By Courtney E. Smith

Dallas Buyers Club has been racking up nominations during this awards season, including Golden Globe nominations (airing this Sunday, January 12) for Best Picture and a Best Supporting Actor nod for Jared Leto. It’s one of many accolades Leto has won for his performance as a transgender character named Rayon, including nominations from the Critic’s Choice Awards and the Screen Actor’s Guild — with Oscar buzz already building. caught up with the actor and rock star recently to talk about his work in the movie, his point of view as a short film maker and some insight into the recently released Artifact — an award-winning documentary that detailed 30 Seconds to Mars‘ squabble with EMI Records.

When you inhabited the character of a man transitioning to a woman: did you start to feel the male gaze on you as a female subject? Or experience beauty as a source of power for a woman?

It was a really unique experience and certainly people’s perspective changed. How they looked at me changed. And it’s a rare thing to experience that perspective shift in others. So yeah, you get treated different and it’s good to learn about that and apply that to the role.

Your character is from Dallas and has a spot-on East Texas accent (I grew up in Texas). What source of inspiration did you draw from?

I was born next door in Louisiana. I have family, as well, in Texas. So that melody is familiar to me and certainly family members and friends and specific people that I did research with helped to inform the voice. And the voice is a very important source of inspiration.

I think that when you’re searching for yourself, your identity, the voice is often a place that we focus on. It says so much about who we are. For Rayon, she was in a process of discovery and experimentation. The voice is certainly a key into who she was.

How did you make the choice for Rayon to wear headscarves? It’s such a different look for what we’re used to seeing on people playing drag or trans characters.

I liked the scarves. I thought there was something about it that seemed right. But it came from some research that I did, from photos in the ’70s and ’80s of people that were very inspiring.

You describe yourself as guarded. Is it easier to talk about a character and the creative process there than it is about music?

No. They’re both a huge part of my life. I think when it comes to personal things it would be more difficult to share some of that stuff because you want to hold on to things and you don’t want to devalue them in any way if that’s possible. But I love to talk about the process and the work and about things that I’m making and sharing with people. I think it’s a really exciting thing to do.

You can ask somebody, “How do you do this, exactly?” There are always some elements that are not easily defined. That’s art. You can justify and rationalize a painting, but at the end of the day sometimes there’s some subconscious at work there as well.

(Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Film Society of Lincoln Center)(Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Film Society of Lincoln Center)

Speaking of art, music videos have always been a big part of the presentation for your band 30 Seconds to Mars. With a new digital era taking hold, have you shifted your perspective on that medium?

Yes I have. I’ve learned a lot about making these little films, the videos, over the years. I’ve been directing for almost a decade now. I think the great thing about technology and new platforms is it’s enabled all of us to consume content quicker and easier than ever before in a quality that couldn’t have been imagined even a few years ago.

In this day and age, would you try to do another epic video in China, a la “From Yesterday”?

Yeah, why not? I don’t think people are done with ambition or creative dreams. Just because you can make a video for $500 doesn’t mean that’s the only video that should be made. Cultural exchange and that sort of thing is awesome. It brings about unique experience both for the filmmakers and the people watching it, whether it’s a video shot on an iPhone or something shot on film and Anamorphic, there’s room for everything.

You recently released the Artifact documentary on iTunes. When you started filming, did you know what kind of situation you were going into?

Not exactly. We had started hoping to film the recording of an album called This Is War and then it turned into something else. We had had a lot of success with an album called A Beautiful Lie. It sold millions of copies. Then we came back to L.A. after our first worldwide tour and found out that not only would we never be paid a single penny, but that we were also millions of dollars in debt. So we started to look into it. We started to contest our contract and we were promptly sued for $30 million by our record label, EMI. So we went to war. We filmed all of it and this is the story of that battle.


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