After a six-year break—during which he wrote and directed a documentary (2012’s Artifact) and toured the world with his band (30 Seconds to Mars)—Jared Leto dug deep to portray Rayon, a transgendered woman battling AIDS and drug addiction, in Dallas Buyers Club.
The film’s star, Matthew McConaughey, wasn’t the only one to completely transform himself for his role. From his first audition, Leto became Rayon, dropping to 116 pounds, spending weeks perfecting her voice, and never coming out of character throughout filming. His heart-wrenching performance has won for Oscar this year and over critics. His two decades of work as an actor have encompassed a host of intense and transformative performances. These have included his portrayals in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, alongside Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans; Steve James’ Prefontaine, as real-life athlete Steve Prefontaine; J.P. Schaefer’s Chapter 27, for which he was voted the Audience Award at the 2007 Zurich Film Festival; David Fincher’s Fight Club, with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, and Panic Room, with Jodie Foster and Forest Whitaker; Mary Harron’s American Psycho, opposite Christian Bale.
How did you initially get involved with this film?
I hadn’t made a film in five or six years and came across this script—or maybe I should say this script was put in front of me. I kind of blew it off a few times, and then someone convinced me to take a look. I thought the character (of Rayon) was amazing. And what a great team of people—I wanted to be a part of it.
Was Rayon based on an amalgamation of anyone?
She’s a fictional character, and I’m really grateful that she was. I had an enormous amount of freedom to create, to imagine, to experiment and not have some of the parameters that come along with representing or portraying a real-life person. My journey began by meeting with transgendered people, trading stories, learning what it’s like to transition, learning what it’s like to tell your parents who you really are, reflecting on how you overcome great obstacles and challenges. That was essential. And, of course, there was a whole series of other things, the voice.
Yes, I heard about that, the voice.
The voice was really important to key into the character. There was the dialect, but also other things, like the octave. Then there’s the walk and the body’s center and the weight. And, of course, the emotional condition and circumstances. So already there’s a lot there, and that’s one of the reasons I was so excited for the part and felt so compelled to play it, because of that unique set of challenges.
What you envisioned for Rayon varied slightly from what director Jean-Marc Vallee had in mind. What fed that confidence going into your first meeting with him?
I didn’t really audition for the role, but I set up a Skype meeting. I decided that it would be good to use it as an opportunity to see what I had to offer. So we connected via Skype, and I grabbed some lipstick and put that on. I could see his reaction—he was very shocked. I started to unbutton my thick winter jacket and I had a little furry pink sweater underneath, and I pulled it down off my shoulder and proceeded to flirt with him for 20 minutes. I woke up the next day and had the official offer for the part. So that’s one way a lady gets a job, I guess. It was a great experiment. I’m not so sure, but maybe Jean-Marc may have seen Rayon more as a drag queen or someone who enjoys pushing a gender envelope or dressing up in women’s clothing, but to me, it was clear that this was a person who wanted to live life as a woman. I think that key distinction was very important to make early on.
One of the more emotional scenes is when Rayon goes to visit her father. It’s tremendously powerful for the audience. What was the filming of it like?
Well, it was a really intense scene to film. It was the very first time that I had worn men’s clothing because I was always in women’s clothing (throughout the shoot). It felt like I was in drag in that scene. I felt very vulnerable wearing that oversized, borrowed suit and to not have on any of my armor—you know, my wig, my makeup, my lipstick and heels. And here I was going to say goodbye to my father and to tell him that I forgive him. So I remember doing the first take, and it was just not working, and I was beginning to panic. All of a sudden, the scene became extremely important. I remember taking a moment, and a deep breath, and some magic happened. I think the second take was when the scene came to life. The director came over with tears in his eyes, and you could hear other people crying on set. It became clear that whatever we were doing was working.
How do you find balance between the acclaim and just being proud of the work?
I love performance and actors and acting and music and art, and when I turn a corner in the Museum of Modern Art, I want to have my mind blown. I want things to win; I want this to succeed. When I see a movie, I want it to move me. I want it to affect my life. So I think when a performance does work, it’s incredible because some of the time it doesn’t work. Most of the time it doesn’t work. You make these little movies, these independent movies, and they don’t turn out as you had hoped or wished they would. So when they do, it’s important to celebrate it. Not just the actors, but for you or whoever else. We all want to discover something and to celebrate it, you know? I’m super proud of and very excited to be a part of this insanity.
Distributed by Captive Cinema, “Dallas Buyers Club” is showing on May 7 nationwide.