Christopher Nolan Initially Had Doubts About Heath Ledger’s Joker Voice
Heath Ledger as Joker is widely praised as one of, if not the greatest performance in a superhero movie. But both Nolan and Ledger had no idea how well Ledger’s Joker was going to translate on film. In fact, when Ledger first adopted his Joker voice, Nolan wasn’t completely on board with it at first.
Heath Ledger signed on for the Joker before there was a script
Ledger was a part of the project months before The Dark Knight was even written. Although he turned down a previous offer for Batman Begins, Ledger was impressed enough by the movie to do the sequel. According to IndieWire, Nolan wasn’t sure who he wanted to be the Joker when Ledger lobbied for the role. But Ledger later convinced the director he was the right man for the job.
Because he was cast in advance, Ledger was able to marinate on the role and give proper care to his performance.
“Heath spent months and months [preparing], we cast him even before the script was written so he had a very long time to obsess about it, think about what he was going to do, to really figure it out,” Nolan said.
Christopher Nolan and crew weren’t sure about Heath Ledger’s Joker voice
Although Ledger’s hard work would definitely pay off for the role, at the time his Joker wasn’t a sure thing. Nolan admitted that there were some real doubts regarding certain elements of Ledger’s Joker. IndieWire also reported that the voice he used for the Clown Prince of Crime, in particular, got called into question.
“In that way he kind of sneaked up on it,” Nolan said about Ledger’s Joker voice. “There were moments when you go, ‘Oh, that’s exactly right,’ and there are moments when you go, ‘I hope this is good because I have no idea.’”
Nolan shared that Joker’s voice was unpredictable, but that unpredictability helped inform the character even more.
“The voice was certainly scary because it would shift in pitch,” Nolan said. “You never quite know which way the pitch is going to go with the voice. Just as the physical movements were [unpredictable], you didn’t know what he was going to do with his hands, the way he moved, it was always a surprise. The actual tone of his voice was a surprise too. Sometimes threatening and sometimes more sing-song and light.”
The Tenet director also shared how a British crew on set reacted to Ledger’s Joker. To the crew, the star’s performance left them more confused than entertained. They were so used to Jack Nicholson’s take on the character that they “didn’t really know what [Ledger] was doing.”
It didn’t take long for Ledger to change their minds.
“After a couple of days they said, ‘He’s the business,’ as they say. They could just tell,” Nolan recalled.
Was Heath Ledger’s Joker inspired by Tom Waits?
It’s well documented that Heath Ledger pulled inspiration from many sources. He absorbed material like The Clockwork Orange and studied Francis Bacon paintings to immerse himself in the role. The Hollywood Reporter also asserted that Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious helped mold Ledger’s performance.
But a resurfaced interview with artist Tom Waits had fans wondering if he’d also taken inspiration from the rock legend. In the interview, the Hollywood Reporter notes that Waits’ voice had an uncanny resemblance to Ledger’s own Joker accent. The interview made its rounds on the internet, leading many to assume that Ledger might have gotten his voice from Waits.
However, neither Nolan nor Ledger ever seemed to mention whether or not Ledger’s performance references Waits.