‘Joker’: You Won’t Believe How Joaquin Phoenix Agreed to Star in the Movie

For all its pre-release controversy, Joker didn’t seem to live up the concerns. The film’s perceived potential to inspire real-life violence even caused star Joaquin Phoenix to walk out of an interview. Thankfully, Joker hasn’t led any copycats aspiring to follow in Arthur Fleck’s footsteps.

But we are still talking about the movie months after its release. In part buoyed by all the controversy, Joker‘s $1.1 billion (and counting) worldwide box office take has exceeded all expectations. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe Phoenix almost had nothing to do with the film.

Joaquin Phoenix at the New York Film Festival
Joaquin Phoenix at the New York Film Festival | Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Film at Lincoln Center

Joaquin Phoenix almost turned down ‘Joker’

Looking back on Phoenix’s body of work, the three-time Academy Award nominee hasn’t always made the most commercial choices. In fact, aside from Gladiator and Signs, the actor has mostly stayed away from blockbuster fare. So fans were understandably surprised when he signed on for Joker. Despite the continuing dominance of comic book movies — and Phoenix’s own brush with Doctor Strange — no one expected him to actually join the project.

In fact, he almost didn’t. Phoenix might have delivered layered performances in films like Her, The Master, and You Were Never Really Here. But he didn’t think he could bring that level of complexity to a comic book character. Of course, Phoenix is now heavily expected to be nominated for yet another Oscar for playing the Joker, with Warner Bros campaigning hard.

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Todd Phillips explains how it came together

Now it’s impossible to picture anyone else tapping into director Todd Phillips’ vision for Joker. Such is the power in Phoenix’s physical transformation and the chilling character details he developed. But, as Phillips told IndieWire, Phoenix was so close to rejecting the film that he never technically said “yes.”

If you took two pages of our script and you [hold it up] to our scene, you realize how additive an actor can be. It was a pursuit to get him because initially it feels like, “ugh, comic book movie.” Just the idea of it is something he wasn’t so keen on pursuing, and even when I would explain to him it’s not that, it kind of says that, but really we’re doing this other thing, there was a little resistance. But the more I got to know him, the more I hung out with him, and we spent a lot of time talking about what the movie will look and feel like, and then one day he magically showed up. He never said yes. He just one day showed up to a wardrobe fitting. … It was an incredible partnership.

Truly, no matter how you feel about Joker, the film is unlike any other comic book movie. Phillips and Phoenix’s experimental way of developing the story and character have resulted in a career-high moment for both men. No wonder Warner Bros. is mulling over how it can leverage Joker‘s success going forward.

Phillips and Phoenix could win their first Academy Awards

As we get deeper into the heart of awards season, Joker‘s prospects are only becoming more and more promising. Countless critics’ groups have recognized the film, especially Phoenix’ performance. And Joker has already been nominated for four Golden Globes, including Best Actor and Director.

Indeed, Joker is moving steadily toward securing a Best Picture nomination at the 2020 Academy Awards. If it does, Phillips’ film will be only the second comic book movie to do so, after last year’s Black Panther. Not too bad for a collaboration between Phillips and Phoenix that almost never happened.