If you are Jared Leto, and your job is to play The Joker, normal rules do not apply. The world simply imagines Margot Robbie letting out a shrill scream as she drops the little package with protruding claws and whiskers and thinks: “Well, what do you expect?”
The Joker is the defining comic-book villain, cruel and unhinged – and from the actors who play the part we also demand a certain mad intensity. Jack Nicholson had it, Heath Ledger had it and Jared Leto has it, too.
The first time I meet him we’re in Las Vegas, in a suite at Caesars Palace along with Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Cara Delevingne and half a dozen other people who are also in Suicide Squad. There are some big personalities in the room, but Jared Leto isn’t one of them. While Smith whoops and hollers, Leto almost melts into the sofa. He’s dressed in all black, down to the North Face hiking shoes on his feet. His short hair, also black, is scraped sharply back.
The press has been full of stories about all those weird gifts he’s been sending his cast-mates, and how he never broke character on set, so I ask him if he knows that old actor’s story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man, where Hoffman has gone full ‘method’ and Olivier turns to him and says…
“Why don’t you just act?” says Leto, finishing the story. He nods, then says: “I don’t use the term ‘method’. I think it’s kind of a polluted word. What I do is just try to focus and commit as much as possible so that I can do the story, the film, the character and everybody else justice. That’s it.”
But is there something about playing The Joker – I ask, trying to get him to open up – that demands this intensity from you?
“Yes,” he says.
There’s nervous laughter around the room at this monosyllabic reply. We all wait for him to continue but he eyeballs me and says: “What d’you think?”
This is too much tension for a pro like Will Smith to bear, so he breaks in with that 1,000-watt Fresh Prince charisma and starts going: “I mean, I didn’t meet him until two days ago! I literally did not! We worked together for six or seven months, and two days ago was really the first time we ever had a conversation!” It’s a line that Smith has wheeled out to the world’s media several times recently, probably in an attempt to defuse similarly awkward silences.
Leto is still quiet, so I turn and ask: “How did you feel when you got the live rat, Margot?”
“I was… surprised,” says Robbie, and Smith claps and laughs and quotes her back: “’I was surprised!’ There’s an understatement!”
“I loved that stuff,” continues Robbie. “Jared was doing half my work for me. Harley is very much a part of a relationship. To have such commitment from the other half made my job a thousand times easier, and a thousand times more fun. I didn’t know what was going to happen when we got on set. It’s exciting to act opposite that.”
Then Joel Kinnaman starts telling this story about the day Leto had one of his henchmen deliver a dead pig to their rehearsal, so the rest of the cast kidnapped the henchman and tied him up and sent photos back to ‘Mr J’, as they call Leto, or The Joker, or both. Everyone starts piling in with extra details, until Kinnaman gets to the punchline where Robbie scrawled ‘SS’ on the guy’s head with a marker pen and someone had to point out the Nazi connotations. By this point everyone’s howling with laughter, all except Leto who’s just sitting back listening and slightly smirking at the chaos he unleashed.
Later on, just before I leave, Leto comes over to me again. He doesn’t say a word, just extends his fist and waits for me to bump it, which I do in awkward silence. Is this because he froze me out earlier? His face is unreadable. He’d make a killing at the poker tables downstairs.
The next time I speak to Leto, he’s much more forthcoming. There’s a lot to talk about. Since we first met, the US has seen Donald Trump confirmed as the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, while in Britain we’ve voted to leave the EU and the prime minister has resigned. Nobody seems to have the faintest clue where we’re all heading. The return of a villain like The Joker, who deals in the terror of chaos, couldn’t be better timed.
“I understand what you’re saying,” says Leto when I put this to him. “The Joker doesn’t have any rules. He says and does whatever he wants. I had a lot of fun having that freedom to say and do anything and everything. I think that’s compelling, because a lot of us are so restrained in life.”
When he first won the part, Leto made the decision not to rewatch Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight, but instead delved into the comic-book source material and researched Mexican narco gangs. “There was some consideration to the times we’re living in,” he says. “Cartel leaders are the closest thing we have, on this side of the pond at least, to complete anarchy and chaos. They’re people who have – or feel like they have – ultimate power. If you look at El Chapo, he probably has as many fans as he does enemies. It’s a similar kind of thing with The Joker.”
Having painstakingly built his own take on the character, Leto lived inside it for so long that he still finds himself “making jokes with The Joker’s sense of humour”. While he won’t be drawn on whether he’s signed up to play the part again, he does say it’d “be a blast if it happens”.
The Joker could become the defining role of a career that’s so far refused easy categorisation. Leto is 44 and has been famous for exactly half his life. In 1994 he was pretty-boy Jordan Catalano in My So-Called Life, but by the end of the decade Ed Norton had destroyed his beautiful face in Fight Club, and Christian Bale had introduced him to both Huey Lewis & The News and the sharp end of an axe in American Psycho.
In 2002, 30 Seconds To Mars, the band he formed with his older brother Shannon, released their self-titled debut record to little fanfare. Their 2005 follow-up A Beautiful Lie went platinum and made Leto one of the very few who’ve had real success as both an actor and a rock frontman.
If you ever want a reminder that you’re wasting your life, consider that Jared Leto has both an Oscar and the Guinness World Record for ‘Longest Concert Tour By A Rock Band’.
He’s been so busy with the band, not to mention extra-curricular activities such as interviewing Edward Snowden for his documentary series Beyond The Horizon, that Leto’s only acted in two films since 2009. One is Suicide Squad, the other was Dallas
Buyers’ Club, which won him that Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 2014.
“You know, the Oscar was unexpected. A total surprise,” he says. “I hadn’t made a movie in almost six years and I almost didn’t do that film. I remember we were on tour in Berlin. The last thing I was thinking about was making films. I wasn’t sure that I would ever make a film again.”
This is the key to Leto. He’s all or nothing. He’s either never going to make a film again, or he’s going to win an Oscar and then so immerse himself in The Joker that he finds himself Googling postage prices for live rodents. He’s not content to form a band as a side-project, he’s going to push it so hard that they end up spending a record-breaking two years solid on the road.
When I ask him what he does to unwind, he says he’s just come back from Majorca where he was doing a type of rock climbing known as deep-water soloing, or psicobloc, where, as he explains: “You climb over the water so you don’t need ropes. If you fall you just jump into the ocean. You can really fuck yourself up badly.”
Not exactly Netflix and chill, is it? The time I’ve spent with Leto, and the stories I’ve heard, have left me with a question. I try to phrase it as delicately as possible.
“Jared,” I say, “are you a bit weird?”
He pauses, mulling this over, then gives an answer about how “we’re all probably a little weird” then stops and really considers it.
“I’m aware that a lot of people don’t approach their work in the same way I do,” he says finally. “But that’s OK. Everybody has a different process, and I respect other people’s processes. I guess when you get the call to play The Joker, or certain other roles I’ve
played, it’s kind of great that you’re getting thought about for these transformational opportunities, these roles that are really challenging… I don’t think I’m at the top of anyone’s lists for the next romantic comedy…”
Which is why they’ll never make You’ve Got Anal Beads. Not that you’d want him to
be any different from how he actually is. Gloriously and intensely weird with an unnerving (and occasionally inappropriate) sense of commitment to his roles. In a world of conformity and uncertainty, Leto’s Joker could be the villain we need.