I was not supposed to meet Jared Leto.
I wasn’t supposed to be in that picture. I wasn’t supposed to be charmed by him or his band, who I’d never listened to before this. I definitely hadn’t intended on spending a day with the three of them in downtown New York, followed by paparazzi, rabid teenage fans, and a procession of managers, publicists, and stylists, for a feature to go in our November issue. And I definitely didn’t set out to think — or write — any of the following things about Jared Leto, the actor, the rock star, the heartthrob, the celebrity. In my life, Jared Leto had existed in exactly the context I needed him to, and for whatever it’s worth, I think it’s safe to assume (or will be after this), vice versa. I was fine with it, and it didn’t need to change.
But it did.
And it started, like so many stories, with a problem. And the problem was that my editors fucked me out of a day-trip to Philly.
It’s a feat to work at a magazine right now, period. But to work for one that’s not owned by a massive corporation, that’s surviving, and whose overlords have faith in our editorial team to give us as much creative freedom as we have is, to be modest, nothing short of awesome. We get paid on time, too. And I don’t take it for granted, or at least I try not to. It’s not like I deserve or necessarily need to go to Philly — or anywhere — on BlackBook’s dime. And I still knew how lucky I was when, in a pitch meeting for our November issue, we decided on a few stories, among them, one of the ones I’d tossed out there: an itinerary for a hip-hop band from Philadelphia. Let’s call them The Routes. They’re pretty great, and I was pretty excited about pitching them and having it received so well.
BlackBook’s "itinerary" feature is a simple back-of-book item for the magazine. Get a subject, get a city, have shiny people show us their favorite places. Get pictures, quotes, an intro, edit, four passes, done. Hung‘s Paul Iacono did one in September, while rapper Rye Rye’s Baltimore itinerary in August, and Patrick Wolf’s London was June-July. They’re easy, eye-catching, practically write themselves. You can even get on the phone with the subject and make it obnoxiously easy, but you typically get better stuff when you do it live, and by that, I mean you get to leave the office. For readers, writers, and whoever’s rising fame is being capitalized on, you can’t get much further into the brainless-pleasurable territory of the Celebrity Feature Matrix than that, and you don’t need to worry about there being a scene. Hell, even for Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley, they sat around and ate burgers at Shack Shack. I didn’t even know LonelyBoy was there until I went for lunch and bumped into the piece’s writer, assistant editor Cayte Grieve. It was a low-profile affair. Again: easy.
Walking out of that edit meeting, it was already planned out in my head. I’d take the bus to Philly, hang out with this incredible, legendary hip-hop band for the day in a city I know nothing about, talk to these guys whose work I’ve admired for years, to people who have a proven record in regards to saying interesting things about the one thing they do in life — make music that hasn’t always been incredibly popular, but that’s always been very, very well regarded — take the bus back, and there: I’ve got an awesome feature and a daytrip to Philly. Ridiculous. Awesome.
So imagine my surprise when, walking back to the office that night to pick up stuff I’d left behind for post-work drinks around the corner, I ran into assistant editor Ben Barna, and we starting talking work. I told him how psyched I was for Philly. He laughed. What? "Oh, yeah, I don’t think you’re gonna be doing that anymore. They didn’t tell you?" Huh? Whatthefuckdoyoumean, "tell me"? Who are "they"? "We booked Jared Leto." Jared … Leto? "Crazy, right? Night!" Ben padded off into the night towards Union Square, and I stood on the corner of 19th and Broadway laughing. Because he had to be kidding, right? My disbelief was this: (a) I don’t know any media people without some sense of mischief, and Ben’s no exception, so, naturally, this was a joke, because (b) Jared Leto, that Jared Leto? My So-Called Life teen heartthrob Jordan Catalno, Jared Leto? Sure: Requiem for a Dream, Fight Club, Girl, Interrupted, American Psycho. And he’s got a band who I think are pretty famous, and he’s a celebrity as far as I understood. He’s in tabloids, right? But is he still acting? Which movies? He did play Mark David Chapman in that movie with Lindsay Lohan, and it got shit reviews (never saw it). Also, the last Jared Leto tabloid item I remember is him maybe dating Lindsay Lohan and that time he tried to kick Elijah Wood’s ass at some obscure MTV awards show. Who wants to jump Elijah Wood? Gollum? And doesn’t his band wear guyliner? Guyliner! No offense to Leto’s band, but does anybody at BlackBook listen to them? Just because the guy’s famous doesn’t mean he’s not "off-brand." Finally, (c) we just got out of that fucking meeting four hours ago! FOUR! No. No way. They’ve gotta be joking.
