‘Dallas Buyers Club’s’ Jared Leto finds success in alternative cinema and rock

Jared Leto is a low-key revelation.

Not only has the 41-year-old actor aged little since he played enigmatic high school heartthrob Jordan Catalano 19 years ago on the TV drama “My So-Called Life,” but he’s succeeded in alternative rock and alternative cinema.

Actors who front bands as side projects often are 30-odd-foot of awkwardly unhip, and rockers who act often get too much credit just for not being as bad as Madonna.

But Leto has been consistently good on screen since “So-Called Life.” And 30 Seconds to Mars, the anthemic, angsty band he fronts, is a long-running success story. The 15-year-old band, in which Leto’s brother Shannon plays drums, enjoyed and then rode out the early aughts emo wave with its eyeliner and fan base intact. The band still draws well enough to play venues like UC Davis’ Freeborn Hall and San Jose State’s Events Center.

“I just feel very fortunate to be able to create, whether it’s acting or playing music or directing or editing (video),” said Leto, who has directed making-of documentaries tied to his band’s projects.

Leto called from San Francisco, where he stopped for a two-part Bay Area trip last month. Leto spent the day promoting his new film “Dallas Buyers Club” and the evening entertaining 30 Seconds to Mars fans with his slightly gritty voice and highly emotive phrasing.

Leto is soft-spoken on the phone when he’s not absent from it, leaving the earpiece for a bout of coughing.

“Sorry, I have a bad cold,” Leto said.

But both of his pursuits – the band and “Buyers Club” – are too important to be sidelined by sickness.

Leto’s moving performance as a transgender character named Rayon in “Dallas Buyers Club,” which opens today, has inspired ample awards buzz.

Rayon’s feminine makeup highlights Leto’s fine features and large eyes, and the character’s no-guff approach to life benefits from the calm strength Leto exudes in the role.

Rayon wears the heels and dresses in “Buyers Club,” but Leto is the grounding force for Matthew McConaughey’s showier work. McConaughey plays Ron Woodward, a hard-partying, real-life Dallas electrician who in the 1980s learned he had AIDS and fought for better access to experimental drugs for himself and other AIDS patients.

Leto’s character is a composite, but that does not make Rayon, who assists Ron in his black-market business selling unapproved drugs to HIV and AIDS patients, any less authentic-seeming.

Rayon and Ron – who is straight, and at movie’s start also belligerently bigoted and homophobic – form a fascinating bond, based mostly on business but with an affection thrown in that’s believably slow to develop.

McConaughey and Leto both lost significant amounts of weight to play characters with AIDS and drug habits. To research his role, Leto met with real transgender people. Mostly, he said, he listened to their stories, drawing from aspects of their experiences in his performance.

“You don’t know” what will provide inspiration, Leto said. “It’s an experiment, all of it, just like doing an interview.

“Sometimes it might be a (transgender person’s) story about overcoming challenges, or about an interaction with a family member, or a conversation about how you maybe learn the physical attributes to become more feminine.”

Leto stayed in character during the shoot. It was also part of the experiment, Leto said.

“When you are in character, every interaction you have throughout the day (can be used) in front of the cameras,” Leto said. And he would have run the risk of forgetting character traits and behavior if he turned back to himself every time the camera stopped during the shoot.

His “Buyers Club” role is Leto’s most visible since the Method actor gained 60 pounds to play John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, in 2007’s “Chapter 27.” Though Leto won acclaim for his immersive performance, the film was little seen.

Film and music carry equal importance for him, Leto said, but he has focused “the past four or five years” on 30 Seconds.

Did he do that because rock ’n’ roll is a young man’s game and the stardom attached to it famously fleeting?

Actually no, Leto said.

“Rock ’n’ roll is usually a short-lived affair,” Leto said. “But that hasn’t been the case for this band.”