‘They really took off the cuffs and let me go’: Jared Leto transforms for ‘House of Gucci’

Lon Chaney transformed himself for so many roles that he was called “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” Jared Leto is probably a few more immersive characters away from reaching that benchmark, and even though he is unrecognizable under prosthetics and makeup in “House of Gucci,” capturing the spirit of the most lovable Gucci family member was as important as the physical elements.

“I love a physical transformation, but all of it is meaningless if you don’t have the heart and the soul,” says Leto, who plays Paolo Gucci in director Ridley Scott’s soapy real-life drama (in theaters now). “We were able to push the character to a place where people that I was working with didn’t recognize me. And if they did, it was hard for them to see me.”.

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“House of Gucci” follows three tumultuous decades at the iconic Italian fashion company. Ambitious Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) marries into the famed Gucci family when she weds Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver). Leto’s eccentric Paolo is one of the family members Patrizia cozies up to, a man with big dreams of being a world-renowned fashion designer but disrespected by his powerful father, Aldo (Al Pacino), and other relatives.

“I just connected deeply with who I thought this guy was: a frustrated artist who wanted to do something meaningful with his life,” Leto says. “They really took off the cuffs and let me go, and I’ll always be grateful for that freedom.”.

The Oscar-winning actor, 49, arguably has an even more metamorphic role playing a scientist who turns into a living vampire in “Morbius” (in theaters Jan. 28), based on the Marvel comic-book character. His to-do list also includes reteaming with director Darren Aronofsky for the supernatural thriller “Adrift” (which Leto describes as “Dead Calm” meets “The Shining”), starring as Andy Warhol, and releasing a new album with his rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars.

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Leto talks with USA TODAY about “House of Gucci,” “Morbius” and what his 20-something self would think about his most dynamic roles.

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Question: You’ve always been a really fashionable guy, but for a movie like “House of Gucci” that’s all about fashion and style, did you feel the need to step up your red-carpet game?

Jared Leto: I didn’t, but I worked closely with Gucci the brand for about seven or eight years, and it’s just a coincidence that I happen to be in the movie as well. I don’t think Ridley even knew I worked with Gucci. They were quite supportive and happy about it. But when it comes time for the public events, I don’t really take it very seriously. I’m happy to have fun with it all.

Q: In the film, Paolo is derided as being a mediocre fashion designer by his family. Doing your research on the real figure, what did you think about his talent level?

Leto: He’s really quite an overlooked contributor to the Gucci story. He did the very first ready-to-wear show for Gucci. I believe he convinced them to do a bathing suit, which was groundbreaking at the time and sold out very quickly. He was really intent on pushing Gucci to the future and wasn’t afraid to break things in order to do it.

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Q: The last time you transformed into a comic character, you played infamous villain the Joker in “Suicide Squad.” Did you have the freedom to make Michael Morbius your own a little more?

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Leto: Everyone who steps into the shoes of a character who’s been played before knows that it comes with a certain expectation. And there’ve been such phenomenal performances across the board (with Joker). A big selling point for me to do this was here’s the transformational aspect and here’s a character who no one’s never walked in their shoes before. I get to play three different versions of the same person, so it was kind of perfect for me.

Q: If you went back to the 1990s, visited yourself on the set of “My So-Called Life” and showed him stills of Paolo, Morbius, Joker and Rayon from “Dallas Buyers Club,” would he believe that’s all him?

Leto: No, he would’ve just (said), “Holy (expletive), what are you talking about?” I’m acutely aware of how lucky I am to be able to take on these challenges. I fought hard for this. These things didn’t all come at once and I’m grateful that people call me to take on enormous challenges. I wouldn’t have guessed, (but) I’ve always been attracted to that kind of acting, even back then.

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Q: Your band recorded a live cover of “Bad Romance” for the BBC back in 2010. After co-starring in a movie together, would you want to duet with Gaga?

Leto: I mean, I’d rather just sit and listen to her sing, to be honest. She’s such a great artist. You reminded me that I did that. I totally forgot. I haven’t even mentioned it to her but I should. It’s a great song. I’ve played it many times since onstage, and it’s a lot of fun.

Q: How’s the new Thirty Seconds to Mars album coming along?

Leto: We’ve written, my God, at this point it’s got to be a couple of hundred songs. Thirty Seconds to Mars is very much a live act, touring is really important to us, so we’ve got to take into consideration when the pipes are going to be a bit clearer for touring. But we have new songs ready to release and they’re recorded and basically finished, and we’re excited about it. I just need an album title and we’re off to the races. Maybe that’s it: “Off to the Races.”.

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Q: What have you been musically inspired by lately?

Leto: It’s hard not to be inspired by what’s happening all over the world. Certainly had plenty of songs about isolation and chaos. But actually, some fun stuff came out of that, too. We found a sense of humor in a few songs, some irony and a lot of self reflection, but definitely impacted and influenced and inspired by the times that we’ve all gone through. That’s why I wanted to call the album something like, “What the (Expletive) Is Going On.”.

Q: Andy Warhol is a much different artistic icon than Paolo Gucci. Is he going to be hard to play in terms of finding something new about a well-known figure?

Leto: It’s a great question. We think we might know Andy Warhol in what we’ve seen, but a lot of people don’t. They don’t know about the kid from Pittsburgh that was too shy to talk to anybody. They don’t know about the graphic designer/illustrator that had massive success in New York before he ever had a painting sell. They don’t know about the abject failure that he faced for years and years and years and no one would take him seriously as an artist.

Q: Thanksgiving’s on Thursday. Do you have big plans?

Leto: A little hangout with mom and try to convince her to make some good wholesome grub.

Q: What’s your go-to Thanksgiving side dish?

Leto: Ooh, sweet potatoes. And I love me some stuffing and gravy. Oh, and cranberry sauce.

Q: So your answer is “all of them,” pretty much.

Leto: It is one of my favorite meals.