Twenty years ago, Jared Leto was high off his mind on heroin, launching himself off an illusionary Coney Island boardwalk into the great abyss. As Harry, the fallen hero of Darren Aronofsky’s psychological drug epic Requiem for a Dream, Leto garnered much critical acclaim, catapulting the actor and musician (he formed cult-favourite rock outfit Thirty Seconds to Mars with his brother Shannon in 1998) to leading-man level after buzzy supporting appearances in Girl, Interrupted and Fight Club, thanks to his biting performance and agonising methodology.
In the decades since, he has continued to chase extremes — from a millennial supervillain in Suicide Squad to a transgender pill pusher in Dallas Buyers Club — with subversive, sometimes bizarre performances that beg the question: are there no lengths he won’t go?
Similarly, in music and in fashion, Leto has dissolved the boundaries of Hollywood convention, evolving from late-aughts emo alternative to the non-conforming maximalism proposed by Alessandro Michele at Gucci (for whom Leto has long played muse) and a new generation of experimental TikTokers. Indeed, Leto today, with his mane of hair and well-built physique, is no longer the same skinny-jeans-clad rocker stomping at the Vans Warped Tour, further evidenced in the upcoming Daniel Espinosa-directed Marvel film Morbius, in which he plays the titular character, and the upcoming crime thriller, The Little Things.
On the advent of Requiem’s anniversary, Leto speaks with close friend (and sometimes collaborator) Finneas O'Connell — known mononymously as Finneas and the silent power behind sister Billie Eilish — about his newfound love of rock climbing, the high of live performance, and unreleased music.
Finneas: I read an interview that you did entitled "I Like to Employ the Power of No", which really informed how I’ve gone about my [own] career, and I think the way Billie has, too. You are so definitive and thoughtful in every choice you make, and I wanted to ask if you can think of anything you regretted saying no to? Something that seemed like the right thing to pass on at the time that years later you thought, man, I should’ve done that?
Jared Leto: I love to work and I love to find solutions to problems, so I really have to watch the amount of work that I take on, because everything you say "yes" to is a "no" to something else. But when you do say no, it’s a yes to another opportunity.
I remember hearing Steve Jobs say to Jony Ive that sacrifice isn’t saying no to something you don’t really care about, sacrifice is actually saying no to something that could be a valuable experience. I think about that often, because sacrificing is really important. I don’t really think in terms of regret, but if I were to put some things in that pile, it would probably be less about turning down movies or opportunities, and more about spending more time climbing mountains and being outdoors. There’s a time limit on that, and it’s something I wish I’d done more of in my life.
F: Fulfilment comes in small doses, especially for professional artists. There’s some level of it in making an album, of course, and I’m assuming in making a film, but then there’s also so much brain space that's spent thinking about your next project or the chorus of that one song you haven’t cracked yet etc. So the notion that climbing brings you pure satisfaction gives me so much joy. You’re in a position where you probably give a lot of advice to people — I’ve definitely asked you for advice — but I want to know whose advice you seek out, if there is anyone?
JL: You can be working on an album and on top of the world one day because you’ve had a breakthrough, and then three weeks later, you hate it. I often go through that rollercoaster of dissatisfaction and surprise and excitement, and I think that’s the nice thing about climbing for me. The outdoors, the simplicity, the base instinct that compels you to be completely in the moment.
There are a lot of people I turn to for advice. When I’m making music, it can be someone like you, which I’ve done a few times. I actually finished one of the demos we worked on together, I should send it to you. It’s quite cool. It’s super weird and super dark, which is my favourite and I think yours, too. The good thing about making films is that you have the director, the writers, the editors and other actors to work with. I was on the phone the other day doing ADR [voice recording] for Morbius, and I stopped and asked the technicians a sound question I'd always thought about. I guess I’m just obsessed with learning — I’m hyper-curious and I just want to learn all the time.
F: That’s probably why you’re so good at so many things. I think you’re also afforded the luxury of having the people from whom you seek advice being the experts in their respective fields.
JL: I like to learn from my friends, too. How they spend their spare time, who’s in their social lives, what their friends and families are like... I have a long way to go with all of those things, because I’ve been so focused on my career goals and ambitions for so many years. I’m finally making more time for other things in my life now, so that’s something I could learn a lot from you and other people.
F: You were really kind to Billie and me way before anyone else was aware of us, and for that, we feel very grateful. I mean, we feel grateful to know you at all, but especially when we met, we were in so much need of counseling. I remember you telling us that when you first started, nobody wanted to sign your band. I thought that was so wild to hear, because your music played such an instrumental role in my adolescence. Was that really the case? Were there not a flurry of deals thrown at you immediately?
JL: No, but I think part of the problem might have been us [laughs]. It was complicated, and it remained complicated even after we were signed. We didn’t really have success for about seven or eight years, and our first breakthrough wasn’t until 2006 with the song “The Kill”.
And even then — I mean, I’ve told this story many times — but at one point, radio stations refused to play us. MTV said they would never, ever buy into the Thirty Seconds to Mars business! But since then, we’ve gone on to win two dozen MTV awards and play on probably a dozen different MTV awards shows around the world.
We became great partners, but we went from a net negative to crawling our way out and having more success than we'd ever imagined. I have so much gratitude for all those experiences. When you’re starting out, you’re looking forward. The main drivers for me then were fear and failure, but when I look back now, it’s gratitude. Even when I look forward now it’s gratitude, so it’s good to get to that place.
