The Big Interview: 30 Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto
30 Seconds To Mars frontman Jared Leto isn't just another Hollywood actor-turned-rock star. For him, it's all about the music
It is the elephant in the room. And it can't be avoided any longer. So, Jared, what do you say to the people who think actors should stick to acting and forget about being a rock star too? Jared Leto is on the other end of the phone in Los Angeles and there's a pause -- and then a resigned sigh. It's obviously something he gets asked all the time.
"I completely accept that some actors have made terrible music in the past and it's felt like they were just doing the music side of things for the hell of it. But I'm not like that, and my band has been going strong for 10 years now. I haven't lost interest in it like some others might have. This band means everything to me."
His band is 30 Seconds To Mars, and although he is still best known as one of Hollywood's most celebrated young actors, Leto takes his role as frontman, guitarist and primary songwriter very seriously indeed.
"30 Seconds To Mars is not some dumb side project that lets me pretend to be a musician. It's something that all my heart and soul goes into."
Initially little more than a hobby for him and his drummer brother, Shannon, the outfit now has an international following and plays to packed houses across the world, including two shows in Dublin's Ambassador tonight. In the US alone, the band's latest album, A Beautiful Lie, has shifted more than 600,000 copies.
And then there are the awards. The threesome -- the Leto brothers are joined by Tomo Milicevic -- bagged Kerrang! magazine's 2007 Single Of The Year and have won a slew of MTV gongs.
One can assume that they won't be among the glut of EMI bands dropped from the roster as the ailing record company attempts to turn its fortunes around. "Obviously it's a difficult time for the record industry at the moment," he says, picking his words carefully, "but I'd much rather focus on the creative side of things. I directed the video for our new single and I'm busy writing new material."
Leto's commitment to the band has impacted on his film career. "I've turned down movies [Clintwood's Flags Of Our Fathers among them] because I wouldn't have been able to fit in the shoot with this band's schedule."
A look at his recent film career suggests that he has indeed been spending more time in concert venues rather than on movie sets. He has only made five films (two yet to be released) since shooting 2002's Panic Room.
"Nothing can beat the immediacy of playing a live show with people singing back every word," he says. "There's a sense of adrenaline that you don't normally get while making a movie."
That's not to say that he prefers music to acting. "Both give me great pleasure, but in very different ways. I guess acting in a film is a little bit like working on a new album in a studio. Both are very laborious. You've got to put hard work and long hours into both if you're to have a chance of making something special."
When they were first signed, 30 Seconds To Mars chose not to promote themselves as Jared Leto's group. There were no photographs and concert promoters were forbidden from placing Leto's name on posters and concert listings. The band's fanbase grew exponentially during a relentless tour which followed the release of second album, A Beautiful Lie. It was released in the US in 2005, but is only getting a push in Europe now.
Jared Joseph Leto was born on December 26, 1971, in Bossier City, Louisiana. He doesn't remember much about the place. "We moved around a lot," he says. "We were poor, although it didn't feel so bad at the time."
He had problems with authority, found school easy but boring and was in trouble a great deal when he was young.
But his creative abilities and the steely determination that's essential for anyone hoping to make it in Tinseltown surfaced early: he attended the School Of Visual Arts in New York, where he majored in film-making. At 19, he went to Los Angeles, city of a million dreams.
After a spate of forgettable, tiny roles, Leto got his break within a couple of years, when he landed the part of troubled kid Jordan Catalano in the short-lived, but fondly remembered, US teen drama, My So-Called Life. The mid-1990s series also introduced Claire Danes to the world. "It only lasted for about 20 episodes but there was a sense it was being noticed by casting agents and such like," he says.
He would get his first movie break in Ireland when he starred in the lead role of a young Dubliner experiencing a sexual awakening in the late 1970s. The Last Of The High Kings was based on the Ferdia MacAnna novel of the same name, and Leto remembers the movie with affection.
"I spent some great months in Dublin in the summer of 1996," he says. "It's such a beautiful city, so different to any place I'd been."
Few American actors can nail a contemporary Irish accent, but Leto managed it. "I'm getting a bit nostalgic just listening to your accent, man," he says. "I got really into the role and spoke with an Irish accent 24/7 while making that movie. Friends would call me from the US in the middle of the night and wake me up and they'd think they'd got the wrong person because I would speak like an Irish guy even when I'd just woken up and wasn't conscious of what accent I was speaking with."
Immersing himself in the characters he was playing would be a feature of his acting from then on.
In his most recent film, Chapter 27, due for release this summer, Leto plays John Lennon's killer, Mark Chapman. He looks unrecognisable from his usual buffed self, having put on 62 pounds for the role.
"It had to be done if I was to play this guy who was puffy and overweight," he says. "It was dangerous piling on the weight so quickly and my doctor was worried."
Leto developed gout -- a symptom of ballooning weight -- as he got ready for the character. As a vegan, he would be unable to consume the red meat that other actors eat by the truckload to put on the pounds. "Every night I would microwave a pint of ice-cream and add olive oil and soy sauce to it and drink that," he says. "If you do that as often as I did, and just stop exercising completely, your body shape will change very, very quickly. I also ate a great deal of pizza and pasta."
After the film, he had to undergo a restrictive diet to revert to his original weight. "I barely ate for the first 10 days," he says. "I had to incorporate lemon and cayenne pepper with drinking water and that helped speed up my metabolism."
Despite his hard work to get into the role, the film has met with so-so reviews on the festival circuit.
He is rumoured to be dating the film's co-star, Lindsay Lohan, but questions about his love life are firmly out of bounds. Leto is certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to Hollywood conquests: he was in a relationship with Cameron Diaz for four years, and he stepped out with Scarlett Johansen around the time of her breakthrough film, Lost In Translation. He has also been romantically linked with actress and entertainment mogul, Ashley Olsen.
Despite word from his US handlers that he wouldn't talk about his film career, he's quite happy to chew the fat about some of his best films, including the remarkable Requiem For A Dream, in which he played an ill-fated Brooklyn heroin addict.
"Yeah, I'd say Requiem is the best film I've done. It's the sort of film that sucks in the viewer and keeps them there. It's very visceral and I think that's so important for the subject matter. All the performances are incredible, not least that of Ellen [Burstyn, who, incredibly lost out to Julia Roberts' Erin Brockovich in that year's Oscars]."
He's had to content himself with small parts in other fine films -- Fight Club and American Psycho, among them -- as well as the odd turkey. Oliver Stone's Alexander is often cited as the worst big-budget film of the decade, but Leto prefers to talk about the fun he had with Colin Farrell.
"I don't know if you've spent any time in Colin's company, but that guy is just so amazing. His zest for life is infectious. I consider him to be a good friend and hopefully if he's in Dublin when we're there, we'll get to hang out."
My allotted time is drawing to a close and I get to ask him one last question. "How do I want to be remembered?" he repeats. "As someone who managed to do a good job as both an actor and a musician and who didn't embarrass himself at either." n
A Beautiful Lie is out now. 30 Seconds To Mars play two shows in Dublin's Ambassador tonight. Both shows are sold out -- returns only