How Joaquin Phoenix's Approach to Joker Diverged From Heath Ledger and Others Who've Played the Iconic Villain

30 years after Jack Nicholson set the standard and a decade since Ledger turned Joker into a stone-cold psychopath of indeterminate origin, will Phoenix have the last laugh?

By Natalie Finn Oct 04, 2019 12:00 PMTags
Watch: Analyzing Joaquin Phoenix's Dark "Joker" Role: VidBits

Why so serious? You're only trying to differentiate your interpretation of an iconic villain from another actor's legendary performance.

Joaquin Phoenix knew as much when he accepted the role of Joker, this time in a film focusing solely on how Batman's arch nemesis came to be—and if anyone was going to approach the challenge with utmost seriousness, it was going to be the three-time Oscar nominee who regularly tackles big questions about the plight of the human spirit in his films.

Reviews of Joker have been mixed, but assessments of Phoenix's performance are not. Regarding what he was trying to do with the character—which may still be subjective depending on your reaction to the movie as a whole—he nailed every damaged nuance. And in a role that heretofore has been a supporting one, albeit as the purveyor of the conflict that makes Batman run, Phoenix has managed to create something new.

Stars Who've Played the Joker

"The attraction to make this film and this character was that we were going to approach it in our own way, so, for me, I didn't refer to any past iterations of the character," Phoenix told reporters in August at the Venice Film Festival, where Joker had its world premiere and was named best film. "It just felt like something that was our creation in some ways."


Director Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver, first gave him the script to read in late 2017. They were going for a Scorsese-circa-1970s vibe, not a Burtonesque fantasia or an impeccably polished Christopher Nolan production.

"For me, I always thought that acting should be like a documentary," Phoenix told Vanity Fair this summer. "That you should just feel whatever it is that you're feeling, what you think the character is going through at that moment."

Phoenix says he researched narcissism and criminology, and studied the physicality of silent film star Buster Keaton and musicality of vaudevillian performer and actor Roy Bulger (Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, Barnaby in Babes in Toyland).

"There was a particular song called 'The Old Soft Shoe' that [Bolger] performed and I saw a video of it and there's this odd arrogance almost to his movements," Phoenix explained to the Associated Press, "and, really, I completely just stole it from him. He does this thing of turning his chin up. This choreographer, Michael Arnold, showed me that and tons of videos and I zeroed in on that one. 'That was Joker, right?' There's an arrogance to him, really. That was probably the greatest influence. But also disco."

Joker made his first appearance in 1940 in the first issue of DC Comics' Batman, so as the Caped Crusader was born, so was the supervillain who was originally going to be killed off at the end of this one story before the writers realized it was a better idea to give their hero a more enduring foe.

With his face covered in white clown makeup, bright green hair and a purple suit, Joker was always a stone-cold psycho, the comic book format making him no less ruthless or murderous. Cesar Romero's jocular take in the campy 1960s-era Batman TV series may have introduced a generation to a more comical, gentler Joker, but the psychology on him has been increasingly ruthless ever since.

Joker's story has changed as the depths the movies were willing to go to unearth the origins of his depravity have evolved: In Tim Burton's Batman, Jack Nicholson's Joker starts off as a cold-blooded gangster named Jack Napier, who as a young man killed Bruce Wayne's parents and decades later falls into a vat of chemicals during a run-in with Batman and gets a perma-grin thanks to botched plastic surgery.

Ledger's Joker—who seemingly comes from nowhere, with not even a label in his jacket to attest to his origins—says in Nolan's The Dark Knight that his father carved the demented leer into his face when he was a child, after murdering his mother in front of him. So, it was always a senselessly cruel world for him and he was going to do his best to make sure no one escaped unscathed.

Warner Bros.

In Phillips' Joker, Phoenix starts off as the at-first pathetically unbalanced and then dangerously unhinged Arthur Fleck, an aspiring stand-up comedian and loner who lives with his ailing mother. In the process of getting his big break as an entertainer self-dubbed "Joker," he comes to the realization that Gotham City—a microcosm of the world at large—is off its rocker. So why not embrace and feed the chaos?

"There's so many different ways of looking at it," Phoenix said of his Joker's M.O. in Vanity Fair. "You can either say here's somebody who, like everybody, needed to be heard and understood and to have a voice. Or you can say this is somebody that disproportionately needs a large quantity of people to be fixated on him. His satisfaction comes as he stands in amongst the madness."

To achieve the physical presence of a man who feels he barely exists, Phoenix lost 52 pounds by going on a doctor-supervised restrictive diet and leaned into the existing awkwardness he was born with, including the scar above his lip (always there) and a distended shoulder.

"The first thing was the weight loss, that's really what I started with," the actor said in Venice. "As it turns out, that impacts your psychology, and you really start to go mad when you lose that much weight in that amount of time. There's also a book about political assassins that I thought was interesting, and breaks down the different types of personalities that do those sorts of things [Joker does in the film]."

