Jared Leto's History as a Method Actor Is No Little Thing

Look back on Jared Leto's history of embodying his characters in mind, body and spirit, ahead of the 2021 Golden Globes, where he's nominated for his role in The Little Things.

By Cydney Contreras Feb 21, 2021 8:00 PMTags
Watch: Why Jared Leto Sent "Suicide Squad" Costars Adult Gifts

No one can ever accuse Jared Leto of being lazy when it comes to his work. 

Throughout his career, which spans nearly three decades, the actor has tackled roles in movies like The Suicide Squad and Dallas Buyers Club. Both of those projects varied in seriousness, but Leto approached each role with the same intensity he gives to every character he takes on.

And that intensity is evident in his decision to embody his roles on and off the set. 

In the Darren Aronofsky film Requiem For a Dream, Leto dropped 25 pounds for his role as Harry Goldfarb, a heroin addict. At the time, the star told The Telegraph it was "painful" to lose that much weight, recalling, "I was in a constant state of hunger. I started fainting when I was on the set."

Eventually, he found himself in the hospital, where he learned his "bone marrow dropped 400 points." 

Even so, the actor said it was a "rewarding" experience. "I don't know if you've ever fasted, but there were a couple of moments towards the end where I had hallucinations," he told the newspaper. "I'd look up at the sky, and I'd get a feeling of complete serenity." 

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On top of that, he told The Telegraph he spoke in a Brooklyn accent 24/7 and abstained from sex for two months. You'd think he might do drugs to understand the character better, but he explained to the newspaper that it didn't seem integral to the film. As he put it, "I think drugs are just a symptom of the problem."


Seven years later, Leto began preparing for his role as Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon in December 1980, for the movie Chapter 27. In the months leading up to filming, he gained about 67 pounds, before he realized it was time to stop while he was ahead. 

In retrospect, the actor regrets packing on the pounds, telling The Guardian in 2014, "Really, it's a stupid thing to do. I got gout, and my cholesterol went up so fast in such a short time that my doctors wanted to put me on Lipitor, which is for much, much older people. Again, though, a fascinating journey."

In the same interview with The Guardian, Leto discussed stepping into the shoes of Rayon, who he played opposite Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. Embodying this character physically and mentally, he explained, was crucial in understanding the life of a transgender woman. 

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"You kind of have to register reactions and things, so inevitably the day comes when you take her out for a walk: shaved, waxed, wigged-up, the whole bit. To get a little judgment, some meanness, a little condemnation was a useful thing for the part," he recalled. "I went to Whole Foods Market to, I guess, just stare at the food, because I certainly wasn't eating a whole lot of it. And I got three distinct looks from people. One was, 'What is that?' The second one was, 'Who is that?' and the other was, 'I dunno what the f--k that is but I don't like it.'"

And yes, when he said he was staring at the food, he likely meant it. To become Rayon, a transgender woman with AIDS, the actor dropped 40 pounds by severely limiting his caloric intake.

At the time, he told Entertainment Weekly he was used to quickly shedding the weight, having done it for prior roles already. 

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"It becomes easier. You have a greater understanding," he explained. "To lose a lot of weight like that in a short amount of time like I had, you basically just have to stop eating. You eat raw vegetables and sometimes you just want to chew on something so you find something that has a lot of empty calories. I basically was chewing on shoe-leather, anything that would satiate the hunger a little bit."

And though he remembered being a "little concerned" about his health—he developed a low-grade fever and more issues towards the end—he said, "I never stopped losing weight; as the film went on, I lost more and more and more."

Dallas Buyers Club also marked the beginning of Leto's reputation as a method actor. Prior to this role, it was commonplace for actors to drastically change their appearances and study characters, but this was when Leto became known for staying in character, even after the director yelled cut.

As he told Entertainment Weekly at the time, everyone on set met him as Rayon, which took them by surprise. He remembered, "It took them a moment to absorb what was happening."

And the cast of Suicide Squad were subjected to the same experience, albeit on a totally different level.

Will Smith told Zane Lowe he never once spoke to Leto, it was always the Joker. "We worked together for six months and we've never exchanged a word outside of 'action!' and 'cut!'" Smith said. "We've never said 'hello,' we've never said 'good day.' I've only ever spoken to him as Deadshot and him as the Joker. I literally have not met him yet."

Smith also received a love letter with bullets from Leto—or, should we say the Joker?

As for his onscreen love interest Harley Quinn? Well, Margot Robbie said it was much the same for her, although she was fortunate enough to receive a live rat and a love letter.

In an interview promoting Suicide Squad, the actress told Jimmy Fallon that Leto had sent her a rat. "At first I thought this was disgusting. But then after that... I was like, I'm not going to kill him," Robbie recalled. "So I ended up keeping him as a pet. I ended up getting him like a sweet little playpen, a slide, a hammock, and a leash because I wanted to take him to set and walk him around."

Warner Bros. Pictures

There was also the time he brought a dead hog onto the set, which Viola Davis was none too pleased by. She told Vanity Fair, "He did some bad things, Jared Leto did. He gave some really horrific gifts."

Though some of these events are denied by Leto himself, he told E! News, "I did a lot of things to create a dynamic, to create an element of surprise, of spontaneity, and to really break down any kind of walls that may be there."

And why would he need to do that? According to Leto, "The Joker is somebody who doesn't really respect things like personal space or boundaries."

Nicola Goode / Warner Bros. Pictures

That brings us to the present. 

Leto is now up for a Golden Globe award for his portrayal of Albert Sparma, a man suspected of murder, in The Little Things, starring Denzel Washington and Rami Malek.

Though Sparma seems a simple enough role, it seems Leto felt it was necessary to embody this character. So much so, he once again never met his co-stars as himself. 

In an interview with USA Today, Washington confirmed he and Leto took things to a whole other level on the set of the John Lee Hancock film. "I stayed away from him. He stayed away from me, respectfully so," Washington said of their interactions. "We'd bow or nod from across the highway. Literally, one day we nodded across the highway from each other."

Nicola Goode / Warner Bros. Pictures

There were, however, no gifts exchanged. Washington explicitly stated, "He didn't do any of that with me... Nah. He'd have been paid a visit. That wouldn't happen."

Washington did get some payback for Davis and the rest of the Suicide Squad cast, even if it was totally intrusive.

"I'd follow him around. I was outside of his apartment sometimes and he didn't know," Washington admitted. "I won't say anything more about it. I'll put it this way, he didn't know."

Leto has not commented on Washington's actions, nor has he discussed his preparation for this role. In fact, all he's said is that this character is "playful" like the Joker. 

Nicola Goode / Warner Bros. Pictures

And though he's taken painstaking measures to portray Rayon, Chapman and more, it doesn't seem Leto feels he deserves to be considered a method actor alongside the likes of Daniel Day Lewis and Christian Bale

In an interview with Variety last December, the 49 year old said method actor is too kind a description. "I appreciate the term, I think it's a little cloudy, the definition. And it, it could also be really pretentious as well," Leto reflected. "I was thinking of it as my job to show up and do the best work that I can. It's my job to show up, do whatever I can, to be over prepared. And to deliver. It's also my job to show up and, you know, be a pleasure to work with. And to be collaborative, and to have a good experience on set."

And it seems the Hollywood Foreign Press Association agreed he gave his all to his role in The Little Things, as he's up for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture Drama. 

See if he shows up as Jared Leto or Albert Sparma when the Golden Globe Awards air on NBC Sunday, Feb. 28.