There’s a line in cheerleading’s epic moment of cinema, Bring It On, when one of the antagonists brilliantly opines, "This is not a democracy, this is a cheerocracy." Well, this is an editocracy, and it had functionally subverted me. I actually had to hide smiling at how utterly impressed I was with the cutting efficiency of the process when, in the great tradition of editorial bullpens, I threw a passive, underhanded tantrum, generally directed towards features editor Willa Paskin and senior editor Nick Haramis the next morning. Reenactment:
Me: So, wait, you guys just decided this when? Willa: When we booked him. Me: Which was? Willa: Last night. Me: [Laughing] Nice! Jared Leto! Jordan Catalano, Jared Leto? Ha. Well, does he have a movie coming out? Nick: Kinda. It was at a film festival … Mr. Nobody? Me: [Laughing harder] No, wait, so, what, this is for Jared Leto’s band? They have a record coming out? Nick: Yeah, they’re really popular. Me: Oh yeah? You like ‘em? [Beat] Me: Wait, you guys aren’t joking about this? Well, you know, uh, The Routes … Jared Leto’s band … The Routes … [Makes "scales" with hands] Willa: It’s done, Foster. You came up with that idea five minutes before the meeting! Like you were that attached to it. Whatever. Me: [Pause] And? [Indignant] I was! [Pissed.] This is bullshit! Willa: Next time, buddy! Me: This is bullshit.
Two days went by, and while I’d call it "keeping an open dialogue," my editors would probably say I "bitched about it relentlessly." Which wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate. On the third day, I feel BlackBook content czar Chris Mohney (my boss) and Nick Haramis standing behind me. "So!" Nick smiles. "Jared Leto!" Yeah, what about him?, I grumble. Something was up. Especially because Mohney was grinning, too. The kind of grin from your boss that implies forthcoming editorial sadism. "You’ve got so much to say about him," Mohney laughs. "So how ’bout you take the itinerary? It’ll be great." There are two things I can do in this situation: one involves sticking to my "guns" and a meaningless opinion, keeping my "dignity" by passing on the assignment. The other involves a byline or two, a day out of the office, and a chance for me to show Mohney, Nick, and Willa that I can talk shit, call their bluff, keep my cool, and hit a line drive or two with this thing. Not only that, but I’ll still think it’s bullshit when we’re through. Jared Leto’s Jared Leto. I’m a pro. This is a cake-walk. A total win-win situation for me.
Hell yeah, I’ll take it. This is gonna be awesome. Right. Famous last words, before your "cool" is lost, and your cutting-edge profiling of line-drives become pop-fly after pop-fly. The next Wednesday, at around 11am, 30 Seconds to Mars, and their infamous singer, Jared Leto, had arrived.
Red Leto Day
A publicist, a hair/makeup person, a manager, a photographer, and an assistant or two all show up around the same time. The atmosphere goes from regular day at the office to The Band Is on the Way! in about five seconds. Lots of hustling back and forth between the conference room and the fashion closet takes place, until the elevator rings, and three leather-jacketed guys walk in with another manager/publicist. Besides the jackets, the fact that they’re in a loud rock band for a living is inescapable. They walk around, I’m pretty sure, completely aware of how they appear to others, and they’re the most relaxed people in the room. I saw them come in from the back of the office and decided I’d wait to say hi until everyone was seated. In that time, two assistant editors and a CEO’s assistant come up to my desk to tell me some variation on how attractive Jared Leto is, like I needed to go see for myself, or something. Fine, okay: Time to say hi. I thought I felt Nick and Willa — who’d since become weary with caution about me doing this, warning me several times not to "provoke" Leto — staring at me; then again, Leto was also in my general direction. And he smiled at pretty much everyone.
