How each movie star prepared to play the live-action Joker

Hanna Flint
How movie stars prepared to play Joker (Credit: Warner Bros)

Joker was first introduced on-screen in the 1960s and 60 years later he’s still going strong.

Cinema-goers will be able to see Joaquin Phoenix’s iteration of the Batman villain this week, in Todd Phillips’ standalone movie which focuses on the Clown Prince of Crime’s origins before Bruce Wayne became the Caped Crusader.

Much has been discussed about this Joker, especially about how Phoenix prepared for the role and behaved on set during its filming. Each actor has a different process when it comes to delivering a performance, and over the years those who have played the Joker have made some interesting choices.

Here’s a look back at what each big screen, live-action Joker actor has had to say about playing Batman’s archnemesis.

Cesar Romero

BATMAN - "The Joker Goes to School" - Airdate March 2, 1966. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images) CESAR ROMERO

The OG Joker had the time of his life playing the villain in the Batman TV series and movie.

"Sure, it's a lot of fun,” he told CBS host, Jean Boone. “We have a lot of fun doing this show, and we had a lot of fun making the movie. It's a part that you can do everything that you've always been told not to do as an actor. In other words, you can get as hammy as you like and go all out. It's great fun, I enjoy it.”

Romero also refused to shave his moustache to play the role so instead white face-paint did a bad job of covering it up.

What is it about DC and moustache struggles?

Jack Nicholson

American actor Jack Nicholson plays the Joker in the movie Batman, directed by Tim Burton. (Photo by Murray Close/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Nicholson had just as much fun as his predecessor.

In an interview, the actor explained that what he loved about the Joker is the fact that even though he has very specific characteristics, unpredictability being a major one, the role “would be the least limiting of any I would ever encounter,” and Joker’s “tasteless” sense of humour meant he could push the performance as far as possible without a care.

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Before signing his contract, the actor made sure it was written in that he would get to approve the make-up designer and his designs and a later call time that would allow him to come in at 10am at the earliest.

That wasn’t so he could have extra prep time to perform the role, despite being a student of The Method (an acting technique favoured by later Joker actors), rather allow him more time to rest after evenings out. Nicholson was quite the night owl and lothario who often stayed out until the early hours.

“He’s a nonstop sex machine,” British actor Karen Mayo-Chandler said in a 1989 Playboy interview claiming they hooked up during filming, “He’s into fun and games… like spanking, handcuffs, whips and Polaroid pictures…”.

A laidback approach was further confirmed by Michael Keaton, who told David Letterman: "One day, he looked over at me and we're both being made up in our suits, and he just looks at me and says, 'well we just gotta let the wardrobe do the acting, kid,' and it's true, man, after a while, you just work the suit."

He was also a fan of improvisation. The “bird dance,” as Nicholson called it, in the scene in Vicki Vale’s flat, was made up on the spot and something he had borrowed from his pal Clegg Hoyt. Mac MacDonald said in an interview that he was hired as one of Joker’s goons because of Nicholson's love for improvisation too.

According to Mac, Tim Burton said, “There’s not much on the page of the script for the goons to do but Jack [Nicholson] loves to improvise, so you guys will be improvising a lot when you’re out there. You’ll have a great time."

He also recalled meeting Jack for the first time, in character, along with the rest of the goons: “He walks up and down the line like a general surveying his troops with his hands behind his back and he's going, ‘Very nice. Very nice’, nodding and all. When he gets to the end of the line he goes, ‘Gentlemen...thank you very much.’”

Heath Ledger

Ledger as Joker in The Dark Knight (Credit: Warner Bros)

Ledger was cast before Christopher Nolan had written the script, which allowed him to collaborate in the creation of Joker for The Dark Knight. Nolan had asked him to read Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and study the paintings of Francis Bacon and before filming the actor became a recluse.

Read more: Jai Courtenay talks The Suicide Squad

“I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices,” Ledger told Empire in 2007. “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.”