Check Out All of the Stars Who've Played Batman

The goal, he explained, wasn't to make Arthur specifically depressed or schizophrenic or borderline, or to put any sort of label at all on the soul-crushing issues that plague him.

"I wanted the freedom to create something that wasn't identifiable," Phoenix said. "This is a fictional character, and I didn't want a psychiatrist to be able to identify the kind of person he was. We were getting into medication and what issues he might have, but [I thought] let's step away from that. We want to have the room to create what we want."

Back when the casting of Phoenix in a stand-alone movie Todd Phillips was doing about the Joker was just a rumor, he was asked if he was even interested in taking on the part that Ledger played to such acclaim in Nolan's The Dark Knight, posthumously winning, among numerous other honors, a Golden Globe, SAG Award, BAFTA and Oscar.


"I don't know about that movie or character specifically, but I was thinking about it's interesting with comics," Phoenix told Collider in April 2018. "We were talking, there's different writers and artists that come on. It's different than this character from literature being uniquely that. There are different interpretations. It's so interesting; I was just thinking about it today, it seems so unique in some ways to comic books. I think there's probably room for that.

"Maybe it's like doing a play," he continued, "like you always hear about people doing something, 'You should have seen this actor in this performance,' but then other actors do it and it's a different kind of film. I think that genre, comic books, kind of lends itself to having different people play the same character and interpret it in a different way. It's kind of built into the source material in some ways. I think it's cool when people do that."

A lot of explanation for a guy who casually pretended that he was hearing chatter about him playing Joker for the first time. 

30 Facts About the Batman Films

According to the 2017 documentary I Am Heath Ledger, the Australian actor didn't hesitate when asked if he was interested in the role, and basically just asked when and where he could sit down with Chris Nolan.

Ledger is heard saying, "I'd already seen this world he'd created in Batman Begins, and so I knew there was an opportunity for a new version of the Joker, and that excited me. And I also knew instantly what to do."

At the same time, "I definitely feared it," Ledger told Empire in 2007. "Although anything that makes me afraid I guess excites me at the same time. I don't know if I was fearless, but I certainly had to put on a brave face and believe that I have something up my sleeve. Something different..."

Warner Bros. Pictures

What he did was lock himself away for six weeks in a London hotel room, "and I kinda came up with this creep," the actor said, "walking around like a madman and finding posture, finding stance. Finding his voice is very important, because when you find the voice you find the breath within the voice."

Ledger also told Empire, "It's a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script and then just closing my eyes and meditating on it...It was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath—someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts. He's just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown, and Chris has given me free rein. Which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what The Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke."

The scraps of insight that Ledger left behind became imperative in the wake of his death from an accidental overdose of prescription medication in January, 2008, six months before The Dark Knight opened in theaters. He was only 28 years old and the Hollywood myth immediately conjured in his absence was that he went to such a dark place to play Joker, he never really recovered.

"Well, I warned him," none other than Jack Nicholson told reporters in London when approached for comment about Ledger's sudden passing.

Separating Heath Ledger's Rich Legacy From His Dark Fate

Ledger had acknowledged that he was barely sleeping two hours a night while playing "a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy," as he also described his Joker. He'd lay his head down, he said, and "I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going."

But while Ledger's haunting performance managed to exceed the hype and helped elevate Nolan's Batman trilogy to new critically admired artistic heights—even prompting the Academy to increase the number of possible Best Picture nominees the following year after The Dark Knight was left out of the running in 2009—those close to him have insisted that the idea that Ledger acted himself to death is so much twaddle.

Warner Bros.

"He had an amazing sense of humor and certainly playing the Joker, for him it was one big gag," sister Kate Ledger said in I Am Heath Ledger. "He had so much fun doing that. It was actually the exact opposite. There was no doom and gloom...That was a shock to me that people even thought that, really."

Ironically, Nicholson biographer Marc Eliot told CNN in 2013 that playing Joker "was not a gag to him." Rather, "for Jack, it was a way to connect to childhood." And, incidentally, make anywhere from $65 million to $90 million thanks to savvy and prescient back end and licensing deals. In turn, Eliot reported, he didn't hesitate to spend $70,000 to keep his custom purple suit as a souvenir.

Inspired a lot by Frank Miller's graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Burton's 1989 Batman was dark but heavily stylized (Prince made the music for one of the movie's two soundtracks), with even the violence having comedic flair despite Joker's sizable body count.

"When I explore dark themes, like the ones in Batman, I do it lightheartedly," Burton acknowledged to the New York Times before the film's release. "I don't like mean-spirited movies.''

