01/23/2014 03:59 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

Jared Leto Knew Dallas Buyers Club Role Was 'Really Special'

Jared Leto likely never imagined his Dallas Buyers Club role would lead to a Golden Globe -- much less his subsequent Oscar nomination. Still, from the moment he read the script about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, he knew it "was a really special project."

The film is based largely on the actual life of Ron Woodroof, a hard-living Texas electrician, cowboy and tough-guy (played by Matthew McConaughey) who finds himself one of the rare heterosexuals diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. For his efforts, McConaughey took home the Best Actor-Drama award earlier this month at the Golden Globes.

Meanwhile, Leto delivers a nuanced, wrenching performance as Rayon, an HIV-positive transgender woman. Whereas other actors might have played the role as more of a campy, drag queen caricature, Leto consciously took a different route.

"It felt like we'd seen that [character] onscreen before," Leto told me during an in-person interview at the San Francisco Ritz Carlton Hotel. "This felt like an opportunity to bring a real person to life."

Instead, by intentionally side-stepping clichés, Leto made Rayon a fully-recognized, heartbreaking character. As a result, not only is she the film's emotional core, Rayon also provides a much-needed historic tie to the AIDS epidemic's impact on the LGBT community.

The choice paid off handsomely for Leto. The good-looking actor, who like costar McConaughey underwent a tremendous physical transformation for the role, snared Best Supporting Actor honors at the Globes. Likewise, he appears to be a shoe-in at the upcoming Academy Awards.

"You have to be selfish... and do what you think is going to challenge you and change your life, hopefully," the actor said of the role, weeks before the trophies, awards and critical accolades started rolling in. "What a life-changing opportunity this has been."