TORONTO -- Actor Jared Leto lost 30 pounds and then quit counting, continuing to waste and wither away to about 114 pounds -- and he is not a small man.
"The great thing about weight loss is you can't run away from it. It changes the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you laugh, the way you breathe, the way people treat you," he told reporters as he made the rounds of hotel rooms during the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
With hair past his shoulders, a beard, a mustache and dark trousers paired with a blue shirt matching the clear color of his eyes, he looks like the healthy twin brother of his character, transsexual Rayon, in "Dallas Buyers Club." Like Matthew McConaughey's character of Ron Woodroof, Rayon has AIDS in the 1980s at a time when drugs are nonexistent, prescribed in toxic doses or illegal.
"I think a lot of times, this role, if it's been on screen, it's often been a cliche or a stereotype, a drag queen dancing on the table with all the quick one-liners, over the top. Someone you never really get to know and you laugh with, or laugh at."
He wanted to put a real person on the screen, and the voice, lipstick and shoes helped to boost him there. "Heels will change the way you walk immediately. I remember one thing that I did every single morning, the first thing that I did was put the heels on, even if it was 5 in the morning. Put the heels on."
Toward the end of the shoot, Mr. Leto "was a little bit weave-y" between takes, Jennifer Garner, who plays a physician, later said. "He'd be in these high heels going down the steps of the trailer and I would say, 'Does somebody have him? Stand in front of him, make sure he's OK.' "
Mr. Leto, the early favorite to win the supporting actor Oscar, hadn't made a movie in five years. He is an art school dropout and son of a "hippie mom" who made girls swoon as Jordan Catalano on TV's "My So-Called Life" back in 1994-95.
He later tackled big-screen roles such as an intruder in "Panic Room" with Jodie Foster and a young Kristen Stewart, a heroin addict opposite Ellen Burstyn in the harrowing "Requiem for a Dream," and pudgy killer Mark David Chapman in "Chapter 27."
In "Dallas Buyers Club," Rayon lends humanity to the electrician and sometime rodeo cowboy Woodroof. "They both need each other in a way. They become family, and I think they learn from one another. It's incredible what a small group of people can do, how you can inspire each other, and that certainly happened."
In recent years, Mr. Leto has been concentrating on his alternative rock band, Thirty Seconds to Mars. "This summer, we did the biggest tour of our lives. We were playing some of the shows in front of 100,000 people, we've won 15 to 20 MTV Awards, we've sold millions of albums and had more success than we ever dreamed."
He could appreciate Mr. McConaughey's decision to just say no to the mainstream mix. "What I think he's doing is fantastic, as far as taking control and saying, you know what? I'm going to walk down a different path. That takes some guts."
Earlier that morning, the leading man -- also recovered from an alarming weight loss that left his cheeks sunken and his belt tightly looped -- had revealed, "There were some action films and some romantic comedies that I thought were good and came with beautiful paychecks that I just was able to say no, not for me right now."
After hunkering down and going cold for a while, atypical roles and directors eventually found him. That is how Mr. McConaughey ended up in projects such as "Mud," "Magic Mike," "The Paperboy" and "Killer Joe."
"Saying no in the business of Hollywood making movies is an incredibly powerful thing to do, and it wasn't actually what I was saying yes to, it was what I was saying no to," said Mr. McConaughey, clad this day in casual gray pants and a graphic T-shirt from his "just keep livin' Foundation." It's dedicated to empowering high school students to lead active lives and make healthy choices to become great men and women.
A changing moment for the Texas-born actor, 44, was obtaining Woodroof's diary from his family. "What that did, that gave me Ron's monologue, and for me, if I get the monologue, I can have the dialogue, so to speak."
It provided insight into the heterosexual shocked to learn he had the AIDS virus. It was a new frontier, and even the doctors didn't know what to do.
"He was learning as well, he was sort of a pioneer. Here's a guy with a seventh-grade education, the guy you meet at the beginning. He hadn't really found his way or a purpose in life. He was going to get away with what he can. Really, the guy got a purpose when he got HIV and the purpose was, what can I do to stay alive."
But it was important to Mr. McConaughey and director Jean-Marc Vallee that the movie, inspired by a true story, didn't take a final false turn.
"We've got this hell-raisin' bigot at the beginning. You go, well, it's a real opportunity at the turn of Act 3 to have him have this coming-to-God moment. 'Oh woe be my ways of the past. Who was I, now please forgive me, let me go forward.' "
That was exactly what both didn't want to happen and proved a good litmus test to see if they were on the same page.
The director would periodically ask, "Do you think we've gone too far? Is he going to be empathetic?" and Mr. McConaughey would respond, "My job is not to worry if he's empathetic. My job is not to worry if he's sympathetic.
"I just kept saying, if we keep him human, the humanity will come out. If we keep him a businessman, if we keep him a selfish son of a bitch, the crusader will reveal itself. ... He's not the guy that's gonna grab the white flag and go, 'Oh, guys, I'm leading the charge.' "
And yet Woodroof is a man motivated by rage, against the FDA and what drugs or supplements it will approve or allow into the country, against the fact he has AIDS and is initially given just 30 days to live. He died six years after that diagnosis.
The time clock was ticking for the $4.7 million production, too, which wrapped in 27 days. Mr. McConaughey calls it "heavy-duty independent guerrilla filmmaking" and says they could have made a version that "feels like it's good medicine and you should see it and it's an important film. But we made one that I feel is entertaining.
"And that, in that amount of time, is something that we did that I'm real proud of."