Jared Leto is a man of extremes. This is a compliment: By throwing himself into the deep end of demanding roles like The Joker in Suicide Squad, and method-committing to them to the point of urban legend, he's won Oscars (for 2013's Dallas Buyers Club, in which he played a transgender woman) and transformed himself into one of the most interesting and in-demand actors working today. Of course, those extremes—which apply, too, to his fashion choices—also makes him a man of memes. "That stuff has a tendency to go viral or something," as he admitted himself in this interview with Lynn Hirschberg for W's New Royals issue. Here, Leto, who is also the frontman of the very successful rock band 30 Seconds to Mars, lets us in on what's really happening on set, on tour, and behind the scenes, and what he definitely can't tell us about his next movie, the highly-anticipated Blade Runner 2049.
Who to you is a royal? Let's start with music.
In music, the people that I think are royal... there’s a very, very long list. When I was a kid, I was really inspired by bands like Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin. Those bands really changed my life because they were rule-breakers. They create music that was at once atmospheric, really exciting, and full of emotion. They taught me a lot. So I would say those three are definitely royals to me.
Were you a big concert-goer as a kid?
You know, back in the hippie days, my mom would bring my brother and me to festivals and concerts, and some of my earliest memories are, you know, the pounding loud music and rooms filled with smoke, because of course everyone was smoking indoors then. I remember that from a very early age. I saw Pink Floyd, I saw Iron Maiden, The Kinks, but I didn’t really see a lot of concerts when I was a kid.
And in movies, who do you think is royalty?
In film, there are people that have inspired me and taught me so much, people like Christopher Walken, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, um, again, mavericks, rule-breakers, people that really threw themselves into their work. And showed me that the possibilities were endless.
Do you feel happier on stage doing music than when you're making films?
It’s hard to beat standing on stage. There's something that is so incredibly powerful about sharing your music with people. It’s immediate. It’s creative. You come face to face with people, night after night after night, that really affects you when you’re on stage. On tour, you're in this constant routine, you get up on stage and really just devote yourself to the audience every night—you’re giving as much as you can. So it’s just a really beautiful process. Um, you know, there are some bad parts for sure about the music business, but it’s hard to beat being on stage with Thirty Seconds to Mars and touring.
Do you remember the first time you heard a song of yours on the radio?
You know, I do remember, and it’s always still exciting to hear your song on the radio. There's something really special about it. You know, we never thought we would ever have a song on the radio. We just didn’t think we would ever make that kind of music, or that people would want to hear our music in that way. But it’s been an incredible surprise. You know, we were signed in 1998 and were a band many, many years before that. So it’s been a really long and beautiful journey.
]Yeah, and we’re about to put a new album out this year.
What’s it called? Do you know?
I know, but nobody else does. [Laughter.] It’s a secret.
What's your karaoke song?
I don’t f--- with karaoke. For some reason, I’m just the worst. I tried it once and it was the biggest disaster. It was horrifying how bad it was. So I don’t f--- with it. There are some things you just know you're not good at, and I am not good at karaoke.
I bet you’re great at karaoke.
But I do get to be on stage quite often singing and performing with Thirty Second to Mars. So that satisfies my karaoke itch, you know.
What was the song that you bombed on? Even though I don't believe it.
No, no, no, it was—oh, the song that I bombed on was “Eye of the Tiger”. It was a moment of panic. It was at a wedding in front of hundreds of people. Someone pushed me to do it, like, someone called my name out. And I just looked at the list and I was like, “Eye of the Tiger”, and then it hit me: The only line that I even knew was "eye of the tiger." The rest of the song I didn’t, so I just mumbled and it was a disaster. Deep shame.
What were the Oscars like for you? I told you you were going to win before, and you looked at me kinda like you're looking at me now, like, "Go to hell." [Laughs.]
You know what? You were the first person that said something about the Oscars to me.
You were breathtaking. You were also ahead of your time with the transgender movement. It’s amazing how much has changed in a very short period of time.
The world is changed in so many ways, and there are so many brave people out there pushing forward issues of identity in really inspiring ways. And I think that’s just such an incredible achievement. Those people are royals to me and heroes and, you know, I'm always just astounded at people’s bravery and honesty and how they're willing to speak their mind and make change. I think that’s just incredible. It’s really powerful.
Because you got kind of a hard time when you were walking around in character, didn’t you?
When I was shooting Dallas Buyers Club, I did get some unwanted attention, negative attention from people, and oftentimes people just kinda walked to the other side of the room. Certainly they didn’t know who I was, but, you know, I guess what I looked like made people uncomfortable at that time. So it was an interesting experience to have for sure. And then it was also really beautiful. I remember being on set and, you know, after the first day, people just stopped really seeing me so much and treated me so kindly. I remember some of the guys on the crew,, they would reach out for my hand when I stepped off the trailer.
