ARTICLE GUS VAN SANT
PHOTOGRAPHY GUS VAN SANT
LEGENDARY AUTEUR GUS VAN SANT SPEAKS TO THE ETERNALLY BOYISH JARED LETO ABOUT MUSIC, MOTIVATIONS, AND HIS OSCAR-BUZZY TURN AS A TRANSSEXUAL IN DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
READ THE UNCUT INTERVIEW HERE, ONLY ON VMAGAZINE.COM
GUS VAN SANT So are there other things besides Dallas Buyers Club that you have that will be happening in the future? Are there shows?
JARED LETO Yeah, there’s a lot going on right now, which is fantastic. I was reminding myself last night, I went for a run fairly late, around 11 pm, and I was just remembering how great it is to have so many things and how wonderful it is to actually be driven crazy by those things. That actually helped me a lot today, because I’ve been having really full days and a lot going on, whether it’s the interview with you or even driving here and getting lost and trying to figure it out or taking the photo or being in rehearsal right before this, the four meetings that I had...all those individual things, to have gratitude and appreciation for that time that I get to do that. I had a bit of a perspective change last night, it was strange. Not that I hadn’t been grateful before, but I’ve just been feeling on the edge a bit.
GVS Because of the schedule?
JL It’s a lot. We put out an album not too long ago and we toured a lot. I’m an entrepreneur as well. I have three different companies that I spend a great deal of time on. Sometimes you can hit the wall, and I was getting to that place, but I had a bit of an epiphany last night about how lucky it is to have…You know?
GVS It’s true, it’s easy to forget and you’re like, It’s too hard, but No, this is what I want.
JL And I get the other thing too, where I just have an insatiable appetite, it’s never enough.
GVS Well, some of the simple things are the most fun, if you hear a recording of something and you like it, and that’s the joy, then everything else is difficult.
JL Looking at a piece of art, going for a hike. All of my favorite things are the most simple things. I don’t need a $100 million yacht. I’m not going to say that. The things that I consider the most enjoyable are fairly simple, the creative process, a good meal. If you’re just making food for yourself at home, reading a great book, watching a great film, simple pleasures.
GVS So have you been traveling around the world many times in the last year, or last six years?
JL Yeah, we were signed in 1998 and we’ve been touring since then. Our last tour we broke the Guinness World Record for the longest rock tour. Which is kind of silly, we weren’t trying to. It’s just, they came to us.
GVS They just appeared.
JL Well, they came on stage in their yellow jackets at our last show of that tour and gave us the plaque. It was a fun way to mark that passage and that time, it was 311 shows.
GVS Like one after the other?
JL You have a day off sometimes, but not a significant period of time off, not more than a week or so. But a lot of touring, and it’s been incredible to see the world. I mean, we’ve played the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and obviously Europe and America many times. We’ve seen things we never thought we’d see. A lot of fun.
GVS So taking the time off for the past six years before doing Dallas Buyers Club, you were saying it was an interesting experience, like a positive experience?
JL It was great, I didn’t intend to do that. I never made many films anyway. I’ve always been pretty particular and wanted to choose wisely, to work on things that were special, that I felt passionate about. But it just went by. I asked Terrence Malick about that once, because he took twenty years off. He said he was writing and the time just flew by. I kind of feel like I was so busy doing other things, I was in front of the camera quite a bit with 30 Seconds to Mars, so I don’t feel like I was absent, but I do feel like I’ve gained a greater understanding about myself, my craft, and I think the time off helped me become in some ways, to start to act and begin again. When I was on the set, I knew some things maybe, but I felt like this is a new place. I felt like I had an acceptance and maybe a bravery or something that I didn’t have before.
GVS A certain kind of confidence?
JL Which is weird because after six years you’d think you’d be completely panicked. I really identified strongly. I had an instinct about the part and it was once in a lifetime.
GVS You know, when you see Dallas Buyers Club, portrayed by characters that are fighting for their lives, it’s different than maybe the way I understood that period of time, even knowing people that had AIDS that were actually trying to figure out what their cocktail was and why certain drugs weren’t available to them. Somehow seeing it played out on a screen, the drama was greater than I really had perceived. Not that the drama of the real thing wasn’t intense and insane and still is intense and insane, the FDA and that. But I mean, it really hit home, it’s an amazing thing, and congrats.
