Why Joaquin Phoenix Didn’t Want to Play the Joker At First

Playing the Joker can be a blessing and a curse to an actor. It’s a juicy role that many performers would love to sink their teeth into, but it can also overshadow you in uncomfortable ways. That’s partly why Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the title role in Joker, was hesitant to take on the part. Now, with divisive but strong reviews coming out of film festivals, the film and Phoenix are making a big impact. 

How other actors have fared with the part of the Joker

Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix | TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Since this piece is about Phoenix and his portrayal of the clown prince of crime, we’ll focus only on the other actors who have played the character in a live-action theatrical film: Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto.

Nicholson in the 1989 Batman was seen as an ideal match for the part, with the Batman villain being perhaps the ultimate expression of the crazed persona of the actor. With a little tweaking and a lot more makeup, one could easily imagine Nicholson’s The Shining character as being the Joker in another life. The downside to that was these larger than life roles sometimes tended to overshadow Nicholson’s performances that were more subtle but at least as effective. 

Then there was Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Fans wrongheadedly dismissed him when news of his casting broke — and then they saw the movie. Ledger’s manic, but layered, performance won him a well-deserved Oscar. But Ledger died before the film came out, resulting in something of a death cult hanging over his performance. Despite talk to the contrary, there is no compelling evidence that playing the Joker contributed to his drug overdose. 

Jared Leto, who had won his own Oscar for The Dallas Buyers Club, sought to make his mark in the iconic role. Reports were he went full-method with his Joker as part of Suicide Squad. However, much of his performance seemed to get lost in the blizzard of editing on that picture. What’s more, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn made a much stronger impression. That’s partially why she’s getting a standalone film and Leto isn’t. 

What convinced Joaquin Phoenix to take on the part

Ever since he followed in his late brother River Phoenix’s footsteps, Joaquin Phoenix has been something of an iconoclast, never doing exactly what one expected of him other than to give compelling performances in challenging movies. Probably the most conventional role he’s ever portrayed was to play Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. So a comic book movie wouldn’t be an obvious choice for him.

Nevertheless, Joker director Todd Phillips conceived the film with Phoenix in mind. The Hollywood Reporter quoted him as saying: “Phoenix was not keen on jumping into costume in any comic-book movie. It’s not necessarily in his five-year plan — although I don’t think he has one.”

Phoenix initially saw the character very differently, thinking he was overweight. But Phillips wanted to go in the opposite direction. 

‘Joker’ is almost here

Having undergone all of that, Phoenix is entering the toughest room: the court of public opinion. So far it’s paying off. Joker shocked many when it won the top prize of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival — the same prize the highly-acclaimed Roma won last year. Now Phoenix and the movie are both being talked up for the Oscars.

If Phoenix wins, he and Ledger will duplicate a feat accomplished by Marlon Brando and Joker co-star Robert De Niro, where both actors won Oscars for playing the same character. In De Niro and Brando’s case, it’s Vito Corleone in the Godfather movies. 

“This is a really big deal,” Phoenix said of the reception. He added: “I’m so, like, not in the game that I didn’t know people would do (react to) this.”

The movie, which has been called a fusion of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (heady company indeed), opens October 4.