Even before the lurid, ever-more-embellished stories from the Suicide Squad set started doing the rounds – in character as the Joker, Jared Leto sent his costars rats, possibly dead, possibly alive! Bullets! Condoms, possibly used, possibly not! – the impression you got was that Leto was a quite unusual man.
There is the fact that he lives in basically a supervillain lair – a former secret Air Force base in Laurel Canyon that once worked on classified footage of atomic tests, with a four-storey control tower, a gym and a guillotine. There was that time back in 2007 when he grabbed Elijah Wood by the collar at an awards ceremony because Wood had said Leto’s band Thirty Seconds to Mars were awful. There was that other time he took a Rolling Stone journalist bouldering, observing “if you fall down, you’re gonna break your head open”.
There’s nothing unduly alarming, though, about Leto when I meet him in the chi-chi library of a Soho hotel, with a china tea-set on the table and light jazz playing in the background. He does, though have a slightly guruish air, with sunkissed hair, full beard and fringed top, and he must have some secret source of energy. At 46, an Oscar-winning actor, and also leader of a band that packs adoring arenas, sells millions of records and has a respectably shiny cupboard-full of awards, Leto is still restless, brimful of ambition. It’s the day after Thirty Seconds to Mars’s Glasgow Hydro show, during which, despite a double-tartan kilt-and-coat combo teamed with outsize sportswear, he threw himself around the stage with vivid, bright-eyed abandon, leading singalongs, urging the crowd to “jump, jump, JUMP!”
It’s now noon in a Soho hotel after a long journey, and the eyes, if calmer, are scarcely less bright.The band – Leto, his older brother Shannon and guitarist Tomo Miličević – are due to release their new album, America, in a little over a week. “It feels like a first album in a lot of ways,” enthuses Leto. “It lives in the here and now and it’s not just trying to revisit our past… every time you make an album, you write a new song you have an opportunity to say something new, and we took full advantage of that.”
They definitely have: America the country sells a dream of aspiration, and America the album sounds like it aspires to be heard as widely as possible. Thirty Seconds to Mars are already hugely successful. They’ve earned a Guinness world record for the longest tour, and, gradually, begrudging critical respect for their achievements, if not always for their high-drama, sci-fi-flavoured rock.
They have a huge, fervent fanbase, who like all self-respecting fervent fanbases, have given themselves a name: the Echelon, after a song from the debut album. “Yes, this is a cult,” jokes the video for Closer to the Edge, and maybe it’s just the afterimage of his portrayal of replicant entrepreneur Niander Wallace in Blade Runner 2049 (“Pain reminds you the joy you felt was real”), but you can kind of picture Leto as a cult leader. “Don’t you just wanna make something that lives forever?” he asks in Artifact, the 2012 documentary about his band. “Something that’s phenomenal, something that’s great, something that’s undeniable, that touches the core of every person that hears it?”
“…Yeah,” replies his guitarist, Tomo Miličević. Well, what else would you say?
But America feels like an album that aims to reach much further than cult; if not for Leto’s impassioned, throaty voice, you might not have any idea it was the same band on the likes of Dangerous Night, produced by Russian EDM star Zedd and laced with soft synth builds, pulsing beats and millennial whoops, or the Skrillex-like dubsteppy drops of Hail to the Victor. “I think that some of the most interesting music in the world is happening in pop music,” says Leto. “A lot of pop music is really rather brave. You’ve got the most minimal, efficient, tasteful production happening… we’re living in an era where hip-hop and pop are the dominant forms in pop culture.”
Great Wide Open, meanwhile, displays almost Springsteenian ambitions in its choir-backed attempt to embrace America, galvanise it, pull it up: “across a land of blood and dreams… I will save your heart from breaking”. Leto’s described it as “a cornerstone for the record”, and it shares the spirit of the record’s sister film, A Day In The Life of America. Thirty Seconds to Mars’s album releases are often accompanied by short films – extended videos directed by Leto: From Yesterday, shot entirely in China, employed 400 chinese soldiers; Up in the Air called on gymnasts, a wolf, a lion, Damien Hirst and Dita Von Teese on a trapeze in “a celebration of art and movement”; City of Angels tried to capture the spirit of LA with testimony from Kanye, Lindsay Lohan, James Franco and many more. This time, rather than snapshot of a city, Leto’s aiming for a full-length documentary that encompasses the whole country, and is currently editing down, for a planned July release, a shining sea of film shot across the US on the 4th of July last year, with extra footage sent in by fans asked to show their American reality.
