Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) reinvented a classic Batman villain and won him rave reviews from critics. The film was the second of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, falling between Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Ledger’s death on January 22, 2008 was unexpected and dominated the publicity of the to-be-released film. Ledger had completed filming for The Dark Knight, and so it was his final fully shot film that he would appear in. He did, however, appear posthumously in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009); since Ledger had not finished filming, his character was completed by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.
Both Ledger’s characterization and his untimely death generated a number of stories which circulated for the years to follow. While much of Ledger’s process has been documented, it is worthwhile remembering that there are a number of unsubstantiated stories that surround his story as well.
Here are 15 Behind the Scenes Facts About Heath Ledger as the Joker:
15. Ledger Locked Himself in a Room for Over a Month
Heath Ledger wanted to ensure that his version of the Joker was a fresh and distinct variation that movie-going audiences had never seen before. Both Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero had played the classic Batman villain in film adaptations, but Ledger wanted to explore a side of the Joker which was present in the comic books and graphic novels but had never made its way to film. Ledger came onto Nolan’s project in the very early stages, and so he was able to take his time before the production to explore the Joker.
In order to get into the mind of the Joker, Heath Ledger spent around six weeks in an isolated hotel room. During this time, he wrote in a journal, looked at source material, and practiced different voices. Ledger wanted to make sure that the Joker’s voice and laugh was perfect before he began filming. The resulting Joker was a sociopathic clown without any empathy or remorse.
14. The Resulting Journal Contained Some Creepy Contents
The journal that Heath Ledger created during his time of isolation was full of various in-character ramblings and inspirations. It included photographs of hyenas, stills from A Clockwork Orange, clown make-up designs, and joker cards. A photo of Ledger in his make-up for the film was also added to the book. It also included some writing from the perspective of the Joker, including a list of things he thought were funny (including AIDS and geniuses suffering from brain damage). On the cover, the words THE JOKER appeared along with a picture of an elephant and a man in a hat on a checkered floor. On the last page, “BYE BYE” was handwritten in large letters.
Ledger kept the Joker journal with him throughout the filming process, using it as a touchstone to help him to get into character and focus on his inspirations. After his death, Ledger’s father kept the journal and discussed its contents in the 2008 documentary Too Young to Die.
13. Ledger Could Have Been Batman But He Wasn’t Interested in Comic Book Movies
Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger had met multiple times before Nolan cast Ledger as the Joker. In fact, Nolan and Ledger had been in talks about Ledger playing Batman for Batman Begins, but Ledger told Nolan that he wasn’t interested in “this kind of movie”. Ledger took himself out of the running to play Batman because he did not think that a comic book movie was worthwhile. But, after seeing Batman Begins and seeing what Nolan was bringing to Batman, Ledger met with Nolan about the Joker. At the time, the script was still being written, but Ledger enthusiastically was interested in the role and wanted to make it his own.
Even though Ledger wanted to have a new and fresh portrayal of the Joker, he met with Jack Nicholson to discuss the iconic part. Nicholson would later get in hot water when he told the press that he had “warned” Ledger about playing the Joker.
12. Nolan Recommended A Clockwork Orange and the paintings of Francis Bacon
Christopher Nolan gave Heath Ledger a great deal of creative control over the character of the Joker. He did, however, recommended some various inspirations that he thought would help Ledger’s Joker be in line with Nolan’s greater vision for the character. This included the film A Clockwork Orange (1972), heavy metal music, and the paintings of the Irish painter Francis Bacon. A Clockwork Orange includes characters who derive joy and laughter from the pain of others, much like the Joker. The connection between the Joker and Bacon’s paintings may seem a little less clear, as Bacon’s paintings are less well-known. The eerie paintings use a great deal of black and darkness against popping color; many of them include distorted faces or figures. One of Bacon’s triptych paintings helped to influence Ledger’s make-up as the Joker. Nolan said that the painting (and the make-up) had “this corruption, this decay in the texture”.
Many fans also think that Ledger’s performance is based on singer Tom Waits – while this is unsubstantiated, the resemblance between the character and the singer are pretty uncanny:
11. The Joker’s Signature Make-Up Wasn’t the Original Design
Heath Ledger’s make-up was created by awarded make-up artist John Caglione Jr., the make-up artist for The Dark Knight. Caglione originally created different styles for the Joker that were much cleaner in appearance. But even when Caglione tried to make the design more grungy, it still seemed too polished and professional. With input from Nolan and Ledger and inspiration from the paintings of Francis Bacon, Caglione eventually tried to make it look like the Joker had been wearing this make-up for days. While Caglione was unsure about the make-up design initially, it would eventually earn him an Oscar nomination for Best Make-Up.