I walk in the conference room and they’re getting their makeup and hair done. Everyone introduces themselves. I remember the publicist’s name who I worked with on setting this up. I remember Tomo, who’s the guitarist, who stood up to say hi. Shannon Leto, Jared’s brother and the band’s founding member, stayed seated and waved across the room. Jared Leto reached out over the table to shake my hand. He looks at people very intently, in the eyes, almost so intently to the point where you think he might be conscious of the impression this look will make on you. He wasn’t wearing the eyeliner. The "rock" posturing didn’t seem like it was there. He was a nice guy, sitting in a room, about to go out and do a job. And yeah, he’s a good-looking guy, easily, at most times, the best-looking guy in nine out of ten rooms he’ll find himself in daily. His eyes have, for lack of a better word, a twinkle, and he could be described as, for lack of a better word — and I can’t … jesus — as "dreamy." That was it. For 37, he doesn’t look a day past 25, and as someone about to turn 25 later that week, it was utterly terrifying. Which is maybe why I find myself standing behind our fashion market editor, Bryan Levandowski, who’s rattling off some of the clothing they’ll be wearing. I sheepishly excused myself while Bryan worked the room, and decided to freshen up on some of their stuff before we got started on this.
Here are some things about 30 Seconds to Mars, Jared Leto’s band, that you might not know:
● They sell lots of albums. Their first album had two singles on it, both charted fairly well. One peaked at #32 on the Modern Rock singles chart. Their second album was certified platinum in 2006. Did you sell a million albums by 2006? ● They’re big all over the world. 30 Seconds to Mars sold out two fairly large gigs in South Africa. ● They’ve won lots of awards. Really: a bunch. Again, keep in mind that Leto is 37. Shannon’s 39, and Tomo’s 30. Most of the people capturing some kind of zeitgeist are at least five years younger than the mean age of all three of them. ● They did a song with Kanye West and The Killers’ Brandon Flowers, and it’s supposedly coming out soon. Kanye called it "dope-ass." Seriously. And finally, and maybe most importantly: ● Leto refuses to promote the band with his status as an actor. Or as it’s written on Wikipedia: "Even though Jared Leto is a Hollywood actor, he prefers not to use this information to "sell" the band; in fact, he refuses to play at venues if they have used his name to promote the band." This is the thing I find most interesting about 30 Seconds to Mars (of course). Because really, what do you do in that situation? How do you properly assess the cachet your lead singer does or doesn’t have that could help the band make (or not make) money? I wonder how many fights they’ve had about this.
I wasn’t supposed to ask, though. It had been suggested to me, though not explicitly, that I should be careful about discussing certain things. The piece had been set up as a 30 Seconds to Mars feature, not a Jared Leto-only feature. Which is why I wonder how often this happens to them, when editors basically tell you that the story here is Jared Leto, and yeah, get some stuff from the other guys. But how many of their quotes made it in the magazine piece? None. On the other hand, it might be relieving on some level to Leto’s bandmates not to have to do all the extra press. Okay, so besides Elijah Wood, personal life stuff, don’t ask about what else? I’d made a joke to a publicist about my ultimate Jared Leto reference-point, My So-Called Life, the early 90s teen dramedy on which Leto got his start playing — of course — dreamy strong-but-silent illiterate high school rock god Jordan Catalano, opposite Claire Danes’ 15 year-old Angela Chase. It got a furrowed brow, as if I should know better. No. I’ll go there. I just gotta figure out how to work it in. I already knew that question.
There was one person I wasn’t going to talk about: Jimmy Kimmel. From a Page Six item:
Add Jimmy Kimmel to the list of people who really can’t stand eyeliner-loving Jared Leto. The late-night show host told Stuff magazine he’d rather not welcome Leto back as a guest. When asked if Kimmel ever had to hide his disdain for a guest, he chose the actor/rocker. "He was so insufferably satisfied with himself that I wanted to strangle him," said Kimmel.
