Leto recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Sam Eckmann about his transformational performance, working with actors like Denzel Washington and Rami Malek and his upcoming appearance in “Zack Synder’s Justice League.” Watch the interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: This character is so interesting because, from my point of view, it seems like just a sandbox to play in as an actor. It seems like it could have been taken in so many different directions. So I’m curious, how did you land on your specific interpretation? What inspired you to play it the way you did?
Jared Leto: That’s a great question. Thanks for having me today, by the way. It is a sandbox to play in, and it’s a big one, a fun one, and I got to play in it with two really incredible actors in Rami Malek and the great Denzel Washington, one of my heroes. When I start research or start the prep process for a role, I just start asking questions and questions and more questions, and questions about those questions, and as you start to experiment, fail, you start to find some answers, maybe some solutions, and you run with those. Sometimes they’re dead ends, sometimes they take you somewhere else. So I love that process. It’s really exciting for me. I love the discovery. You become a detective of sorts. You become a writer of this character and Albert Sparma was basically a blank canvas. So it was really, really fun to dig in and be a part of that process.
GD: The aspect that stuck out most to me, I think, was the voice you use. He speaks from such a centered, calming place but it’s sort of unnerving, in a way. How did you kind of twist that? The sense of calm becomes sort of unnerving to these two detectives. Where did you land on that?
JL: I appreciate you pointing that out because I did spend a lot of time working on it (laughs). I just thought that Albert Sparma, just from the name itself, you know that he’s different, and I thought that the way that he behaves, he wants to connect to people, but he has a hard time and I don’t think he knows why or how to solve that problem. Sometimes he’s not even aware of that problem. But I did think that he thinks he’s quite in command of his faculties, the way that he walks and the way that he talks, his rhythm is a lot slower and, like you said, centered. But there is also a part of him that kind of keeps people off-balance, and I thought that the voice was really important with that. His sense of humor was really important. That was a tool that he used to keep people off-balance. But yeah, the voice was a real strong hook into the character for me.
GD: Yeah, I think one of the best examples of you keeping everyone off-balance is that interrogation scene you have with Denzel and Rami and I’m just curious, from your perspective, it seems like he is just playing with these guys when he’s brought in for questioning. Is there an objective for him when you were playing it behind that scene or is he really there just to unnerve and to cause chaos?
JL: Yeah, there’s always an objective, but part of that was to serve up some chaos and I think that he enjoys interacting with the detectives, especially Denzel’s character, Deke. I feel like he found a partner in crime, no pun intended. He found somebody that really, he can relate to. I think Sparma is quite a bright guy and being a crime buff, an amateur detective of sorts, I think that he really is excited about the prospect of working with these two detectives to see if he can help in some way, but also enjoys that uncomfortable silence or space that other people might avoid. He kind of dives right into that.
GD: Yeah, and Denzel, of course, you mentioned, he’s such a revered actor and you have such intense material with him. What kind of atmosphere, though, does he bring onto set with him?
JL: A professional one. You get the sense that he’s there to do his job and that’s the priority, and I really love that and respect that. We had a kind of an unspoken agreement, and I think it was a wise one. We saved all of our energy for that time where the cameras were rolling and we saved everything for that and that was quite a beautiful thing because it made the moments even more charged up. You know what was quite beautiful about the set? There was this feeling of mutual respect between Rami and Denzel and me and the directors and producers, the crew. It just was a group that we all kind of… there was a feeling of support and faith that people had in one another and Denzel gave that to me. It was a great gift, the director, Rami. Because Albert Sparma, he’s kind of out there (laughs). So they really gave me a beautiful gesture in having faith in me and what I was doing. So I’m really thankful to them.
GD: The writer and director you mentioned is John Lee Hancock, and he actually wrote this script almost 30 years ago, and he’s been living with it and it hasn’t been made until now. But because your character is so unpredictable and getting under people’s skin, did he try to guide you in a certain way of conversations of is he guilty, is he not guilty? There’s so many questions surrounding Mr. Sparma.
JL: Well, I certainly had a lot of questions for John Lee Hancock and we put together a sort of logic board. “First of all, did he do it? Did he not? How does he have this information? Why is he at this specific place at this specific time of day?” And that was interesting. That was what made the film really fascinating to work on and like I said before, it was a very transformative part, transformational part in every way possible. I had different color eyes, a different nose, different teeth, a different walk, a different way of speaking, as you pointed out, and that’s one of the reasons I took on the role. I didn’t want to just kind of walk in and play a suspect or something. I wanted to really see if we could bring to life a brand new person, something I hadn’t explored before, maybe something that hadn’t been seen in quite that way.
GD: It’s interesting because I think a lot of your roles would be described as transformative because you’re never the same, movie to movie, whether it’s physically or vocally, and yet, there are similarities between characters. I could draw a comparison, maybe some similarities to your version of the Joker because of Sparma’s unpredictable behavior. Is it hard to look at something similar and create a different character off of it if you’ve played something similar before? Is there a tendency to want to fall back on something?
