BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – Acadamy Award nominee Jared Leto, who plays a transgender person with AIDS in the film “Dallas Buyers Club,” says he was recently called a shape-shifter.
“But that refers to the outside of the character you play, makeup people can do a lot for you,” he tells The Japan Times. “I remember when Meryl Streep (currently on her 18th nomination) won her last Oscar, she made a big point of thanking her makeup man. But it’s really up to the actor to shift his mind into the place where he 99 percent becomes the character. He has to move from sympathy to empathy to total identification.”
Physical transformation has always been a good way to win critical praise, particularly since Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her portrayal of killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” in 2003. As Leto points out, however, perhaps the dedication an actor has to making a physical change is indicative of the mental dedication he or she also possesses.
Co-star Matthew McConaughey is also nominated for an Oscar, in the leading-actor category. The awards will be handed out in Los Angeles on March 2. The actor lost 20 kg to play real-life figure Ron Woodroof, a heterosexual electrician who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985 and given 30 days to live. He had no success with experimental drug trials and ended up taking his health into his own hands, battling the U.S. Food and Drug Administration along the way. After surviving his 30 days, he used what he had learned to help others who were also HIV-positive.
McConaughey — known for his toned physique — slimmed down so much for “Dallas Buyers Club” that it’s hard not to think of fellow Oscar nominee Christian Bale. The actor, who also spoke to The Japan Times about physical transformations recently, dropped to 54 kg for “The Machinist” in 2004. He put on weight for his role in “American Hustle,” for which he is nominated for best actor alongside McConaughey this year.
Was Bale, I ask carefully, a possible influence on McConaughey? The 44-year-old actor chuckles at the notion.
“Most actors have probably seen that performance,” he says. “That might not have been the case if he hadn’t lost so much weight. It was an independent movie, it was interesting and he was good in it … but (the transformation) was mighty impressive to see. Not many people would give that much for their art.”
McConaughey admits there’s more “pizzaz” surrounding an actor losing significant weight for a part than gaining it, as Robert De Niro did for “Raging Bull” (which, incidentally, also won him an Oscar in 1981).
“Losing (weight) takes a will power that’s kind of scary but that you’re glad to learn you’ve actually got. It’s not a fun process. Then you sort of go back to your normal eating pattern. Gaining the weight has to be more fun, up to a point — you get to pig out and eat all the forbidden things.”
McConaughey and Leto, who is nominated for his supporting role as Rayon, are both tipped to win Oscars (“Dallas Buyers Club” is also nominated for best picture). The pair have already won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards in the equivalent categories. On screen they’re a charming team: Woodroof starts off a stereotypical bigot but comes to care for Rayon, even though they bicker more often than not.
“What lifts Ron up to another level as a human being,” McConaughey says, “is he moves from being a self-indulgent, smug skirt-chaser who is only out for No. 1 to actually caring about other people with AIDS. He discovers he’s part of a community and ends up helping that community. Sure, he’s out to make a profit, but he’s not (price) gouging — like corporations do — and he becomes a sort of activist. He finds out the government doesn’t give a crap, especially under (U.S. President Ronald) Reagan, who wouldn’t even say the word ‘AIDS’ aloud till a movie star friend of his (Rock Hudson) got it. (My character) Ron just realizes it’s help yourself or die.”
One of the reasons McConaughey says he took the role was because of the involvement of Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, who also helmed 2009’s “The Young Victoria.”
“I’m no expert on English history, but that movie was like the first time I saw Victoria as a human being,” McConaughey says. “Not just because she was young, but her internal struggle, her conflicted self. She knew she was going to be queen — no king, just a husband who was a prince — but she had these beliefs that were already drummed into her, and she wanted change, but she feared change. It was really complex.
“What also impressed me was I’d seen that actress (Emily Blunt), who was great as Victoria, in (“The Devil Wears Prada”) where she was fine but her character was just pretty and bitchy — she wasn’t very rounded — so I figured the director who helped bring out all this extra mind-and-struggle stuff from that talented actress, could help me in this.”
Vallée, 50, began directing in 1995 and has also been a writer, editor and occasional actor. “Dallas Buyers Club” was also edited by Vallée, and his work has earned him an Oscar nomination in that category.
