When Jared Leto played Jordan Catalano in My So-Called Life in 1994, he became an alternative heartthrob for angst-ridden teenagers across the United States. Over the following two decades, he has morphed into a rock star and an eccentric method actor who's taken on roles in other genders and gifted dead pigs to his co-stars. Now, Leto is taking his flair for doing very unexpected things to a nature documentary series.
In Great Wide Open—made with production partner Budweiser—Leto communes with Mother Nature in a variety of settings. In an interview with Broadly, Leto said the series aims to celebrate the wild places in America and the individuals who inhabit them. "There would be beautiful spaces and incredible adventures that push their lives really to the edge," Leto said, describing the experience of shooting this series. "That was just, in a way, incredibly striking and really inspiring."
In one episode we meet Tommy Caldwell, a rock-climbing legend who made international headlines in 2000 when he and a team of climbers on an expedition were kidnapped by rebel forces in Kyrgyzstan. At one point, Caldwell and his crew were left alone with one rebel, and Caldwell crept up behind him on the cliff, grabbed his gun strap, and sent him over the edge to plummet 2,000 feet.
Today, Caldwell is a legendary rock climber: He's the rock-climbing ambassador to Patagonia, and in 2015 he stunned a global audience after successfully climbing El Capitan's Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park, a 3,000-foot vertical wall of rock, with a partner. It took the team 19 days from start to finish, and was the product of years of planning.
In the episode featuring Caldwell, Leto embarks on his own rock-climbing venture. Though he's never climbed before, Leto is strapped up and hangs off the side of a cliff thousands of feet in the air. In Leto's show, Caldwell says that the moments he's come closest to death have also been the most powerful. "It's you and the wild and sometimes you're pushing yourself to the point—to the edge," Leto told me. "It does make you reflect on life. I've never heard about people talk more than death than the people who are closest to it. Some of these people do die. If you're still alive, you have a relationship with life that other people don't."
The top of a mountain is a long way from the single-season high school drama where Leto made a name for himself; later, in his band 30 Seconds to Mars and in roles in films like Fight Club and Requiem for a dream, Leto cemented himself as an artist who seeks outsider roles and experiences.But he complicated his image later, selling merchandise on his website that seems suited to the strange combination of globe trekking and cyber-spirituality that makes up the modern Angeleno's rock fashionista lifestyle. He has shared photos of himself showcasing ripped abs in patterned leggings and fanny packs. (Leto once sold fanny packs on his website for $32 a pop; now, it offers flash tattoos and T-shirts with slogans like "Notes from the Outernet." When I asked him if sustainability in fashion is important to him, he replied, "Yeah, I believe in sustainable everything.") When I asked if he saw any connection between the intensity he has sought out in his other work and the extreme conditions involved in rock climbing, he said he sees "passion all over the place."
"It's not really a conscious conversation I have with myself about these things," Leto said. "More gutteral."
That Leto has garnered a great deal of attention over the years for being unconventional is something he has in common with the nature-crazy people he meets in Great Wide Open. "They're people that have chosen to live life on their own terms," Leto said. "A lot of them are outsiders, or outliers, and people who have definitely taken the road less traveled."
When I asked him if he feels his work has been misunderstood by the public, Leto told me he doesn't think about that. "You have to be yourself and do what motivates you—what makes you valid and fulfilled or at least attempts to do those things."
Great Wide Open will premiere on July 25th on Budweiser's YouTube channel.