“A cornucopia of talent” – that’s how director John Lee Hancock describes the three Oscar-winning actors he has landed for his latest film, The Little Things.

And it is quite a line-up – with four Academy Awards between them, Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto star in this crime thriller based in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles.

Set in the 90s – when the script first saw the light of day – there’s not a glimpse of Hollywood glamour in sight.

Washington plays world-weary old school cop Joe “Deke” Deacon, who is drawn back to his old stomping ground in the city to help catch a serial killer. He teams up with Jim Baxter (Malek), a younger detective trying to cement his reputation on a huge case under immense pressure.

The duo form a somewhat unlikely friendship based on their obsession with solving the crime, and there’s only one real suspect in the frame – Albert Sparma (Leto).

Jared Leto (centre) plays a suspect who gets under the skin of Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) and Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington), who are investigating him

Deke and Jim’s fixation leads to unexpected consequences – and an ending with a genuinely unusual twist.

Malek, who also stars in the forthcoming Bond movie, explains that he simply could not turn down the role: “This character, starting out with this really altruistic perspective and having that type of conviction turned into obsession… Johnny’s script was one of those… that you just fly through.”

Washington adds: “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage… I just read the script and found it interesting.”

The man that has played numerous cop roles during his career – including his Oscar-winning turn as LA police officer Alonzo Harris in Training Day – deadpans that the only way he approached this role differently was by gaining “about 35lbs”. (We’ve all been there in lockdown).

Leto’s character Albert is something of an enigma – kooky fantasist or killer?

Joking aside, he also watched reality crime show The First 48 “so he could study the detectives’ behaviour”.

Hancock, behind films such as The Blind Side, Saving Mr Banks and The Founder, explains that he was always a “big fan of crime dramas and psychological thrillers” but felt “they had become stale because of the third act where it all became about the good guy chasing the bad guy”.

“So was there a way to kind of embrace the genre and subvert it at the same time?”

In chief suspect Albert Sparma, Hancock certainly keeps everyone guessing.

Sparma is the kind of complex, erratic character perfect for Leto.

Malek’s forthcoming Bond film No Time To Die was recently delayed for a third time

Another obsessive, Sparma is a real-life crime enthusiast whose behaviour lurches from witty and charming to unnerving and terrifying as he toys with the police, clearly thrilled with all the attention he is receiving.

Leto, whose previous roles include John Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27 and Paul Allen in American Psycho, admits “there was a moment where I did think, I’ve kind of walked on the darker side of the universe a lot in my career, maybe it’s time to not do that again. But after seeing the opportunity here, I just couldn’t say no”.

The actor clearly has a fondness for his character.

“I think of him as kind of a charmer. I guess I wasn’t on the receiving end of whatever might seem scary or terrifying. But I never really felt that, I thought he was kind of a lovable guy!”

Leto, who also has a music career as one half of the band Thirty Seconds to Mars, is known for his detailed preparation before he shows up on set, which this time included reading tonnes of crime books and FBI transcripts.

Deke has history with a previous LA case he was involved with

“Albert was a crime buff, but I really spent more time thinking about him as a person… what made him tick and why he didn’t fit in, why couldn’t he connect with people?”

All three stars are predictably complimentary about their fellow actors’ talents but Leto is most effusive, with his touch of traditional Southern respect.

Having been gently chastised by Washington for referring to him as Mr Washington, Leto says: “Rami and Denzel have been great inspiration for me. Because when they work it’s head to toe. I mean, if you watch Denzel in his movies, his whole body is alive. And you know, that’s always the Holy Grail.

“If you look at Rami and what he did in Bohemian Rhapsody (his Oscar-winning turn as Freddie Mercury)… when I saw him the first time after that, I said, ‘Forget the acting, what you did on the stage, that… just deserves the awards in and of itself.'”

Emergency shutdown

Like many films during the Covid-19 pandemic, The Little Things will not be getting a traditional release.

Given the film took 30 years to come to fruition – with various possible directors attached over the years, including Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood – it must be something of a frustration that it will now be released simultaneously at the cinema and on streaming service HBO Max.

In a December interview with Deadline, Hancock said: “It’s an odd, weird time and I can’t wait to go back to the movie theatres and make them for movie theatres because there is simply no high like that. That said, these are trying circumstances we are all in and I’ve tried my best to be Zen about it.”

Malek says Jim’s obsession – which distances him from his wife and young children – is also a tale for our times.

“This year probably has taught us a lot about that. We get so focused on certain things. And so narrow-minded in a certain tunnel vision about what has to be achieved in life and what we have to do. And we kind of perhaps start to neglect the most important things.”

Leto reveals that he went abroad on a silent retreat at the beginning of the pandemic, “when there were only 150 cases in America. And when I came back, there was an emergency shutdown”.

“But I had learned how to meditate… it was really fortunate that I had that opportunity.”

But Denzel – or should we say Mr Washington – has a starker message about the lessons to be learned from the pandemic.

“I’m not a religious man. I’m a spiritual man. In the Old Testament, in the Exodus, God sent the plague down and sent every man, woman and child back to their tent. And I think that’s what’s happened to the world in an instant. We’ve all been sent back to our tent. We have to deal with ourselves, our families, our loved ones, we have to reassess who we are, how did we get here?

“And I believe that as we go back outside, if we don’t look out and take better care, and treat our fellow men and women as we would want to be treated, we will all be destroyed.”

The Little Things is available to watch on Premium Video on Demand from 11 March.