PARK CITY, Utah — If the Sundance Film Festival has a king this year, one could safely assume Jared Leto might be the one sitting on the throne. In a rare convergence of talent, the 35-year-old appeared as the svelte lead singer for 30 Seconds to Mars for a packed-like-sardines concert on Saturday, and then returned onscreen three days later and 50 pounds heavier for Tuesday's premiere of the controversial flick "Chapter 27," which deals with the days leading up to the fatal shooting of John Lennon. We caught up with Leto for an eye-opening conversation about the successes Leto has achieved over the past year, the day Lennon died and the movie role opposite Lindsay Lohan that almost killed him.
MTV: I saw your 30 Seconds to Mars show the other day — it was such a small, intimate place with only a few hundred people. You guys were great.
Jared Leto: We don't often get the chance to play shows like that. Sometimes they're challenging in their own unique ways, but we had a fun time. It was a really unique, guttural experience because we were so close to the audience. ... We've been playing a lot of shows over the year, so it was nice to come up here and share the band a bit with Sundance. My life as an actor and as a musician collided this week in the best of ways.
MTV: You're up here with "Chapter 27," a movie that has you portraying Mark David Chapman — the man who killed John Lennon. Why would you want to make a movie about this guy?
Leto: It was a question I asked myself when I read the script. It wasn't a decision I made lightly. It took a lot of consideration to make what I believe to be a pretty important decision, of whether or not to take on this film. But ultimately, it was an opportunity to discover the failure of humanity. Mark David Chapman is an example of the failure of humanity, and John Lennon is probably one of the best examples of the most wonderful aspects of humanity. I think that, to explore the uncomfortable and the politically incorrect, is the job of the artist.
MTV: You were 9 when Lennon was shot. What memories do you have of that day?
Leto: I was a kid, and I remember my mom looking at the newspaper and bursting into tears.
MTV: Most movies have a sympathetic lead character. A lot of the people who are attacking this movie without having seen it assume you're making Chapman sympathetic. Was that your point?
Leto: No, it wasn't our goal at all. I'm not of the belief that Mark David Chapman deserves any sympathy, and we weren't after that at all. I think empathy is a much more interesting word for this project. Understanding. ... Every week at the box office we explore films about escapism — romantic comedies, action movies or whatever. It's important to also examine the failures of humanity.
MTV: As soon as you walk onscreen, it's obvious that you pulled a De Niro. How much weight did you put on and how did you do it?
Leto: It was probably the most difficult thing that I've ever done in my entire life, for sure. It was a devastating process; there wasn't a single moment of joy for the months that I worked on it. Moments of reward and fulfillment, certainly, but it was a process that — rightfully so — was filled with pain, disgust and confusion. We talked at the beginning about whether I should wear a fat suit or not, but it was really important to me to gain the weight for a few specific reasons. It changed every single thing about who I was as a human being. It changed the way that I walked, it changed the way that I talked, it changed the way I felt about myself and the way people looked at me and treated me.
MTV: What was your secret? Were you eating nothing but hamburgers and pancakes for five months?
Leto: Well, I don't eat meat, so no hamburgers. But I was eating every single thing you can think of eating that would be bad for you. ... I almost wish that I had made a film about the making of the film, because it was definitely a super-sized version of "Super Size Me." It was doctors telling me I needed to stop, that I was going to kill myself, my cholesterol shooting up to 300-something points — which is bad. They wanted to put me on Lipitor and all kinds of medication. ... Food is the strongest medication we take every day. What I was doing was poisoning myself with some really severe methods. It was a fascinating, but devastating, experience.
MTV: Did you ever play with the band while fat?
Leto: No. When I focus on a film, I disappear and focus on that completely. It's the same thing when I'm on tour or in the studio making music: I commit and focus on that completely. I kinda have the opposite of ADD. I have a hyper-focused disorder, where if there's a given task in front of me I really concentrate on that. ... Eight days [after filming wrapped] I was on the road, so I was heavy for a few shows.
MTV: With her roles in "Chapter 27" (as a Lennon groupie) and last year's "Bobby," Lindsay Lohan seems to be putting the kid roles behind her. What was her work ethic like?
Leto: This kind of film presents you with an opportunity and a challenge. ... We all tried to move together with as much dignity and respect for the people and the event itself ... all of us were very excited to take on the challenge, to learn a little bit about ourselves as human beings. A film like this ... demands a lot out of you. It's not like making a rom-com.
MTV: What kind of conversations did you and Lindsay have between takes? It must have been a fairly depressing set.
Leto: I didn't speak to anybody. I was in character 24 hours a day. For me, it was an experience that I had to have alone. The character was very isolated, and I took that approach as well. I had a very religious approach to developing the character. It's not like the director said, "Cut!" and everyone was able to laugh and go get a drink and talk about something extraneous.
MTV: Did you ever meet Chapman and/or Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono?
Leto: No, I didn't. Anything after December 8, 1980, had no interest to me. I took the approach of [knowing] everything from the day of his birth to that horrible night of December 8, 1980, where John Lennon lost his life. ... This is a film that's going to forever be a defining element of who I am as an actor and as a person. I knew that going in.
MTV: What's coming up for 30 Seconds to Mars?
Leto: We're getting ready to go to Europe. I'm here until the 25th and then I head straight to Europe for a couple weeks, and then we start the Taste of Chaos [tour]. It will be all over the country, and we're excited. [Last year was] one of the best years of our lives ... so getting back on the road and celebrating it with everybody is what we're looking forward to doing.
MTV: Any movies coming up?
Leto: I tend to beat myself up so badly making these films. [He laughs.] It's probably best to do as few as possible.
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