By Jeff Labrecque
Updated September 10, 2013 at 01:08 PM EDT

Matthew McConaughey has been gaining Oscar goodwill ever since last year’s stripped-down performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, followed by the paparazzi photos showing People magazine’s Sexist Man Alive 2005 dropping nearly 50 pounds to play an AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club, which finally debuted over the weekend at the Toronto Film Festival. But should McConaughey earn his first nomination for his performance as Ron Woodroof, the hard-living Texas homophobe who defied his death-sentence diagnosis and federal health regulations in the 1980s to become a gay-community beacon by smuggling and selling foreign drug treatments that extended thousands of lives, he might have to share the Oscar limelight with his film’s leading lady.

Jared Leto, who hadn’t acted in five years, jumped into the Best Supporting Actor conversation after wowing Toronto audiences as Rayon, the HIV-positive transsexual who becomes Ron’s business partner and best friend. The colorful character had been the final frustrating piece to the movie’s casting puzzle, and Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria) had discussions with Gael García Bernal and Casey Affleck about the role. But after one Skype meeting with the singer, who was in Berlin with his band, Vallée came away convinced that the Thirty Seconds to Mars rocker was his lady. Leto, who was once and forever Jordan Catalano on TV’s My So-Called Life, as well as a favorite of auteurs like Terrence Malick, David Fincher, and Darren Aronofsky, felt the same way. “When I read the role, I fell in love. I thought this could be really special because that role is usually… a cliché,” he says, lowering his voice to a whisper for the final two words. “It’s usually someone dancing on the table with high-heels on, the butt of every joke, or has a one-liner and then they run out the room screaming. I thought there was an opportunity to flesh out a real person.”

“I remember Jean-Marc calling, going, “Man, I think we found Rayon! Jared Leto!” says McConaughey. “I said great, and we were off.”

Like McConaughey, Leto underwent a dramatic physical transformation to play his ailing character, something he’d done before for both Requiem for a Dream and Chapter 27, in which he gained more than 60 pounds to play John Lennon’s assassin Mark David Chapman. “I stopped counting after I lost 30 pounds [for Rayon],” says Leto. “Someone pointed out to me that the difference between Chapter 27 and this was almost 100 pounds. That’s a person, almost. Crazy.”

For Leto, the weight-loss isn’t a stunt, but essential to his performance. “It changes the way you walk and talk and laugh,” he says. “It changes how people treat you. It changes a choice you would make in a scene, you know, if you lean up against a chair and have to catch your breath and you speak a little quieter and slower. So those things are wonderful.”

Once filming began, Leto never abandoned his character, utilizing the Method approach he’d practiced on previous movies. “I really only related to Matthew’s Ron Woodroof, and I never really had any smalltalk or anything else [out of character] the entire shoot,” says Leto, who set the tone for Rayon by hitting on his director the first time they met.

The technique was welcomed by McConaughey, who was happy to engage. “What was ideal about the way that Jared worked — and how I was choosing to work — was: that’s who you’re there to be. Be your character. We don’t need to step out and say, “How was the weekend? How are the kids?” We don’t need to do that. It’s fun to go to work and remain the subject, remain looking through the POV of your guy. That’s fun. And if someone else will do it, it’s kind of ideal. And it’s not a nuisance. It’s only a nuisance if someone does it so self-indulgently that it doesn’t help the filmmaking process.”

In the movie, the unlikely odd-couple bloom into one of this year’s most memorable on-screen pairings, McConaughey in a droopy mustache and a series of cowboy hats, Leto in Rayon’s deep-plunging blouses and makeup. (McConaughey likens the duo to Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck from Midnight Cowboy.) They’re funny together, overcoming initial mistrust — and in Ron’s case, outright hostile bigotry — to act almost like an old married couple by the end. In one comical sequence, Ron’s one remaining sexual outlet is disturbed by a inconveniently placed glamour photograph of his flamboyant partner. In another touching scene at a grocery store (glimpsed in the trailer below), Ron physically corrects one of his prejudiced former drinking buddies who has disrespected Rayon. Ironically, it takes a transsexual to transform Ron into a true gentleman.

For Leto, part of the reason he was drawn to the role was very personal. When he had first moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s, he had a gay neighbor who was dying from AIDS. “I watched week after week as he withered away, got sicker and sicker, sores on his body, his neck, and face,” says Leto. “We would sometimes walk and get lunch, or walk to the store. He had a lot of dignity and humor and levity in his situation, so I think there are parts of him in this character as well. I think for people that haven’t been around or had an experience with someone who had been affected by this disease, it’s an easy thing to forget about right now, but I felt an obligation to bring as much grace and humanity to the role as possible.”

Both actors depart Toronto with solid Oscar buzz, and the Academy has traditionally been kind to outstanding gay or transgender performances, as well as roles that require dramatic physical transformation. (Tom Hanks in Philadelphia would be the best-known example of one who fits both criteria.) In this regard, Leto might actually have the better chance, especially since McConaughey joins what promises to be one of the most competitive Best Actor races in years.

A few years back, McConaughey stepped away from the business at a time when he was weary of making mediocre romantic-comedies and when he returned, he was welcomed back with a series of challenging job offers from revered directors like William Friedkin and Lee Daniels. Leto hadn’t really slowed down artistically during his Hollywood sabbatical — he just turned down movie roles to focus on other things, notably his music. But he believes that decision made all the difference. “I think those five years that I wasn’t acting taught me a lot,” says Leto. “It’s funny: in some ways, I felt like [Dallas Buyers Club] was the first thing I’d ever done in my life, the first role, the first film.”

Dallas Buyers Club, which also stars Jennifer Garner, opens in theaters on Nov. 1.

Dallas Buyers Club

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