GVS Also, just like the extremeness of the characters and the realization by yourself and Matthew, they just sort of go into this area that you don’t often see in film.
JL I appreciate that. I’m savoring the moment that Gus Van Sant said I was great in a film. It’s a big moment for me, from one of my favorite directors in the world.
GVS Was there any particular research that you did?
JL Yeah. First of all, I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had contact with all kinds of different characters, I didn’t grow up in a really sheltered way, so the idea of playing a transsexual, a drag queen, transvestite, wasn’t too daunting. It wasn’t like, Oh my god, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life, which may have been the reaction of some actors. I was like, Well, I think I could offer something here. It was that sort of project, where it was, I looked at it as how can I be of service to help them tell the story. That’s what got me through the 5 am calls and the hours and hours of makeup and some of the other challenges. I don’t know, I forgot your question…
GVS Research…Research was ingrained in your past?
JL Yes, I did meet with people specifically about the role, a wonderful woman who has been living in Los Angeles for quite some time who’s also from the South and had this beautiful voice and made a choice, maybe a couple of decades ago, to start to live her life as a woman. I met with quite a few people in Louisiana, where we shot as well, great stories, great contribution, and that stuff is really great, because sometimes you get to know someone really fascinating, sometimes there’s a voice, you put some things on tape and you study. Sometimes there’s a gesture…
GVS Or an expression…
JL Yeah. But I knew one thing from the very beginning—I didn’t want to play the Hollywood version of a transvestite. You know, someone who’s dancing on the table, balls-to-the-wall screaming out loud, the funniest person in the room, on 12 the whole time. I felt like that had been covered, that had been done before. I was really on my little-—on a journey just to be like, let’s represent a real person here, and hopefully that came across…
GVS So like at night, or at off-hours…
JL I was always as close to the character as I could be, every single second on the set. I remember the one thing that I did that helped get me to where I needed to go: as soon as I stepped out of that van on set, I had my high heels on. Everywhere, it didn’t matter how...and there were some mornings I didn’t want to put those high heels on.
GVS It’s hard to walk in high heels, right? I’ve never tried it.
JL I found it pretty easy. I think I had a hidden talent. You’ve never put a pair of heels on? Come on.
GVS I mean, I just went out with Joe, he just walked in and he was dressed as a girl and he had high heels, but they were a little too big. It just looked impossible…
JL Oh, if they’re too big, rather they be too small than too big. You can’t walk.
GVS Plus they were really high ones.
JL I had some fuck-me pumps going on a couple of times.
GVS Are those the small ones or the really big ones?
JL No, the big ones. The bigger the pump, the more the fuck. That was an adventure. You have that on set too, you have actors that stay in character to great success and then stay in character to detriment to the entire project. How do you deal with that sort of thing?
GVS I don't think I've actually had…
JL I mean it must be incredibly annoying to deal with.
GVS They might be in character and I just didn't know it because I didn't know them that well. They might have even been in character in an audition and then I just never knew. That might of happened at one point, but pretty much everybody that I've worked with, either they were close to the character already or they were playing elements of themselves. Even Sean Penn in Milk was playing a full on character but at the end of the day, he had lots of prosthetics (shhh) and he was like, Sean.
JL But on the set would he stay in character?
GVS Kind of, I think he was mindful. He wasn't always; I remember he commented about a girl who was an extra about her sticks. He said that she had nice sticks. I said, Well, Harvey would never say that. Or maybe he would for a different sex. I guess he looked so much like the character he was playing during the day, maybe it was at night if he went out to dinner or something, he was able just to put it all away. But that's him. I'm sure some day I will have that experience. But I also think if your character is a character that you would carry with you, it's kind of hard to just throw it away.
