With a new Joker origin film being announced and Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly first choice to play the lead, we ask the question. Does portraying the clown prince of crime leave you clinically insane? How does a professional actor get into the mind of a deranged, homicidal, psychopathic, ruthless, sadistic, maniacal, lunatic, manipulative, intelligent and diabolical clown who wants nothing but chaos and anarchy wherever he goes, as well as revelling in the suffering of others?
Surely even the most seasoned of actors would have a difficult time portraying someone so, well… mad.
The Joker is a murderous and unstable character that has no limits to his depravity. So to portray such a disturbed and unbalanced murderer does an actor literally have to remove their own conscious and explore an unthinkable side to their personality that they probably never wanted to acknowledge before or even knew existed?
With the exception of the Joker and the fearsome Pennywise “IT” the Dancing Clown, clowns are supposed to represent joy and laughter, well, that’s what they tell us anyway, yet the Joker strikes terrifying fear into the hearts of his unsuspecting victims. A clown wears colourful makeup to deconstruct facial features to create an unrevealed identity. Emotionless and a black canvas, the Joker is a calculated cold-blooded killer who smears the blood of his victim’s corpses on his powdered face, as his sinister laugh lingers in the cold numbing air. The Joker is a textbook example of antisocial personality disorder, claiming the only sensible way to live is either to descend into madness or to live without rules. With these deluded notions etched into the mind of this maniacal madman, what is the psychological effect of playing someone with such extreme and chaotic views?
Many men have portrayed the mass murdering maniac on the big and small screen. But are there any emotional repercussions to playing someone so complex after filming has wrapped up? To get in the mind of a stark raving lunatic surely your own mind would suffer long-term damage as a result? What makes the role so irresistible to actors and why do some people say that playing the role of this epitome of evil is doomed and cursed?
Well first we need to start from the beginning. Who exactly is the Joker? And what is the backstory of this infamous villain?
The Joker is a fictional supervillain created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson that first appeared in the debut issue of the comic book Batman (April 25, 1940) published by DC Comics. He is considered to be the arch rival to Batman and a constant threat to the caped crusader.
The Joker has had various possible origin stories during his decades of appearances. The most common story involves him falling into a tank of chemical waste which bleaches his skin white, turns his hair green, and his lips bright red; the resulting disfigurement drives him insane. The antithesis of Batman in personality and appearance, the Joker is considered by critics to be his perfect adversary.
One of the most iconic characters in popular culture, the Joker has been listed among the greatest comic book villains and fictional characters ever created, even more villainous than Hilary Clinton, no less.
The Joker is an evil, ruthless, murderous criminal mastermind with a sadistic sense of humour and psychopathic tendency of murdering whoever he wants to. He is cunning in his behaviour, diabolically devious and often found manipulating others to further his own objective. So it must take someone brave and determined to step into the shoes of this fiendishly intelligent sicko, right?
In 1966, 20th Century Fox Television had its debut of the brand new Batman television series. The producers of the show brought in Cesar Romero to play the role of Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. Romero was known for his wide range of screen roles which included playing Latin lovers, historical figures in costume dramas and characters in light domestic comedies. So to say applying the white foundation and red lips of a crazy psycho clown was an odd choice for a respected actor, which left some people scratching their heads in confusion.
Even though the series downplayed the character’s comic book homicidal side and turned him into more of a bumbling camp clown, Romero simply could not find a place for himself in the character, and he spoke of his problems with this duality many times in later interviews. He often left the set confused and unsure of himself and complained of severe headaches when he was brought in for an episode. He would later liken it to being in a constant war between himself and the Joker.
It was as if the Joker had a subconscious hold on the people portraying the deranged lunatic. To convince your mind that you are a psychopathic clown surely must create some kind of identity crisis in your brain, creating a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure and unsure.
The Joker’s laughter ringing in the ear of the portrayer, like fingers being scratched along a chalkboard, once you played the part it was seemingly hard get the ringing out of your head.
Flash forward to 1989. Tim Burton, a director who at the time was known for his gothic and macabre visuals as seen in the cult hit Beetlejuice brought his vision of Batman to the big screen. His larger than life presentation needed larger than life actors to fill the role of the joker, step in legendary actor Jack Nicholson who joined the production as the Joker. Burton allowed Nicholson to dive head first into the darkness of the role and in the beginning, the actor relished the freedom of playing a man with no conscience, who enjoyed killing and mutilation, simply for the thrill of it, as he uttered that famous line, “Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?”
His joy in the role would not last long, however, since he began to complain of restlessness and severe insomnia. The stress of playing the mad clown seeped into all parts of his life, and though he has always spoken of how pleased he was with his work, he still alludes from time to time of the weight and toll the complicated character took on him.
In 2008, Heath Ledger thought landing the demanding role of the schizophrenic jester was a dream come true, but now some think it was a nightmare that led to his tragic death. Jack Nicholson, who had previously donned the trademark purple suit and creepy smile years before, offered a cryptic comment when told Ledger was dead.
“Well, I warned him” Nicholson was quoted as saying. Though the remark was ambiguous it was later revealed that he was talking about a warning he had given the younger actor about some of the sleep medication he was taking, but it’s hard not to read a dual meaning in the words.
