Closer to the edge

Closer to the edge

Oscar winner. Rock star. Style icon. Is there anything Jared Leto can’t do?
By Richard Godwin

Jared Leto made a three-word resolution for 2017: ‘Don’t. Waste. Time.’ He raps his fist on the table to emphasise each word. He has been reading a book by the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca on the ‘shortness of life’, he explains, his turquoise eyes shimmering in the California sun. ‘It’s incredible that this guy lived a couple thousand years ago and you read it and it sounds like someone who’s alive right now. We’re on borrowed time. We only have so much energy. It’s important for me to spend it really wisely.’

If Leto, 45, has been mucking around up to this point, you worry what he may accomplish when he gets serious. He has spent a career diving head first into roles – as teen idol, oblivion-seeking hedonist, method actor, emo frontman, rock climber, start-up founder, fashion plate – and always landing on his feet.

He won an Oscar for his turn as an HIV-positive transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club in 2014. Soon, he’ll add Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited Blade Runner sequel to a CV that includes Fight Club, American Psycho and Requiem for a Dream. His most acclaimed roles arrived after he disregarded all Hollywood counsel and spent four years touring with Thirty Seconds to Mars, the band that he started with his brother back in 1998. It stands out among actors’ side projects in not being embarrassingly rubbish, selling 15 million records of pleasingly histrionic arena rock and entering the Guinness World Records for performing 300 shows in one tour.  He’s currently mixing their fifth album. ‘It’s easy to write four songs a day, the real work is editing it all down,’ he laments.

Leto also serves as chief Instagram muse and confidant to Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele, and managed to pull off a lilac dressing gown at its recent cruise collection show. Today, he’s in Carrera ski shades (he’s the brand’s 2017 ambassador) and a ripped T-shirt by the cult Parisian label Enfants Riches Déprimés. He was an early investor in Uber, Airbnb, Nest and Reddit, and in 2011 founded the live-streaming service VyRT.

To wind down from this, he scales 900m cliff faces in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. And even his tomfoolery is next-level. He sent a dead pig to his Suicide Squad cast mates as part of a series of pranks while getting in the zone to play The Joker in the twisted superhero film.

You may put his industriousness down to his veganism or his recent disavowal of stimulants. ‘I do not dive lightly into the abyss any more,’ he says. He mostly credits his artist mother, Constance, who raised Leto and his brother with help from her own parents after their father walked out when Leto was a baby (he committed suicide when Leto was eight). His grandfather was in the US Air Force, so the family moved around a lot – and Constance joined various artists’ communes. ‘She encouraged me that a creative path is a worthy one. It was really brave of her to do that. The creative path is one that is fraught with imbalance and uncertainty, self-consciousness, fear and doubt.’

It was also as a child that he first read Friedrich Nietzsche. ‘The will to power is such a fascinating thing,’ he says. ‘I think we are probably more responsible for the definition of ourselves than most of us think. Probably. A great deal of the world thinks that … they may not have as much authority in their own lives as they do.’ He chooses his words with exquisite care. ‘But I have found that we are very responsible for our stories. Yep.’

We are talking next to his swimming pool, under the shade of a jacaranda, at his home in the Hollywood Hills. I say ‘home’. Leto resides in a 4 600m2 disused US Air Force base nestled into the mountains. It was built during the Second World War and features a deep bomb shelter, weapons vaults and radar station. Once the Pacific had been made safe from Japanese invaders, it served as a military film studio, producing the public-information films that told Americans what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Head to Jared Leto’s place. That’s what you should do.

It was his mother who sent him the link to the property; maybe it seemed homely to her. Leto told her, ‘You’re crazy,’ but fell in love when he saw it. There is more than enough space to house a tech start-up, a recording studio, various recuperating friends, meditation rooms … and to host wild parties. In fact, it’s so voluminous, he has not managed to decorate most of the rooms, so it’s monastic in its bareness. Still, the Air Force had surprisingly good taste: mid-century window fittings, Spanish-revival floor tiles and whitewashed walls.

Is it true they faked the moon landings here? ‘God knows what they did here,’ he says. ‘But it talks. We have had ghost sightings reported by my housekeeper. A handyman quit the project as he had an encounter. But I feel quite at home here. It’s like a refuge. You’re at the top of this mountain. There’s this breeze coming through. It’s hard to leave.’

Did I tell you how captivating Leto is? I mean, really quite dreamy to look at, even behind his straggly beard (a relic from the Netflix movie The Outsider, in which he plays an American prisoner of war who falls in with the Japanese Yakuza in jail). I once spent a long time contemplating that face, as it was stuck to the wall above the bed of an ancient girlfriend of mine, who fell for Leto in his breakout role as Jordan Catalano in the never-bettered mid-1990s teen drama My So-Called Life. ‘I’m sorry about that,’ he says. ‘If you were in the bed with her, then it could have been worse, I guess.’