Jimmy Kimmel wanted to strangle Leto? I didn’t get it. On one hand, his appearance on Kimmel’s show was nothing short of the usual celebulove that the show’s format puts him into. Yeah, he gave the audience members a few extra high-fives, and sure, Leto probably thought he was funnier than he was. So many late-night talk show guests are like that, though. On the other hand, there was Leto, being interviewed by Kimmel, in a performance with which he played with his band. Didn’t that negate the entire press line about not using his celebrity to promote 30 Seconds to Mars?
Besides the aim of the piece — get quotes about the different venues we were going to — it’s expected of You, The Reporter, to ask them about whatever press line they’re putting out which it’s your job to bite on. How they’re feeling these days, the sound of the new album, the story of the new album — in this case, the band was sued for $30 million by Virgin Records, and they recently settled — and what’s exciting for them these days besides the upcoming release of their new album. At this point, it’s probably pretty clear that I’m not a huge fan of their stuff, but it’s not bad: the catchy, loud, melodramatic middle-ground between post-punk and mallpop. Think of the more theatrical version of My Chemical Romance. Ripe for critical lambasting and mass consumption.
This was gonna be easy. Again: just be a pro. Go, get the quotes, get the job done. This won’t be hard. Nothing will go wrong.
We got downstairs and the cars were 15 minutes late. Jared Leto is not a smoker. Those among us who were — publicists, assistants, etc. — whispered furtively on our options here. By the time most of us decided, the cars had finally shown up. And we headed downtown.
Requiem for a Burrito
The list of stops on our tour of downtown New York read like a Beginner’s Guide to Downtown Institutions of the Early Aughts. There was something pop-punk about two of them — San Loco and Trash & Vaudeville — while the other three were the most LA of what New York has to offer: Nolita’s Cafe Habana, SoHo’s Balthazar, and Nolita French fashion haunt Cafe Gitane. Again, considering the band’s anti-Hollywood posturing, I couldn’t help but think about the strange juxtapositions.
Our trip to punk rock store Trash & Vaudeville went fine. Leto was amazed the old guy who owned the place was still there. Shannon Leto kind of just giggled at everything, and Tomo wandered around examining some of the things on the rack. T & V’s a relatively tiny store, and it felt claustrophobic with the Leto Photoshoot Posse inside, so I left to go have a smoke for a few minutes. I came back inside once people had scattered, and pictures were being taken. The three of them had fit into one dressing room booth; there was something relatively Hard Day’s Night about it. They didn’t have to be told to pose the way they did; it just happened. They moved into formation like Voltron, or something. Depending on what light you saw it in, the entire thing was either a wholly goofy enterprise predicated on one big joke about guys who’ve sold out arenas playing around with silly looking clothing in the East Village, or serious-as-cancer business which, when it was required of them, was a mode they easily defaulted into. Getting them to engage me outside of the three of them, however, was difficult. Not that I’d want to talk to me at 11am either, but they’ve got their jobs, and I’ve got mine. At some point, some work had to get done.
A sampling of the conversation:
[Fumbling of the recorder, Leto talking] Trash and Vaudeville was making things before, some of these things like, the skinny black jean before they were popular, after they were popular and when they became popular again.
Were you buying them before they were popular? My brother and I would but normal jeans and then my grandmother would hem them and taper them with her sewing machine. She would put them on us, pin them, and then cut them.
Is there any genetic guilt for paying $200 for these things? The great news is that, at this place, they’re sixty bucks.
So you shop here? What? Sure! Yeah. Look at these boots. Unreal.
Riveting stuff, right?. The problem with having a conversation while a photo shoot is going on is that a photo shoot’s going on. So for the first two stops, T & V, and San Loco, not much actually got spoken about. There was lots of shuffling. In between car rides, Leto spoke about how he used to live in New York, and how excited he was to take his brother and bandmate to these places. Not exactly the kind of conversation that fit anywhere in the itinerary. And when you have to ask someone over and over about the places that you’re moving to and from, as you’re doing it, it can get mildly awkward. But Leto was nice enough to oblige:
Why San Loco? San Loco I used to eat at, I’ve eaten there for years. It’s one of my favorite places to eat; it’s easy, cheap and good. San Loco is the only real taco place. There’s that one place that used to be in the East Village as well. You know, that burrito place.
Burritoville? Burritoville. That’s the other old one.