JL: It’s a great question, and I do think that there will be similarities just because we all have the same blood type and sometimes you have the same eyes or you have the same teeth. It’s quite strange to develop a different laugh, something that’s usually reflexive. I don’t know if subconscious is the right word, but it’s an autonomous response. So when you create a new one, that’s like inputting new information. It’s like going from the physical to the mental. It’s a very strange thing to do. But yeah, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that there can be similarities between characters, just like when a writer writes different books or a painter. Look at Andy Warhol. There is consistency throughout his whole career and with quite a few things that he did. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing but I’m interested in kind of reaching into the edges and seeing how far I can go.
GD: Well, it goes pretty far and as you’re transforming, many people have sort of described you as a method actor because you get lost in these roles. But if something is very heavy or, we’re talking about murders here, it can be quite disturbing, does getting lost in that ever come home with you at all?
JL: I mean, it can, but I think it’s quite normal, to be honest. If you’re studying crime scene reports and FBI transcripts and watching as much footage as you can of real-life crimes and murders and killers and cases, like anything, it can be like binge-watching something or you read a book or you spend too much time in a subject. You kind of need a break at a certain point. So I think it’s all pretty normal and then if you put in behavior, like a different way of walking or talking, and that becomes habit after a few months, sometimes it takes a little bit of time and a film like this, so dark, it was really quite challenging to shed some of that skin, but the great gift was that he did have this kind of wild, unpredictable sense of humor as well. So it created a little ballast and I was happy about that.
GD: Did that sort of unpredictableness result in, like, did you do a bunch of different styles of takes to offer different things, or did you have a very clear direction for each time?
JL: It’s kind of hard to explain, but once these characters are born into the world, for lack of a better word, I can’t think of something more eloquent to say right now, but once you give birth to them, they’re out there. You can be surprised by what you find and it kind of takes on a life of its own, so yeah, from take to take, I like to experiment quite a bit and with this film and other films I’ve done, I tend to bring quite a few improvisation, kind of loose ideas and ad-libs, and sometimes they’re not verbal. They could be even physical or something. But I try to do that and in this case, it was helpful because Albert Sparma really used those tools to create surprise, to surprise others.
GD: And you’ve done so many different types of movies over the years, ranging from all different genres to big blockbusters to smaller films. Is there anything that you haven’t explored yet onscreen that you are dying to?
JL: Romcoms (laughs). I actually haven’t seen too many romcoms. I’ve watched a few during COVID days, like I never saw “When Harry Met Sally.” So I watched that and I thought that was fun and then I watched a couple others that weren’t so fun. No, I feel pretty satisfied. I’ve never been in a hurry to make the most films or act incessantly. Maybe it’s because the roles or the films that I do, sometimes you need a little break after you’re done with them. But I’m excited by what I’m doing and the opportunities I’m having. I’m really grateful for it and I feel super fortunate that people come to me now with a problem to solve, which is just crazy. Like, be careful what you ask for. I was joking the other day, I can never just get a role where I show up and just try to be charming, right? Like, the biggest challenge of the day is not eating the pasta at lunch, because you gotta stay in shape for your love scene or something. Not to say there isn’t great skill in that as well. I mean, there are people that I really adore that are so great at those sorts of things. But I do, at the same time, feel really lucky that people come to me with rather complex problems to solve. But yeah, maybe someday we’ll shoot the romcom in Hawaii or somewhere perfect and then I’ll learn how hard it is. I’ll beg to go back in my corner.
GD: Well, one thing that you do get to go back to, which is a cool thing that’s happened with another movie for you, is you’re actually revisiting that Joker character in Zack Snyder’s version of “Justice League” coming out. And it was really cool to watch that play out because it was sort of this fan thing that everyone demanded the Snyder cut and those things so rarely actually come through, but now it seems to have come through. So what was it like watching that play out and now getting the chance to go back and film with them?
JL: I don’t know if I can confirm or deny any rumors, but yeah, it is cool. First of all, the fans of the DC Universe and the Marvel Universe are really incredible. I’m in a band and I always hated the word “fans” because it seemed a little dismissive or something. It comes from the word fanatic and I was uncomfortable with that. But I guess what I do appreciate about the description is, and I think the core of it, is passion. So the reason that Zack is doing what he’s doing now is because of the passion of the fans out there. Also, when there’s passion, sometimes you have a little conflict, sometimes things can be polarizing. But I love the passion and I think the world of Zack. I think he’s just an incredible filmmaker and I’m so happy that he gets the chance to tell the story in the way that he wants to tell it and that there’s more time to tell it in. I think that’s really great. Yeah, I just think the world of him and what he’s doing.
GD: Well, before I have to let you go, I wanted to also ask, because we’re a few years removed now from when you won your Oscar for “Dallas Buyers Club,” very deserving performance there, and I’m curious as to what the effect has been afterwards. Have you seen a different type of role being presented to you after your Oscar win?
JL: Yeah, it’s been five or six years now and it was an unforgettable time, a really beautiful experience. I got to share all that with my family and my friends and the people that have supported me for so long, and that, I think, was the best part, to take the light that shines your way and kind of redirect it towards other things. It wasn’t a part of my dreams, to be honest. I didn’t really think that I would ever win awards or I didn’t focus on that. It was just completely so far outside of what I was thinking about. But yeah, I’ve seen that, like I said before, the thing that I guess I’m really grateful for is people tend to come to me with roles that are challenging and transformative or transformational and that’s great. I really appreciate that and appreciate people’s faith that I can try to take something and make something worthy, make something meaningful from it, hopefully.