The Problem With the Jared Leto Method
Last week, it was announced that Jared Leto would be joining another superhero franchise. Sony, in their continuing attempt to make their one Marvel property a legitimate independent saga, have revealed that they plan to make a solo film about the pseudo-vampire villain, Morbius. According to reports, Leto will remain in the role of The Joker over in DC’s expanded universe, although it has also been speculated that he will be pushed out of the spotlight as the canon Clown Prince of Crime if Todd Phillips’s Joker origin film goes down well with audiences. While Leto’s version of the comic book world’s most iconic villain has its fans, the contrived narrative of suffering, darkness and method acting that Leto and his team spun around his iteration left most people exhausted. Gossip around Leto as Morbius was less concerned with how he would portray the character than the ridiculous methods he would go to in order to prepare to play a living vampire. Perhaps he’d go full old-school Angelina Jolie with vials of blood around his neck? Will his co-stars have to watch their necks? Will Hot Topic see a dramatic increase in sales?
Leto has been an actor for decades now, but the image of him as the most tiring version of a committed method actor didn’t come to the forefront until 2006, when he signed on to play Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27. For months, it was impossible to avoid chatter of his extreme prep for the role in gossip circles. To play John Lennon’s killer, Leto piled on the weight, gaining 67 pounds by drinking a curious concoction of melted ice cream, olive oil and soy sauce every night. He’d gone through body changes before, dropping weight to near skeletal levels to play a heroin addict in Requiem For a Dream, but that project wasn’t mired in the narrative of Leto suffering for his art. For one, he was a featured player in an ensemble for Darren Aronofsky’s tale of the brutality of addiction, and it was Ellen Burstyn who garnered all the awards for it. Here, he was front and centre, and firmly in the spotlight as a dream boat. What better way to prove your seriousness as an actor than to do what many had done before him?
The Chapter 27 diet gave him gout. He had to use a wheelchair during filming because his body couldn’t handle the sheer stress of such sudden weight gain. It also didn’t do much for the film, which made less than $200,000 worldwide and opened to scathing reviews. Leto came out of the experience with the most of his dignity intact, if only because critics at the very least appreciated the lengths he went to for the part. It didn’t mean his acting was good, necessarily - really, he’s okay in the role but the spectacle of it all is too distracting for me - but that he could place himself in a lineage alongside true greats.
Leto stopped acting for a while to commit himself fully to his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars, He did work in film during those five years, including directing a documentary and starring in Mr. Nobody, a movie that redefines ‘pretentious’, but these were clearly second place to his music. And then came Dallas Buyers Club.
The act of cis men playing trans women is one that remains a peak of commitment in Hollywood, even as our understanding of gender and LGBTQ+ representation changes. Playing trans, especially if you’re a handsome white man, is an opportunity for you to show how far you’re willing to go for ART. Nearly every review or critical conversation around this practice that is dominated by cis voices glorifies the supposed bravery of this spectacle. Wow, isn’t Eddie Redmayne so brave for putting on a dress and pretending he knows the trans experience? Afterwards, the actors like to do the talk-show circuit in their finest suits and brag about how humbled they were by the experience, how much they understand the struggle now, and wow ladies, aren’t heels impossible to walk in?! For an actor like Leto, this was the ACTING peak. Forget intense weight gain or learning how to make shoes: This was glory.
It allowed Leto to do his usual spiel of preparation - a 47 pounds weight loss, and claims he stayed inside for six months to get pale an isolated enough to play Rayon, a trans woman drug addict with AIDS. In a New York Times piece from October 2013, titled ‘For 25 Days, Transsexual to the Core’ (now there’s a headline you’d hope they wouldn’t publish in 2018), the awards campaigning was in full force, following the film’s premiere in Toronto the month before. As expected, a lot of this focused on the transformation aspect of its two lead actors: Leto and McConaughey dropped a lot of weight. You can practically hear the gasp of the opening paragraph, as the writer talks of how Leto fans, ‘accustomed to the long hair, scruffy cheeks, dark sunglasses and rocker’s rasp of its frontman … may find him unrecognizable as Rayon, an AIDS patient and transsexual with a drug problem … The waxed eyebrows and concave belly are just the beginning.’
Later, the piece details how Leto auditioned for the part in character and stayed in the role throughout filming. It’s all framed as the admirable work of an actor who dedicates himself to his craft beyond limitations of reason and convenience. The performance itself was rapturously received, although it’s tough to gauge if it would still be seen as revelatory if the film was released now. Eddie Redmayne got all the love the following year for The Danish Girl, in a performance I would call truly terrible, but the conversation had begun to turn dramatically. Why the hell was this practice continuing? Why were cis men still getting to play trans women more than trans women themselves? Even as visibility for incredible trans actresses increased - Laverne Cox, Mya Taylor, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Hari Nef, Jamie Clayton, Daniela Vega, Bethany Black, Rebecca Root, Eve Lindley - the default mode for casting agents was still to look for cis men. Stories of the trans woman experience weren’t just acting platforms for cis men: They were positioned as opportunities for acclaim. Playing trans, and committing to the method of it, became shorthand for awards glory.