San Loco and Burritoville are great places to go when you’re stupid-drunk; the food there is otherwise shitty. But I kept my mouth shut. Forget that most New Yorkers think of San Loco and Burritoville with the same affection we hold for Taco Bell (if not less, because Taco Bell’s so awful, in certain lights, it has irredeemably "punk" value to it). It was still only around 11:30 at that point, and as much as I wanted to force conversation, it wasn’t happening the way I wanted it to. They talked about the lawsuit in a fairly downcast manner; it really depressed them, they’re glad it’s behind them. I didn’t ask why they owed Virgin $30 million, though looking back on it, that might’ve been an interesting topic to breach, especially if we had a contracts lawyer on hand, which we didn’t. But it basically turned into a nice ride around downtown New York with 30 Seconds to Mars. And honestly, there’re worse ways to spend a day you’re supposed to be in the office. Much of the conversation remained small talk. The problem was it made Jared visibly uncomfortable to discuss things about his upbringing in front of the band — Tomo, who hadn’t grown up with Jared, unlike his brother Shannon, sitting next to me, who had — because every question like it made it all the more evident that my presence there was, typically, about Jared Leto. When we got on the phone when this was all over, Leto was candid, easy to talk to, discussed things at length. But most of the time Leto’s time in the car was spent pensively gazing out the window. After a while, I kind of just gave up. I’d get what I needed over the phone.
Around that time, we pulled into Nolita, to drop in for the photos at Cafe Habana. This is when things started to get intense.
As soon as we showed up to Cafe Habana, two things became apparent. The first: we weren’t going to be able to shoot in the dining room as scheduled, because they were slammed for lunch, and it’d be a shitshow, moreso than the place typically is. The second: the band was getting restless. They started climbing and posing with the scaffolding across the street while we were waiting for the restaurant to clear a little bit. Leto bounced around the front of the restaurant and started to get recognized by some kids sitting on a bench, eating some sandwiches out front. He sat right next to them and the photographer started shooting. Somebody said something about lunch, which gave me something to do besides try to get more conversation out of the band. Perfect. So there I was, counting up orders of rice and beans and plantains and sandwiches while Jared Leto was pointing "the gun" at the window, towards us and the cameraman outside.
After about the fourth time I ran outside the takeout counter, something strange appeared: a guy, wearing an orange vest, straddling his a bicycle, fumbling with something in a bag. One of the band’s people noticed before I did, and nodded down the street. "Just one. Huh." The guy attached a lens that looked like it could see into J. Edgar Hoover’s soul and started snapping away. My first paparazzi sighting! Somehow, I’d lived in New York and never really seen this go down. I wondered if there was a drill or anything. Jared and Shannon just walked right out into the middle of the street, no big deal. I don’t even think they noticed the first one. But about three minutes later, when the second, third, and fourth ones showed up, they noticed. We pulled our crowd off the sidewalk, closer to the side of the building. There felt like some kind of pre-meditated rhyme and reason to the ways in which the group moved around that I wasn’t hip to. And I was still shuffling orders between the group and the counter, at which a photo assistant who will (regretfully) go unnamed kept trying to purchase "and three, no, four plantains, but one without salt, three but one without salt, the fourth one, so four orders of plantains" from the counter from the girl who, unlike every other attractive 20-something woman in a full mile radius, had no interest in leather jacket guys playing monkey bars with the scaffolding out front.
I grabbed my third cup of coffee after drinking the first two in succession, and sipped it out to the middle of the street, where I approached Leto. The four paparazzi, parked at the intersection down the block, were snapping away. He looked nonplussed, but decidedly nonplussed.
"So, uh. How do you, I don’t know, you’re used to this kind of thing, yeah?" It was as personal a question as I’d asked him all day.
"You know. Yeah. It’s been happening for a while." He didn’t mean for it to come off as knowing as it did. In retrospect, this could’ve been the most honest thing he said to me that entire day.
"And? You ever get tired of it? Do you like it?"
"Nah, you’re not tired of it, or nah … you like it?" I was looking for hard data on this. Leno wasn’t clamming up, but he was definitely getting colder. He’d gone from funny and warm to cool collection. If he enjoyed the attention, he didn’t show it. If he didn’t enjoy the attention, he would’ve shown it. Everyone on the sidewalk looked on at us. "I think it’s time to go."