F: I wasn’t always hip to the notion that you’ve directed a bunch of your videos under a pseudonym [ed. note: and the upcoming documentary A Day in the Life of America]. It’s something that Thirty Seconds to Mars and my sister have in common, and the visual component is so strong, it makes the music even more engaging. I’ve heard for years that you don't watch the films — or even the trailers — that you’re in, so I was wondering if directing a music video is challenging, since you have to watch your own performance?
JL: Oddly, it doesn’t bother me at all, but I’d have a completely different relationship to that if I were a film director. As an actor, I find it better to let go of that control or responsibility once you finish the scene. With the exception of “Rescue Me” that Mark Romanek did, I’ve directed all of the Thirty Seconds to Mars videos under the pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins. It’s one of my worst-kept secrets but it’s been fun for me, because I had the opportunity to work in a vacuum without the pressures that come with it. When I release an album, I spend as much time on the music videos and visual components as I do on the songs themselves. Maybe it’s because I was an art school dropout — I always wanted to be a painter.
F: I know none of us will be playing shows this year, obviously, but last summer you did a terrifying number of shows in a limited amount of time across Europe. Weren’t you playing every day for seven weeks?
JL: Historically, we've always played a lot. We used to call our agent and complain if we had a day off, so it was common for us to do shows 21 days straight, 18 days straight, and then 14 days straight. If we had a day off in the middle, we’d be like, "What the hell are we doing? Can we play another show?"
It’s funny, early on in the band's career, I was in Cannes. Requiem for Dream was debuting at the film festival, and — as you know — I typically don't watch my movies. Darren Aronofsky pretty much put me in a headlock. He dragged me to the premiere and said, “You have to watch the film, you have to be a part of this experience [and] walk the steps of the [Boulevard de la] Croisette”. So I did. I watched the movie. I sat next to Hubert Selby Jr., and as the lights came on, he and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes. The whole place was on its feet giving a standing ovation.
Later that night, we went to Elton John's house with the cast. Elton’s a real supporter of and believer in young artists, and he’s really got his ear to the ground. We were talking that night, and I told him that music was actually how I started my career. He told me, “Tour, tour, tour again, and when you’re done with that, tour some more.” It was really Elton who reaffirmed and encouraged me to double down on live shows, because they were so life-changing for him. Of course, you can hear something from a famous superstar and it can go in one ear and out the other, but what he said really made an impact on me.
F: I think about the role psychedelics have played in my life...
JL: Cue “Tiny Dancer”.
F: I don’t do drugs, not because of being pointedly straight-edged, it’s just not tremendously interesting to me...
JL: It’s okay, I’ve done enough for the both of us, and your sister, too.
F: ... But the greatest feeling is being on stage, and I don’t think there’s anything that rivals the power of being in in front of however many people in the audience, with everyone singing along and in the palm of your hand. Jared, you have a very multi-faceted life, do you still have that same feeling of bliss and euphoria when you’re on stage playing a great show?
JL: Yeah, it is the greatest feeling, and you’re right that there’s not a drug in the world that can compete with running around in Yosemite or standing on stage in Paris or London. When I’m performing, I'm still working. I’m going, "Why is the audience on the left side not as enthusiastic?" Or I’ll see that one kid down there and I make it my mission to give him the best night of his entire life. I’m always thinking about the music cues or if a note was flat, so yes, I’m always working, but I also try to get to a place where I can let go and really be in the show. Those moments are glorious.
F: I’m in the same place; if the lights are off by just a couple milliseconds, I’ll notice. If there’s some kid getting into a fight with someone else, I’ll notice. All while I’m performing and playing my bass guitar and singing along to the song. It’s amazing how attentive you can be on stage.
JL: Yeah, your brain can compartmentalise quite a bit, especially when you’re in that state of fight or flight and high consequence. But there are also times when it can be me, my brother and 40,000 people, and I feel completely relaxed and at peace. You'd never think that would be the case, but I’ve had those moments where there's a complete absence of discomfort, and that’s a really incredible feeling. Intimacy, you know.
But what do you think the future of touring will be? Now I look at photos of me from before, standing on top of the crowd or running through an audience at Rock Am Ring [Festival] of 100,000 people, and I’m like, "Is that going to happen again?"
F: I think so. When, I don’t know. But it will. Billie and I have parents in their 60s, so they’re in the higher risk percentage, and she has asthma, so I’ve been really careful. I think most people are bored out of their minds in this pandemic, though. So I think as soon as people are told it’s even halfway safe to go to Coachella again, they will. People seem to value joyous experiences over 100 per cent safety. That seems to be the reality of it. I totally agree with you, though, looking at footage from past concerts, it all seems like total lunacy.
JL: There’s one photograph that someone sent me in which I'm standing on a barricade with maybe a thousand hands reaching out to touch mine. Even after the vaccine, I think we’re still gonna be like, "Can I get a wet wipe or something?" I don’t know. But I do think you’re right, people are ready to get back out and get together and celebrate life and all the possibilities and just have a good f****** time. I know I am.
Photography by Cameron McCool
Styling by Karla Welch
Hair Marcus Francis
Grooming Jamie Taylor / The Wall Group using Augustinus Bader
Creative direction Trey Laird
Art direction Michael Riso
Visual director Miriam Herzfeld
Production Creative Blood