Jared Leto: Thriving in the Dark

In an effort to shed the teen pinup image he earned on "My So-Called Life," Jared Leto searched his lower depths for films like Fight Club and Requiem for a Dream. And in his current offering, the nightmarish thriller Panic Room, he doesn't seem to be detouring much from his course.

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Surviving Young Hollywood is a challenge for even the most skilled actor, but it's been especially difficult for Jared Leto, who was thrown an extra curve--"My So-Called Life." Though the series lasted only one season, Leto developed such a massive cult following for injecting an appealing blend of rebelliousness, moodiness and sensitivity into high school student Jordan Catalano that he was still topping teen heartthrob lists years after the show was canceled.

Leto has steadily tried to slink away from being typecast as the small screens James Dean, just as Johnny Depp did when "21 Jump Street" threatened his chances at a feature film career. Leto made his first savvy move by starring in the title role of a cocky Olympic runner in 1997's Prefontaine. He made more clever calls by taking small roles in either edgy or prestigious films. His bit part as a tense soldier in Terrence Malick's critically acclaimed The Thin Red Line sufficiently jarred nerves. Allowing himself to get beaten to a pulp in David Fincher's Fight Club, showed guts. And turning up for a few minutes as Winona Ryder's lover in Girl, Interrupted and as Christian Bales nemesis in American Psycho was a message to Hollywood that he'd rather take minor roles in good material than be a sell out for starring roles in mediocre fare. When he took his first starring role in years, as a junkie in Darren Aronofsky's bitter little indie Requiem for a Dream, it finally hit casting directors that Leto was a much-underused talent.

Characteristically, Leto did not use his newfound buzz to land a starring role in a flashy film. Instead, he's chosen another supporting role, this time opposite Oscar-winner Jodie Foster in Fight Club director David Fincher's nerve-rattling thriller Panic Room. He plays Junior, a disenchanted child of privilege turned burglar who torments Foster and her young daughter in a Manhattan brownstone.

When I meet Leto--who's been dating Cameron Diaz for some time but would rather not discuss their relationship--over chips and salsa on the patio of L.A.'s Chateau Marmont, I notice he's wearing the same braided cornrows he sports in the trailer for Panic Room. "I still have the hair because I just did some additional shooting yesterday," says Leto of the film that started production in late 2000. "Making Panic Room has been a long, interesting ride. People on the set yesterday were joking, 'All right! We just got picked up for a second season!'"

DENNIS HENSLEY: Would you be happy if you never wore cornrows again?

JARED LETO: I'm going to shave my head just to make sure there's no fucking way I can go back on that set. [Laughs] As much as I love working with David, I'm ready for different material.

Q: Is David Fincher as intense as his movies?

A: David's really intense. I hesitate to use the word genius because I think he's too handsome to be a genius. He's downright sexy. [Laughs] And he has got to be the most knowledgeable person I've ever met. He sets up a world that is filled with so much truth, from the tiles on the floor to the paint cracking in the corner, that it enables you as an actor to do your job.

Q: Did you get banged up while making Fight Club?

A: Yeah. I broke, like, three ribs. I had to fall and David wanted it to look real so he was off to the side of the camera throwing me down on the ground.

Q: He literally threw you down on the ground?

A: Yeah. [Laughs] We threw a couple of chairs at each other.

Q: And it was all worth it?

A: In all honesty, it's so exciting to go to the set every day to be part of what he's doing. Even if his movies aren't your cup of tea, you can't walk away from them without acknowledging the craftsmanship that goes into them.

Q: Is Panic Room really set in one room?

A: Its set in one house and it takes place pretty much in one night. You know what that means, right?

Q: No, I don't.

A:

I have to wear one outfit during the entire film, though there are several copies of it. I had black leather gloves, from Barneys, of course, a long corduroy brown trench coat and Prada shoes.

Q: That's pretty stylish for a burglar.

A: This guy comes from a really wealthy New York family. He's the black sheep, kind of a jaded Catcher in the Rye wannabe.

Q: Forest Whitaker and Dwight Yoakam play your partners in crime. What are they like?

A: Forest can show the most subtle of emotions in his face. I like to watch his takes when I'm not in the scene. And Dwight, he's playing one of the utmost son-of-a-bitches on the planet, and he does it really, really well. He's horrifying.

Q: This movie has had quite a rocky road to the screen. Was there a point when you thought it might not happen?

A: There were several points. Nicole Kidman was originally in the film. David started rehearsals and then she hurt her knee so we shut down for six weeks. We started up again and she hurt her other knee. So Jodie Foster came onboard and a few weeks later it comes out that she's pregnant so that was another challenge to shoot around because she was starting to show.

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