The Oscar-winning actor tells EW he nearly cried on his last day filming Ridley Scott's crime saga with Lady Gaga and Adam Driver — and breaks down how his transformative career led him there.

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Strolling through a length of Parisian greenery in early October is Jared Leto, and the chestnut he just picked up is currently the most fascinating thing in the world to him.

"This is so nice," says Leto, the Oscar-winning actor, who once cloaked himself in full-face prosthetics to play a 118-year-old, battled Batman while sporting green hair, lost 40 pounds to portray a dying trans woman, and now guilelessly pauses our video interview to show us his edible discovery. "Only in Paris do you get chestnuts falling from the sky."

There's a jarring simplicity to his interest in such a minor thing — especially when he's surrounded by one of the world's most beautiful cities bathed in autumnal light. But Leto is known for following his own curiosity beyond the obvious, mining the most from unexpected places.

By now, you've heard the stories. When Leto transforms himself for a film, the performance doesn't always end when the camera stops rolling. The act of becoming a new character is difficult for him to articulate, but he considers it his duty to devote his entire being to the process. "It's just what I'm interested in," he says, citing actors who "aren't afraid to bleed," like Peter Sellers and Daniel Day-Lewis. "When you make that kind of commitment, there's something that happens. You're compelled to dig even deeper, to work even harder, to discover something more rewarding and richer."

He's earned the luxury of making those discoveries on his own timeline: Leto has taken only five major parts in the last 10 years, resisting commitments unless they speak to his soul. Next, he'll disappear into perhaps his most unrecognizable role yet, in Ridley Scott's true-crime drama House of Gucci (out Nov. 24). The bald head, facial prosthetics, and flashy clothes he dons as the luxury brand's former design chief, Paolo Gucci, take over in a shocking deep dive consistent with many of his characters across the past decade: The Jared you get isn't the Jared you see coming — that is, if you even see Jared at all.

Jared Leto Awardist
Jared Leto talks 'House of Gucci' and his past transformations.
| Credit: Focus Features; Fabio Lovino/MGM/Universal; Clay Enos/Warner Bros.

Leto didn't realize it at the time, but the first step in preparing to play Gucci came 16 years ago on the set of Lonely Hearts, where he spent hours plucking hairs out of his head to make himself bald enough to play the serial killer Raymond Fernandez. It was a "brutal" decision that didn't end up working, he admits, though Leto initially wanted to try again in creating Gucci's hairless dome ("I was going to shave my head"). Practicality stood in the way, so he used a bald cap to complete his metamorphosis into the family outcast who, like him, suffered for his art. Covering his face in prosthetics still prompts fear in Leto, who had a claustrophobic experience while making a mold for his character's badly bruised face at the end of 1999's Fight Club. Yet, Gucci was enticing enough for the actor to go bold.

"I immediately saw [Paolo] as a dreamer, the black sheep of his family, someone never really heard," Leto says. He felt an "immediate connection" with Gucci, who was hired (and fired) by both his father and uncle. His tale becomes entangled within an even more complicated narrative of a family plagued by bitter infighting, as his cousin Maurizio (Adam Driver) is ultimately murdered by an assassin contracted by Maurizio's ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga).

HOUSE OF GUCCI
Jared Leto plays Paolo Gucci in Ridley Scott's 'House of Gucci.'
| Credit: MGM Studios

Despite the grim tone, Leto listened to his gut and amplified "a lot of humor" while playing the heavily accented, purple-suit-wearing dandy. Working with Oscar-winning costumer Janty Yates, Leto advocated for Paolo's wardrobe to "celebrate color" via extreme patterns and fabrics from Naples; he also underwent hours of makeup and prosthetic work each day. He became so invested in the production that he had to fight back tears the moment Scott wrapped Leto on his final day.

"I was successful in holding them back," he admits. "I didn't want to embarrass the entire set, but it was a really warm and wonderful experience — collaborative, creative, full of risk and reward, just incredibly special."

The run-up to Gucci is a stark contrast to the time he prepared to murder a Beatle. Leto gained 67 pounds to play Mark David Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon, in 2008's Chapter 27. It's a film about obsession and compulsion, which Leto succumbed to as he bulked up, gorging himself on unhealthy foods and drinking pints of microwaved ice cream mixed with olive oil and soy sauce to bloat himself even further (which, he later revealed, gave him gout).

"It's not a good thing to do to your body," he says, but it was helpful going out in public with a menacing demeanor, weird enough that people "recoiled" from him. "It was a very dark piece of material, at a time when I was interested in that sort of thing," he recalls. "Those experiences were informative [to me] as a human being, not even just as an artist."

Leto strayed from movies for nearly six years after Chapter 27, touring with his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars, until he read the script for Dallas Buyers Club, which presented another opportunity to disappear — even on set. "They only saw one person there and it certainly wasn't Jared Leto," he recalls of the production, for which he lost 40 pounds and waxed his body, spending time on and off set wearing the same clothes that Rayon — the HIV-positive trans woman he played — would. "I was in a very frail, very vulnerable place."

He also remembers going out to the store as Rayon, feeding the reactions he got from strangers into the character. "It changes the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you move," says Leto, who also channeled close personal experiences with people who died from AIDS into Rayon's nurturing persona. "I felt it was my duty to do whatever I could to add as much truth to the role as humanly possible."

One Oscar win later, it's fair to say that whatever Leto did worked. But sometimes his tactics are more oblique. About his preparations to play the Joker in David Ayer's 2016 blockbuster Suicide Squad, Leto says, "99.9 percent of what people read is bulls---." After he told a reporter — "in jest," he says — that he sent costars Will Smith and Margot Robbie questionable gifts to add a sense of chaos, the quote went viral. "The only gifts I ever gave Margot were cupcakes, I think I gave her a mouse, and some of the other guys got gifts that you'd get as a joke at a party," he says. "It was us just goofing around."

Techniques aside, as someone whose breakout role was as high school dreamboat Jordan Catalano on the '90s teen drama My So-Called Life, it's interesting that Leto has been so drawn to parts that cloak his features. A former art student reared on sculpture, he sees the act of chiseling his looks as a vital tool, even if the changes aren't immediately noticeable — like his 2021 turn as a suspected murderer opposite Denzel Washington in The Little Things. Leto confirms that he made tweaks to the character's physicality — everything from his eye color to his teeth to the shape of his nose — though he's careful not to reveal any specifics.

"Subtlety is the hardest," the actor says. "Silence is the most important note you can play. We're all made up of those nuances. I don't want to give away all of my secrets — I have to keep some for myself." And we'll keep trying to figure it all out, wherever the next chestnut falls.

House of Gucci Jared Leto
Jared Leto in a 'House of Gucci' character poster
| Credit: MGM

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's December issue, on newsstands Nov. 12 and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring Oscars analysis, exclusive interviews, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's movies and performances.

Related content:

House of Gucci (2021 Movie)

Lady Gaga and Adam Driver front Ridley Scott’s grim-and-glam retelling of Patrizia Reggiani’s orchestration of her fashion mogul ex-husband’s murder — and it’s all dressed in jaw-dropping costumes that’ll have you praying to the Father, Son, and House of Gucci.

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