From Cesar Romero’s turn in the 1960s Batman series to Jared Leto in 2016’s Suicide Squad, the task of bringing the Caped Crusader’s biggest foe to life has always been one with a heavy weight of expectation.
There’s so much source material to look towards, so many versions in the DC comic books and an impressive list of on-screen interpretations to draw from, there’s no doubt it’s an intimidating role for any actor.
In the wake of Heath Ledger’s universally acclaimed performance in The Dark Knight (2008), in what was to become his final role before dying, it’s the kind of job only a seriously brave actor would consider. And so to Joker, the latest film to tackle the super villain, which is one of the most striking, divisive movies of the decade, with a central performance of undeniable power.
The brave actor to take the role this time around? None other than Joaquin Phoenix, not the first person you’d expect to see in a superhero movie. Except this is no superhero movie, this is a taut character study of a man in the midst of a breakdown, the tale of someone with mental health issues that is pushed to the brink by the system he has to live in and abide by. It’s an often troubling account of Phoenix’s character’s descent into insanity, which people have found to be worryingly prescient in the modern day times of mass-shootings and murders across the US and around the world.
Directed by Todd Phillips, it’s a far cry from his early days behind the camera on frat-boy and gross-out comedies such as Road Trip, Old School and The Hangover, and one that came about thanks to his longstanding friendship with The Hangover’s Bradley Cooper, who produces Joker (Phillips produced A Star is Born).
Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, it’s 1981 and he’s a struggling stand-up comedian.The actor lost 24kg for the harrowing role and has a maniacal laugh that unnerves everyone around him. The film feels akin to the likes of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese movies starring Robert De Niro (who also stars in the film as TV host Murray Franklin, a throwback to his own role in The King of Comedy). Indeed Scorsese was initially attached to the project as producer. With such a cast of stars power behind the movie, it’s no wonder it’s already receiving awards-buzz.
Here’s Phoenix talking about the role.
What made you want to take on the role of Arthur Fleck?
Well, I thought it was bold, like nothing I’ve ever read before. It’s certainly different than any movie that would fall into the superhero genre, but it was even different than dramas that I had read. It seemed to have so many different flavours and tones.
Joker is an unreliable narrator. Does that affect your choices as an actor?
There were times where I thought he would enjoy altering his story and the effect that it would have on somebody, and how somebody might feel about him. There are other times where he’d alter it just because that’s what he really believed. Usually with characters like that it’s frustrating because you want to understand what their motivations are, but it became like a liberation for this character, and I realised that it could go in any direction.
Todd Phillips described your work together on this film as a true partnership. Do you feel the same?
Yes, and it wasn’t only when we were on set. After we finished shooting, or on weekends, we would call or text or meet up and talk about the next scenes. I felt like we were so unified throughout this process that if one of us ever got to the point where we weren’t feeling inspired, hopefully the other one would inspire them. There were many times it was quite surprising, how much we thought of the same thing, the same solution to a problem.
There’s a scene in a bathroom that’s a pivotal moment. How did you come up with that?
The preparation was the study of dance and movement, but we didn’t find the real intention of that scene until we went to set that day. When we arrived, we felt we still needed something to illustrate the emergence of a different part of Arthur’s personality. We landed on the idea because I had been studying all of this dance, and he started playing this cello music – it was a really effective piece of score that he had just gotten the previous night. I said, “So maybe there’s a movement,” and he said, “Well, I would start on your foot. That’s your move,” and that’s all he said. Then we left and just thought about it, and that’s all we had. And something else emerged, and it’s both a turning point for the character and it was a turning point for me and Todd working together.
Tell us about the importance of the staircase?
When I was writing in Arthur’s journal as part of my preparation, Todd sent me something about steps, to inspire me in this writing. And then he told me about the steps that we would use in a few scenes, where Arthur ascends these long stairs over and over. And I think there were a few pages in the journal where I just wrote “step after step after step after step after step,” over and over, across the pages. That became a thing that we would text each other back and forth, “step after step”.
Joker is in cinemas on October 3.