There is a story that Ledger bought his own cheap make-up and designed the make-up himself. However, Caglione says that Ledger never came to him with a design. There are many fan stories that have developed around Ledger after his death, and this may be one of those stories.
10. Ledger Made Exaggerated Faces During the Make-Up Process So that the Make-Up would be Uneven
Ledger was an active part of the make-up process, working alongside John Caglione Jr. at the beginning of each day. Instead of holding still with a neutral face (which would be common when applying make-up), Ledger would make exaggerated “clown” faces, including opening his eyes and his mouth very wide or scrunching his face very small. The make-up artist would then apply portions of the make-up while Ledger held a certain face. Because of the natural contours and wrinkles produced by Ledger making faces, the make-up appeared uneven and disheveled. The white, red, and the black of the make-up would bleed along the creases in Ledger’s face, giving the illusion that the make-up had been on his face for a long period of time. This worn look that was strikingly different than previous portrayals of the Joker, and it became a major part of the iconic look of Ledger’s Joker.
9. Ledger Did NOT Stay in Character Between Takes
Heath Ledger’s development of the Joker as a character was an example of method acting. He tried to immerse himself in the character and explore the complex inner life of the villain. However, while it is typical for many method actors to stay in character between takes, Ledger only remained in character as the Joker when the cameras were rolling. In between takes, he would joke with cast members, look at his Joker journal, and smoke cigarettes. John Caglione Jr., his makeup artist, even said that Ledger would skateboard on set. However, the viral image of Ledger skateboarding over Christian Bale while they are both in costume is not real and was photoshopped.
Caglione also said that Ledger would give big hugs to the production crew and staff at the beginning and end of each day, and was very friendly to everyone. On set, Ledger was the total opposite of the character that he played.
8. Ledger Improvised Many Parts of the Joker’s Performance
The character of the Joker was developed by director-screenwriter Christopher Nolan, screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, and Heath Ledger. Ledger would improvise on set and some of the Joker’s most iconic, scary, and funny moments were a result of Ledger’s improvisation. One example of this is when the Joker, locked in a cell, sarcastically (and menacingly) claps for Gordon’s promotion. The clapping was not originally scripted, but Nolan liked it so much that he kept it in the final cut of the film. Additionally, when the Joker exits the hospital and detonates a bomb behind him, the explosion was supposed to go off the first time. However, when the explosion was accidentally delayed, Ledger decided to stay in character and continue the shot. He mumbled to himself and played around with the remote until the explosion went off. What was originally a technical error became one of the funniest moments of the film.
7. Ledger Did Not Go “Full Joker” in Rehearsals… and so he scared his co-stars
Not only did Heath Ledger not stay in character as the Joker between takes, he also did not give a full performance during rehearsals. Co-star Christian Bale said that Ledger did not do the Joker voice or laugh unless the cameras were rolling, which isn’t surprising given how much work went into his vocal performance.
However, because Ledger did not do the “full” Joker before filming, some of his co-stars did not realize what they were getting themselves into. This may or may not have been an intended result so that the other actors would react truthfully to Ledger’s disturbing character. Michael Caine, who played Alfred, is a seasoned and talented actor, but he said that he forgot his lines when he was confronted with Ledger’s Joker for the first time. Maggie Gyllenhaal (who took over as Rachel Dawes from Katie Holmes) was also geniunely unsettled by her co-star’s performance.
6. The Bank Scene is Out of Focus Because Nolan Loved Ledger’s Performance
The bank heist scene was the first scene that was shot with Heath Ledger’s new take of the Joker. Not only is it the beginning of the film, but Nolan thought it would be a good way to transition Ledger into the role. However, Nolan made a mistake while shooting with Imax film, and so afterwards, when he watched the dailies, he realized that they would need to reshoot. Since this was the first time that Ledger had shown anyone the voice and the character, he was worried that the reshoots were his fault and that Nolan did not like the way that he was presenting the character. Ledger had been working tirelessly on this character, and he was afraid that the final product was not what Nolan wanted. Nolan assured Ledger, however, that the character was perfect. While they did end up reshooting, Nolan liked Ledger’s performance so much that the slightly blurred shots made it into the final film.
