BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — Until Jared Leto was approached about playing Rayon, the HIV-infected drag queen, to co-star with Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner in “Dallas Buyers Club” (opening Nov. 8), Leto had pretty much put acting behind him. For the past five years, he has concentrated on writing, producing, but — most importantly — making music and directing music videos for his multi-platinum-selling rock band, Thirty Seconds to Mars.
In “Dallas Buyers Club” Leto’s transvestite Rayon character initially clashes with McConaughey’s homophobic rodeo cowboy/electrician who is horrified to discover he’s not only got AIDS, but told he has 30 days to live. While Leto’s Rayon is a fictionalized composite character, McConaughey plays the real-life Ron Woodroof, who battled the FDA and other government agencies to bring unapproved drugs to a desperate community of HIV-infected individuals.
Leto shared his thoughts about playing Rayon — a role already generating early Oscar buzz — and what went into creating that character.
Q: You stayed in character as Rayon for the entire filming period. Your co-stars and director [Jean-Marc Vallee] say they never got to “meet Jared Leto,” until the film’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
A: It was the type of part where I needed to stay in character as Rayon, and focus on being her. There was too much to lose by setting her aside after every take or every scene. It didn’t work like that for me. So, yes, I got to know Matthew and Jennifer and the director through Rayon. That was great for me, and I hope it was for them. It added an electricity in the air. Jared then got to know them all over again later on, after we were finished.
Q: What went into your preparation for this role?
A: It was incredible. It was a fascinating journey to take. It involved a lot of education, a lot of research into the physical, emotional, mental aspects. It was the role of a lifetime really. … I got to know the feminine side in many different ways. Not just the high heels, but the waxing, but much more.
Q: Is it fair to say the emotional and mental aspects of basically portraying a woman are more challenging than merely dressing like one?
A: All the physical things that you do including the weight loss — to both look like a woman, but also a woman dying of AIDS — or putting on the lipstick are secondary. It’s really about how it affects you. How it affects your behavior How it affects your emotional life. How it affects the people who are watching you. It’s all to serve the story.
Q: Are you also pleased this film will again put a spotlight on the AIDS epidemic?
A: I think it’s really timely in that way. The film takes place in the 1980s, but it’s topical today in the way it talks about health care and dealing with government bureaucracy, and the ability for people to get proper access to medication. In 1985 it was a death sentence to be told you have AIDS. Fortunately, it’s changed for a lot of people around the world — though not everyone.
Q: This is the first acting role you’ve taken in films in five years. As the experience of playing Rayon re-sparked your interest in getting in front of the camera again?
A: You never know. I have always loved film. I’m such a fan of movies, and acting and I love the creative process. You never know. It would depend on what comes along.