For all the girls wondering how to get the key to Jared Leto’s heart, here’s part of the answer: Write an intriguing screenplay that allows him to spread his wings. That’s all it took for writer-director Jarrett Schaefer to persuade Leto to star in his independent drama, Chapter 27, and throw his weight behind the film (quite literally) as an executive producer as well.

“It was nice to do something different and something challenging,” Leto says. “I certainly wouldn’t want to make a film this dark and challenging every time out, but I was excited by the idea that Jarrett had when I sat down and met with him originally. Even with my trepidations at taking on this role, ultimately I thought that I could learn a lot by doing it, so that’s why I ended up saying yes.”

It’s now quite certain the 36-year-old actor has moved well beyond his years as Jordan Catalano, the pensive, locker-leaning high school teenager he played in the 1990s drama “My So-Called Life.” Not that audiences have had much doubt about that after seeing him as Brad Pitt‘s sparring partner in David Fincher‘s Fight Club (1999), a drug addict in Darren Aronofsky‘s Requiem for a Dream (2000) or Hephaistion, the same sex partner of Colin Farrell‘s Alexander, a role that caused quite a firestorm for the actors and writer-director Oliver Stone back in 2004.

This time around Leto embodies Mark David Chapman—the man who murdered John Lennon. In December 1980 Chapman flew from his Hawaii residence to New York City on a mission to shoot and kill the legendary Beatle. It is in the three days prior to the incident that Chapter 27 takes place. Using J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as his Bible, Chapman believed himself the novel’s main character, Holden Caulfield, and was determined to carry out the fictional character’s adolescent adventures. To that end, he would live out a final chapter to the 26-chapter story.

More than the tragic subject matter however, this independent film, which premiered at Sundance in 2007 and is now in limited release, has arguably gotten most of its publicity outside of the industry from the fact that Leto packed on nearly 70 pounds and subsequently contracted gout when he returned to his pre-Chapman weight. “The weight obviously gets a lot of attention. You know, as a culture we obviously are obsessed by issues having to do with weight and health,” Leto says. “But it’s really something that I thought was important and it really taught me a lot about who this guy was.”

Just landed after a 30-hour flight from South Africa, where his band 30 Seconds To Mars was touring, Leto spent some time with MM to reveal a little more about his acting process and the screenplay that hooked him.

Mallory Potosky (MM): When I tell people who are mildly interested in film that I just saw Chapter 27, they’re not really sure what it is because it’s not a mainstream movie. But when I say, ‘This is the one where Jared Leto gained a lot of weight,’ they know it. So it’s arguably the biggest topic that this film has brought up. What made you feel gaining the weight was such a necessary step for getting into character?

Jared Leto (JL): Well, it did a lot of things. It really informed me in a lot of different ways about the character and most specifically it changed everything about who I was physically—it changed the way that I walked, the way that I moved, the way that I talked, the way that I laughed. It changed the way that I felt about myself and I think that the physical representation of the character was really indicative of a lot of the internal issues and thoughts and the spirit of this guy. But there were other things that were really important, like the internal journey that you take when you work on a role. Obviously the weight is a really apparent, easy thing to notice and talk about.

MM: Do you think there’s any length you wouldn’t go to in order to play a character?

JL: Well I certainly would never gain weight like this for a film. It wasn’t a very healthy thing to do, obviously. It’s not something I could probably get away with doing twice. But it depends on the role. It’s not always a negative thing that you do to prepare for a part. Some characters have different skills that you have to learn and different actors work different ways. I tend to do whatever it takes to get to the place that I feel I really need to go in order to deliver what’s needed.

MM: That brings up Requiem for a Dream and Fight Club and any of those movies that you really prepared for—where you fasted or trained previously. Do you look for that kind of thing? Do you find it inspires your performance more?

JL: I’m really director-driven and certainly the script and the role play as important a part when you’re trying to decide what you’re going to do. But I like a good challenge. I like films that push me and I think I would get pretty bored and complacent if I was just doing one type of role.

MM: You said you’re director-driven. So do you have any directors that you particularly want to work with or that you have worked with that taught you a lot?

JL: Oh yeah. There’s a list a mile long starting with all the obvious choices like Martin Scorsese. But I’d love to work again with a lot of the directors that I’ve worked with already. Everyone from Aronofsky to Fincher to Terrence Malick. They were really interesting experiences and they’re all such smart and passionate people that are so good at what they do. I love that feeling of interacting and the challenge that that brings.
MM: You’re a producer on Chapter 27. Did that bring up more interaction on the set than just acting? How did that role come about for Chapter 27?

JL: It’s a different opportunity to participate in a film in a deeper way and have a different set of responsibilities. Obviously that’s a new job for me and a great place to learn a little bit more about that side of things. Essentially, the job of the producer is to help bring the director’s vision to life and to help make the best film that you can, whether that’s dealing with the financial side or hiring a crew or supporting the director or the actors when it comes down to creative battles that you have to fight. But I think if you’re an involved actor, in a sense, you help to produce every film that you’re in. You have a responsibility that goes pretty deep. There’s different ways I guess you can apply yourself—or not.

MM: In this movie, there really isn’t a scene that you’re not in. So did you feel like the movie was totally dependent upon your performance—on-screen and/or off? Do you think it was the subject matter?

JL: I think probably all of the above. It’s an experimental film—it’s not a traditional Hollywood melodrama. It’s different and from the beginning the director had a really unique, claustrophobic vision for this movie; it was an experiment.

MM: Have you seen the movie yet? In a few interviews—at Sundance and afterwards, you said you hadn’t seen it, that you couldn’t even bring yourself to see it.

JL: As an actor, my work is pretty much done when I’ve finished shooting a film. It’s really a director’s movie. I’m not involved with any of the elements once the film is finished except to help support the movie. This is Jarrett’s vision.

MM: Do you generally make it a point not to watch yourself on screen?

JL: I generally don’t watch myself. It’s a strange point of view to look at your acting that way. I think when you’re in a scene with someone, the most important part is that moment right there, not hindsight. But I could be wrong. I’ve seen a few of my films. I saw Requiem for a Dream because it was premiering at Cannes and Darren was adamant that I come see it. I tend to not watch the films because I really don’t have a desire to watch them. I like the idea of not knowing what works or not in hindsight, and kind of having to re-learn and figure things out again each time.

MM: When news of the movie started coming out, there were some people that started to boycott it. What would you say to those people about the goal of this movie, or the subject of this movie?

JL: I would say that it’s not a sympathetic portrayal or trying to cast a positive light on somebody who is clearly a monster. (I mean the term “monster” as in someone who has failed greatly, not as a stereotype.) He was, unfortunately, a very disturbed individual, but he was a human being nonetheless. We were always very concerned to move forward and to operate with the most dignity and respect as possible. It’s not a sensationalistic film. This is the vision of Jarett Schaefer, the writer and director, and it’s a very specific and claustrophobic and strange look into madness and obsession.