Leto, born in Louisiana in 1971, could be considered Hollywood’s reigning king of transformation. He started off on the small screen as Clare Daines’ crush, Jordan Catalano, in “My So-Called Life,” played a bleached-blond looney in 1999’s “Fight Club” and a 118-year-old in 2009’s “Mr. Nobody.” He is also the vocalist of rock act Thirty Seconds to Mars. “Dallas Buyers Club” has won him his first Academy Award nomination.
“This could easily have been a movie about Rayon, who’s a powerful character with a tempered steel essence despite the semi-butterfly aspect. Rayon’s a survivor — and has to be, in such a hostile place and environment. But the movie’s main character had to be Woodroof, so straight audiences could identify with a straight character. See, even when it was ‘Philadelphia,’ with a gay main character, behind him was Tom Hanks. Movies let you suspend belief, but only so much. So my character is like the counterbalance to Woodroof.
“What I didn’t want to do was stay safe behind the stereotype. I did research on the role, on movies where you had drag queens, transgender people and transsexuals. Rayon, who Melisa (Wallack, co-screenwriter) says is the film’s heart and soul, isn’t really a drag queen. It’s a different ball game. A born-male tends to become a much more feminine woman than a woman who’s born female, so I had a lot, psychologically, to play off of.
“You can always tell where the actor’s playing it safe or just playing dress-up. I think that’s what happened with William Hurt in ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman.’ He won an Oscar anyway — I guess it was so long ago, there was the shock and daring of a name actor playing a gay character, though a stereotypical one.”
Leto adds that he too lost weight for the role, though the weight-loss publicity has almost entirely revolved around McConaughey. When asked how they managed to work so well together, Leto says it came down to respect.
“We each respected our character,” he says. “We each respected the other’s character and his situation. We bonded. You know the expression, ‘Misery loves company’? When people have an illness, they have something important in common. When it’s a life-threatening or fatal disease, they have that in common, and also that they’re both fighting to stay alive.
“Each knows that the other is also going through hell but trying to make the best of it, with lapses. Rayon and Ron first come together through practical and financial considerations, but they finally bond and each has the other’s back.”
McConaughey agrees respect is key and praises Leto’s performance.
“In a way, he played more against type than I did. I’m not sure I’d sign on to go the lipstick-and-no-eyebrows route. Although that’s the least of it, because Jared simply dove into the character. It’s like he flicked on a switch and there she was. Naturally, I had to treat Rayon like a lady — when I’m not being a loud-mouthed jerk and we’re not arguing.”
McConaughey’s character often gets his way by taking advantage of people.
“I think he’s plum scared to death, early on,” the actor says. “But he’d sooner die than admit it. Ron’s a stubborn cuss. He has to show off, to hold his head up high. He can rub people the wrong way and he’s got a mouth on him, but you sort of have to admire (the fact) he is stubborn. He doesn’t want AIDS, which inevitably ends in death, to change his life too much. He wants to survive and later he wants to help other people (survive), too.”
Leto gives McConaughey credit for bringing out the best in his own performance.
“Other than the physicals — the illness and wasted body — Matt’s not diametrically different from Ron Woodroof. Matt’s very much his own man, a star but not a typical Hollywood star. He’s long overdue for recognition on some of the talent he’s displayed in different movies, especially in recent years.
“He was so intense as Woodroof, so real and in-your-face, it helped me relate to him as Rayon. I had to be intense, too. We each had to shove our viewpoint through — we had to disagree and argue and shout. It was cathartic, but in the way that it would have been for the characters. In the back of my mind, he was Matt, but fundamentally I was acting opposite Ron.”
Oscar nominations can serve as confirmation an actor is making the right career decisions and excelling in their craft. Leto is happy with the response he and his “Dallas Buyers Club” co-stars are getting.
“This time I’m reading reviews, because they’re so good, man,” he says. “Some of them say about (all) of us that we’re doing the best work of our careers and sometimes they pick out things I wasn’t sure they’d notice, like when I’m ashamed of my body — it’s not feminine enough, it’s pretty emaciated. See, I didn’t want to just let being thinner do my acting for me. I wanted to go beyond that — to be weak. Not just to look weak, to feel weak and wasted. But not down and defeated. Never defeated.
“I didn’t want the makeup or clothes to be a mask to hide behind. I wanted them to be a surface that helps reveal what’s inside, including this very strong will to live, and to celebrate being alive — which we should all do.”
“Dallas Buyers Club” opens in theaters on Feb. 22.