quickly and into the full-blown phase.

Was it just coke, or ...

Not just coke. I did everything. Everything. I was an equal-opportunity consumer, and if you had it, I did it. But it really taught me a lot about myself and was a great learning experience.

So it’s a pretty interesting full-circle moment, then, that your finest screen performance to date—in my opinion—is as a druggie struggling with inner demons.

That’s a great way of putting it. This performance is related to some of the biggest challenges I’ve had in my life.

You penned a piece recently in The Big Issue for their series Letter to My Younger Self and mentioned a moment “involving a gun and some cocaine” that was a turning point for you. What happened there?

[Pauses] Those are the things you can’t go into too deeply. That was an indication that this was a road that was going to end abruptly, and it was up to me whether I was going to stay on it or not.

OK, this is going to be a harsh transition back to Rayon, but did you ever go out on the town in drag?

I did! I remember I went to Whole Foods once, and it was interesting, because I got a lot of stares. Nobody recognized me, but they certainly stared. Some people stared in curiosity, some in amazement, and others in judgment, so it was interesting to get that glare. That happened to me when I was fat, too [for Chapter 27]. If I was in character, there was something unsettling about me, and I remember asking someone for the time on the street, and they shooed me away. And I remember seeing people I knew who saw me with the gained weight, and they didn’t know it was for a film. I’ll never forget this. It was a producer in Hollywood, and they treated me really badly. They thought I’d just gone off the deep end. They said, “Oh, wow, you’ve certainly grown up, haven’t you?” in a very, very patronizing, judgmental way. And I couldn’t believe it. But those are the important things to understand, with a character like Rayon.

Video screenshot

So you direct music videos, front a popular rock band, and act in feature films. How do you manage to wear all these different hats?

Whether I’m directing, or acting in a film, or standing on stage, it really comes from the same place. It’s creative problem solving, and making something and sharing it with people. I was just downstairs editing the new video for Thirty Seconds to Mars during lunchtime and then warming up my voice a little for upcoming shows, and now I’m here talking with you. You have to look at it like that, or else you’ll go crazy. That being said, if I’m working on Dallas Buyers Club, I’ll shut everything else out.

It’s been over five years since you shot your last film, so did you view this role as a personal challenge, to see if you’ve still got it?

Yeah, it has been over five years since my last film. I thought, what a steep climb ... This is great! I felt like this part was something I had to do. The challenge was too great that it seduced me.

I’m a ’90s kid, so we’ve got to discuss My So-Called Life. What are your feelings when you look back on that period? Are you like, shit, this is so ’90s and embarrassing, or do you look back on it with fondness?

I hear the ’90s are back in style! [Laughs] Overall, in my life, I do a lot of different things. When I look at the past, which I rarely ever do, because I’m so consumed and compelled with the things I have in the present, I just have a lot of gratitude. I grew up incredibly poor with a single mom raising two kids who had us when she was a teenager. We were food-stamp poor. So, to be sitting here and talking about my career is like, Jesus Christ. It’s all amazing.

You just introduced Kanye West at the MTV VMAs and collaborated with him on the song “Hurricane.” What’s your take on Kanye? He’s a compelling dude that I feel is misunderstood by a lot of people.

He’s fascinating. At the core of what he does, he’s an artist. He makes things. We’re very similar in that respect, and I think we’ve always had a really strong connection and relate to one another, because we love the process. He likes to make things just to make them, whether it’s clothes or music or anything else. And he’s had a lot of success in his life and doesn’t have to work if he doesn’t want to.

Interesting. OK, I’m going to close this out with a Dallas Buyers question to take it full circle. Did you and McConaughey have any sort of bonding ritual before shooting?

I just met him yesterday for the first time. I was in character the entire shoot, every single day. I met the director and McConaughey and Jennifer [Garner] for the first time yesterday. They were joking about that, but it’s actually the truth. We had our first conversations.

So people were calling you Rayon on set?

Yeah, they were.

How far did you take it? Did you sleep in your dresses?

A lady doesn’t sleep in her garments, honey!