“I showed up in L.A. with $500 and a backpack and I stayed at a shelter, so nobody handed me anything. I worked for every single thing that I have.” – Jared Leto
American actor and musician Jared Leto has established himself as a top performer in both the film industry as well as music, winning critical acclaim for his performances in films like Dallas Buyers Club and Requiem for a Dream. He has several accolades to his name, including an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
“My career has had a nice slow burn,” Leto said in an interview. “I never woke up one day and all of a sudden my life changed. And I’m grateful for that, because I think it has allowed me the time and space to adjust accordingly, to find out where and how I’m comfortable doing things.”
He added, “I never had pictures of people on my wall. I never had celebrity obsessions. Even the music I listen to. My favourite band was Pink Floyd. I don’t think I knew what they looked like when I was in my 20s. I knew what their artwork looked like, and I knew every lyric of every song on Dark Side of the Moon. But I didn’t really have that kind of exposure or ‘heroes’ in that way.”
On his 49th birthday, we take a look at some of the memorable performances in Jared Leto’s illustrious career as a celebration of his contribution to the world of cinema.
Jared Leto’s 10 best films ranked:
10. Prefontaine (Steve James – 1997)
A biopic about the accomplished American long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine, Leto stars in the title role and delivers a moving performance as the legendary athlete who unfortunately died at the young age of 24 in a car accident. Although the film had its fair share of flaws, Prefontaine is a formative part of Leto’s impressive oeuvre.
“Steve (James, director) and I would be sitting around saying, ‘Well it didn’t really happen like that,’ about the strangest things which, you know, no one would really care,” said Leto. “But you get a little obsessive at times. From the beginning we really set high standards for ourselves. We had the family involved and they really opened their hearts to me and to the filmmakers. I shot to make the family proud. That was my goal and I figured if I did that, everybody else would be just fine.”
9. Lord of War (Andrew Niccol – 2005)
An ethical evaluation of the world of drugs and guns, Niccol’s 2005 crime drama stars Nicolas Cage as an arms dealer and Leto plays the role of his cocaine-addicted younger brother Vitaly. The film loses some of its political messaging while focusing on entertainment but it’s still one of the more important works in both the actors’ respective careers.
The director explained, “I was just drawn to this world. You see a lot about drug trafficking but for some reason you don’t get the same attention to arms trafficking even though it has a far more lethal impact in this world.
“I also wanted to explore that darker side of human nature, because this character (Nicholas Cage) is interesting in that he can sell guns as if they were vacuum cleaners and I wanted to explore how that human being can operate.”
8. Panic Room (David Fincher – 2002)
Inspired by news coverage in 2000 about panic rooms, David Fincher’s psychological thriller features Foster and Kristen Stewart as a mother and daughter whose new home is invaded by burglars. They decide to hide in the panic room but the intruders want something that is in that very room. The film features Leto as one of the menacing intruders, alongside Forest Whitaker and Dwight Yoakam.
While talking about the film, Fincher reflected, “I learned that you can’t make a movie just because it’ll be hard. My agent sent me this script and said, ‘You’re not going to want to read this because it all takes place in one house, and it’s a logistical nightmare,’ and I was just, ‘I might be interested in that!’ I’m a little bit of a contrarian.”
7. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick – 1998)
The second screen adaptation of the 1962 novel of the same name by James Jones, The Thin Red Line marked Malick’s return to filmmaking after a 20-year absence. It features a fictionalised account of a group of soldiers who get caught up in an insurmountable battle at Guadalcanal, an event which makes them question the war they are fighting and the overwhelming violence.
One of the earliest performances in Leto’s burgeoning career, he played 2nd Lt. William Whyte who gets killed before most of the other characters. The film received seven Academy Award nominations, won the Golden Bear Award and Martin Scorsese named it as his second-favourite film of the 1990s.
Actor Jim Caviezel recalled, “There are moments in that film where I felt absolutely filled with the Holy Spirit, tremendously. Terry said, ‘Look over here at the people, at the men that are dying.’ I kept looking around and I began to weep, and it was right before I was ever in that scene. It was a miracle after miracle.”
6. Fight Club (David Fincher – 1999)
David Fincher’s film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s eponymous 1996 novel has elicited polarised opinions from viewers but the indelible mark it has left on popular culture cannot be denied by anyone. Starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, Fincher draws us into a Hobbesian nightmare with his delicate camera work and makes us feel as if we are a part of the revolution.
