In the spirit of Independence Day, the Oscar-winning actor and his band are embarking on an ambitious new project called “A Day in the Life of America.” Billed as “a filmed portrait of the country,” the project aims to capture 24 hours of life in America on the Fourth of July.
To complete their mission, Thirty Seconds to Mars is sending film crews to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico on the upcoming holiday. But most important, they’re inviting fans, filmmakers and everyone else in the country to submit their own crowdsourced footage.
“This portrait of America only works if people know about it,” Leto tells PEOPLE. “If we can get people to submit a video of the sunrise, footage of their grandmother telling the story of how she came to this country all those years ago — whatever it is that’s impactful, important or inspiring to you, we want to see it.”
The idea for the project came to Leto while working on his new Thirty Seconds to Mars album, now four years in the making. But the inspiration for the project itself stretches back to the actor-singer’s childhood. “When I was a kid my mother subscribed to National Geographic, an incredible magazine that taught me a lot and showed me the world, as it has done for so many people,” he explains.
“But at some point, in 1986 I believe, they made a book about a day in the life of America, and they got photographers from all over the world to come here and shoot photographs for a day,” he adds. “I always remembered that book, and when I was working on my new album, certain themes started to arise and I realized that it was an incredible opportunity to make a portrait of America and make a film about who and what were are. It ties into what I’ve been writing about, and the songs myself and Thirty Seconds to Mars have been creating for our new album.”
While Leto, 45, is adamant the project remain apolitical, he admits the country’s current political climate influenced the work. “Absolutely it’s on my mind; I think it’s on everyone’s mind,” he says. “But I have to say this is an apolitical piece, I want to see footage that I disagree with, that gives me pause and causes debate. I don’t think you can make an accurate portrait of who and what we are as a nation unless you do it through an apolitical lens. And we want to be authentic to who we are as a country.”
Only the most compelling fan footage will make it into the final portrait. Leto explains that he’s looking for “anything and everything that tells the story of who we are.” He adds, “The more brave, bold and exciting the better. We’re going to capture the first sunrise in Bangor, Maine, and the last sunset on an island off the coast of Alaska. But we also want to follow a doctor in a hospital as he works in the emergency room, maybe the birth of a child or the passing on of someone’s loved one. We want to capture the celebration of Fourth of July and all its fireworks, but it’s really less about the Fourth of July and more about who we are. It could be a farmer working at dawn, an undocumented worker coming into the country for the first time, and so on.”
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As for what America means to him, Leto says he’ll express those feelings through the film. For now, he says, “America means a lot to me. I’ve been incredibly fortunate and I have an acute understanding of that. I was raised by a single mom who had two sons and, with hard work and food stamps, was able to make a better life. So I’ve been on the receiving end of a large amount of the blessings of America, and I’m going to tell that story in the piece. But I’m excited to learn more about what it means to other people across the country.”
The project is closely tied to the band’s highly anticipated forthcoming album, which he says “certainly has themes of America and the American Dream.” But despite the current political divisiveness in the country, Leto says his current tour has reaffirmed his faith in the uniting power of music. “We’ve been on tour lately and it’s been fascinating,” he explains. “I was just onstage in front of 20,000 people the other night, and you know what I saw when I looked out? I saw a lot unity, kindness, happiness and joy, and it’s incredible that music can do that at times — encourage, inspire and unite. A lot of people that may disagree about a lot of things can come together under one roof and enjoy one another.”
Looking ahead, Leto says he’s staying positive about America’s future. “I’m optimistic but I do think that with anything, there will always be challenges. There may at times be one step back, and two forward. And I think that ultimately we continue to move forward. I’m optimistic about that. I think we’ll continue to move forward and treat both ourselves and our planet kinder. I think that we will ultimately end up in a better place, not a worse one.”