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Mars Attacks

Thankfully, 30 Seconds to Mars is no Dogstar.
Olaf Heine

Jared Leto has been fasting for four days. Except for water, fresh lemon and cayenne pepper, he expects to eat nothing anytime soon. This isn't one of those trendy Los Angeles diets, though. The actor, who has appeared in such films as Requiem for a Dream and Fight Club, is burning off the staggering 62 pounds he packed on to play John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman, in the new film Chapter 27, which just wrapped shooting.

"I got gout in my left foot because of the weight. Don't do that at home," he warns, laughing. "But we're back now" -- "we" being his band, 30 Seconds to Mars -- "and we start touring in a fucking week. I'll adapt and adjust and do as well as I can."

30 Seconds has caught plenty of flak from critics because, well, an actor with one of the prettiest mugs in Hollywood fronts the act. Actors, after all, are legally not allowed to rock, thanks to Keanu Reeves, Kevin Bacon and Russell Crowe. Nevertheless, 2005 was a blue-ribbon year for actors who sought to defy expectations with their musical inclinations, from Juliette Lewis (Juliette and the Licks), to Jada Pinkett Smith (Wicked Wisdom), to Balthazar Getty (Ringside). Oh, and Jared Leto, of course. Turns out the dude who made out with Colin Farrell in Alexander is as good with a guitar as he is in front of a camera. Maybe better.

"We've always had 30 Seconds to Mars as part of our lives," Leto says, referring to himself and his brother Shannon, the act's drummer, who have played together since they were children. "It's something we used to do as a very prog-rock approach. We weren't interested in building a following or even having a name. We'd play shows and change our name every time. That completion didn't interest us."

What Leto didn't anticipate was what collecting a bunch of strangers in a public place to share such private experiences would do to his music: The brothers' fans took a piece of their songs and, as part owners, demanded more. So more they got. The band's eponymous debut was released in 2002, with Shannon pounding away and Jared playing everything else. 30 Seconds to Mars, however, turned out to be a bit too convoluted and maybe even overly ambitious.

"I think the first album is very special, and it's kind of a world that was created for a lot of different reasons -- a world filled with metaphors and different layers and levels to uncover, kind of an obsessive fantasy," Leto explains. "But it was always very, very personal to me. That record was a lot of me just sitting in front of a computer on some kind of recording device and just creating. There was no band." He pauses. "It was a very dark experience in many ways, very isolating. The second album was kind of a reaction to that."

This time out, it wouldn't just be the Leto brothers working together; it was, in fact, time to become a real band. That meant a lead guitarist and a bassist, manifesting in the form of Tomo Milicevic and Matt Wachter. For Milicevic, a devotee even before the first 30 Seconds album was released, it was more than just joining a band.

"I was a super-fan," he says. "I didn't miss a show within 500 miles of Detroit."

But when it came time to record 2005's A Beautiful Lie, Milicevic and Wachter -- both of whom had been playing metal since their early teens, just like the Letos -- weren't sure what to expect.

"After years of these two brothers doing it one way, the formula's changed, and suddenly there's these two other people who want to have input," Milicevic says. "We didn't know how we were going to fit in, in the sense that we didn't know if Jared would even want our input."

But Leto reveled in the collaboration. The result is a more confessional, transparent album than 30 Seconds' debut, the new-wave overindulgence tempered by good old-fashioned guitar-shredding and something that feels almost intergalactic in concept.

"I remember taking weeks talking about where we wanted to go," Leto notes, "and where I wanted to go, and everyone explaining what they wanted to get out of this personally and creatively. We wrote things down on this big board, about what we wanted to achieve, and we looked at that board about four months after we finished the record, and we'd achieved all the things we wanted to."

The band's naysayers -- most of whom are feckless hipsters who fault Leto because he's prettier than the hottest chick they've ever banged -- are finally starting to come around, too. Slowly, sure. But they're coming.

Most interesting to note is how Wachter and Milicevic respond when asked if they can name one other actor-fronted band they can listen to. Wachter's answer is a simple "no," while Milicevic takes several moments before he admits, "Not one. I have to be cocky and say we're the first ones to do it well." Pressed as to whether or not having an actor in the band has been a hindrance or an asset, Milicevic cuts to the quick. "It all depends on how you view it. To us, no. The only people who make a big deal about it are writers. Kids don't give a shit."

"There've been some actors out there that have made some embarrassingly bad music," says Leto. "But I also think that there are thousands of bands out there that have done the exact same thing. There's tons of embarrassingly bad music out there. So I would be suspicious of us, and people have a right to be suspicious, because there's a precedent that's been set up. But what I've learned from doing this for so many years is that slowly, in a lot of different ways, we've become the exception to the rule."

Besides, as Leto is quick to point out, "In our country, actors become presidents. I'm just in a band." He chuckles. "What the interesting thing to try to decipher is, why do people want to criticize someone making artistic choices? I'm not going to war. I'm making music. If you like our music, come on board. If you don't, fine. Go listen to something else."

Truly baffling is how pop culture somehow seems to have decided that actors and actors alone cannot venture out of their medium without catching shit. Musicians, apparently, can act, no problem. Actors, on the other hand, aren't given the same artistic leeway. Lesson is, if you want to do both, become a rock star first. Unfortunately, it's not always that easy.

"I don't really think there's a choice there for me. It's just something I do, whether it's making films or music," Leto says. (It's not just him, either, afflicted by this need to express himself. His brother is a photographer and writer, Milicevic is a certified chef, and Wachter is an artist with a penchant for screen-printing and painting his basses.) "This is just something I've always done, and I'm very proud of the films I've done and the music I've made."

Not buying it yet? Well, consider: Leto turned down a part in Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers to go out on 30 Seconds' last tour. Seems the musician in him is a lot more concerned about squashing any comparisons to Reeves's Dogstar than starring in Oscar bait. The rest of the band did their best to talk him out of it, too.

"You don't turn down Eastwood," Milicevic laughs.

Apparently, some people do.


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