Don't judge a book by its Adonis-handsome cover. Or at least not in Jared Leto's case.
As an actor, he may have started out as the heavy-lidded, pretty-boy lunkhead Jordan Catalano, whom Claire Danes vainly pursued for most of the mid-'90s TV series My So-Called Life. But as a mascara-ed musician, Leto — who, since '98, has been pursuing a parallel career with his prog-metal outfit 30 Seconds to Mars — is whip-smart.
"This is not a game," Leto snarls on the group's latest gut-pummeling salvo, This Is War. From "Hurricane" to "Vox Populi" and the recent single "Kings and Queens," the lyrics convey a starkly misanthropic sentiment.
Leto says the album centers around the American Dream, "the idea that if you've got this, that and the other, you're gonna be OK. Obviously, we've found that to be pretty untrue."
"I think it's become a survivalist mentality out there right now, and everyone's in a very defensive posture," says Leto. "And I guess the big issue with that is, when you're in a defensive posture, it's really hard to be in a positive, creative or productive place. Because when you batten down the hatches, it's hard to see the view out there."
The singer/guitarist — whose post-TV credits include such dark fare as Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream and a bulked-up portrayal of Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27 — formed 30 Seconds to Mars with his brother Shannon on drums. Leto instantly confronted the requisite "vanity project" accusations that dog almost every well-meaning actor-turned-singer. (Dennis Quaid, anyone? Bruce Willis or Keanu Reeves?)
But by the sophomore '05 set A Beautiful Lie, the group had earned platinum-selling respectability. Which meant nothing when, three years later, they were slapped with a jaw-dropping breach-of-contract lawsuit from their label, Virgin, for the sum of $30 million. American Dream: deferred.
Leto still shivers recalling the day he got served. "There's a moment where it's so big, it's just surreal," he says. "And then there's that next moment where you realize it's incredibly real. And it wasn't for show — this wasn't about teaching us a lesson. And it went on for a year and a half, and there were days where it completely consumed me and it was very brutal. But it helped me as a songwriter, for sure, and it made us all better, stronger. It was about survival, and it was, indeed, a war for us."
In retrospect, Leto is amazed that he and his imprint arrived at equitable terms; 30 Seconds to Mars even wound up back on parent label EMI. But they had an unusual ally in their quest — legendary Gone With the Wind actress Olivia de Havilland, who had launched a legal precedent known as the De Havilland Law, which frees dissatisfied artists from their contracts after seven years. Leto even received encouraging letters and phone calls from the Paris-based star. "Without her, we would not have had that chance."
Leto says he has no regrets, having turned the whole experience into his most seething material to date.
"So this is a defining part of who we are," he says. "We went to war and waged that age-old fight between art and commerce, musician and label, and fought for what we believed in. But there's a time for war, and a time for peace.
"We're just glad to be putting the record out, rather than sitting in some courtroom, fighting about who owns it."