Warner Bros. Pictures

"Tim Burton's a genius. He had the right take on it," Nicholson reflected to MTV News' Josh Horowitz in 2007, while also admitting with a smile that he was rather "furious" that a new Batman film with a new Joker was coming out. "That's why I did the movie. I did the movie based on a single conversation with him. We both come from the cartoon world originally. We had similar ideas."

"I was afraid because of my feel of the television series and the way movies tend to be done and talked about, I didn't want this to go through the normal 'let's brighten this up for the kids!" Nicholson further explained, according to Critical Hit. "I thought this was a very strong and transitional movie about the genre and really why they wanted me in there. On a superficial level, it gave that moment of 'oh, this is not another cartoon movie.

"To this day, I always took this performance more seriously than probably anybody in the world because I looked at it that way. My early experience told me from working for an audience full of children, the more you scare 'em, the more they like it. That was my response to the Joker, because after all this was a hateful occurrence, this man, if you looked at it literally. Every kid loves this guy, I believe. I particularly just loved the name, Joker. It was fantastic."

Nicholson also went straight to the source. According to Patrick McGilligan's biography Jack's Life, Batman creator Bob Kane told him how the original comic-book Joker was inspired by the 1927 film The Man Who Laughs, starring Conrad Veidt as a character with a perpetual smile because his cheeks have been slashed. So Nicholson watched it and then dialed up his performance to 11.

In turn, his Joker was the consummate scene-stealing villain, a cartoon killer brought to larger-than-life—and certainly the defining Joker portrayal of the 20th century. (Mark Hamill, the voice of Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, has said he was given one piece of advice: "Don't think Jack Nicholson.")

"You get such a great deal of respectability for the picture, for what you're trying to do that not only does that help bring audiences in from young to old," said Batman executive producer Michael Uslan, per Critical Hit, "but it also makes it very attractive to other major stars to want to become the next Batman villain, to follow in the footsteps of Jack Nicholson."

He also, incidentally, created the prestige-villain role for a next-level comic book movie, the likes of which audiences hadn't yet seen before Tim Burton made one. (No offense to Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor in the iconic but corny Superman movies.)

Count Jared Leto, fresh from winning an Oscar, as someone who found the prospect very attractive. He proudly went method to play Joker in 2016's Suicide Squad, sending screwy "gifts" such as used condoms and a live rat to his co-stars, and walking around out in the wild with fluorescent green hair and no eyebrows. The movie was widely panned, but Leto pulled off the role of supporting psycho with aplomb and fans are hoping he shows up in the Margot Robbie-starring Harley Quinn spinoff.

"This role has always been interpreted so beautifully, but then there's the other side," he told London's Independent at the time, nodding to the memorable performances that preceded him. "What else can you uncover? What other parts of this story or this life, what can you do that hasn't been done? That side of me that likes exploration, that likes adventure, that likes to push the envelope, that was set on fire immediately. I knew that I was going to have to dive really deep and go to a place that I've never gone before."

Like Ledger, he sought to give Joker a voice and a laugh that fit the maniacal bill.

"The character is completely insane, [a] madman with green hair and a great smile. I think the Joker is so much fun," Leto, who was about 45 when he took it on, told Screen Rant before the movie came out. "That is what is infectious... When I got asked to play the Joker I didn't really have a big gregarious laugh personally, so I was a bit terrified. This is a guy who's laughing, and is laughing in a way that is very unique. So I worked on it, worked on it, worked on it and came up with something that is... very strange, I have to admit."

Playing Joker "changed me forever," he added.

Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara Make Joker Premiere a Date Night

At 44, Phoenix, who's been known to emerge shaken or otherwise stirred from a role (he went to rehab after playing Johnny Cash, who was in and out of treatment for much of his life), is over the idea of allowing a part to scar him for life.

"I've always had a hard time," Phoenix acknowledged to Vanity Fair. "And, I think only recently, as you get older or whatever, you're okay. You go, 'Maybe it is going to be a bad experience' or 'Maybe I'm not going to enjoy it. And maybe I won't have any of those connections, maybe I'll feel just hollow afterwards.' That's okay. Because I know that I have meaning in other parts of my life. And that's really what sustains me. I enjoy it. I love my life. I f--king love my life."

But he did have a Joker journey, just like all the others.

"Throughout the course of shooting, every day felt like we were discovering new aspects of the character and shades of his personality, up until the very last day," he said in Venice.

"The story says here's a man plunged into nuclear waste and comes out this other identity, right?" Nicholson once said. "So my simple thought on it is the guy is, from then on, short-wired. And I love that."

Arthur doesn't fall into any chemicals and Batman has nothing to do with it (so much so that Todd Phillips has vowed that Joaquin's Joker will never cross paths with Robert Pattinson's Batman). Instead, Arthur sinks into a humanitarian wasteland and decides he's the villain the people deserve. Whether or not his Joker gets the last laugh, it won't be like anything we've heard before.