In an effort to shed the teen pinup image he earned on My So-Called Life, Jared Leto searched his lower depths for films like Fight Club. And in his current offering, the nightmarish thriller Panic Room, he doesn’t seem to be detouring much from his course.
Surviving Young Hollywood is a challenge for even the most skilled actor, but it’s been especially difficult for Jared Leto, who was thrown an extra curve—My So-Called Life. Though the series lasted only one season, Leto developed such a massive cult following for injecting an appealing blend of rebelliousness, moodiness and sensitivity into high school student Jordan Catalano that he was still topping teen heartthrob lists years after the show was canceled.
Leto has steadily tried to slink away from being typecast as the small screens James Dean, just as Johnny Depp did when 21 Jump Street threatened his chances at a feature film career. Leto made more clever calls by taking small roles in either edgy or prestigious films. His bit part as a tense soldier in Terrence Malick’s critically acclaimed The Thin Red Line sufficiently jarred nerves. Allowing himself to get beaten to a pulp in David Fincher’s Fight Club, showed guts. And turning up for a few minutes as Winona Ryder’s lover in Girl, Interrupted and as Christian Bales nemesis in American Psycho was a message to Hollywood that he’d rather take minor roles in good material than be a sell out for starring roles in mediocre fare.
When I meet Leto—who’s been dating Cameron Diaz for some time but would rather not discuss their relationship—over chips and salsa on the patio of L.A.’s Chateau Marmont, I notice he’s wearing the same braided cornrows he sports in the trailer for Panic Room. “I still have the hair because I just did some additional shooting yesterday,” says Leto of the film that started production in late 2000. “Making Panic Room has been a long, interesting ride. People on the set yesterday were joking, ‘All right! We just got picked up for a second season!’”
Is David Fincher as intense as his movies?
David’s really intense. I hesitate to use the word genius because I think he’s too handsome to be a genius. He’s downright sexy. [Laughs] And he has got to be the most knowledgeable person I’ve ever met. He sets up a world that is filled with so much truth, from the tiles on the floor to the paint cracking in the corner, that it enables you as an actor to do your job.
Did you get banged up while making Fight Club?
Yeah. I broke, like, three ribs. I had to fall and David wanted it to look real so he was off to the side of the camera throwing me down on the ground.
He literally threw you down on the ground?
Yeah. [Laughs] We threw a couple of chairs at each other.
And it was all worth it?
In all honesty, it’s so exciting to go to the set every day to be part of what he’s doing. Even if his movies aren’t your cup of tea, you can’t walk away from them without acknowledging the craftsmanship that goes into them.
Forest Whitaker and Dwight Yoakam play your partners in crime. What are they like?
Forest can show the most subtle of emotions in his face. I like to watch his takes when I’m not in the scene. And Dwight, he’s playing one of the utmost son-of-a-b*ches on the planet, and he does it really, really well. He’s horrifying.
This movie has had quite a rocky road to the screen. Was there a point when you thought it might not happen?
There were several points. Nicole Kidman was originally in the film. David started rehearsals and then she hurt her knee so we shut down for six weeks. We started up again and she hurt her other knee. So Jodie Foster came onboard and a few weeks later it comes out that she’s pregnant so that was another challenge to shoot around because she was starting to show.
Did you get to rehearse with Nicole?
Just a bit. I thought she was fantastic.
What was it like working with Jodie?
She’s in one side of the house and we’re in another so we were separated for most of the shoot. But she’s very interesting to watch. You respect her. You can see her thinking, which is good for this kind of character in a thriller.
You play a thief in the film. Have you ever stolen anything?
A: I once stole $12 million from a school for the blind. [Laughs] Not really. I stole a lot when I was a kid, but I wouldn’t steal one candy; I’d take the whole carton. I also used to like to break into other people’s houses and sit in their rooms. I found it very comforting to be in someone’s empty house.
Would you pick a nice house or just any house?
Whatever house I could get into. It was so weird. But I’ve stopped doing that. [Laughs]
When you’re at your most stressed out making dark movies like Panic Room, do you ever think, “I should just make some high paying Garry Marshall comedy and take it easy for a while”?
Sometimes I do question, “What is wrong with me?” Some people I respect a lot have a great time making films that are light and fun, and I think that’s fantastic, if that’s what makes them feel good. Maybe they’re having more fun than I am. That’s what I question. Right now I want to work on projects that take chances and aren’t afraid to be unconventional. You have to do what moves you. I would be happy going back and forth between Darren and David Fincher for the rest of my career. But I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to do something light. I probably will at some point.
Did you reward yourself when it was over?
It was difficult. I walked around New York City for a while. Ultimately, I went to Portugal and stayed in this old monastery for weeks and ate fish and potatoes.
You lived in Haiti for a while. What was that like?
I was 12. It’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It was horrible to see people living in the street, in shacks, and bathing in sewer water and drinking bad water and begging and starving. It was unforgettable.
Do you think being raised by a single mother gave you insight into women?
Yes. I love women. [Laughs]
You came to Hollywood at 20. What was your first impression?
It was wild. I had never been to California and it was always a magic place to me. My brother was racing demolition cars in Indiana and he got in trouble and got locked up. So I came out here. The first night, I slept on Venice Beach.
What was it like when you first started going out on auditions?
It was challenging and nerve-racking. I remember hiding behind an overturned desk, shooting imaginary guns at people. One time, I stopped and said, “I can’t do this. I feel like I’m in a bad high school play. I’m sorry I’m wasting your time, but I’ve got to go.”
What’s something you’re good at that might surprise people?
Messing with computer hardware. I take computers practically apart and put them back together. I have a supercomputer I built over the years out of different computers.
They say Hollywood is like high school with money. Where do you fit in that metaphor? Drama geek? Computer nerd?
A: I’m the guy who’s ditching. [Laughs] And the teacher’s calling out, “Leto? Leto? Leto? Where’s Leto?”