Jared Leto wasn’t the first to do this, nor was he the last, unfortunately. He wasn’t the first cis man to go onto talk shows and talk about how hard he worked for the role or what he learned from it. Nothing he did was unique. However, all of the Dallas Buyers Club work, combined with what preceded and followed Leto, created the stew that left a bad taste in our mouths. Seeing Leto, fully bearded and dressed in Jagger-style rocker suits, picking up award after award and bragging about how that was his real bubble butt in the film, drove home the discomfiting nature of this act. Look at the contrast, it screams. Be impressed by how radically different he looks in the film compared to how he has presented himself for the victory lap. Marvel at his commitment because it’s all real. Of course, it’s not real. It was a costume. He got to take it off at the end of the shoot and continue being Jared Leto. He didn’t have to worry about the abhorrently high murder, suicide and abuse rates trans women experience. The worst that could happen to him was that he could lose the Oscar. Obviously, he didn’t.
With Dallas Buyers Club, Leto and his team could at least spin his method as worthy of a higher cause. This was prestige, something Chapter 27 never achieved. Where did an actor go from there? Leto mostly returned to singing. He actually didn’t sign onto another role until the ultimate villain - and the ultimate method role - came a-calling.
Fairly or otherwise, playing The Joker has become a role mired in darkness. Many actors have played the role, from Cesar Romero onward, but the cinematic works have helped to create the narrative that playing the role of the Clown Prince of Crime is a mentally arduous task from which one can never truly recover. Jack Nicholson talked of the dark experience, even though his version of the character is just a painted version of himself, but the real tragic narrative began with Heath Ledger. It is near impossible to read about the late actor’s stunning work in The Dark Knight without having to endure the armchair psychology over how the role drove him to his grave. It makes for a neater story to imagine a young, handsome, talented actor committing himself fully to the role to the point where he became the character. It doesn’t fit our increasingly twisted notions of how acting works to read stories of the shoot where Ledger is laughing with his cast and crew and playing around in-between scenes. We can’t reconcile those details with stories of how he isolated himself to prep for the role, then died of an accidental drug overdose. Our society has spent centuries playing up the notion that we can, and indeed must, suffer for our art, and the logical conclusion of that rule is that people will die. But hey, The Joker is dark so that’s just good acting, right?
Leto is in Suicide Squad for all of 12 minutes, if that. You could cut him from the film and nothing would change about its narrative, nor would any of the characters be truly changed by his absence. The briefness of his appearance, as well as the underwhelming nature of his performance, were all the more baffling given how Leto and his team had spent the previous year and a half building up the trauma of his preparation. Much had been made about how the Suicide Squad all went to therapy because of the dark experience of making the film, but it was Leto who garnered the most headlines. His colleagues played up his commitment: Will Smith said he never really met Leto on-set because he stayed in character; Margot Robbie was sent a live rat; Leto had ‘henchmen’ drop a dead pig on a table in front of his castmates; used condoms and anal beads were sent; even director David Ayer, a man whose job entails keeping actors in line, said he was ‘fucking terrifying’. Robbie said she didn’t even think of Leto and The Joker being the same person.
Later, Leto would claim his reported method extremes were all bullshit. This presents two options: Either he’s lying, or they were made up because Warner Bros. thought the best way to promote this multi-million dollar Summer blockbuster was to brag about how a 40-something man sent used sex toys to female colleagues. Neither option is great, to be honest, because they both rely on the notion that art is rooted in suffering, not just of the artist but those around him.
Method acting is not what it once was. The basic practice of the method is for actors to use their personal experiences and emotions to find the essence of a character. The ultimate goal is emotional identification, but that can involve something as simple as reading biographies on the historical character or finding the right clothes. Crucially, method acting has nothing to do with actors staying in character 24/7. Lee Strasberg, one of the pioneers of method acting, specifically said such practices weren’t part of the method approach.
Nowadays, method acting is shorthand for self-flagellation. Think of everything Leonardo DiCaprio voluntarily did while working on The Revenant in the name of ‘authenticity’, and think of how that performance, while the one that nabbed him his much-desired Oscar, isn’t all that good. Real suffering is not good acting. Putting others through hell in the name of your own glory is not how performance works. The ethical quandaries and stereotype reinforcing spectacle of, say, a cis man playing a trans woman or an able-bodied person playing someone with disabilities, are discarded in favour of cooing at the genius of it all. The method is to be loudly discussed at any opportunity, because if nobody knows how much you suffered for the part, will they lavish you with praise in the same way?
The problem with the Jared Leto Method is that he goes through this cycle or pain, shame and self-imposed suffering, and drags his co-stars along for the ride, yet the work itself isn’t all that great. He could be the next Daniel Day-Lewis and it wouldn’t be okay - I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Day-Lewis chose to retire around the same time that we were having these method-sceptic conversations - but the mediocrity of his results feels like extra salt in a wound he created himself. We don’t have the patience for these antics anymore, especially in an age where we’re hyper-aware of workplace harassment and toxic conditions. Increasingly, it feels like method acting has become yet another excuse for powerful men to get away with whatever the hell they want. There’s a reason there aren’t tons of actresses doing the method in Hollywood: That would be too ‘difficult’.
Jared Leto is so committed to the method that he’s forgotten to act. That approach will buoy him in Hollywood for a long time because they’ve always loved the bastardized method of agony, but only time will tell how much more audiences want of this.
(Head photograph courtesy of Getty Images)