But it’s not really just those elfin features. It’s a spacey intensity that you only usually find in cult leaders and people who’ve done a lot of hallucinogens. He chooses his words carefully, as if he has a hard time translating his thoughts into Earthling. He’s a Capricorn, he tells me, which would correlate with his goat-like fondness for mountains as well as his solitary nature. He is currently single (he dated Scarlett Johansson and Cameron Diaz many moons ago) and has no plans to reproduce any time soon. ‘I think it’s really important to be present if you have children. I have a lot of things to take care of,’ he explains.

He is close to Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, whom he considers a ‘wonderful man’, and they hang out in Rome when they can. ‘He’s a really kind person. Unaffected. Creative. Talented. He’s a legitimate good friend of mine, not just a business or a show-business friend. I don’t have many friends, so I do enjoy spending time with the few that I have.’ He counts Leonardo DiCaprio among this coterie too. ‘He’s really funny. I’ve known him for a very long time. But he’s usually busy. There are people I’m really enamoured with, but it’s hard to find time to spend with them.’

Still, he has things to fall back on. The critical acclaim he received for Dallas Buyers Club was a vindication for Leto, whose musical sabbatical was until then seen as an eccentric career choice. He reflects that times have changed and holding down twin careers in music and movies isn’t so unusual (see Janelle Monae, Justin Timberlake, Mos Def).

His next film is Blade Runner 2049. ‘I play a character called Neander Wallace – to be honest, they had me at the name,’ he says. In the trailer, he appears as a black-eyed spiritual medium, murmuring a monologue to Harrison Ford. ‘I read the script and fell in love with the character. But I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about it – I may have already got in trouble for telling you the name.’ He pauses. ‘I can tell you that the experience of making it was one of the highlights of my film career.’ He rates seeing the original Blade Runner as one of the seminal moments of his childhood. ‘Throughout my life, I’ve always gone back to that film. There was something in it that really touched me and taught me a lot about cinema. There’s a level of craftsmanship and beauty that’s unparalleled.’

You may say the same about Leto’s own methods. To prepare for his role as a junkie in Requiem for a Dream, he spent a couple of weeks with actual junkies (shooting up with water, he insists). For Dallas Buyers Club, he arrived on set dressed as a woman and then got changed into character. To play The Joker, he spent hours watching violent crimes on YouTube and then delighted his cast mates by sending them live rats to ‘create an element of surprise, a spontaneity and to really break down any kind of walls that might be there’. The Atlantic wondered if he had ‘ruined method acting for good’.

Climbing rock faces is now his drug of choice; he appreciates nature more as he matures. ‘The act of climbing itself is really a deep, introspective conversation with yourself about your ability and your limitations. There’s a lot of success and failure involved. And you learn a ton. I’m enamoured with it.’

He pushes himself hard too. ‘I almost died recently,’ he says, matter-of-factly. ‘I’ve been close a few times in my life. There was a moment in Yosemite where I was hanging off Taft Point, which is about 3 000 ft, overlooking the valley… I remember having a very direct conversation with myself.’ About what? ‘About the inefficiency of losing my mind. About how important it is for survival, it was, to stay as calm as I could.’

He is, on balance, fairly cool with death. ‘The great thing about death is that it allows new life. It’s an inevitable and important part of evolution. You have to say goodbye so that new ideas, new thoughts, new people can evolve.’ He smiles.

He is, however, psyched about the ‘biomedical revolution’ we are going to witness over the next 10 years. As a tech investor, he would be – Silicon Valley is pumping billions of dollars into life extension, genetic editing, nootropics, bionic limbs and artificial intelligence. Leto is particularly taken with The Singularity, the quasi-mystical belief among technologists that one day we will
all merge consciousness with an omniscient artificial intelligence
and upload ourselves into the cloud.

‘It’s inevitable that it will happen at some point.’ You think? ‘Of course! You’d have to be a monkey not to realise that. The difference between ourselves and our technology will be hard to decipher and determine. I mean, this is a long time in the future, but we are going to become an interplanetary species. Culture and society will advance. And we will become indistinguishable from the technology that gets us there. If you refuse, you are going to be left behind in the Dark Ages.

He attempts to reassure me. ‘It’s far away, but I don’t think it’s science fiction. I think it’s reality. Haven’t you had that thing, where you dream something and it sort of happens?’ Less often than Jared Leto, I imagine.

Text: Richard Godwin/Evening Standard/TheInterviewPeople; Photography: augustimages/greatstock, gallo/gettyimages

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