We got the group together, and decided that no, we didn’t need a car to go around the corner to Cafe Gitane, which was literally around the corner: a right turn, and a right turn. We walked to the front of the Gitane, paparazzi now completely in tow, some of the guys still holding their to-go containers from Cafe Habana. And who was sitting at a table than the person I understood as the last person our group would (theoretically) want to run into: photographer Terry Richardson. Holy fuck.
Gitane’ing the System
Richardson was, at some point, in contention to do the shoot, as he and Leto are old buddies. Because I don’t want to know the specifics of this story, because I have to get this story done, here’s what I understand to have happened: Leto’s people told us to call Richardson and ask him to do the shoot with/for Leto. I’m absolutely sure this was in contention, because I remember the possibility of Richardson doing the story as the first time I was truly excited about it. Yes, I get more excited over Terry Richardson than world-famous film-rock stars. Leto never worked with Kermit.
Either way, the message was passed along that Richardson couldn’t do it, possibly because he’d be out of town. If this is the case, hysterical, a thousand times over, because Leto apparently ran into his old pal Terry at a Fashion Week show the night before, too. And just like in our photos, they look a-w-k-w-a-r-d together. So really, also, kind of sad. "Aw, what is this? You’re fucking up my lunch! And you brought food from somewhere else, too?" Richardson laughed at Leto. He didn’t move to greet him, but it seemed friendly. When we eventually got the guys seated, I just, like most of these shoots, did my best to stay out of the scene, and profusely apologized to Terry. I was actually enjoying myself for the moment. We started shooting the guys at the table, but since the Richardson strangeness, more paparazzi had gathered behind us, and now, we had a crowd of onlookers coming from two sides. And then, this happened. A particularly harsh set of sneezes, and you would’ve missed it, but Moby walks up to Leto, and the paparazzi go nuts. Richardson’s trying to decide whether or not to laugh or hide in his couscous. Tourists are now walking in the middle of the street to watch, the other people just eating at Gitane out front look mildly terrified (the French fashion crowd, who can sometimes turn into Gremlins if caught off-guard by the wayward ill-timed flashbulb).
I can’t explain what this was like. The chaos of it all put me somewhere between a strange, anarchic elation and a panic attack. I felt like some poor Barista was about to be read the riot act. The next ten minutes were a strange, slow, blur, like a burned foot of film: we picked up our gear and headed to the next location. We didn’t even say goodbye to Terry Richardson. And who knows where the fuck Moby went. Mott Street was barricaded off for some reason, so we just decided to hoof it the six blocks to Balthazar. Jared, Shannon, and Tomo walked in the middle of the street. Paparazzi would ride their bikes in front of us, stop, and take pictures of them walking down the street. Our photographer was shooting from behind. We turned on Spring Street, and there’s the San Gennaro festival. Teenagers were coming up to Leto in packs of four and six and asking for his autograph. I’ve checked out, I’m no longer trying to get quotes from any of the three of them, who are posing at the San Gennaro booths, signing more autographs, waving to paparazzi, telling each other their own in-jokes. Tomo — who was incredibly nice — stopped to make sure I was still with the group. We got to Balthazar. Leto changed his shirt inside the vestibule while we waited for our table to clear. I didn’t even go in the restaurant this time. Richardson had ended up going to get his coffee at the Balthazar coffee shop, too, so imagine the giant facepalm he did when he saw Tomo in there buying me a cup of espresso. Maybe he felt bad. I didn’t. Tomo and I walked out of the coffee shop, he walked in the restaurant, and two minutes later emerged with Jared, Shannon, the photographer. And that was it. We were done.
Everyone was hugged. Leto gave everyone large, enthusiastic hugs. So did Shannon. Tomo was slightly more reserved. I thought I heard Bryan, our stylist, squeal when he got his. And then they went to go shoot Kerrang!. Terry Richardson waved goodbye to me. And then, like that, the shitshow had ended as quickly as it started. The Jared Leto Experience was over.
[Photo of Foster Kamer & Jared Leto: Splash]