Prophet in a Sleeveless Tee

Photo: Pari Dukovic

Jared Leto stands in front of a giant cross in the apse of St. Peter’s church on West 20th Street. Unusually, and perhaps out of respect for the setting, his shirt is on. Tonight is the second to last show of his band 30 Seconds to Mars’s two-year tour in support of its third album, This Is War. They’ve just played two nights at Hammerstein Ballroom before nearly 4,000 people to celebrate setting a Guinness World Record for most shows played to support a single album: 309. This is a more intimate gathering for 350 members of the ­“Echelon”—his superfans. They’re mostly female: freckled teenagers out with their moms, duos of punked-out twentysomethings with electric-blue and green hair, and a surprising number of ecstatic middle-aged women. They’re from small towns and suburbs and as far away as Russia, but the Brooklyn indie snobs stay away.

Leto is wearing a dark cloak and wide-brimmed felt hat and looks every bit the pop mystic he’s adopted as his persona since he quit acting. He forms a triangle with his fingers and hundreds of arms dutifully shoot up, mirroring him. The shape references the “triad,” one of several symbols the band has adopted—Leto has it tattooed on his forearms. The band has a Latin motto, “provehito in altum,” or “launch forth into the deep,” and T-shirts that read YES THIS IS A CULT. “I like our little church here,” Leto says between songs. “I’ve got to get a plot of land out in the desert somewhere so we can all have a home together.” The crowd cheers.

I meet Leto after the show. When he shakes my hand he’s still holding the silver marker he just used to sign the belly of a pregnant young woman. “Have we met before?” he asks, his giant blue eyes blinkless. I think of No. 831 on Little ­30STM Things, a Tumblr devoted to things to “appreciate and love” about the band: “How Jared always seems to see every member of the audience.”

Somehow the pretty boy who played Jordan Catalano, the laconic quasi-boyfriend of Claire Danes on My So-Called Life, has found, at 40, an outlet for his messianic impulses by being in a band with his older brother, Shannon. His fans eat vegetarian because he does. They support his environmental causes. And they write breathless Facebook testimonials to how his band has transformed their lives. “30 Seconds To Mars showed me what it is to believe in something,” reads one. “I don’t care if you think I’m crazy. I have the most amazing family in the world. It’s called the Echelon. We don’t share DNA but we share something more important: We share memories and feelings.” This social-media-mediated feeling of membership works well given the realities of the music business today. The band’s extensive online “realm” (Leto’s word) includes “the Hive,” their digital marketing company and main website, where they sell, among other things, “golden ticket” concert packages. For upwards of $500 per person, you get choice seats, lots of swag, and a photo with the band.

As Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe, and Juliette Lewis have shown, 30STM shouldn’t have worked: Movie stardom rarely translates into rock stardom.

The band signed to Virgin in 1998, when Leto’s film career was on the rise. He’d just acted in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and would soon play junkie Harry Goldfarb in Darren Aronofky’s Requiem for a Dream and Angel Face in David Fincher’s Fight Club (in which Edward Norton beats the hell out of him because he “felt like destroying something beautiful”). Leto was determined that his side project be taken seriously. For years he refused to use his name in promotion for the band, and in 2005 he turned down a role in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers so 30STM could fill the third support slot on tour with the Used, Kelly Osbourne’s onetime boyfriend’s band.

And it paid off: 30STM became a world-famous rock act. Leto is more of a mainstream success as a rock star than as a movie star. His music—anthemic rock in the vein of Muse or My Chemical Romance—is the sonic equivalent of a summer blockbuster in which Armageddon beckons but the world is saved by the determination and self-belief of the people. They’ve sold 3.5 million copies of their sophomore LP, A Beautiful Lie, and 1.5 million copies of This Is War. He’s not been onscreen since 2009’s Belgian ­science-fiction drama Mr. Nobody, and says he has no immediate plans to go back.

Perhaps Leto was always meant to be a hard-bodied cult leader. He was born on a commune in Louisiana, the second son of a teenage mother, who, he says, “climbed out of the muddy banks of the Mississippi with food stamps in one hand and the guitar in the other.” It’s a line he’s used with other journalists and is typical Leto in that it’s both self-mythologizing and basically true. “Mom was an outcast and we were always the new kids,” Shannon Leto says. “We are the underdogs, and we relate to our fans through that.”

There’s nothing more galvanizing than shared outsider status, and that’s what Leto, much like Lady Gaga (who also keeps a pet name for her fans), offers “The Echelon Nation.” Everything he creates—the lyrics, the websites, the tweets—is infused with inspirational aphorisms (“Rule breaking stereotype smashing liver of dreams,” reads his Twitter page profile). Many people find this off-putting, even silly, but Leto doesn’t care. “I have this drive to help deliver all of us—me included—to a place where we can feel free,” he says. “We spent time in art colonies as kids, where there was a real sense of community, and I think it came from that. People forge bonds at a bar, at church, at work. It happens in Scientology, it happens in ­Catholicism, and it happens with us.”

At an after-party, Leto nestles into a booth in the backroom at glibly trashy hipster strip club Westway, flanked by a rotating cast of rock girls in tiny black tanks and heels. I ask if he’s having fun. “I guess,” he says. “We don’t really do this. I don’t even drink, but it’s say-good-bye time and you’ve got to celebrate.” I nod and tell him I’m leaving. He reaches across the table, grasps the back of my head and pulls me toward him. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you,” he says, his breath on my ear. “We will see you soon.” He kisses me on both cheeks, and as I stand up to leave I feel hated by every other woman in the room.

Prophet in a Sleeveless Tee