For Jared Leto, 2022 picked up where 2021 left off, with a passionate debate over Leto’s love-it-or-hate-it performance in “House of Gucci.”
Unrecognizable under prosthetics and the heavy Italian accent of Paolo Gucci, Leto earned peak peer praise with a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination in January, followed by a Razzie Award nomination that mocked the same performance.
When asked about the disparate responses Leto, 50, shrugs off the comments while staring unblinkingly into the iPhone he’s holding in the back of his parked SUV during a Zoom chat.
“I don’t really think about that stuff,” he says. “I just stay in my lane and I listen to that voice inside.”
That voice inside has propelled Leto into unleashing two more distinctive characters over a matter of weeks – Adam Neumann, the Israeli businessman and WeWork founder with rock-and-roll star charisma, in the AppleTV+ limited series “WeCrashed” (now streaming); and the vampire antihero Dr. Michael Morbius in the pandemic-delayed “Morbius,” the third film in Sony’s Spider-Man Marvel universe (in theaters April 1).
“I’m interested in the sharp angles of humanity,” Leto says. “This is a chance to see what you’re made of and go for this ride. And I love a good transformation.”
Leto, a native of Bossier City, Louisiana, broke out as Jordan Catalano, Claire Danes’ teen obsession in ABC’s 1990s high school drama “My So-Called Life.” He’s known for his dramatic screen transformations when not living the rocker life as the frontman of “30 Seconds to Mars,” the band he formed with older brother Shannon.
Leto lost more than 40 pounds and shaved off his eyebrows for his Oscar-winning role as an HIV-positive drug addict in 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club,” and made similarly noticeable weight loss to portray a heroin addict in 2000’s “Requiem For A Dream.” On the other end of the spectrum, Leto ate junk food to gain 67 pounds to portray John Lennon’s assassin Mark David Chapman in 2007’s “Chapter 27.”
“I’ve been 207 pounds and I’ve been about 109 pounds for films. So I’ve run the gamut,” says Leto, who says he’s never going to attempt “traumatic” weight gain again. “It’s just really not something you should do to your body, ever. Just binging, eating really bad food. I have people call me up and ask me for advice on how to do it. I spend the whole time talking them out of it.”
For Gucci, Leto had his own makeup team construct a physical overhaul in a six-hour daily process to portray Gucci, a gray side-burned, bald-domed designer. The final result was so extreme that on the first day of filming, Al Pacino (who played his father, Aldo Gucci) didn’t recognize him in conversation, Leto says.
“He thought I was just some Italian guy,” Leto says. “The beautiful thing is, if I can stand face to face with Al Pacino and he can believe in my accents and my behavior. that’s all I need. That carried me for the rest of the film.”
He moved directly from Gucci’s heavy accent to Neumann’s challenging Israeli dialect throughout the 10-episode series alongsideAnne Hathaway, who plays his wife and chief brand officer, Rebekah Neumann.
Neumann “has this tempo and an assertive way of speaking, with a lot of passion,” says Leto, who worked for six months perfecting the accent. “And I’ve never had that much dialogue before. Speech after speech. He was a verbose person. Speech was the way he shared his vision.”
On the set, Leto stayed in character as Adam Neumann, the businessman who convinced the world that his shared office-space company could be worth $47 billion.
“During the shoot, we spent about four months speaking only to Adam Neumann,” says executive producer Lee Eisenberg.
The actor says he sought out a “secret” meeting with the real Neumann before his warts-and-all portrayal of Neumann, whose lavish spending and unorthodox behavior got him ousted as head of the company, which was spiraling out of control. During the meeting, he advised Neumann not to watch the series.
“I did tell him I’m never going to be him,” Leto says. “That it was an interpretation. I hoped to capture some spirit of who he was at that time. And I figured that he already lived through it once. There’s really no point in looking at it again.”
Others may be curious whether Leto can pull off the larger-than-life character.
“These transformations to this extent, that’s a high-wire act he performs. People have a real fascination with that,” says executive producer Drew Crevello. “But the fact is, Jared gets up on that wire, time after time.”
The wire work continues with the new screen superhero Dr. Morbius, a change in the dark spectrum from Leto’s outlandish Joker (last spotted in the 2021 director’s cut, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.”). Unlike the Joker, this is the rare comic-book character that’s never appeared on film before.
“With so many great characters interpreted already, it’s fun to portray (one) for the first time,” Leto says. “And I like that he lives on the darker corners of the universe.”
We first meet the brilliant Dr. Morbius frail and requiring crutches due to a lifelong rare blood disease. He experiments mixing human with bat DNA in a search of a cure. It works, but his permanent Mr. Hyde personality is a vampire bat/human mix – with super speed, strength, flight and enhanced echolocation. The protruding bat ears are just the beginning of the changes.
This time, Leto’s physical transformation is entirely digital, a major discussion between Leto and director Daniel Espinosa.
“Paolo is one thing, with the wigs and the prosthetics,” Leto says. “But with a creation like this that’s so otherworldly, you really don’t want to have limitations.”
There are big plans for Dr. Morbius, who might join onetime Marvel nemesis Spider-Man to fight darker forces. Leto won’t discuss specifics, but he’s game to plunge into the next challenge with his unique brand of earnest, oddball enthusiasm.
“I love taking work seriously, to dive in and be committed,” Leto says. “But even if I commit to gaining weight or losing weight, or learning to speak an accent for six months, people might think it’s a crazy commitment, but the fact is, it’s a blast.”