The film features Leto in a minor role as one of the Fight Club revolutionaries who famously gets pulverised in one of the iconic scenes. Fight Club is a gritty elegy for all the white-collar zombies as well as the thugs who want to render them obsolete but it is understandable how the film can be misconstrued as one that glorifies the violent destruction it indulges in.
Speaking about the film’s initially poor box office performance, co-star Edward Norton said, “It was an interesting experience because we all loved it and we were very confident about it. We were a little stung. You can never completely detach your ego to how does it do when it first opens, but then we all had the very special experience of realising that the relationship it formed with people was everything you dream of when you get into films.”
5. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve – 2017)
Blade Runner 2049 is an expansion of the seminal work of fiction, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, by Philip K. Dick. In the novel, Dick chooses his protagonist to be a human, Villeneuve champions the trope of the insignificant protagonist and chooses an android, Officer K (played by Ryan Gosling). Leto featured as the film’s primary antagonist: CEO Niander Wallace who is obsessed with the reproductive abilities of androids.
Through beautiful panning shots of neon-lit urban jungles and dust-covered landscapes, Villeneuve constantly blurs the distinction between what is real and what isn’t. We end up relating to the android more than any other human in the movie as he exemplifies the emptiness of modern life.
4. American Psycho (Mary Harron – 2000)
One of the most iconic representations of psychopathy in popular culture, American Psycho is the case study of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a wealthy investment banker whose perverse fantasies lead him to a world of violence and bloodlust. Leto is fantastic as Paul Allen, Bateman’s rival at work who gets butchered by the psychopath to Huey Lewis and the News’s song, “Hip to Be Square.”
Harron reflected, “At the time [it came out], people who didn’t like the film or were dismissive of it were saying, ‘Oh, well, we knew all that about the ’80s.’ But to me, it was never just about the ’80s.
“It was about American vulture capitalism—and not just American, really. Bateman is the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with [this system], all the worst and craziest forces—obsession with surfaces, obsession with status, obsession with acquisition.”
3. Mr. Nobody (Jaco Van Dormael – 2009)
Set in 2092, Jared Leto stars as Nemo Nobody who is the last mortal on Earth after the human civilisation has figured out a way to get around death. Using a non-linear narrative, the film explores Nemo’s life (who is 118 years old) and examines what could have happened differently if he had made different decisions.
“I think Jared was really the perfect actor for that role because he’s an actor of transformation,” the director said. “He’s somebody who likes to make characters that are very far from himself. When I realised, in his filmography, that he was in two or three films that I’ve seen but didn’t recognise him in, at that moment, I was sure that he would be the perfect actor to make nine different Nemos in nine different lives.”
2. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky – 2000)
Based on the famous 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem for a Dream is a nightmarish descent into the miserable lives of four drug addicts who try and block out the horrors of reality through substance abuse. However, they find themselves trapped in the prison of addiction as they slowly lose control over their own lives. Leto plays Harry, a heroin addict who falls from the pinnacle of pleasure to the depths of pain.
Leto revealed, “It’s the hardest thing I’d done. I lost 25lbs for the role and I had an accent that I spoke in 24 hours a day. It wasn’t like I could go home and get rid of it. I was in a constant state of hunger like my character.
“I was miserable. It was a painful, dark place, but it was rewarding. I don’t know if you’ve ever fasted, but there were a couple of moments towards the end where I had hallucinations. I’d look up at the sky, and I’d get a feeling of complete serenity.”
1. Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée – 2013)
This critically acclaimed biographical drama was probably one of the best films of the last decade, starring Matthew McConaughey as an AIDS patient who tries his best to cling onto life. While McConaughey won the Oscar for Best Actor for his brilliant performance, Leto won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his powerful portrayal of Rayon: a trans woman who is also an AIDS patient.
His Dallas Buyers Club co-star Matthew McConaughey said of Leto, “I met a performance artist. He is not someone bound by one certain craft — acting, singing, dance. He is a performer, whether it’s a reality, a sleight of hand, a spirit, or a rock ’n’ roll show. He is thoughtful, committed, understands the context, shows up to do it, not discuss it. He performs.”