‘The Dark Knight’: Heath Ledger Once Admitted the Real Reason He Accepted the Joker

Upon its release in 2008, The Dark Knight sailed far higher than its expectations. After the success of Batman Begins, the sequel — which brought in the late Heath Ledger as the Joker — promised to expand on Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City. But Ledger nearly said no to the project. Here’s what ultimately convinced him to sign on for The Dark Knight.

Heath Ledger at the Venice International Film Festival
Heath Ledger at the Venice International Film Festival | ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

Did Heath Ledger finish ‘The Dark Knight’ before his death?

When Ledger was cast as the Joker, fans were understandably skeptical. After all, many probably still knew him best from romantic leads such as 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale. But by the time he joined The Dark Knight, Ledger had already delivered a career-changing performance in Brokeback Mountain. So the stage was set for greatness.

The actor, of course, died tragically on Jan. 22, 2008. Prior to his death, he completed principal photography on The Dark Knight. The movie was released to theaters six months later, earning more than $1 billion worldwide. In addition to heaps of critical praise (and stunning co-star Michael Caine on set), Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award in 2009.

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‘Batman Begins’ convinced him to sign on as the iconic villain

However, Ledger was an unexpected choice. Firstly, he had shown little interest in franchise movies before The Dark Knight. In fact, Ledger would have refused to play Joker if it had been connected to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. But as he revealed once — according to The Hollywood Reporter — there was a key difference. 

“The only reason I wasn’t [a fan of comic books was] I grew up in a household of girls. So there were very few Batman comic books lying around. There [was] mainly Archie. So that’s probably the only reason why I never grew up reading Batman. But I really loved Batman Begins, and the character of the Joker was just too good to turn down. …

So when Chris [Nolan] came to me — and I knew how Chris was — he had already set up the world for me. I’d seen what world it was that I would be playing in. So I knew it was open for a fresh interpretation. I also instantly kind of had something up my sleeve, which happened to be exactly what Chris was kind of looking for. We sat down and kind of shared ideas, and they were the same. So we just went with it.”

Certainly, Nolan too has discussed his unique collaboration with Ledger. Even after Joaquin Phoenix followed in Ledger’s shoes to win an Oscar for playing the character, The Dark Knight’s Joker feels unlike any other interpretation. Perhaps his freshness to the material had something to do with how he brought the iconic villain to life.

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Heath Ledger’s Joker earned the actor a posthumous Oscar

Remarkably, Ledger only appears on screen for 33 minutes of The Dark Knight’s epic 152-minute runtime. Yet, his character casts such a shadow on the film. Even when the Joker does not appear for a while, he feels present. Anthony Hopkins similarly won an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs.

Hannibal Lecter only appears in 16 minutes of that film. Yet, he makes such an impact on the other characters and viewers that he lingers on. So too does Ledger in The Dark Knight. While fans continue to debate which big-screen Joker is the best, Ledger’s cemented itself as part of the conversation.