Before his death, Heath Ledger was quoted as saying “I slept an average of two hours a night” while playing the part of the mental clown prince of crime. “I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” Ledger was already in a less than ideal place in his life, having just ended his relationship and being separated from his daughter.
Locking himself in a hotel room for weeks, isolating himself from society and civilisation, before filming even took place. Heath ruthlessly studied and mimicked the corruption, wickedness and depravity of the evil clown, immersing himself in every way with the man behind the makeup, even channelling inspiration from Malcolm McDowell’s character in the notorious film a ‘Clockwork Orange‘.
Prior to his death he claimed to have ‘feared’ the role but wanted to make it different. “I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices, 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 act’’ Ledger said.
Ledger continued “He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown, which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what ‘The Joker’ would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke”.
As filming began, his fellow actors began to notice the effect the Joker was having on the actor. He seemed unable to leave the character on the set. It wasn’t long before the depression, anxiety and insomnia set in. He saw a variety of doctors during this time and was prescribed medications with dangerous interactions.
Heath Ledger was found dead in his apartment of an accidental overdose on January 22, 2008, a full 6 months before the movie was released. The diary that Heath kept was later revealed, filled with pictures of hyenas, comic images and on the last page, the words “Bye Bye” written in bold letters.
Which brings us to the present day with Jared Leto’s portrayal of the mindless jokester in Suicide Squad. Directed by David Ayer who was quoted as saying Leto’s Joker “made the whole world stop”.
Leto’s take on the character remains the sadistic and flamboyant character that we have come to expect, complete with all new tattoos and metal teeth. It may have ultimately been a blink and you miss it part, but the presence of the Joker still left his mark, beside his equally mental other half, Harley Quinn.
Just like Heath before him, Jared’s erratic behaviour and antics raised the eyebrows of a few of his colleagues, such as sending his co-stars used condoms while on set, ‘’I did a lot of things to create dynamic, to create an element of surprise, a spontaneity and to really break down any kind of walls that may be there. The Joker is somebody who doesn’t really respect things like personal space or boundaries’’.
Adam Beach, who plays Slipknot in the action flick, recalled how Leto gave one cast member “a nice love letter with a black box with a live rat in it”.
According to Beach, other disturbing gifts that were received by past members from Leto included bullets, anal beads and a carcass of a dead hog with a video message. “The video he showed is in character. It blew our minds away. Then we realized that day, this is real.” Beach explained.
The Academy award winning actor is known for his realistic approach when it comes to playing different characters and he has proved it before, while playing a transgender woman in the film ‘Dallas Buyers Club‘. However, he thinks the Joker is not someone who can exist in reality. Hence, he had to read literature on shamanism to get into the character.
“He became a real person. I don’t know if person is the right word. I think the Joker lives in between reality and another plane kind of a shaman in a way. It’s a very intoxicating role to take on. You have permission to break rules and to challenge yourself and anyone around you in a really unique way,” Leto was quoted as saying.
“The Joker is fantastic because there are no rules. The Joker operates from instinct,” Leto spoke of the artistic freedom of portraying someone so carefree yet devious, “I knew I had to be committed as much as possible. I had to be committed beyond belief. And I did what I needed to do deliver the best I possibly could,” he added.
In a fitting tribute to the men who played the part before him, Leto was quoted as saying that Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger would “approve” of his performance. Leto continued, “We walked in a completely new direction. I think we knew that we had to do that. It was important to do that. When the Joker has been done and done so well, it gives you a bit of an indication of where you shouldn’t go. There’s a bit of a map there. That’s the good part about it”.
Leto ended by saying “Joker has been written about in pop culture for 75 years. I’m just the latest in the long list of people who have redefined and reinvented this character. Whatever it be the actors, the voice actors, the television series, the writers, the artists or the fans. People have taken the Joker and reinvented and redefined for 75 years. It is really special to be asked to do that”.
Is the curse of the Joker simply superstition and or coincidence, or is it something more deep-rooted? Is there emotional attachment from playing someone so tangled and elaborate? What are the psychological effects of having gone to the darkened plains of the mind of a grinning homicidal maniac? To play the part of a deranged killer one moment and go home to your wife and children in the evening, surely must be worlds’ apart; since the erratic behaviour of pretending to be a smiling lunatic must be mentally exhausting. But then, to kiss your wife goodnight and wipe away the white makeup before tucking into bed for the night, must be a tough transition, even for a professional actor. From insane to mundane in a blink of an eye, how can a normal mentally functioning human being go back to being just an ordinary law-abiding citizen when you have travelled to the edge of insanity and back?
The joker in a pack of cards is different from everyone else. He’s not a club, diamond, heart, or spade. He’s not an eight or a nine, a king or a jack. He’s an outsider. He is placed in the same pack as the other cards, but he doesn’t belong there. Therefore, he can be removed without anybody missing him. But what if you have ventured too far into the darkness to ever truly escape the shadows?
If Leonardo DiCaprio is to step into the shoes of the Joker, we hope he has topped up his medication and a good psychiatrist on his speed dial. If somebody could ever conquer the complexities of the Joker and also deliver possibly the best performance yet of the maniacal menace, then it could surely only be Leonardo DiCaprio. So, watch this space!
<Story By Michael Lee>
Featured Photo Credit: Highsnobiety