“It was impossible – nearly impossible – to pull off,” he says. “We had just a couple of weeks and we’d hired 92 film crews to shoot in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and DC, on a single day in 24 hours. And we had a lot of targets, a lot of things we wanted to cover: the physical beauty of America, the national parks. Adventure, fun, politics, other uncomfortable areas…”
One of the most inspiring tales they found was that of a Canadian former professional athlete who, unable to get treatment for his brain tumour in his own country, came to America for an operation. “They saved his life. And he lost the ability to walk when he was getting ill. So he decided to walk across the country. It is just a beautiful story.”
Not all the stories are beautiful, of course. “What we got back was provocative, funny, weird, upsetting,” says Leto. “We wanted to make an apolitical film that looked at all sides, followed all people and we did that, from a KKK rally to the opioid crisis to messages of equality and hope.”
“Provocative” is a word and idea that comes up a lot in Leto’s interviews: that’s what the gifts on the Suicide Squad set were supposed to be, and it’s also how he describes the posters for America’s press campaign, in which lists of disparate American facts – Christian names, sex positions, hot topics, trademarks – coalesce like metadata or word clouds on stark, searing neon backgrounds. Thirty Seconds to Mars like big themes and bold statements: in 2013, they gave Up in the Air its off-world premiere aboard the International Space Station, though some focus was pulled by the lyric “I’ll wrap my hands around your throat so tied with love” (“It does play on two different levels,” Leto told MTV at the time. “There’s an obvious sexual connotation to the line. … But it’s also about power, it’s about control, and the song is about that”).
America’s provocations, though, are more social polemic than behold-my-deviance shock-tactic, and though he’s spoken in the runup to the album about music’s ability to bring people together, America the album is not as neutral as its sister film. (Leto publicly came out in support of Hillary Clinton before the US presidential election, while Bernie Sanders pops up in the Walk On Water video; Leto is also a longtime supporter of environmental causes.)
“A song like Walk On Water, I think it takes a side,” Leto, says, in his slow, considered way – he speaks with little filler or hesitation. “But it does speak to the division. Walk on Water is the most overtly political song on the album, it’s about standing up and fighting for what you believe in, it’s about change. Y’know, I talk about the alt-right, the far left… and it is a divisive time in the country, a time filled with instability and uncertainty but also a time of great change and hope and aspiration.”
This sober, socially aware, documentarian is a new side to Leto, and it’s hard not to wonder, especially when you’ve read so much about the intensity of his method acting, how he separates these different selves, especially while filming at the same time as an album is in the works (Artifact, and some of the videos, were directed under the Dr Seuss-inspired pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins, who now has his own Twitter account.
Writers love to ask, he says, these kind of questions about identity, but for him, it’s simple. “When I’m onstage, there’s no acting. It’s a complete reveal of yourself… I always feel like when I’m onstage that I’m more me than I ever am in my entire life. And I feel more comfortable onstage at times than I do just sitting here talking to you.”
Onstage in Manchester a couple of days before our interview, Leto picked a fan out from the crowd to write a message to be posted on his own blue-ticked, 4.75 million-follower Twitter account. It’s a stunt they band have used before, but Manchester stepped up to the plate in typically forthright style: “Hey @theresa_may please call an election or resign (FUCK YOU), love Manchester”. “Type that shit in there motherfucker, we’ll all waiting,” urged Leto. “You gotta do what the people want, right?”
The new Thirty Seconds to Mars seem more open to other people’s voices than ever before. At their London date at the O2 Arena, they’re joined onstage by new-generation grime star AJ Tracey for a mashup of his Pasta with their Walk on Water (“Why the fuck has aj tracey just come out with 30 seconds to mars n performed to a load of goths?” asks one fan on Twitter; “im a goth” responds Tracey), and also by London pop-R&B singer-songwriter Raye. That openness is also evident on America: On One Track Mind, Leto’s creepily soft croon is offset by a guest spot from A$AP Rocky, while on the stormy duet Love Is Madness, he goes head-to-head in a holler-off with Halsey.
