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Going the distance

By Daily Bruin Staff

Jan. 22, 1997 9:00 p.m.

Thursday, January 23, 1997

By Emily Forster

Daily Bruin Senior Staff

Most actors are terrified at the thought of getting type-cast.
Particularly for the adventurous performer, getting only one type
of role can be an irreversible obstacle toward success in
Hollywood. But actor Jared Leto is not afraid.

Despite the fact that the 25-year-old actor is best known as the
angsty object of Claire Dane’s affections in television’s
prematurely cancelled "My So Called Life," Leto is confident that
his fate is not sealed. In fact, he feels that his role as the
slouching Jordan Catalano, the rebel with a distant look forever
glazing over his electric blue eyes, was small and forgettable.

"I didn’t do much on that show," Leto insists. "I was in 17 out
of the 19 episodes. I don’t feel like I was ever in it enough to be
stuck in it. I’d already broken out of that."

To prove just how independent he is of his character on the
show, Leto cites the projects he has completed since "My So Called
Life," which include a small part in the drama "How to Make an
American Quilt," the upcoming action thriller "Going West in
America," the coming-of-age story "Last of the High Kings" and this
week’s true-life drama "Prefontaine."

Starring in the factual-based drama as long-distance runner
Steve Prefontaine, Leto has a chance to prove that he is more than
a pretty boy from a televised teen drama. His determination to
become physically and emotionally like Prefontaine will show his
fans and critics alike that he is a serious actor.

"Steve (James, director) and I would be sitting around saying,
‘Well it didn’t really happen like that,’ about the strangest
things which, you know, no one would really care," says Leto. "But
you get a little obsessive at times. From the beginning we really
set high standards for ourselves. We had the family involved and
they really opened their hearts to me and to the filmmakers. I shot
to make the family proud. That was my goal and I figured if I did
that, everybody else would be just fine."

James, who will make his dramatic directorial debut with
"Prefontaine," was impressed by the lengths Leto went to to capture
the essence of Prefontaine. The Oscar winning director who made a
splash with his ground-breaking documentary "Hoop Dreams,"
discovered that Leto was willing to truly work for his role.

"Jared was very interesting in the way that he totally devoted
himself," recalls James. "He trained rigorously, turned himself
into a very talented runner. Jared Leto wasn’t a runner before this
movie and we’ve had real bona fide collegiate talented runners who
couldn’t believe that he wasn’t."

Turning Leto from an actor into a runner involved intensive
training over the short period of time between the casting of the
role and the production of the film. An integral person in Leto’s
transformation was UCLA head women’s cross country coach and
assistant women’s track coach Eric Peterson.

"There’s no way that Jared Leto would turn into the caliber of
runner that Prefontaine was, but he can look that way," Peterson
says. "Naturally, that’s really the task ­ to help him with
his technique and help him with running form, so that when he does
those active shots in the picture, it looks right."

Peterson and Leto began practicing in two hour sessions that
concentrated on posture, technique and a general running form
appropriate for someone that ran with the speed of Prefontaine.
Time was of the essence and the two needed to practice as much as
possible, but pushing their practice sessions longer was too risky
to Leto’s health.

"You can’t take somebody that isn’t real active on a regular
basis and say ‘OK you’re gonna come train for two hours a day,
every day,’" Peterson says. "Your body’s going to break down and
you’re gonna be injured. That was the thing, that was the balancing
act ­ give him as much work as possible without hurting him,
because then everyone’s in trouble."

Unfortunately, this theory was not explained to Leto in the
beginning. The actor, who had never previously suffered any
injuries of any kind, learned his lesson the hard way.

"I go hiking sometimes, but I wasn’t in great shape," Leto says.
"I don’t go to the gym. So the second day I went for a run on the
concrete for a half hour and I felt great. But my knees weren’t
used to it, so I tore my knee up and for two-and-a-half weeks I
couldn’t even run. We only had a month-and-a-half at that time to
get ready. That knocked a big two-and-a-half weeks off when I was
limping."

In spite of his injury, Leto not only worked to learn how to
look like an athlete, but how to look like a competitor. By going
to last spring’s NCAA championships, Leto got to see how track
stars perform. According to Peterson, the track meet truly affected
Jared’s running.

"Those are the best collegiate runners in the nation and he was
able to really watch people run," Peterson says. "Instead of me
telling him and him trying to do, he got to see really high level
runners, both sprinters and distance runners, he got to kind of get
into the mind set of what it’s like to be that kind of athlete.
That was really helpful because we came back from that and had
maybe one or two more sessions, and he looked like a million
bucks."

