He's not sure of the exact amount, but actor Jared Leto knows he lost 30-40 pounds to play Rayon, a transgender woman who befriends a homophobic man stricken with HIV, in the feature film "Dallas Buyers Club." It's a transformation that should have taken Leto months to achieve, but he he got the part so late he had to lose the weight in a few weeks.
"You just stop eating," says Leto, who got through the diet crash because "it was an enormous opportunity for me and the role of a lifetime."
The film, based on a true story, mainly deals with the efforts by the macho, woman-crazy character played by Matthew McConaughey to find a way to get the drugs being used around the world to fight AIDS. In the mid-'80s, none of the drugs had been approved for use in the U.S. To get around the law, he starts a club where members are given the drugs he smuggles into the country.
Although the movie is based on a true story, Leto's character is a composite of several people.
Leto, who also is the lead singer and main songwriter for Thirty Seconds to Mars, has been selective about the acting roles he takes. His last film work was in the 2009 movie "Mr. Nobody."
It was the complexity of the character that made Leto willing to go through such a dramatic transformation. He knew it was critical to find just the right look for Rayon.
"She was looking for herself, exploring and dealing with a sense of discovery. Once I realized that, everything fell in line," Leto says.
The look he found is one of a gaunt woman whose face has been drawn so tightly around her skull that her blue eyes seem to float in air. The loss of weight helped Leto find the fragile movement for the character, who is facing emotional problems as mighty as her physical fights. His choice of makeup gives Rayon a haunted look — as if she's already staring out of her inevitable grave.
Even the scene where Rayon puts on a man's suit to confront the father who has rejected her takes on an even more heartbreaking feel because of how the clothes hang so poorly on her frame.
Leto doesn't look at that scene as a way of emphasizing the dire straits of Rayon, but one that shows her strengths.
"It's not just to ask for help but Rayon's chance to say goodbye to her father," Leto says. "The fact that she's using the opportunity to do something to help others says a lot about her. Rayon has a kind heart and a lot of grace."
That scene was the one that reminded Leto of the responsibilities he was taking on to play the character. Rayon's an amalgamation of several people, but Leto always looked at her as a individual and it was his job to bring her to life with as much respect and grace as he could muster.
Leto also felt a responsibility to all the Rayons of the world. He's seen this character depicted in a stereotypical way in past movies and he wanted to make sure his performance was real and deep. Leto's main concern was that Rayon was "never the source of a punchline."
There have been advancements since the period in which the movie is set, including how AIDS is not the immediate death sentence that it once was. Leto knows there's still a long way to go and he hopes that this film helps put a light on the vast improvements needed in health care and social acceptance.
"Before I take on a role I have to feel it's right in my heart, head and gut," Leto says. "I have to be excited and challenged. The only fear I had of taking on this role came from wanting so badly to do a great job."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.