JL It's hard and also you don't want the camera to roll and all of a sudden you have to remember everything, how you walk and you talk and you laugh and you move, yourself. Some of that stuff gets taken care of—you put on high heels, you walk a certain way, you have a purse on, you hold your shoulder a certain way so that it doesn't fall off, you have longer hair, you have a wig, you lose 30 pounds. If you really desire to be a woman, you change your voice. Maybe you speak and move a little more feminine. So some of that stuff is just basically logic. I did what I thought I needed to do in order to turn in the best performance that I possibly could.
GVS Then there's the loss of weight. You're going to be asked this a lot. Both you and Matthew [McConaughey]. Did you talk to each other about how to do that?
JL In the middle of shooting, I think we compared notes. He did a lot of research and had made an incredible commitment because he was a very strong guy to start with. He had to lose a lot of muscle and body fat, but the muscle is the hardest part, that's when your body really screams out. I had also done this before, for Requiem for a Dream. I lost a lot of weight.
GVS Oh really, it can be very dangerous.
JL It's very dangerous. I had a couple of nights when I woke up where my heart was beating so hard, I had never felt anything like that in my entire life. I had some legitimate concern because I'm not a 19-year-old kid. I had some concern about the times where I just felt like something was happening; my body's reacting to this in a really bad way. Of course I did it in a very short amount of time, which was really stupid.
GVS Was there a doctor?
JL No, there wasn't. Basically I stopped eating, that's the secret. I probably never ate more than 300-400 calories for many, many days.
GVS That's what Gary Olman said, it's tough eating.
JL You just stop eating. A splurge for me would be like half a cucumber with salt on it. It's not a great thing to do. If I did eat, I always ate raw vegetables to help ensure that I was getting some kind of vitamins.
GVS If you were going to do it again would you stretch over a certain period, a longer period of time?
JL Well that's a Catch-22 because then you're hungrier for a longer period of time. It's probably easier on our body to do it that way. I don't think I would ever do it again. I would have lost even more weight had the film been longer or had I agreed to do the film sooner, but it was last minute. I got the job and then three weeks later I was shooting. But I don't think I would do that sort of thing again.
GVS Did you meet any of the original Buyers Club characters?
JL I didn't. Half way through the film a great documentary came out that I really enjoyed. Enjoyed is hard to say, but I really thought it was quite moving, How To Survive a Plague. We were almost done shooting, it may have been like the last week of shooting that that came out and I watched it in the makeup trailer as I was getting my skin cancer prosthetics put on. That was surreal.
GVS There'll be some amazing questions when you’re promoting this film. I'm curious, when did you first start acting?
JL I had a fairly tumultuous adolescence. It’s probably one of the reasons I related to My Own Private Idaho so much. I understood that world too—specifically the drugs and other things. I never wanted to be an actor. I went to art school. I studied to be a painter. I always thought I'd be either a drug dealer or a painter; those were the two paths when I was a kid. I was ambitious with it—I wasn't going to be any kind of dime store/dime bag peddler—I wanted fields of pot or pounds of coke. I had dreams. I had lofty dreams as a kid. Or to be a painter that was kind of a logical thing for me. I grew up around artists, around sculptures, performance artists, potters, painters, photographers so when I got into art school, I took a film class then I asked the school to create an acting class for film majors. They didn't have one and I thought that'd be a good thing. I always admired a performance art school across the way. I used to go watch the ballerinas dance because it was beautiful and the women were beautiful too and I loved just to see that commitment to what they did. The actors, I always thought Wow, that's so brave. Then I thought I was going to be a director. And to get a job as a director, I thought that I had to work as an actor first, that would be my in.
GVS You created like a class wherein that helped…
JL Yeah, I annoyed them so much that they started the class. They literally did not have the class and I went back again and again and the woman finally said, "You know what, I admire your perseverance". I had never had anyone say that to me.
GVS You hadn't acted in anything before?
JL No, I didn't act until I was 21, 22.
GVS Did it service the other classes? Could they make use of the actors?
GVS That's good.
JL So we started that and eventually I dropped out because I couldn't be contained, I wanted more. I wanted to move faster and then I decided to go west. I grabbed a backpack and a couple hundred dollars and went to Venice and slept on the beach, stayed in a crack hotel, youth hostel…
GVS Oh really, so you came out here?