"It was a great experience because I got to get the kind of
experience that the runners go through," agrees Leto, who is
pleased not only with the running in the film, but the film itself.
"It was a really emotional experience, really personal and
touching. There were a lot of tears, but it was great because we
were doing something right. If it was striking a chord like that,
we were doing something right. So that was nice, but it was sad at
the same time. And it was nice to have the family involved. I felt
really happy about that."

Leto seems satisfied with most of the work he recently
completed. When he discusses "Last of the High Kings," for example,
it is clear that he is proud of the film.

"It opened in Ireland and London and was received nicely," Leto
says. "It’s the story of a dysfunctional, crazy, eclectic Irish
family, especially about this young Irish kid and about becoming a
man. It’s a really Irish film; it has Irish sensibilities. I saw it
actually a month or two ago and I was pleasantly surprised by it.
And it was a lot of fun to do it, to go over there and speak
Irish."

Leto slides into a thick Irish brogue as he says, "I was
speaking Irish the whole time, and they’d come up to you and be
like ‘No you’re wrong on that word.’"

It seems like the Irish were tough on Leto, but actor Gabriel
Byrne tells a different story. The writer and costar of "Last of
the High Kings," Byrne describes Leto’s role as "a young Dublin guy
trying to lose his virginity in Dublin in 1977," a role which
required a good understanding of Irish culture in the late ’70s,
and more importantly, a believable accent. But Byrne recalls that
Leto was a harsher critic than any of the Irish people he ran
into.

"He takes acting very, very seriously," says Byrne. "I hadn’t
seen that show ("My So Called Life") before, but I did some work
with him in L.A. and I thought ‘He’s right for the part.’ He has a
lovely quality of stillness, which I think is very important for an
actor. And he has those mesmeric blue eyes. Everywhere we went he
was followed by hoard of young girls."

Considering his popularity in the United States, his following
abroad is no surprise. What is a surprise is that few discuss any
more than acting when they are asked about Leto. His costar in
"Prefontaine," for example, R.Lee Ermey, mostly discussed Leto’s
acting expertise when explaining his respect for the younger
actor.

"I was able to draw from Jared," says Ermey. "Jared’s got a
power. If you look into those eyes, boy, they’re deep. If you’re
doing a scene with Jared, you can pull the strength, you can pull
from Jared. I look to see Jared in some great starring roles coming
up. Jared’s a great actor. He’s fun to work with. He’s a warm
person."

The testimony to Leto is nice, but not very descriptive. No one
seems to know who he really is, and Leto seems to want it this
way.

"I wouldn’t be (at the interview) if I didn’t have to be," Leto
admits. "It’s not my thing. I’m not interested in it and I never
was. People seem to not want to believe this, but the thing that’s
exciting for me is the creative process and exploring different
sides of myself. I just became a runner. I was in the best shape
I’ve ever been in my life. I learned about this guy and had this
great emotional experience with his family and this director and
made new friends. I love the whole experience. For me, the other
part, I really don’t think about too much. I live a really private
life and that’s attractive to me. I think as I get more successful,
the more private it will be."

Although Leto is close-mouthed about his private life and most
of his contemporaries seem to barely know him, it appears that
"Prefontaine" director James has the inside scoop. When describing
Leto and comparing his personality to Prefontaine’s, the director
lets a little of the truth about Leto seep through.

"Jared’s background is not dissimilar from Pre’s, in terms of
coming from a little tougher beginnings," James says. "He’s had to
kind of stand up for himself and be tough at times to get what he
wants. I’m not talking about acting now. I’m talking about just
getting through high school and living."

It is not exactly clear what events James is alluding to in
Leto’s life. Possibly he is discussing the fact that Leto is a high
school drop out. Perhaps he is describing Leto’s single working
mother. Or maybe James is talking about Leto’s father’s death. But
regardless of which adversity James is discussing, it is clear that
he, like the rest of the people Leto works with, respect Leto’s
determination and hard work. It is also clear that they all like
him.

"I think Jared really identifies with Steve Prefontaine," James
says. "When you hang out with Jared, you get a window into probably
the way it was with Pre. He can be tough and intense but funny at
times, and he wins you over with that ultimately."

Starring in the upcoming ‘Prefontaine,’ based on the true story
of long distance runner Steve Prefontaine, actor Jared Leto
discusses the lengths he went to in order to capture the
personality and running skill of his character.Hollywood
Pictures

(l. to r.) Jared Leto plays Steve Prefontaine, Ed O’Neill is
Prefontaine’s assistant coach Bill Dellinger and R. Lee Ermey stars
as Coach Bill Bowerman.

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