5. Ledger Hid a Tribute to His Daughter in The Dark Knight
The Joker’s nurse outfit, which he used to infiltrate the hospital, hid a small and personal message on it. Just above the “Dent” political sticker, the nurse nametag reads: “Matilda”, the name of Ledger’s then-infant daughter. Matilda was only two years old when Ledger passed away. While the Joker’s nurse is a terrifying tormentor of Harvey Dent in the film, Ledger still used the role as a moment to immortalize the love he had for his daughter.
Matilda is now eleven years old and lives with her mother, actress Michelle Williams. Williams and Ledger had dated for three years, but ended their relationship in September of 2007, shortly before his death in the beginning of 2008. However, while no longer romantically linked, the two were friendly and intended to continue to co-parent Matilda. Williams is currently nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Manchester by the Sea (2016).
4. Ledger’s Death Was Ruled an Accident
After Heath Ledger’s death, there were many rumors that circulated around whether or not playing the role of the Joker was related to his death or whether or not the actor had taken his own life. Jack Nicholson said that he had “warned” Ledger about taking the role of the Joker, and media latched onto the idea that the role had somehow driven Ledger to extremity. However, while there is still a level of myth surrounding the circumstances of Ledger’s death, it was ruled an accident, not a suicide.
On January 22, 2008, while alone in his New York apartment, Ledger accidentally overdosed on a deadly combination of prescription drugs, including sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medication, and pain killers. His family and friends indicated that there were no signs that the actor was suicidal, although his sister had warned him about mixing his prescription drugs. Other indicators, including ongoing movie projects, also point to his death being an accident, and Ledger did not leave any sort of note that would denote a suicide.
3. Nolan Chose to Edit the Film While Grieving and Dedicated the Movie to Ledger
Christopher Nolan was in the process of editing The Dark Knight when Heath Ledger died. Nolan chose, however, to continue to edit the film in memory of his friend, instead of taking time off to mourn. The director reflected and said that he hoped that the film would have made Ledger proud and that he hoped that the editing choices that he made showcased Ledger’s character correctly. Nolan felt that editing the film was a way to distract himself and simultaneously, it was his responsibility to honor Ledger and the performance that he had given.
Nolan edited with Ledger in mind. He said that while editing, he imagined what would make Ledger happy and how he wanted the final product to be a film that Ledger would have loved. During the editing process, Nolan was confronted with Ledger’s memory constantly. While promoting the film, he said:
I see him every day in my edit suite … I study his face, his voice. And I miss him terribly.
2. Ledger is One of Two Actors to Win the Oscar Posthumously
After The Dark Knight was released, audiences adored and critics praised Heath Ledger’s performance. His co-stars, led by Christian Bale, rallied for his Oscar nomination. On the one year anniversary of his death (coincidentally), Ledger received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Despite the fact that no one had won a posthumous Oscar in over thirty years, Ledger was clearly the frontrunner for the category. The first and only other actor to win a posthumous Oscar was Peter Finch, who won Best Actor for Network in 1977. At the 2009 Academy Awards, Ledger won Best Supporting Actor, making him the second of only two actors to win the Oscar posthumously.
Heath Ledger is also the first and only actor to win an Oscar for a portrayal of a character in a superhero film. Michael Keaton’s performance in Birdman, which garnered him an Oscar nomination in 2015, could arguably be a nomination for a supehero film portrayal.
1. Ledger Directed the Joker’s Hostage Videos in The Dark Knight
In The Dark Knight, the Joker kidnaps some fake wannabe vigilantes dressed as Batman and films two separate warning videos to Batman. Heath Ledger was in charge of directing both of these films, because he wanted to make sure that the videos were from the Joker’s perspective. Christopher Nolan watched and supervised the filming process, but he was so happy with the result of the first video that he let Ledger direct the second video as well.
The hostage videos were an opportunity for Ledger to explore a new passion. Ledger was beginning to branch out as an artist and was becoming increasingly interested in directing, cinematography, and filmmaking. He directed multiple music videos before his death, and was working on adapting the 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit into a feature length film. While this talent was largely unexplored, it was showcased by the hostage films in The Dark Knight.