JL Yeah, I came out here. I started auditioning.
GVS How did you find an agent, how did you get into auditions?
JL I came up here initially for a few months and then I went back to New York, dropped out of school, and came back to L.A. for good. And when I came back I thought to myself, You know, if I don't get an agent within a week or two, there's something really wrong and I'm a failure…I didn't know how difficult that was. Maybe I knew how difficult it was, but I was gearing up for a battle. One thing led to another and you know…
GVS And so, how did you win that battle?
GVS Where did you end up in fighting the battle, in office buildings and things like that?
JL A friend of a friend was going to one agency that was barely legitimate and I tagged along and they wanted me to sit in the meeting with them. My friend said, "Come on let’s go in.” I ended up talking the whole time and they ended up wanting to sign me and not the other guy, which was a little… I mean, he didn't really give a shit, he had I think enough of a life of his own. He wasn't as passionate about all of it, he couldn't be bothered that much, he was like whatever. I kind of used that agency to get a better one…
GVS When you went out on auditions was that an odd process or was that easy?
JL I never liked auditions and I still don't. I find them to be incredibly difficult and not fun. One time I was crouching behind an overturned couch in a casting director's office shooting imaginary bullets to an unseen foe and it struck me that this is completely ridiculous, so I stood up whereby I was struck by I'm sure thousands of rounds of imaginary ammunition and certainly dead and said, "Look I can't do this anymore, this is like a high school play that I never even was part of". Maybe it's because I never did theatre but I just couldn't do it. This was actually for Terrence Malick…
GVS Oh really?
JL For The Thin Red Line, he wasn't in the room, he was in Australia already.
GVS They were taping…
JL I said, "I just don't know what to do here. It's an honor to be here but I just can't do it." So I left. He ended up hiring me for the film anyway but that process has always been difficult. But what do you do?
GVS Somebody showed me a Malick audition where somehow it was explained that he would actually just like to have people exist in front of the camera, like no more talking, don't worry...
JL Oh that's great, that I can do…
GVS Which is harder to do maybe if you're on camera, right?
JL Is the camera gently floating in?
GVS No, it's like a video camera, just one of those on a tripod. But you can see that it was worth looking at that rather than watching something else.
JL I auditioned for—I can't remember—my brain is frozen. What's his name that did Romeo & Juliet with Leo?
GVS Baz Luhrmann.
JL Baz Luhrmann. So I auditioned and he actually made it fun. This was a long time ago, for Moulin Rouge, and I had to sing and stuff like that but I remember the audition was fun. He's all over the place, that was interesting...
GVS Did he have a camera?
JL He had a little camera and he was moving it around. Sometimes you're not self conscious and I think if you do it a lot it's fun, but I think it just can be really difficult because it's incredibly nerve wracking and then to go into a room where there's just three people sitting on a couch and you're sitting opposite them, like let's make something magical. I remember one time I auditioned for Robert De Niro seven times and that was really intense because it's Robert De Niro and you're a young actor and you're looking at Robert De Niro.
GVS Right, was he acting across from you?
JL Yes, some of the time he was reading.
GVS But he was going to direct it?
JL Yes, and he said something interesting. One time he came up to me and he was very kind, very gentle. He said, "Try it like…ahh, ahh I don't know," and then walked away. I thought, Well, that's interesting if Robert De Niro doesn't know, it's okay not to know. I always remembered that.
GVS Yeah, he's got some good ones. There's something in Taxi Driver… he's on the phone, somebody's talking to him. There's something very intense about that particular scene, I can't remember when, he's in a lobby in a hotel. You kind of want to know, how is he doing this? He would always just say, "I'm just not trying to do it." Or, "I'm not like thinking of a particular thing." And he's doing something else that he can't really explain but he's not reciting… I always thought that was revealing, because he's the best. He's obviously good at doing whatever that is, he always looks very interesting, like his whole life comes out…
JL Sure. I love him in The Mission.
JL He's great.
GVS Ah, I think that's all. So, thanks.
JL The pleasure is all mine.
Dallas Buyers Club is in theaters now