Dealing in Dallas


By Aaron Hicklin

Jared Leto on playing a drug-smuggling, transgender, HIV-positive crusader

A lot has been written about McConaughey’s astonishing weight loss for the role, but for Leto, playing Rayon demanded not just shedding weight — he says he stopped counting when he dropped to 112 pounds — but imagining life as a transgender HIV-positive woman in 1980s Dallas. To get there, Leto lived as Rayon on-set and off. “I chose to stay in character the entire time, because there was too much to lose by turning it off after every take,” he says. With his eyebrows waxed and his body skeletal, he’d run routine errands and clock the reactions he was getting. He recalls three, alone, from a trip to Whole Foods: “One was, ‘Wait a second, is that Jared?’ And then, ‘No, it can’t be.’ The second look was, ‘What is that?’ And the third was, ‘I don’t like that.’ That last look was really powerful — to feel that hatred, that confusion, that repulsion,” he says. “Of course I was able to look at it in a clinical way, with all the safety that provides. I couldn’t imagine having to deal with that all the time, and how hurtful that would be.”

The experience, not just in Whole Foods but throughout filming, was instructive for Leto, who scored the part after testing for the role in full drag. What is striking about his performance is the subtlety and serenity he brings to the role, which is a composite of several real-life people; there are none of the stereotypical theatrics we’ve come to expect when Hollywood tackles transgender characters. “I remember sending advance word, saying, ‘Listen, this is great, I want to do this, but I want to make sure that everyone’s OK with me playing this part as a person who is choosing to live as a woman, and not as a cross-dresser,’ ” he recalls. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t know the difference.”

Playing characters in extremis is nothing new to Leto, who won critical raves as heroin addict Harry Goldfarb in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. And his comeback vehicle — after a six-year hiatus to develop his music career with the band Thirty Seconds to Mars — suggests the absence has only sharpened his ambitions. “It’s kind of like what Sir Edmund Hillary said when they asked him, ‘Why climb Everest?’ and he replied, ‘Because it’s there,’ ” says Leto. “I feel that way about these roles. The greater the challenge, the deeper the reward. I’m really feeling like I’m the luckiest person on the planet right now.”

Watch a clip from Dallas Buyers Club featuring Leto as Rayon below: