In the world of Hollywood celebrity, Jared Leto remains an enigma. Prolific as both an actor and a musician (30 Seconds to Mars), the Louisiana native has forged a career on one core principle: exploring “the uncomfortable and the politically incorrect.” Artistic challenge is the name of Leto’s game and has been since his earliest acting days in the 1990s. Though initially perceived to be a teen heartthrob, the actor quickly undercut his looks with a series of obsessive characters, all but redefining the word “commitment” in the process.
In the decades since, Leto has risen from cult favorite to bona fide star, receiving acclaim for his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club (2013). Playing opposite Matthew McConaughey, the film affirmed Leto’s vice grip on movie outcasts--the sad, the bad, and the beautiful. Now, on the cusp of his most infamous outcast yet, The Joker, Leto looks to satisfy impossibly high expectations. Suicide Squad may be a team effort, but there’s little denying the actor’s buzzed about performance will carry most of the weight. Luckily, discomfort is right where Leto lives, and these killer roles prove it.
Here are Screen Rant’s 15 Jared Leto Performances To Watch Before Suicide Squad.
15 My So-Called Life (1994-95)
Lasting only a season on ABC, My So-Called Life was widely praised for its portrayal of teen life. The series, set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, revolved around Angela Chase (Claire Danes) and her high school friends, taking on heavy topics like child abuse, homophobia, and teen alcoholism in the process. But like any good teen drama, So-Called also had a heartthrob and that role went to Leto, in what proved his breakout performance.
As Jordan Catalano, Angela’s brooding boyfriend, the actor brought life to a part that nearly got the axe early on. “Jordan was only supposed to appear in the pilot,” series creator Winnie Holzman revealed, “But as soon as we got Jared on film, we knew he had to be a continuing character.” The show-runner's instinct proved spot on, and Leto’s songwriting rebel with a reading disability left many hopelessly enamored. Plus, being forced to sell lines like “the whole conversation thing is, like, totally overrated,” proved the twenty-three year old was already a pretty good actor.
14 Urban Legend (1998)
A Scream (1996) ripoff in every sense of the word, Urban Legend (1998) camped it up with a cast that included Tara Reid, Joshua Jackson, and Lex Luthor himself, Michael Rosenbaum. Making good on its title, the film tears through a ton of urban legends, and the resulting deaths make for some inventive gore. Urban Legend is absolutely the kind of film one would expect it to be, but kooky characters and a few clever kills at least keep things from getting stale.
Leto, still striving to find his acting groove, plays a high school reporter with a few sneaking suspicions. Given his thankless role is played opposite Rosenbaum’s loudmouth and Professor Robert Englund, Leto does a damn good job making this square stand out. Differing from his rebellious TV image, Leto’s uptight charm helped Urban Legend to become an early box office hit. As for the critical praise, that was something that would come later on-- blurbs like “vastly inferior” weren’t exactly glowing.
13 Lonely Hearts (2006)
Lonely Hearts (2006) sported a spectacular cast: John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Salma Hayek, and Laura Dern. Based on the notorious "Lonely Hearts Killers" of the 1940s, the film also fared poorly with critics, who condemned its lazy pace and muddled plot. And while these complaints may ring true for the most part, the gung-ho performances of Hayek and Jared Leto still make this lush neo-noir worth revisiting. As titular killers Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, the actors craft a charismatic combo, equally at ease with murder as they are a swanky nightclub.
Chewing the scenery opposite Travolta and Gandolfini, Leto’s mustachioed slickster is a particular standout. Not only does the actor pull off a sizable age range (receding hairline included), he fills Fernandez with such old-school charm that his descent into tragedy rings all the more sincere. Lonely Hearts arrived the same year as another true crime story, The Black Dahlia, but this anchoring turn has aged far better than that of poor Josh Hartnett.
12 Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Another mixed picture upon release, Girl, Interrupted (1999) has since become a cult classic. The film chronicles a stay at a mental institution in the 1960s, as seen through the eyes of Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) and her cohorts Lisa (Angelina Jolie), Polly (Elisabeth Moss), and Daisy (Brittany Murphy). It wallows in teenage tough girls and unstable intensity, while the strongest emotional fireworks arrive through Oscar winner Jolie.
Leto, once again cast as the boyfriend, gets the rare chance to play an average joe. The part mainly revolves around wanting Susanna to run away with him, though even with an impressively bushy beard, the committed (in more ways than one) Susanna turns him down. It’s a subtle turn, but one that nails the heartbreak of being rejected by a loved one. Amidst the confusion and fear, Leto’s expressive eyes allow the viewer to feel for him, despite knowing his character less than a few minutes. Hot off the heels of Fight Club, it confirmed Leto could shine in nearly any role, regardless of size.
11 Highway (2002)
This movie is out there. Unlike most of the entries on this list, Highway (2002) is a movie concerned with looking cool, having fun, and doing it fast. Things starts up immediately with Jack (Leto), a mohawked pool boy who gets caught fooling around with a mobster’s wife. Forced to go on the run with his motormouthed pal Pilot (Jake Gyllenhaal), the two goofballs swing through a Seattle-bound road trip with an aging stoner (John C. McGinley) and a foxy drifter (Selma Blair).
It's not high art, or anything even resembling it, but the movie has an infectious silliness that simply works. Gyllenhaal is hilarious amidst the jittery antics and spider tattoos, while Leto, generally shirtless (or at least sleeveless), makes this bumbling pool boy somehow feel genuine. It's the kind of part that’s engineered for Zac Efron nowadays; proving that Leto, already an acclaimed performer by 2002, could take on just about anything-- odd hair included.
10 The Thin Red Line (1998)
Though still a Hollywood newcomer, Leto nearly walked out on a chance to appear in Terrence Malick’s war drama The Thin Red Line (1998):
“The casting director upended a couch, and we were supposed to hide behind it and shoot imaginary guns! I literally stood up, took a few imaginary bullets and shoved [the casting director]. I said, 'I can't do this. This is like a bad high school play', and I walked out. And then Terrence called me and he's like 'Uh, Jared? I'd love you to be in my film'.”
The part Malick had in mind, of course, was extremely small and would only make up one of the many foot soldiers in this WWII epic. Still, Leto made the most of his demanding screen time, playing anxiety, fear, and doom in the span of two minutes--two, incredibly intense minutes. As 2nd Lt. William Whyte, the up-and-comer held his own against co-stars like George Clooney, Sean Penn, and Jim Caviezel with ease. Good thing Malick called him back.
9 Lord of War (2005)
Ignoring the fact that neither Nicolas Cage nor Jared Leto look like guys named Yuri and Vitaly, Lord of War (2005) is a pretty solid exposé on gun running. Cage takes center stage as Yuri Orlov, an arms dealer who pedals across the globe while Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) remains in close pursuit. Leto, as younger brother Vitaly, gets to play the loose cannon who substitutes subtlety for a cocaine addiction.
Whether shaping powder to resemble European countries or lashing out for being involved in the first place, the role allows Leto to be emotionally extreme and he nails it as only a king (or, in this case, joker) actor can. Vitaly’s guilt, agitated by seeing a woman and her child hacked to death with Orlov weapons, decides to destroy a weapons truck in response. Shot down soon after, Leto plays his final moments with writhing frustration-- a guy compelled to do right only when it's too late.
8 Chapter 27 (2007)
The sheer physicality of Chapter 27 is awe-inspiring. Selected to play Mark David Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon in 1980, Leto undertook his biggest role to date-- both figuratively and literally. The actor packed on 67 pounds to portray Chapman, mostly by sipping microwaved pints of ice cream mixed with soy sauce and olive oil. By the time Leto appeared onset, cast and crew were astonished by his transformation, the likes of which had rarely been seen or performed. “It's an incredible commitment and, for me, was essential,” Leto explained in 2013, “It changes the way you walk, the way you talk--the way people treat you.”
Fearlessly channeling Chapman, the actor also isolated himself from the rest of the cast, enforcing the murderer’s skewered psyche. That the film was ultimately met with mixed reviews did little to shake Leto’s critical praise, as many cited him as Chapter 27's saving grace. Unfortunately, this staggering commitment did have its consequences: the actor was later diagnosed with gout due to such rapid weight gain. He’s obviously slimmed down since, but fattening up is something that he would “never do again.”
7 American Psycho (1999)
Patrick Bateman is a whirlwind character to behold and Christian Bale does his brash source material proud. Equally important in the film’s earlier scenes, however, is yuppie Paul Allen (Leto). Playing a stockbroker who lucks out as Bateman’s first murder victim, Leto once again proves the old chestnut of “no small parts, only small actors.” Bateman and Allen trade barbs and tanning tips amidst a rising drink tab, while the latter unwittingly insults his host left and right-- resulting in some highly creepy stares. That garish Bateman grin isn’t fooling anyone-- except Paul, of course.
The following murder scene, graced by Huey Lewis & The News’ “Hip to be Square,” has become as quotable as it is crazy. Bateman shakes his way through a music lesson, while Leto’s clueless Allen sits there like a smug duck in the water. When he finally does put the newspaper pieces together, all that’s left is a spastic “Hey Paul!” and a sendoff that still ranks as the actor’s most iconic death scene. In fact, American Psycho is so revered that Leto's Squad co-star Margot Robbie also got in on the fun.
6 Panic Room (2002)
Reuniting with director David Fincher, Panic Room (2002) has Leto pulling off, among other things, a full head of cornrows. “They were really painful initially,” the actor laughed, “and it was all one hundred percent human hair. My hair,” as if any moviegoer dared question Leto’s commitment. The real draw, of course, was the performance that came with the hairstyle, as he and fellow cons Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) break into the house of divorcée Meg Altman (Jodie Foster).
Slapped with the name Junior, Leto’s chatterbox is scenery-chewing, whether barking orders or getting his face blown off by a gas leak. Fincher, having previously deformed the actor for Fight Club, clearly has a blast in doing it again and the game actor responds with a stronger, smarmier performance. When asked about the role, Leto quipped, “I play a complete a--hole. Of course he doesn't think he's an a--hole, but we all know he is.” Here’s hoping he and Fincher can come together and create more compelling a--holes in the years to come.
5 Fight Club (1999)
Jared Leto’s infatuation with deformity hit it's peak in 1999’s Fight Club. Joining the secret organization as Angel Face, the blonde brawler suffers a traumatic beating at the hands of Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator. So much so in fact, that 20th Century Fox demanded director David Fincher recut the scene to make it less gruesome. The uncut version, as Fincher later described, had Angel Face’s nose split open down the center, where a “kind of jelly-like bubble of blood gushes out like a volcano.”
Yikes. Cast and crew reportedly avoided Leto that day, as his prosthetic was deemed “too repulsive” to endure. Unfazed by this reaction, the actor gives a grossly memorable performance, played out through the veneer of deformed makeup for the film’s entire second half. This willingness to purge ugly depths was both startling and refreshing, a reflection of The Narrator's twisted rationale: "I felt like destroying something beautiful." The former pretty boy did just that, and, in the process, created one of cinema’s most haunting fistfights.
4 Prefontaine (1997)
Given his first high-profile role in 1997, Jared Leto transformed himself into Olympic athlete Steve Prefontaine. The actor established his now-famous method instantly, nixing the Jordan Catalano mold that still had teens swooning across the country. Leto met with Prefontaine’s family and friends for character research, along with dying his hair blonde and adapting the icon’s upright running style. “I was pretty much operating under the assumption that I was going after the Olympics,” Leto laughed, “ I was so gung-ho and trying to do everything I could to be this guy. Plus, Prefontaine's family was around often, so it was a moving experience.”
Leto wasn't the only one who was moved-- the actor’s determination both onscreen and off made for a brilliant biopic. Though relatively subtle in comparison to later roles, Leto stunned the masses and established himself as a presence to be reckoned with. In fact, he captured Prefontaine so proficiently that when the runner’s sister, Linda, first saw him onset, she broke down and cried. That, ladies and gentlemen, is conviction.
3 Mr. Nobody (2009)
Mr. Nobody (2009) is a psychological experience. The plot, centered around the world’s last remaining mortal, Nemo (Leto), is a storytelling mobius strip, complete with philosophy and varying world-views. Needless to say, director Jaco Van Dormael required a special talent to sell this dense soufflé of a film, and, with Leto, he found it. Over the span of the film, Leto plays a 118-year old man and various versions of a 34-year old-- in one timeline, he’s homeless, and in another, he is badly scarred.
More than the typical supporting part for Leto, Mr. Nobody hinged solely upon his performance, and the increased pressure was noted. “This is without a doubt the most complex character I’ve ever played,” the actor revealed, “it was a challenge to keep all these lives concentrated into one character for the duration of the filming without losing myself.” Impressively, Leto delivers his most ambitious acting cycle, tackling each reality with much needed clarity. “Mr. Nobody is everyone and no one all at the same time,” Leto mused, and his performance somehow manages to capture as much.
2 Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Dallas Buyers Club (2013) marked a comeback for Leto, who had taken nearly four years off to focus on his music career. He spared no time getting back into the swing of things, however, and took on the role of Rayon, a transgender woman diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s. Heavily buzzed about due to Leto’s weight loss (he dropped “only” 39 pounds this time) and controversial subject matter, the role was another opportunity for the actor to physically transform. Leto, now in his early 40s, also spoke on the perils of the method approach:
“There were a lot of physical things going on, which is also dangerous, a trap, because it can get in the way. You could become this billboard for 'Look at me, look at me, look at me, and see all these things that I've done.”
Weary of crafting a caricature, Leto instead presented viewers with his most delicate character to date. Each of Rayon’s scenes, whether with Dr. Saks (Jennifer Garner) or Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), are searingly dense, down to the heartbreaking hug with Woodruff that clinched Academy Awards for both actors. For Leto, Rayon was a perfect culmination of his career: a paean to those who “have ever felt injustice,” and a spotlight of recognition on decades of dedicated work.
1 Requiem for a Dream (2000)
As brilliant as each of the previous roles are, Jared Leto has yet to top his harrowing turn in Requiem for a Dream (2000). Based on the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., this exploration of addiction cast Leto as Harry Goldfarb, a heroin junkie with huge dreams. Along with his pal (Marlon Wayans) and girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly), Harry’s illusion of hope slowly comes crashing down, while his mother (Ellen Burstyn) succumbs to addictions of her own. It's a tough ordeal to sit through and often proves so crushingly bleak that a single viewing can suffice a lifetime.
Leading the charge is Leto’s mop-topped Harry, a punk who steals from his own mother without much in the way of remorse. And yet, even with a week moral compass, the wiry, wide-eyed kid still inspires with his wholesome goals-- the likes of which are kaput by the time his rotting arm, infected by heroin injections, gets amputated. Director Darren Aronofsky uses every cinematic tool to envelop the viewer and, once Harry curls up in defeat, it feels as though the audience has been put under the knife as well. He is Leto’s ultimate outsider: The uncomfortable and the politically incorrect in one arresting performance.
Jared Leto's next, and potentially most iconic, role as the Joker in Suicide Squad can be seen in U.S. theaters on August 5, 2016
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