By THE TIME JARED Leto calls, he’s already an hour and a half late. He apologizes, saying that he copied down the address incorrectly. He is one block away on a pay phone; he can see the meeting spot from where he stands. He says he’ll be there immediately. Half an hour later, Leto finally strolls through the door.
You assume he’s a flake.
It has been two years since Leto’s television series, My So-Called Life, died its premature death, and during that period he has bided his time, hoping to find the right projects to help melt the Jordan Catalano mystique. The problem is that, like his fictional alter ego, the more Leto hides out or keeps quiet, the more that aura grows, and there remains the possibility of real depth behind his stare. Or not. Which means Jordan Catalano’s great mystery has become Jared Leto’s.
“You have to remember – and I have to remember to tell myself sometimes – that my part on that show was really small,” Leto says. “A lot of people talked about it, but sometimes I had just a couple of lines an episode. So I haven’t really done anything. I don’t expect that a director is going to be saying that he has to work with me.”
But there are those who disagree. As My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holman says: “Claire Danes literally lights up the screen. So, we just got lucky with Jared because he has this remarkable screen presence, too. They were an incredible twosome.”
When Leto arrives today in downtown New York a hat pulled too far down over his eyes and his long hair dyed blond for a movie role-it’s clear he has done all he can to look less like his former TV character.
The 24-year-old is here to talk about his strategy for combating the ghost of Catalano (“If I was ever a teen idol, I’d kill myself,” he says) and about what, exactly, he has been doing lately. Since My So-Called Life, he has spent his time mostly alone, mostly in Los Angeles, but has also managed to complete three movies. Although all are slated for early 1997 release, their existence doesn’t necessarily explain Leto’s two years of semiretirement.
“I said to myself a long time ago, even before I knew better, that I wanted to do good work,” says Leto. “What I didn’t realize is that when you set up those boundaries, you don’t work much.”
Suddenly distracted, Leto wanders out into the neighborhood on the pretext of finding a cup of hot chocolate. Wandering, it turns out, is what Leto does best, what he grew up doing. A self-described “weird kid,” he and his older brother, Shannon, were raised by their young single mother in, among other places, Louisiana, Colorado, Virginia, Wyoming and Haiti. Leto dropped out of high school briefly in 10th grade, only to return to get his diploma, then moved on to study painting at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, but quit to learn filmmaking at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Finally, at 20, he drifted to Los Angeles to take up acting. Perhaps this upbringing accounts for the fact that his favorite activities are solitary – playing guitar, hiking with his dog, Judas – and that he doesn’t mind checking out of his life and his relationships for long periods of time.
“That doesn’t faze me,” says Leto as he walks in circles around the East Village. “I spend most of my time by myself anyway. I concentrate on the work.” In other words, Leto is happy to become someone else for a short time and then move on. Because of this, he says, he would not want to do television again out of fear that he would become too antsy. His personality, you can’t help noticing, is scattered, hard to pin down. An example:
Do you see your dad?
I’m sorry. Did he pass away when you were very young or did you just not see him and then later he died?
Um, kind of like the second thing.
You lived in a lot of different places. Why did you move around so much?
It was just that whole nomadic, hippie kind of thing.
Then, what’s interesting to you about growing up?
Me and my brother, single mom, moved around a lot. I don’t know. That was a good answer, huh? [Laughs] I was following an answer, and then it kind of disappeared.
It becomes clear that Leto is comfortable and focused only when talking about his fictional characters. When the conversation turns personal, his attention strays and he uses his spaciness as a shield, content to let you believe he is yet another actor housed within a flaky outer shell.
We make our way indoors to talk about what he wants, his fascination with character study and how he assigns himself a different task during each film to help him learn – an Irish accent in Last of the High Kings, no unnecessary mannerisms in Going West. When he talks about acting, Leto comes alive, his voice turning animated while his hand touches your arm every time he makes a point. Which is often.
“He’s a very intense actor, in the good way,” says Steve James. “The casual Jared is a gas to be around because he’s so funny. He’s a little all over the place, which I attribute to his being young. But on the set, he was very focused. He’s very earnest. He takes what he’s doing very seriously.”
It was with Prefontaine that Leto met the greatest challenge of his short career. The film is one of two Steve Prefontaine bios scheduled for 1997- the other is produced by Tom Cruise and stars Billy Crudup – but the only one endorsed by the runner’s family. (Asked about the other film, Prefontaine’s sister, Linda, says, “We’re not involved; we don’t approve of it; we have nothing to do with it.”) To prepare, Leto studied audiotapes and video footage of the outspoken star, who died in a 1975 car crash at the age of 24. He also met with Prefontaine’s family and trained intensely with one of the runner’s best friends and former teammates.
“It was one thing to meet him before filming started, when he was Jared Leto,” says Linda Prefontaine. “But to see him after he studied was very overwhelming. I just started crying. It was like looking at my brother again. It was just too shocking. I’m standing there crying and I looked at Jared and his eyes welled up. It was so emotional. We’re not talking a fictional character here.”
Leto sips his second cup of hot chocolate and, for a brief moment, relaxes. He has been talking excitedly about the making of Prefontaine, how he was happy that director James was Chicago based and not “a Hollywood guy.” Suddenly, Leto gets reflective. “I’m rarely proud of what I’ve done,” he says. “I hated everything I did on My So-Called Life. It was a great show, no thanks to me. But I think there’s some pretty decent moments in Prefontaine. I worked really, really hard at the running. I trained really hard. And I worked really hard to look like him.”
Leto sits back, ready to get his guard up by not paying attention in case a personal query floats his way. “I hope I don’t come off too serious,” he says finally, grabbing your arm. “I joke around, and I’m thrilled doing this. I’m serious about it, and I work hard, but I have a great time doing it.”
He finishes his sentence and falls silent, so you take the opportunity to slip in another personal question. It has been impossible not to notice his head swiveling to look at every woman who has passed by, so you ask if he has a girlfriend. “I’m sorry, what was the question?” he says.
The question is repeated, loud and clear.
“I’m sorry, what was the question? Leto grins slightly, once again keeping quiet, and you realize that maybe he is on to something. After all, Jordan Catalano never said a damn thing but remains one of the most alluring men in recent pop-culture history.