The Cult Of Jared

There is something about a man who carries around a prosthetic of his own head at a gala while dripping in Gucci. It’s not just me, is it?

If I were able to go back to the morning that I learned Jared Leto had won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and tell my 2014-self, “You know, he starts a cult one day,” I’m sure Ross Jnr. would’ve nodded in prophetic agreement. It just makes sense, right? To anyone who has even remotely followed his career, it is a viscerally unsurprising course for him to chart. 

Something also none-too-surprising was when he revealed in January that he hadn’t seen his Oscar for three years and finally considers it lost. “I had moved houses in LA and then when we moved, it somehow just magically kind of disappeared . . . I don’t think anyone wanted to tell me.” I say it’s blasé because, even to casual observers, the man is so wildly out-there that a lack of care for the Oscar’s fate feels not only fitting but almost, if we dare coin it, Letoesque.

o explain what I mean by Letoesque, we must look at his formative years. As a child of divorce, whose father committed suicide when he was eight and whose first instrument was a broken-down piano, Leto learned to jut his chin at disaster. His mother encouraged him to find strength in the arts, with which he developed an interest in filmmaking and eventually acting. To compare his first interview in 1990 to more recent publicity, his appearance and mannerisms are of an almost altogether different man. His blue eyes now are ethereally piercing, his face more gaunt, his hair so long that it fondles his shoulder like a starfish’s feet. He appears almost rangy, when such a description of him in the 90s would have at the very least furrowed a brow. What is most striking though is the change in his voice. He sounds close to an old man, or someone who has smoked so much that their voice has not only been gravelled but punctured as soon as the layer set. I admit a fascination with it.

Small parts in big films eventually landed him a lead role in Aronofsky’s much-adored cult hit, Requiem for a Dream, and after a further 13 years’ patience in the pursuit of his craft, Leto landed a key supporting role in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, in which he played an HIV-positive transgender woman living (and struggling) in Texas in the ‘80s. He would go on to win Best Supporting Actor that year, but not without controversy. Some questioned why a straight, male actor had been chosen for the role, and with what feels in 2021 at the very least a failure of etiquette, he did not thank or even acknowledge the transgender community at the podium.

Three years later, the freshly minted Leto would secure a role he had longed for, a role coveted for over fifty years: The Joker. One would think that securing the part as a talented actor and praise for the performance would be enough for it be considered a success, but despite Leto’s efforts and the generally positive reception of his portrayal, the film in which he debuted the role, Suicide Squad, was not only a critical and commercial failure, but it had so much difficulty being edited into a comprehensible narrative that much of Leto’s performance ended up on the cutting room floor. Joaquin Phoenix, of course, would nab the Oscar not long after, in a titular role no less.

Despite his rogues’ gallery of outcasts and tricksters, we have come to think of Leto as your typical, A-list movie star when in fact, he is more than that – a rock star, former owner of a pink mohawk sans an exotic animal license, otherwise known as the singer for Thirty Seconds To Mars. It is easy to overlook how successful the band has been over the years, and specifically how influential Leto has been in that success. In 2008, 2010 and 2011, they won Best International Band at the Kerrang! Awards, and the single ‘Kings and Queens’ received four nominations at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, winning Best Rock Video. Even more impressively, despite Hollywood, the band was no less prolific with Leto as frontman, achieving a place in the Guinness World Records for most live shows during a single album cycle – over 300 shows with the release of This is War.

No one will ever be able to deny Leto commands stage and screen. There is perhaps no one on earth better qualified to fill both pairs of shoes except Donald Glover. Ironically, (and the internet being the internet, it has long picked up on this) there is a scene from one of Leto’s early films, Fight Club, in which he plays a supporting role to lead actors Ed Norton and Brad Pitt, a character known only as Angel Face. The scene isn’t notable for any line of Leto’s, but a short monologue from Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden, where Angel Face is a background fixture. In the scene, Durden is preaching to his Fight Club faithful that: “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact, and we’re very, very pissed off.”

Yes, it’s iconic, but what makes it so appetising for us in the here and now is that, uttering the line, Pitt turns from the camera to face a particular person — none other than future movie-god/rock star/multi-millionaire Jared Leto. To paraphrase a quip from The Matrix: life, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

All palpable coincidence aside, it’s only natural that being a media spinning savant goes to your head. Particularly if you’re a wildcard who, prepping for The Joker, sent the cast a dead pig at the first table read, insisted on being called ‘Mistah J.’ and proceeded to terrorise castmates with anal beads, live rats and used condoms. In 2019, the fame really did go to Leto’s head when he and fellow Thirty Seconds to Mars bandmates started a cult. Their most devoted fans were invited to a retreat in Croatia where, Jesus-heavy in white robes, Leto guided his followers for a three-day music festival complete with yoga and movie screenings. This sounds innocuous enough until you realise that Leto looks like a traditional depiction of Christ but with designer sunglasses, and that all followers at the Mars Island retreat are encouraged to don white. Oh, and we should mention also that allegedly, they call him “prophet”. The band actually tweeted photos of Leto leading hundreds of followers with a caption, “Yes, this is a cult #MarsIsland”. It is a phrase they have used in promo and merchandise in the past to exemplify the rabid devotion the band has earned despite largely fading from view, particularly since the breakout success of their second album, A Beautiful Lie.

Needless to say, most media outlets touted words like “Jonestown” and “messiah”, while fans on social media repeatedly attempted to downplay and placate any vitriol aimed Leto’s way. Taking the self-proclaimed cult for what it actually appears, it is at best a festival that Leto and co. enjoy as a joke, and at worst, a cash grab – an attempt to leverage the carefully nurtured devotion of their fans to turn this Rajneeshee-like façade into an elaborate money spinner. At the time of writing, Mars Island 2022 is set to take place in August, likely to give the ongoing pandemic time to die down a little more and allow live music to find its footing again after what feels like sheer eternity. Packages range from $1,700 USD for the most basic package to a staggering $7,200 for the VIP treatment. So, with all you know of cults in mind, ask yourself now, does it really have all the trimmings and trappings of a bona fide cult, or is it maybe, just maybe, about the money? I know which way I’m leaning.

By Ross Heard
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