The diary was revealed, in the documentary Too Young To Die, to have included pictures of hyenas, clowns, comic strips and Malcolm McDowell as Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and his father, Kim Ledger, said that depressingly, the final diary entry read “Bye Bye.”

Ledger's Joker diary as seen in the documentary Too Young To Die

However, despite the efforts to get into the mindset of the Joker, Ledger didn’t go full Method. Make-up artist John Caglione told Movie Geeks United that the actor had fun in between scenes, smoked, skateboarded around and gave people hugs at the start and at the end of each day.

Read more: Ruby Rose almost paralysed over Batwoman injuries

Still, the role took a toll on him. Ledger told The New York Times he, “probably slept an average of two hours a night. I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” He began taking Ambien to help him sleep but six months before the film’s release he had died from an accidental overdose of the drug.

Many tried to link the Joker to Ledger’s ultimate demise but in an interview with MTV after shooting the film he said it, “was the most fun I’ve ever had, or probably ever will have, playing a character.”

Jared Leto

Jared Leto as the Joker in Sucide Squad (Credit: Warner Bros.)

Leto took the full Method acting approach to his portrayal in Suicide Squad and started his prep with the comics.

“I first started at the beginning, educating myself, researching, reading as much as I could, going back to the source material,” Leto told EW before explaining, “I had to throw everything away and start from the beginning and really build this from the ground up.

He also met with experts and doctors as well as “people who had committed horrendous crimes, and...people who have been institutionalized for great periods of time". Leto stayed in character throughout the shoot, sending “gifts” to his castmates and freaking everyone out on set.

Suicide Squad stars Cara Delevigne and Joel Kinnaman with th rat Jared Leto sent to Margot Robbie (Credit: Instagram)

Having isolated himself from the rest of the cast in pre-production, at the first rehearsal his henchman dropped a pig’s head on the table, he later sent a live rat to Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn) - which is now in the care of Guillermo del Toro - bullets to both Will Smith (Deadshot) and Viola Davis (Amanda Waller), Playboy mags to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Killer Croc) and used condoms to the whole cast.

Leto would only be referred to as “Mr. J” and also, reportedly, spent a night in the prison used for early scenes in the film.

“I had to be committed beyond belief,” Leto said. “And I did what I needed to do to deliver the best I possibly could.”

Joaquin Phoenix

Jaoquin Phoenix in Joker (Credit: Warner Bros)

Phoenix had wanted to do a character study of a comic book villain for years so was excited when he learned of Todd Phillips’ approach. The actor spent eight months researching how Arthur Fleck could become the Joker, losing an extreme amount of weight (at Phillips’ request to look “wolf-like and malnourished”), and read books on personality types of political assassins.

“I didn’t want a psychologist to be able to identify what kind of person he was,” he said at the Venice Film Festival premiere of Joker according to AP. ”[I] wanted there to remain a mystery about the character.”

He also practiced his maniacal laugh a lot and even had Phillips come over to his place to audition various versions. Onset, the director would play some of composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score to set the tone.

“We were discovering new aspects about his personality up to the very last day,” Phoenix said.

This kind of intensity led to the actor walking offset several times during production. Phillips told the New York Times, Phoenix “lost his composure on the set, sometimes to the bafflement of his co-stars,” and were forced to wait around until he was ready to go again.

“In the middle of the scene, he’ll just walk away and walk out,” Phillips said. “And the poor other actor thinks it’s them and it was never them - it was always him, and he just wasn’t feeling it.”

He never did that when filming scenes with Robert De Niro, who plays late-night talk show host and Arthur’s idol Murray Franklin. “Joaquin was very intense in what he was doing, as it should be, as he should be,” De Niro said. “There’s nothing to talk about, personally, on the side, ‘Let’s have coffee.’ Let’s just do the stuff.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience quite like this one,” Phoenix said of making the movie. “The more unpredictable it was, the more inspiring it was.”

Joker is in cinemas on Friday.