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Renaissance Man Jared Leto Defies Categorization

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Some of the most fascinating people in today’s culture are distinguished not just by their craft, but also by their passions. We call them the New Alphas.

Certain trades, such as medicine or law, are eternally well-respected. Others earn our admiration because they belong more to a particular moment. Like astronauts in the ‘60s or computer engineers at the turn of the millennium, every era has an iconic occupation that ignites the world’s imagination. Today that singularly revered profession is actually many jobs rolled into one. Our contemporary career idols aren’t limited by specialization; they’re hyper-competent operators, just as comfortable renting out their woodworking skills on TaskRabbit as mocking up logos on inDesign.

If you need proof that this is indeed the age of the multi-tasker, look at some of Hollywood’s successes. From perennial student James Franco to actress turned screenwriter Rashida Jones, it seems all our most beloved entertainers are proficient at a million things other than their day jobs. And leading the charge in this trend toward multimedia domination is Jared Leto, the jack of all trades who’s mastered more fields than James Franco has college degrees.

How you go about describing Jared Leto’s career says a lot about how you were first introduced to him. To festival fiends, he’s the frontman of platinum-selling, arena prog outfit Thirty Seconds to Mars. To cinephiles, he’s the Academy Award-winning method actor who’s been in everything from Panic Room to The Thin Red Line. More recently, we’ve come to know him as an investor behind Surf Air, California’s experimental “all-you-can-fly” subscription airline service. It’s difficult to identify what the 42-year-old Renaissance man’s calling is because he’s achieved preeminence in so many of his pursuits. Though Leto himself would never settle for such compartmentalization, perhaps the best way for us ordinary folk to understand him better is to consider his three main occupations - actor, musician, and entrepreneur - separately.

Born in 1971 in Bossier City, Louisiana and raised within a “hippie communal” movement, Leto initially planned to study visual arts at Philadelphia’s prestigious University of the Arts. Later, he transferred to the School of Visual Arts in New York City after developing an interest in filmmaking. It was only once he directed and starred in his own short film that he decided to pursue acting as a vocation.

In 1994, just two years after arriving in Hollywood, he scored his breakout role as hunky rebel Jordan Catalano on ABC’s My So-Called Life. While a network teen drama might not seem like especially fertile ground for an aspiring actor, Leto garnered praise for bringing new dimension to the stock bad boy character. The series was cancelled after one season, but Leto had already proven his considerable talent.

Shortly after the show’s cancellation, Leto got into features with a string of critical and commercial triumphs, including Gen X manifesto Fight Club and counter-cultural touchstone Requiem for a Dream. The 2000s saw the actor taking on more varied work, culminating last year with his supporting role as drug addicted transgender woman Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Leto immersed himself in the role completely, slimming down to 116 pounds and refusing to break character on set. Director Jean-Marc Vallée claims he “never met Jared Leto. I met Rayon; I don’t know Leto.”

Of course, if Vallée wanted a glimpse of the actor’s offscreen life, he could always rent Sunset Strip, the 2000 comedy in which Leto plays a country rock star on the verge of making it big. Right around the time it hit theaters, Leto was embarking on a similarly meteoric rise as the frontman of Thirty Seconds to Mars, the prog rock group he co-founded with his older brother. Over the last fifteen years, 30STM has released four operatic albums, each wider in scope and vision than the last. From their Pink Floyd-inspired, self-titled debut in 2002 to last year’s color-coded concept album Love, Lust, Faith and Dreams, they’ve sold over 15 million records worldwide. Leto’s crowning achievement with the band came in 2006 when his song “The Kill” spent a record-breaking 52 weeks on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. The accompanying music video, which he directed, won the MTV2 Award at the VMAs.

A rock god and a movie star, you’d think Leto’s plate would be pretty full. Yet somewhere between soundchecks and read-throughs, he still finds time to keep diversifying his resumé. His newest title? Investor. Since 2010, Leto’s redirected some of his creative energy toward the startup space, launching a social media management firm, a company that offers VIP experiences at major events, and a live video streaming service called VyRT. His most exciting business venture, though, is Surf Air, a members-only airline that operates between Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, Santa Barbara, Lake Tahoe, Oakland, and Carlsbad for a flat monthly fee. Leto’s early investment in the company positions him as some sort of next generation Richard Branson, the swashbuckling airline mogul who also has a love for the arts.

The most esteemed occupation of the 21st century is not an occupation at all. Instead, it’s a skill set, the multifaceted expertise necessary to manage many demands in real time. To some, this means being able to draft an email while booking a flight. To Jared Leto, it means winning an Academy Award ten months after having an album debut in the Top 10. And Leto isn’t slowing down; we can now look forward to seeing how he immerses himself in his latest project, playing the Joker in Warner Bros.’ highly-anticipated super-villain ensemble film, Suicide Squad.

If Leto's willing to take on a role made iconic by Jack Nicholson—and then legendary by Heath Ledger—one thing is for sure: there is no challenge this man is afraid of.