Jared Leto :: No Drag Queen Cliché
"Dallas Buyers Club" will be remembered as the movie in which two of the sexiest men in show business, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, shed weight, lots of weight, to play men inflicted with AIDS, in what can be argued are the best performances in their career. And, without a doubt, the film is one of the year’s most poignant films as it focuses the AIDS crisis and how the system designed to protect Americans not only failed its people but were often at times, even in conflict with them.
Based on a true story, Ron Woodroof, a straight rodeo cowboy played with a ferociously raw energy by Matthew McConaughey, was given a month to live when he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. Shunned by his homophobic pals and unable to get on clinical trials for AZT, Ron refuses to succumb to what seemed like a death sentence. He learns about alternative treatments for AIDS and finds ways to import (or smuggle) these drugs into the U.S. where he sets up an exchange for PWAs to get access to them.
His Dallas Buyers Club, along with others started across the country, were a bottom up alternative to fight the disease. In Rayon, a transsexual played with physical and emotional complexity by Jared Leto, Ron finds an unlikely partner to gain inroads into the gay community. It is this unique relationship that gives the movie its heart.
Flirting with the director
Rayon is Leto’s first movie role in six years. His previous portrayals as a junkie in Darren Aronofsky’s "Requiem for a Dream" and as professional athlete Steve Prefontaine in Steve James’ "Prefontaine" have drawn praises; but Leto has chosen to drift from acting (after roles in commercially successful films like "Fight Club," "Panic Room" and "Alexander") to headline his rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars.
In 2006 he took the role of Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon for the indie "Chapter 27." Leto gained 67 pounds for the role through a regimen of eating pints of microwave ice cream. The weight gain paid off: though the film wasn’t well received, "Leto’s drawling, blotchy, creepy performance sets it apart..." wrote critic Joe Neumaier in the New York Daily News. "It’s a transformative role, but how widely seen it is depends on how strong a stomach one has for wall-to-wall paranoid ravings."
Leto has not been looking at scripts for years, instead concentrated on his music career, but he saw something in the character of Rayon, so much so that he flirted with director Jean-Marc Vallée to seal the deal. The role marked Leto’s return to filmmaking after a six-year hiatus.
"I was in Berlin. I had a Skype meeting setting up with him. I was, like, let me use this as a little test. I said, "Hey, how are you doing?" He said, "Hi, I’m Jean-Marc..." As he was talking, I started putting some lipstick on, and then I unbuttoned my jacket. Underneath, I had a little pink sweater, pulled it out of my shoulders and I started to flirt with him a little bit. Sure enough I got the job the next day. But that was an audition both for myself and for him. I was curious what do I have to offer here," shares Leto.
In fact, those first few minutes that the two met over Skype were probably the only time that Vallée met Leto. From then on, Leto showed up on set in full drag and in character for the entire 25-day shoot. Vallée only met the real Leto at the premiere of the movie. "I never slept in and went out and got a beer afterwards. That wasn’t where I was at. I got to know Jennifer (Garner), Ron (Matthew McConaughey), the director, all of them through the character. I know the director jokes about having never met me in person until the premiere, and Matthew as well. I think it’s probably one of the reasons why Matthew and I had such great chemistry."
Leto discovered the soul of Rayon, working with the director, but he did have a very specific idea of how he wanted to portrayal her. "I didn’t want to play a drag queen," he says. "I saw her as a transgender person. She wants to live life as a woman and be loved by a man. Someone who really wants to live a life that is worth it. That’s a key distinction to make. Making that choice was one of the most important choices, if not the most important as far as choices go."
Getting made up
The first scene that Leto filmed for the movie, where Rayon met his doctor played by Jennifer Garner, was also the first time the audience is introduced to Rayon. Leto revealed that there was quite some tweaking after that day as to how Leto should be made up. The team decided to tone down the makeup on Rayon to make her look less glamorous and pretty, something which Leto feels is appropriate to show Rayon fading further away from her character’s color and vibrancy.
It was exactly the moral ambiguity and complexity that add such rich texture to the drama. Rayon knows that she is going to die. One part of her wants to live, while her indulgence in drugs as she spends her generous commission from Ron suggests otherwise. Leto says it’s about accepting her own fate while facing frustrating circumstances. "She has surrendered," Leto says. "Even when she went to see her father, it’s about forgiving him for not being present in her life and unable to love her for who she is. Maybe she is living for Ron, for the club, for other people. She is like a dog you meet in a pound."
Rayon actually reminds Leto of a husky he once adopted from a pound: a white husky that has one blue and one brown eye. A beautiful dog with epilepsy but is the most loving and kind. "It’s just the sweetest dog in the world, just wanted to be loved and love other people. I think Rayon is the same way. It’s dangerous comparing your character to a dog. It’s a great dog," he finally realizes that.
Leto knows that he does not want to play a drag queen cliché. No dancing on the table with a boa. No running out of the room with a quick one-liner. He feels that he could bring ’some truth’ to the role, that there is an opportunity to do more. He looks to William Hurt’s performance in "Kiss of the Spiderwoman" and the late Leslie Cheung in Chen Kaige’s "Farewell My Concubine" for inspiration.
"This isn’t someone who is running around sashaying all over the place but there is some nuance in it. She wants to live life as a woman and be loved by a man. That was the key," says Leto.
For fans of Leto who want to see more of him taking on challenging roles, Leto is still not reading new scripts, just like in the few years before "Dallas Buyers Club." He calls Rayon the "role of a lifetime."
Staring at food
In the month leading to filming, Leto had lost 30 pounds to weigh 116 pounds. While living in character throughout the duration of the shoot, Leto recalls one day when he makes a trip to Whole Foods during his break. "I learn to stare at food (laughs) which is a weird thing to do," he shares.
It was in the same trip that he received weird looks from people in the store, some in disbelief, others judgmental with a touch of disgust. Leto thinks it is important to gain that experience. "That scares me," Leto professes. "To imagine what that would have been like in 1985. I couldn’t imagine walking into a supermarket in full drag in 1985. You’d better get funny and charming real quick or you’ll get your ass kicked."
"Dallas Buyers Club" opens in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 1 and expands in coming weeks.
Watch the trailer to "Dallas Buyers Club":