HOLLYWOOD -- For his performance as the transgender AIDs patient Rayon in "Dallas Buyers Club," Jared Leto essentially became a different person. He dropped more than 30 pounds, adopted a lilting accent and stayed in character for the entirety of the nearly monthlong shoot, clacking around in high heels, short skirts and garish makeup.
On Sunday, Leto won his first Oscar for the role, which marked the biggest transformation in a career marked by reinvention; it also represented a return to roots for an actor who for several years was more likely to be found onstage with his rock band than in front of a camera.
Leto has looked strikingly different for each of his signature roles -- and throughout his triumphant march through awards season. He wore a man bun at the Golden Globes, let his tresses down for the Screen Actors Guild Awards, donned a gold blazer at the Oscar nominee luncheon, went rocker-chic in a leather jacket at the Spirit Awards, and slipped into a white tux for the Oscars.
Accepting his Oscar, Leto paid tribute to his mother, Constance, a "high school dropout and a single mom" from Bossier City, La.; his older brother and band mate, Shannon; his fellow nominees; and the people of conflict-torn Venezuela and Ukraine. He then dedicated his award to "the 36 million people who have lost the battle to AIDS" and added, "To those of you who have ever felt injustice because of who you are or who you love, tonight I stand here in front of the world with you and for you.
Leto, 42, had his breakthrough role playing the brooding teen heartthrob Jordan Catalano opposite Claire Danes in the ABC series "My So-Called Life," which ran for a single season from 1994 to ‘95. Though short-lived, the show was well reviewed and gained a small but ardent following. For loyal fans of the show, Leto will always be indelibly linked to Catalano.
After it ended, Leto began focusing on film roles, earning praise for his portrayal of Olympic hopeful Steve Prefontaine, to whom he bore a striking resemblance, in the 1997 biopic "Prefontaine." As would prove to be the case for a number of Leto’s most committed performances, the film did poorly at the box office.
Leto went further against his teen-dream image by playing a pretty boy who gets his face thrashed in David Fincher’s nihilistic psychodrama "Fight Club," a junkie in Darren Aronofsky’s harrowing addiction tale "Requiem for a Dream" and a corn-rowed robber in Fincher’s home-invasion thriller "Panic Room."
Six years before "Dallas Buyers Club," Leto drastically changed his weight for another role, gaining 67 pounds to play John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, in "Chapter 27." For his last film before "Dallas Buyers Club," 2009’s "Mr. Nobody," Leto once again altered his appearance, this time donning layers of old-man makeup to play a 118-year-old with a mind-bending past.
Both films flopped, and for the last several years, Leto has largely abstained from acting, instead focusing on his platinum-selling, arena-touring rock band, 30 Seconds to Mars.
On the New Orleans set of "Dallas Buyers" in December 2012, Leto told the Los Angeles Times why he put his music career on hold, saying he responded to the script’s story and humor and that "AIDS doesn’t get the attention I think it should." It wasn’t, however, part of a larger choice to return to acting.
"I didn’t think I’d make a movie this year," he said, then quickly added, "I didn’t think I’d be gone that long either. But five years goes by quickly."
Leto was sitting with a reporter in his trailer, just a few hours after he had wrapped the shoot. Layers of makeup were slathered on his face, and it took two artists more than an hour to scrub, scrape and peel them off. At various intervals, Leto raised a long orange fingernail to signal a point, as he compared his on-stage persona as 30 Seconds’ frontman to his on-set incarnations such as Rayon and Chapman.
A few hours before, as Rayon, Leto had been dancing around during one of the movie’s gay-club scenes, singing a cappella to keep time for the extras and tottering over to his co-star Matthew McConaughey with what might be described as a tragic ebullience.
"It’s so strange," Leto said, "to now be talking in my regular voice."
Over the course of the shoot, he wore heels even in his trailer and almost never dropped his voice below Rayon’s high register. But he said that, far from an effect, these decisions were motivated by convenience as much as Method acting.
"The distance is so vast between who I am and who this is that if I had to start again every day, I’d end up with something between, I don’t know, Tootsie and Priscilla Queen of the Desert." He paused. "And that’s been done."