Halsey drew praise and attention at the start of the year for her poem on the subject of sexual assault, A Story Like Mine, which she read out at the New York Women’s March, in the wake of the many #MeToo revelations that followed the allegations of sexual assault against film producer Harvey Weinstein in October 2017. Those revelations and allegations have ripples and repercussions that are still spreading, and in one place, touched close to Thirty Seconds to Mars. Leto’s representatives recently denied he was ever attached to a biopic of Hugh Hefner scrapped after director Brett Ratner was accused of harassment by six women. (Ratner had previously said in an interview that Leto had contacted him about the role.) Fashion photographer Terry Richardson, meanwhile, long the centre of allegations that he abused and assaulted models, was dropped by many of the magazines and brands that previously employed him in the wake of #MeToo, and as of January, is under investigation by the NYPD. Richardson is a friend of Leto’s, and appears in Artifact. He also pops up near the end of the controversial BDSM-themed video for Hurricane (in which, amid various surreal scenes, Leto blindfolds and gags a lover, clasping her by the throat, and a rabbi, a priest and a monk throw holy books onto a bonfire).
I ask Leto if the public volte-face on Richardson made him re-evaluate that friendship or any of the rumours he may have heard. (It should be noted that many actors and musicians kept working with Richardson after the allegations first started to surface about his behaviour, from Lady Gaga to Lena Dunham to Morrissey.)
“Well… I’m not gonna speak about him or his… life or that situation at all,” he says. “But it’s an incredibly important time and the #MeToo movement which I totally support… I grew up with a single mom who had two kids by the time she was 19 and had to fight for some sense of equality in her life in the workplace in life in general. I mean she literally left Lousiana because she was treated so badly being an unmarried woman with two children in the 70s. And I watched my mom. She was very young. I watched my mom struggle through her life.” He warms to the theme, becoming more animated. “Has my mother ever been given equal pay? Probably not. Y’know, my mother was a nurse. She put herself through school. She was always hardworking, always determined, always focused on making a better life for herself and for her children. And that’s always inspired me. I think what we see going on right now with the recent march just two days ago in America, young kids walking out of schools fighting for the ability to be safe… I think all of these things are connected. And what I hope that we see is more equality, more change, more distribution of opportunity, in terms of gender, in terms of race, in terms of social standing… it’s an interesting time. It’s a time that will go down in history.”
Leto clearly wants to be part of the historical changes that are happening. And not just in the role of film star, rock frontman and director because, well, that’s not really enough to keep you busy, is it? Some of Thirty Seconds to Mars’s early word-of-mouth-growth came through the file-sharing site Napster (though having a famous actor in your band undoubtedly doesn’t hurt either), sparking Leto’s interest in disruptive tech firms – “companies that are changing the way that we behave, founders or CEOs that are incredibly passionate, smart geniuses” – he told the Wall Street Journal in October. An early adopting investor in companies such as Spotify, Uber, Slack, Airbnb and Nest, he’s also set up three firms of his own, initially centred around the concerns of Thirty Seconds to Mars but now also working with other artists: The Hive (social media management) Adventures in Wonderland (VIP fan experiences) and VyRT (concert live-streaming). I ask him what he thinks of the role tech companies may have inadvertently played in US and UK politics. “I think it’s clear that Facebook has played a role in not just our election but many elections,” he says. “Sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a way that is not so good because have people have learned to take advantage of the technology of platforms in a way that was highly disruptive…using social platforms and media in general, whether it was fake media or not, to build discontent.”
He remains hopeful, though, that technology is still be a tool that can be used for good as well as ill. “We’re gonna look back and we are in a revolution, we are in a period of time that’s gonna be looked at as more impactful than the Industrial Revolution. It’s a transformative time, and we’re just at the very beginning. We’re at the 1%. And there are going to be changes that happen in the next five-10 years that make the past 50 seem like nothing as far as technology goes. I mean we’re moving towards nano-technology and this medical age that’s just right in front of us that’s going to be so exciting and so compelling and so wonderful and so bizarre. Artificial intelligence and blockchain and digital currencies and all kinds of things that will change the face yet again of the world and how we do things, how we communicate, how we live.”
Big changes, big themes, big statements: these are very Thirty Seconds to Mars times. Maybe their next album will reach your auditory nerve by nanobot. Until then, Leto’s got the small task of bringing America together in song to keep him busy.