Role of a lifetime

After nearly six years away from acting, Jared Leto steps back into the spotlight in Dallas Buyers Club.

Note: This article was originally published in the November 2013 – Vol. 1 edition of the Academy of Art University newspaper. 

This month, Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner join forces on the silver screen in Dallas Buyers Club, which opens Friday, Nov. 8 in San Francisco. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the film was inspired by true events of Texas native Ron Woodruff and his determination to survive.

In 1985, Woodruff (played by McConaughey), an electrician and rodeo cowboy that lives a carefree “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll” kind of lifestyle, is diagnosed with HIV and is told that he has 30 days left to live. He informs his doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner), “Ain’t nothing out there that can kill Ron Woodruff in 30 days,” and dives into doing research, only to learn that treatment options in the U.S. are few and far between and opts to go to cross the border, where he finds alternative, non-FDA approved drugs that he smuggles back into the U.S.

He makes a connection within the gay community, a transgender woman named Rayon (played by Leto), who like Woodruff, shared a passion to live and thrive. Together, they form a buyers club that they run out of a motel, where those who have HIV can buy memberships that grants them access to the non-approved medicines that Woodruff continues to smuggles into the U.S.

Prior to working on Dallas Buyers Club, Leto had spent nearly six years away from acting. He filled the hiatus with recording and releasing music with his band, 30 Seconds to Mars, who have toured all over the world as well as trying his hand at directing. During a recent press event in San Francisco, he said that he “could have made it an even 10, no problem.”

Leto, who described his character Rayon as “so kind and sweet” and “very gentle and soft,” felt like he could bring truth to his onscreen performance.

“I think we’ve seen this part before on film,” he said. “Sometimes in a fun way, but we’ve seen it represented as a cliché of the drag queen dancing on the table with a boa, running out of the room with a quick one-liner. I thought there was more. I saw this as an opportunity to do more.

“I had a very specific idea about how I wanted to play this part. I didn’t want to play a drag queen. I saw her as a transgendered person. Someone who really wants to live her life as a woman, and that’s a key distinction to make.”

As part of his preparation for the role, Leto met with people in the transgender community, listening and educating himself. He said they spoke about everything, “from physicality to what it’s like to tell your parents about who you really are.”

From there, the next big step was the physical transformation. Leto had less than four weeks to completely immerse himself into the body of Rayon.

“It’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it. I had a very limited amount of time, so I basically stopped eating,” he said. “I lost 30-40 pounds, and I stopped counting. At a certain point, it’s like, it doesn’t matter.

“There was the weight loss, there were the heels, the waxing – that was big one. Once you make those commitments, your eyebrows come off and you’re like, ‘Okay, here we are.’ Armpits were the worst, though. That really left a mark.”

Once he found himself in Rayon’s skin, Leto stayed in character for the duration of filming.

“[It] was just an obvious thing for me,” he said. “I mean, there were so many physical attributes, so many emotional things to keep track of, I couldn’t imagine letting go of all that and being like, ‘Hey bro, what’s going on?’ ‘Action!’ ‘Oh! Wait, let me bring all of this back.’ I don’t think I would have done a very good job, so staying focused was essential.”

He recalled a moment during filming where he had gone to Whole Foods and three different looks he received from people, which was a moment he felt was important to experience.

“I got three looks. One of the was, ‘Is that Jared? No…’ The other was like, ‘Who is that?’ And the third was ‘What is that?’ You know, with a slight, ‘I don’t like that.’ It was important to get that,” he said. “And then to imagine what that would have been like in 1985.”

Even though McConaughey is experiencing what’s being described as a “McConaissance” in his career, it’s Leto’s performance that has been creating a buzz surrounding the possibility of taking home an Oscar at next year’s Academy Awards. Hearing that kind of praise for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club makes Leto’s heart skip a beat.

“It’s incredible. It’s a really wonderful feeling, and it’s great to hear people say those things,” he said. “I never imagined in a million years anyone would ever put my name and, you know, that other name in the same sentence.”

Even with the high praise, Leto isn’t sure what his future in acting holds, sharing that he isn’t looking at any scripts, which was also the case prior to Dallas Buyers Club, but he did express that he’s glad that he finally took a look at the script for the film.

“Role of a lifetime. What an amazing part,” he said. “Where do you go from here? Maybe I should never make another film. It’d be a good one to end on, wouldn’t it? Life is short. There’s a big world out there. Lots to explore.”

This article has been reposted with permission from the Academy of Art University newspaper. Photo credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP and Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features.

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Kirsten Coachman

Kirsten Coachman is an entertainment writer and editor from the SF Bay Area. Fan of live music, Shonda Rhimes dramas, and the San Jose Sharks. Follow her on Twitter: @KirsCoachman

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