This Saturday, a new DC movie ‘Joker’, which, unlike predecessors, focuses entirely on one of the most iconic comic book villains ever created, premiered at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. With late Heath Ledger’s legendary portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, actor Joaquin Phoenix was in for some serious competition, and, judging by the first reviews, he’s got the job done right.
Speaking at the Venice Film Festival, Phoenix said he did not refer to “past interpretations of the character.”
“For me, the attraction to make this film and this character was that we were going to approach it in our own way,” he said, according to The Daily Beast.
In order to portray the character, named Arthur Fleck, who lives in deep poverty with his mother, Phoenix famously lost 52 pounds in six months, and, according to his confession, it had some unexpected effects.
“The first thing for us was the weight loss—I think that’s really what I started with. And, as it turns out, that then affects your psychology. You start to go mad when you lose that amount of weight in that amount of time,” Phoenix said. “There’s a book that I read about political assassins and would-be assassins that I thought was really interesting, and kind of breaks down the different types of personalities that do those sorts of things.”
In order to better understand the mind of his character, Phoenix had to personally fill in the Joker’s diary. Phoenix said that movie director Todd Phillips gave him an empty journal and told him to fill it with what is supposed to be the Joker’s mindset.
“I didn’t know what to write, so I asked [Todd] for some suggestions, and after a few days, I ignored his suggestions and suddenly it was coming out,” Phoenix said. It became a really important part of the discovery of the character at that time.”
Interestingly, Ledger used the same method when he was preparing for his own portrayal of the Joker. For a span of six weeks, Ledger locked himself away in a hotel room, writing the Joker’s diary and experimenting with voices.
"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,” the late actor said about the process.
One of the defining traits of Phoenix’s Joker is an uncontrollable laugh, a byproduct of Arthur Fleck’s brain injury. In the movie, Fleck carries a laminated card that reads “forgive my laughter, I have a brain injury.” Delivering this kind of laughter on demand turned out to be a real challenge for Phoenix’s skills, the actor said.
“Before I even read the script, Todd came over and talked me through what he wanted out of this character and this movie, and he showed me some videos, and he described the laughter as something that was almost painful,” offered Phoenix. “And so ultimately, I think Joker is a part of him that’s trying to emerge, and I think that was a really interesting way of looking at this laugh…It felt like a new, fresh way of looking at it. But honestly, I didn’t think that I could do it. I would practice alone and then asked Todd to come over to audition my laugh, because I felt like I had to do it on the spot and in front of somebody else. It took me a long time.”
The actor said that while many may see ‘Joker’ as a tragedy, he personally was focused on whatever bright things the damaged villain carried in his mind.
“I was interested in the light of Arthur, for lack of a better word,” he said. “It wasn’t just the torment; it was his struggle to find happiness, to feel connected, to find the warmth and love—that’s the part of the character I was interested in and worth exploring.”
‘Joker’ is the first DC movie that paints a definitive backstory for the eponymous character. Prior to the movie, it was a long-running tradition that the Joker had no past. As the character states in one of the comic book issues, “if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”