You were super pretty. And now the complete opposite...
Just a man of hair.
So what were the Oscars like? Were you nervous?
The Oscars were incredible. I guess I was nervous, but I wasn’t that nervous. When you do that stuff, I guess you just try enjoy the ride, and what’s beautiful about it is there is a light that shines your way. And then you can take that light and shine it on people and things that are important to you. I had an incredible experience. Everyone was really, really kind to me, and you hear stories of people, you know, maybe feel like it’s a bit much, that whole process. But I thought it was really wonderful.
Do you remember it? People say they don’t remember the whole thing on stage.
No, I remember. Oh, I remember. I remember one moment: I was standing on stage and giving my speech. And I’m looking at this guy and he’s giving me this look. [Makes face.] I’m staring at Robert De Niro... It was a very intense kind of gaze. "Maybe I oughta go to Oprah Winfrey or someone." But I found myself locked in with him—it is just bizarre because you look out and you see all of these faces that you grew up watching and people that have inspired you. And then you know that your words can be impactful, maybe. So you wanna use the time wisely.
Let’s talk about the Joker a little bit. Were you scared to take on the Joker?
I was both—the Joker was an intense and incredible experience. I mean, playing the part was I think probably the most fun I’ve ever had making a film.
You were, um, let’s just say you were extreme on set with people.
I had a lot of fun, but it wasn’t as extreme as the media made it out to be. And I know some of the stories were just kind of goofy and weird, so it was titillating. That stuff has a tendency to go viral or something. But it really wasn’t like that for us on set. I mean, it was a kind of scary prospect to take on a role that had been portrayed so well by such a phenomenal actor in Heath Ledger. But it also was an opportunity and something that, as challenging as it seemed, was quite an honor to be asked to take the baton and run with it. And, you know, filmmaking’s a collaborative process and we all did what we had to do to try to bring these crazy characters to life. But we had a lot of fun. I mean, nobody was taking it too serious on that set, you know. We all were laughing a lot and we had a good time.
But in this, did you stay in character as the Joker off camera as well?
The only thing that I did was try to stay as focused and committed as humanly possible because I knew how much was at stake. And I had learned, through my history of working in film, that the more that I stay committed, usually the better the work is. So I was just out to try to do the best job that I could. I mean, treally my motivation was to serve the other actors and directors and, you know, it was really let’s hunker down and let’s work really, really hard.
Was it fun to have green hair?
Yeah, it was fun. No eyebrows and green hair and lipstick. Three movies, back to back to back: lipstick, no eyebrows, and no body hair. Maybe that’s why I have so much hair now. I’m rebelling against this hairless animal that I was.
Where was your first kiss?
I do remember kissing a girl and, like, getting almost dizzy. It was so powerful. That was kind of the first,, you know, seventh, eighth-grade kiss. But we were pretty experimental kids. There were probably some kisses before that, yeah. I don’t kiss and tell.
Do you have a secret skill?
Definitely not karaoke. Oh, I can levitate.
Yeah, my secret skill is I can levitate.
How did you find out that you could levitate?
It was when I was a kid. And there was some trouble, let’s just say, and I figured out that I could I could levitate. Now I can't do this on camera—unless you have $500, and then we can talk about it.
And how high up can you go?
At least three or four inches. So it’s incredibly useful.
Because, you know, there might be dog poop on the sidewalk or a piece of bubblegum and you don’t wanna have to step over that. It’s a lot of work, but yeah.
Your next movie is Blade Runner 2049. Are you a replicant, or are you not allowed to say?
Well, I can't really tell you anything about the movie, except tell you that it’s coming out in October. I think I already screwed up and said the name of my character. I’m surprised that I didn’t get a letter from a lawyer. It’s a very secretive film, I am really proud to be in the movie because I was just fanatical about the first film. I loved and love the first Blade Runner. It was a really impactful film for me and a big inspiration. So it was fun to be a part of this movie and to work with Harrison Ford. It was just a dream.
That's great. Thank you for being a part of the New Royals issue.
What is a royal—I have worn a crown onstage. Just a subtle crown, not too big, not too small, but a crown.
Have you ever been to a Renaissance fair?
I’ve never been to a Renaissance fair, but I’ve always been a big fan of the fashion.
How about Medieval Times?
It seems a little hot for me. I need loose clothes.
Well,Gucci’s kind of Renaissance fair-ish.
Yeah, they have a little of that swagger in there.