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Jared Leto - Thirty seconds of fame

The path from film star to pop star is a well-trodden and notoriously rocky one. But 30 Seconds to Mars are far more than just an ego massage for Jared Leto – they're a massive million-selling success.

At a 30 Seconds to Mars gig, you could divide the audience members into two categories. There are the 20 and 30-something fans of frontman Jared Leto from his incarnation as teen heart throb Jordan Catalano in the mid-Nineties drama series My So-Called Life and his portrayal of a junkie in the art-house film Requiem for a Dream. But these will be far outnumbered by the young fans who are there for the music. Such is the success of Leto's band that they sold more than two million copies of their last album, A Beautiful Lie, worldwide, and sold out a show at Wembley Arena last week.

We are here to talk about 30 Seconds to Mars' new album, This is War – their third – although Leto, now 38, still feels there are people who don't take his band seriously.

"A lot of people have given us more than a fair shot and it's been great, and a lot of people have given me a really hard time. And they still do. In the beginning it was really tough. People didn't come to see us because I was in Requiem For a Dream – we played shows when there were 20 people there. It wasn't until the music connected with people that we started having some success. That's interesting to see. You can't count on success in one area just because you happen to have a little in another. It doesn't work like that. People can sense a sham after a while."

It certainly wasn't a particular success for other Hollywood stars, to name but a few: Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe, Kevin Bacon, Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton. But 30 Seconds to Mars' alternative rock and elaborate stage shows have secured them a solid fanbase around the world.

"We're playing Wembley Arena. And when that happens, who cares? Let people say what they say. You can't please everyone, whether you're Damien Hirst or Björk. How much do you need before you're OK with being who you are?"

Leto may be OK with who he is, but there's a sense that he would quite like to rid himself of the acting associations altogether when he is in rock star mode. In order to avoid being known as Jared Leto's band, when they were signed in 1998 concert promoters were not allowed to use Leto's name on posters and there were no photographs. Even now, for the music videos he has directed for 30 Seconds to Mars songs, he goes under a pseudonym. "When I first started doing them it was a way for me to disappear – and hopefully for people to be able to experience it maybe a little differently than they would if they thought that I had anything to do with it at all. Especially in the beginning, me being in the band, having made some films, seemed to be a real distraction for a lot of people."

There's no doubt that 30 Seconds to Mars have put in the effort to reach their level of success. They toured extensively following the release of their 2005 sophomore album and took off in America, while their online connection with fans catapulted them to worldwide stardom. In a bid to involve their fans for This is War, the band held a "summit" where they invited fans to provide backing vocals. At the first, in Los Angeles, people showed up from all over the world, so they repeated the summit in eight countries, from Japan to Germany. When Leto received a Twitter message from a fan in Iran disappointed they were unable to make it, they were inspired to hold a digital summit. And, for the album, Leto invited fans to submit close-up shots of their faces in order to make 2,000 different individual covers.

But there's another key to the band's success: perhaps the difference between other actors- turned-rock-stars and Leto's million-selling band is that Leto was playing music long before he was acting. Born on a commune in Louisiana, he spent his childhood on the move with his brother Shannon (the band's drummer) and photographer mother, with spells living in Alaska, Florida and Wyoming, Haiti and Brazil, before finding himself in Washington DC as a teenager, where he enrolled at the Corcoran School of Art. He still paints today, large, abstract works. Next he studied film-making at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

His first musical instrument, aged four or five, was a broken-down piano and he grew up singing classic rock, from Pink Floyd to Led Zeppelin. He claims to have not become very proficient at the piano because "I'm less interested in technique and more in other things – emotion. For me it's about gut and feel. I want to keep things simple. I want the primal side."

That primal sound can be heard on the new album, whose title was inspired by their battle with their record label, Virgin, which ended in the high court. If you're looking for proof of the band's commitment, you only have to look at their fight against a record label's attempts to sue for not fulfilling their contract.

"It was brutal. There were days where we thought, 'what if we went all the way and lost?' How does that affect us, the band mates? We certainly don't have deep pockets. For them, they're used to lawsuits. We've never had a lawsuit. It became about survival, really." During the making of the album there were more globally affecting issues which inspired the themes of battle and change.

"We started making the record and the world fell apart. There was the situation with our label, the world was dealing with global-citizen-versus-earth issues, there was the economic meltdown, the house- price collapse. We were making this record and all these really impactful, tense things were happening. We were holed up in a house in the Hollywood hills, paid for the record ourselves, hired a producer and just went and did it." Peppered with grungy growls and lyrics such as "We will fight to the death to the edge of the world", it's not the lightest sounding album.

Leto is surprised. "I thought that I was making the brightest record that I'd ever made. It really feels that way to me. I do think there are moments of optimism, celebration and joy that had been missing from the past. I don't mind a rainy day, but I like a sunny one as well."

While Leto, who has worked with film directors David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky and Oliver Stone, has made the seamless transition from actor to rock star, he is still a working actor, and appears in this year's Mr Nobody, a film about a man waking up as the oldest man in a world in which everyone is immortal. With a successful career in both music and film, can he say which art form he prefers?

"Making a film is really the most interesting part for me. I love the research. I love the building of a character. I also don't need to make five movies a year – I'm not after being the person who makes the most films. I want to have a rewarding, challenging experience so I tend to do more art house type films, not big blockbuster movies. It's interesting to be able to be a smaller piece of a bigger puzzle.

"With music you're much more responsible for everything. As the songwriter, as a person who's behind some of the creative ideas, you are the director, writer, editor, producer and the actor, so you have a much bigger contribution."

The single "This Is War" is out 28 March