What is it about playing the Joker that makes actors take it so seriously? With the impending release of Warner Bros. drama Joker just around the corner, the internet has once again erupted with familiar narratives over the iconic villain. One of the most regurgitated stories has been the tale of how the role is not only extremely difficult but a most arduous task for the actor who undertakes it.
For this past fifteen years or so, playing the Joker has been seen as this immensely serious endeavor, a job that requires far more seriousness than your standard comic book villain. This is mostly because of pop culture lore, but it’s also an image helped along by a handful of actors doing the most to encourage it.
To prepare to play the Joker in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger lived alone in a hotel room for a month to give himself the space to fine-tune the character's voice, laugh, and personality. He kept a diary throughout the shooting to document the Joker's feelings and ideas. This prep was expected for a more serious take on the Batman universe as reimagined by Christopher Nolan and was a stark contrast from Jack Nicholson's portrayal in Tim Burton's Batman, where he essentially played himself.
For Suicide Squad, Jared Leto went all-out in his commitment to chaos. Leto is said to have never broken character throughout filming and he spoke with doctors and spent time with psychopaths in preparation. He sent his co-stars "gifts from the Joker", including giving Margot Robbie a rat, dropping off a dead pig at rehearsals, and joys such as used anal beads, an activity he claimed "started me on a journey into thinking what these people are, and it was a lot of fun."
Joaquin Phoenix has mostly attracted attention for his work in Joker in relation to the 52-pound weight loss he did for the part. Phoenix also read books on political assassinations and studied videos of people suffering from pathological laughter.
It’s worth noting how easy myth-making in Hollywood is and how a simple fact can turn into something far stranger and more fantastical. It’s also true that unbearable tragedy can create a lore that pushes discomfiting speculation to the forefront of cultural conversations. Much of the “serious method Joker” narrative came after the death of Heath Ledger, before The Dark Knight was released in theaters. It became sadly all too easy to spin a version of history where Ledger became so haunted by his obsessive commitment to playing the Joker that it caused his early death. Historical rewrites like this ignore oft-reported details from The Dark Knight set, where Ledger was in good spirits and said to be enjoying the shoot, he's even seen riding a skateboard in costume in set photos.
The narrative was made all the worse when Jared Leto took over the role and quickly descended into awkward displays of workplace safety during Suicide Squad. Leto has since claimed that many of these stories were either exaggerated or made up, which is curious given that they often came directly from his co-stars. Whatever the case, neither version of events is especially hopeful.
By comparison, Phoenix’s acting prep for Joker was positively tame. While the weight loss was major, it wasn’t the first time he’d done so for a role and he made the change because Todd Phillips asked for it (indeed, Phoenix had asked for the Joker to be fat instead.) As much as Phoenix has talked about the role being difficult, he’s also been enthusiastic in discussing the fun he had making the movie. He took the work seriously but has seemed understandably keen to distance himself from the dark and depressing narratives that have become par for the course with playing the Joker.
The Joker attracts this image of seriousness and prestige that is often denied to the comic book movie. The role won Ledger a posthumous Oscar and helped to create this allure of the part being not only a momentous task but one of true potential danger. It’s not hard to see what would attract an actor to the Joker, a charismatic and unpredictable villain with no moral qualms or empathy, but elevating it to such portentous tragedy feels misguided at best. Remember, when Cesar Romero played him, he didn’t even shave off his mustache.