May 8, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Jared Leto heightens the creepiness in ‘Little Things’

As an actor, Jared Leto is not a man of half measures. Even if his screen time is limited, he’ll make sure you don’t forget him.

In “The Little Things,” in which he plays Albert Sparma, the primary suspect in a string of serial killings opposite two other Oscar winners (Denzel Washington and Rami Malek), he doesn’t appear until about 40 minutes in, but his impact is immediate: the killer stare, the long, greasy hair, the Charles Manson beard, his leaden shuffle, a considerable paunch that’s not the result of a fat suit, an insinuating voice that’s both menacing and oddly comforting.

“It’s probably the thing that I worked hardest at, to tell you the truth,” Leto tells The Envelope about that voice. “I wanted from the moment that he spoke that people would have the hair go up on the back of their necks, to feel like he was different. I wasn’t intentionally trying to be spooky at all; it was a soothing voice in a strange way. I wanted people to know that he didn’t fit in.”

It’s not the first time Leto has played creepy. In “Chapter 27” (2007), he famously packed on 67 pounds to play John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, a performance with more than a shade of “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle, played by one of Leto’s heroes, Robert De Niro.

In “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013), there’s almost an emaciation competition between Leto, who plays HIV-positive transgender character Rayon, and Matthew McConaughey’s AIDS-afflicted Ron Woodroof. Yet their characters are polar opposites: Woodroof a self-destructive homophobe with a mean streak, Rayon a fragile flower with a heart of gold. They would both win Academy Awards for their efforts.

“I’ve done this kind of thing many times, and it’s a great way to kind of plant a flag in the ground for yourself,” Leto says of his extreme fluctuations in weight. “Because when you make that kind of physical commitment, it really can kind of pull along a lot of the other characteristics or provoke other elements of the character.

“But it’s not something I take lightly, and I go out of my way to talk other actors out of it when they’ve called me in the past. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. It gets harder and harder. It’s probably OK to do once or twice in your career, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as a regular thing, because I think it could be quite dangerous.”

Earlier in his career, Leto’s androgynous appeal was so conspicuous it’s as if certain filmmakers needed to defile it somehow. He was cast as the sacrificial lamb in “The Thin Red Line,” “American Psycho” and “Fight Club,” in which his character, Angel Face, is beaten to a pulp by Edward Norton, who says afterward, “I wanted to destroy something beautiful.” “Fight Club” director David Fincher has called Leto “my kind of masochist.”

When he was initially approached by director John Lee Hancock for the role of Sparma, he was reluctant. But he was such a fan of the filmmaker, whose “The Founder” Leto thought was “masterful,” and the opportunity to be flanked onscreen by an elder statesman and a rising star convinced him to take the plunge. “You have Denzel Washington, who for me is like Mozart and Brando all in one. And on top of it, the upstart Rami Malek, just off the beautiful performance as Freddie Mercury [in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’], it was kind of hard to say no to.”

Leto also appreciated the film’s ambiguity and the suggestion that Sparma’s criminality is not a given. “There are so many questions of guilt and innocence and the presumption of either, and I think the murkiness — the fact that there’s not total clarity — is kind of the point,” he says. “Things don’t always get wrapped up in a nice little bow. I like that it’s this classic thriller, but it subverts the genre in that it doesn’t give you the complete picture, and it makes you ask more questions than it gives answers.”

Despite Leto’s all-in reputation, not all of Sparma’s physical characteristics are organic. “We had a lot of fun with it,” he says. “I had a fake nose. I had fake teeth. I had some other prosthetics. We tried about 30 different wigs. And some of them were so ridiculous that I think I scared everyone. And I figured, ‘I think we’ll stop before the wigs.’” (In the DVD commentary for “Panic Room,” Fincher says Leto, who plays one of the film’s burglars, decided, unprompted, to give his character cornrows to assume a kind of street cred, and the director just went with it, thinking it “spectacularly bold.”)

Next up for Leto? Playing Paolo Gucci, grandson of the legendary Italian designer in Ridley Scott’s tentatively titled “Gucci,” which ostensibly begins shooting in Italy in the spring. Adam Driver, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Lady Gaga have also been announced as part of the cast.

It’s a tale of sibling rivalry, and Leto describes his character as “kind of a frustrated designer who feels underappreciated.”

“The Gucci story is quite fascinating and titillating and tragic,” he adds. “I don’t think a lot of people are aware of how intense a story the Gucci family is. It’s a pretty wild one.”