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Jared Leto adds physical and emotional edges to his scary character in ‘The Little Things’

Ed Symkus
More Content Now USA TODAY NETWORK
It's very hard to figure out what Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) is thinking.

“The Little Things” is a drama about two cops trying to solve a series of murders, and how personal obsessions with the cases get in the way of them doing their jobs. Those two cops - played by Denzel Washington and Rami Malek - hold every bit of every viewer’s attention with deeply interior performances. Then an hour in, a third main character strides into the film, takes the spotlight from them, and keeps it.

The story’s probable killer is named Albert Sparma. As played by Jared Leto, he’s a mysterious loner with long greasy hair, a dead star in his eyes, a soft almost sing-songy quality to his voice, and a distinct way of carrying himself - when he walks, he’s never in a hurry, he takes big, ambling strides, and his arms are always swinging

Leto got his start in music - he’s a founding member, singer, and guitarist in Thirty Seconds to Mars - but found acting to be an additional calling, and has no trouble grabbing the attention of anyone watching him onscreen. He was sympathetic as a victim in “American Psycho,” chilling as The Joker in “Suicide Squad,” he gained a dangerous amount of weight to play Mark David Chapman in “Chapter 27,” and went the opposite way to lose weight as a junkie in “Requiem for a Dream” and a transgender woman in “Dallas Buyers Club,” for which he won a Supporting Actor Oscar.

Now he’s stealing the screen in “The Little Things.” Leto, 49, spoke about how he went about doing that during a recent Zoom chat.

Q: Albert Sparma is a terrifying character, but there’s a lot of subtle humor in your performance. How did you bring him to life?

A: Thank you for pointing out the humor part of it. When I think about Albert Sparma, I think of him as kind of a charmer. I guess I wasn’t on the receiving end of whatever might seem scary or terrifying. But I never really felt that. He’s a character that had many, many nuances, piled on top of each other, and (director) John Lee Hancock was my guide through the process.

Q: Did you look at killers in other movies in order to stay away from copying them?

A: I didn’t think about other performances. I didn’t specifically research killers, because there’s a lot of ambiguity (about Albert). I did a lot of observing, watching documentaries, and I did my fair share of reading, as Albert was a crime buff. But I really spent more time thinking about him as a person. I was curious about him, why he didn’t fit in, why he couldn’t connect with people. That’s where you ask questions, and you get more questions, and sometimes you find some answers. That’s the game.

Q: There’s also the sheer physicality of him. When he first shows up in the film, he’s not exactly recognizable as you.

A: We did quite a bit with him. He has different color eyes (than me), a different nose, different teeth, and of course there’s a walk and a talk. There was one point where we were looking for the very worst wig in all of Hollywood. There were two wigs. In one of them I looked like Annie, from the musical. (With the other) I thought that maybe he was losing his hair, and he chose a wig that he thought was handsome.

Q: You mentioned Albert’s walk, and it’s certainly an individual one. Where did that come from?

A: Denzel and Rami have been great inspirations for me. When they work, it’s head to toe. When you watch Denzel in his movies, his whole body is alive. That’s always the holy grail. Look at what Rami did in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I remember when I saw him the first time after I saw the film, I said to him, “Forget the acting! What you did on the stage, that deserves the awards in and of itself.” As a guy who’s stood on stages around the world, I know that is not easy. So, for me, being a physical actor, I’m interested in that. I was talking about the walk with Denzel, and I told him I took it from Kim Jong-un. He was kind of the first inspiration. I was interested in getting across that Sparma feels pretty powerful when he walks across a room. So that’s what I got into.

Q: Any thoughts you’d like to share about life during the pandemic?

A: It’s remarkable what can shine through in a period of adversity, a period of challenge, like this. I think when you stop running on that treadmill (of life), and you’re not chasing or consumed with your work, it gives you time to focus. At the very beginning of the pandemic, I went away on a silent retreat, and we had no phones or means of contact there. When I left, there were only 150 cases (of COVID-19) in America. And when I came out, there was a shutdown, a state of emergency. So that was my introduction into this time. But I had this new skill. I had gone away to meditate and sit with myself, and I think I was fortunate to have that opportunity. So, I have a lot of gratitude.

“The Little Things” opens in selected theaters and premieres on HBO Max on Jan. 29.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.