A 'mini-tour through Satan's promised land'

Jared Leto learns art of making people sick

Hollywood is full of legends about people having extreme reactions to movies. There's the story about the guy who had a heart attack at the "Jaws" premiere. Or the man who passed out during the infamous adrenaline-shot scene in "Pulp Fiction." And, more recently, the people who became seasick from watching the shaky camera work in "The Blair Witch Project."

Now we can add "Requiem for a Dream" to that list. According the film's star, Jared Leto, some of the biggest compliments he and the filmmakers have gotten come from people whose responses were unconventional, to say the least.

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Jared Leto stars as drug dealer Harry Goldfarb in "Requiem for a Dream."

"In Cannes, a woman walked out of the screening and threw up all over the red carpet � and she actually loved the movie," says Leto, speaking by cell phone while walking around Los Angeles. "In Toronto, a guy walked out after the film, right next to Darren (Aronofsky), me, and the producer, and fainted on the steps. It's pretty fun to have a film that is provocative in that way."

Fortunately, not everyone who likes "Requiem for a Dream" requires medical attention. During our interview, Leto was approached on the street by a woman who simply wanted to tell him how "awesome" and "moving" the film was. Apparently, this is not unusual.

"People have a genuine, kind of oddly personal response to the film," Leto says. "It moves them in such a way (that) it stays with people."

Such intense feelings are not surprising, given the movie's subject matter. Leto plays Harry Goldfarb, a young drug dealer who becomes a serious addict, along with his best friend (Marlon Wayans), his girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) and even his mother (Ellen Burstyn), who gets hooked on diet pills. The characters' fear and despair are palpable throughout, and the actors went to great lengths to make their performances realistic. Leto actually spent some time living on the streets of New York interacting with drug addicts and dealers, and he found them remarkably willing to open up to him.

"I owe so much of my performance to those people, because they showed me the way," he says. "It was fantastic to have that at my disposal, and I'm really grateful to those people for helping me out."

Not that it was all positive � Leto admits to some scary moments with overdoses and drug deals gone bad, although he generally felt safe. This commitment to verisimilitude carried over into the workplace, sometimes to an unnerving degree.

"I felt like I was experiencing a mini-tour through Satan's promised land," Leto says. "It was pretty excruciating and horrifying to shoot a lot of the scenes, and rewarding and satisfying in so many ways that it was completely worth every second. But it was a torturous process."

Surprisingly, the graphic drug use sequences, which have had such an impact on audiences, weren't the hardest part of making the film.

"The scenes with Jennifer were very difficult," he says. "Those were the times in the film we were really at each other's throat. And the disease, this obsession that we have, was eating at our characters. So there were days on the set where I just couldn't even look at her, and I know she felt the same way."

Despite those painful moments, Leto has nothing but praise for his co-stars, and he reserves particular accolades for Burstyn, whose role is garnering Oscar buzz.

"She is such a fine-tuned instrument," he enthuses. "She just blows your mind when you work with her. And she's so helpful to a young actor like me, because she helped me stop acting and just kind of live with her in the moment."

Leto is equally effusive about the director Aronofsky, whose previous film "*" showed off his penchant for unusual camera work and editing.

"I found (his technique) exciting," Leto says, "and I love the fact that Darren is a visionary and has a completely unique way of doing things. That's why I wanted to make this film."

The 25-year-old Leto has purposely avoided the big-budget Hollywood career track, preferring instead to focus on smaller, more unusual films that allow him to stretch as an actor, such as "American Psycho," "Black and White" and "Fight Club."

"(That's) definitely a conscious decision," he says. "I've just been at a point in my life where I want to push myself and explore different avenues, and that hasn't really included the commercialism that is kind of strapped into our systems in this industry."

As far as he's concerned, "Requiem for a Dream" is a perfect example of how well that approach can work.

"I'm really proud of the movie, and that's the feeling that I like to get from something, as I think most people do from their work," Leto says. "It's a horrifying, provocative, insane film, and if people want something a little darker and deeper than the average fare out there, this is a film you have to see."

Just aim AWAY from the red carpet.

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