The man behind the make-up and that creepy cackle filled some huge floppy shoes when he chose to be the first legitimate threat to dethroning Heath Ledger as the GOAT of Clowns.
Joaquin Phoenix is known for being one of the most dedicated and absorbing actors in recent memory. It’s either him or Daniel Day-Lewis who takes the bag for “most method” in Hollywood. So, of course, it makes complete sense Todd Phillips wanted him to portray his non-CBM version of the Clown Prince of Crime.
Following Heath Ledger’s tragic death and subsequent posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar, no one had a chance to follow that act from The Dark Knight.
He’s an enigmatic actor adores working indies or movies with mercurial plots (i.e., Her, The Master, We Own the Night, Inherent Vice). Because he is Mr. Phoenix, he can get jobs in major motion pictures as well (i.e., Gladiator, Walk the Line, Mary Magdalene). He doesn’t care about roles; he loves the story and the journey it takes him, as we discover in a recent — and fantastic — article in The New York Times.
Into the Darkness
If you are ever lost on a long road trip, and the GPS isn’t too reliable, you may get nervous. For Joaquin, a journey with no confirmed destination in sight is revealing of why he will absolutely crush his role as Arthur Fleck. Namely considering he is walking into a pitch black tunnel without a flashlight.
It’s the darkness of the role that appealed to him.
Phoenix likes that potential for danger in his work, too, and he cited it as one of the reasons he wanted to make “Joker.”
“I didn’t really know what it was,” he said. “I didn’t know how to classify it. I didn’t say, ‘This is the character I’m playing.’ I didn’t know what we were going to do.”
“It was terrifying,” he continued, and he flashed that grin again.
Dave Itzkoff, the author of the NYT piece, got some sincere thoughts about the craft of acting and how he handles the roles he “chooses”:
“I don’t really care about genre or budget size, anything like that,” Phoenix said. “It’s just whether there is a filmmaker that has a unique vision.”
It’s not enough that the eventual producer had a vision that strayed from his comfort zone in comedy. It’s not enough that ‘The Joker’ is arguably the most diabolical and well-known villain in comics. Joaquin needed something novel, something that hasn’t been done before.
Looks like he got just that.
In the same article, Todd Phillips admits the large task of “beating Marvel.” Yeah, good luck with that. Smart kid that Phillips but as it pertains their own strategy, the thoughts are totally the opposite of what DC stans could relate:
Warner Bros. had been having only intermittent success with its DC superhero movies — Wonder Woman and (again, their opinion) Suicide Squad. Phillips saw a potential solution to try and “beat Marvel.” Phillips saw a potential solution to everyone’s problems.
“You can’t beat Marvel — it’s a giant behemoth,” he said. “Let’s do something they can’t do.”
Pretty sure that “thing they can’t do” is going to be on full display. Ledger’s and Christopher Nolan’s Joker made a new mold for the Jester of Genocide. He was deranged, damaged, and a living anathema for anyone on his list.
Typically, we got Jokers of the more campy version related to the great Cesar Romero from 1966. That all changed with The Dark Knight. And due respect to Tim Burton (and kinda, David Ayer), that’s where Phillips found his muse.
Discovering His Own Methods
According to the story, Phillips believed it was about time to shed light on the myth behind the Joker.
Enter into the fray Arthur Fleck
In the “Joker” screenplay written by Phillips and Scott Silver, the protagonist is Arthur Fleck, a troubled clown-for-hire in rundown, uncaring Gotham City.
While its citizens shun him and stomp on him, Arthur descends into a cycle of retribution and violence, becoming a folk hero for all the wrong reasons. “You want to root for this guy until you can’t root for him any longer,” Phillips explained.
Of course, we are all going to root for him. Well, except for all the Marvel stans who has such a hard time believing there is any other comic franchise that could produce greatness in the nerd community. (Don’t worry. We know DC has its fair share of lunatics running the asylum.)
Although we are positioned to not root for Fleck, we absolutely root for Phoenix because unlike the clickbait rumor mill espouses, this role was written for him and no one else. Even Phillips stalked Phoenix to get him interested. Really.
Over about three months, Phillips repeatedly visited Phoenix’s home, answering his many, many questions about the character and hoping to win him over through sheer persistence.
“I asked him to come over and audition me for it,” Phoenix said. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but he kept saying, ‘Let’s just be bold. Let’s do something.’”
As Phillips recalled, “I kept waiting for him to just say, ‘O.K., I’m in,’ And he never did that.” Where Phoenix is concerned, he said, “You just never get a yes. All you get is more questions.”
There were questions about his origin, the depths of his psychosis, and his weight. Oddly enough, Phoenix thought Fleck should be “heavy.” Phillips convinced him that a deviant like Fleck should be a haggard, sickly foe.
So Phoenix lost 52 pounds for the role.
Becoming The Man Behind The Mask
Cinephiles should enjoy the depths Phoenix would submerge himself into this role. He not only studied former Jokers, but also haphazard comedians.
He could have studied the greats — Carlin, Pryor, Murphy, Bruce, but if Fleck sucked as a comedian, why would he?
[Phoenix] and Phillips challenged each other with ideas they found in books (“I’m not going to tell you what those books were”). The actor learned to apply his own greasepaint and kept a journal of half-formed jokes and frenzied thoughts that appears in the movie.
Probably the most delightful part of this unveiling into Phoenix’s process is what he would or wouldn’t do as the man who would be Fleck.
Phillips said Phoenix’s greatest misgivings about “Joker” were its explicit ties to comic-book mythology, represented most prominently by the character of the outspoken, out-of-touch billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), whose son, Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson), will grow up to be Batman.
“He never liked saying the name Thomas Wayne,” Phillips said. “It would have been easier for him if the movie was called ‘Arthur’ and had nothing to do with any of that stuff. But in the long run, I think he got it and appreciated it.”
The goal was always to tell the story about Fleck — not Wayne (dad or son).
The Depths of Insanity
Some comic enthusiasts have a problem that the ghosts of Bob Kane or Bill Finger weren’t consulted for the screenplay of this movie, but according to reviews from Venice, those two would be more than pleased with what Phoenix and Phillips did with their creation.
To the point where Phoenix would break down on set because he was so wrapped up into who he now is. He was not Joaquin any longer; he was Arthur. And that guy sometimes was becoming crazy — his own onion layers were being peeled even before his eyes.
Phillips said there were moments when Phoenix lost his composure on the set of “Joker,” sometimes to the bafflement of his co-stars.
“In the middle of the scene, he’ll just walk away and walk out,” Phillips said. “And the poor other actor thinks it’s them and it was never them — it was always him, and he just wasn’t feeling it.” And after taking a breather, he said, “we’ll take a walk and we’ll come back and we’ll do it.”
Fleck had to perfectly devolving into insanity. Phoenix, a three-time Oscar nominee, could care less about awards or accolades. He cares most about the role, the person in the script he had to become.
In short: this movie was placed in great hands. Phoenix is a clay master and once he placed what he believed Joker should become into his kiln, out of the blaze came Arthur Fleck.
This is a revealing and awesome article by Itzkoff, but it only preludes what is to come on screens October 4. And, we’ve been saying it for more than a year, come 2020, this article will prelude a trip to Hollywood. A guy named “Oscar” is driving Joaquin’s Uber to some award show.
This is no joke. It’s going to happen, folks. And no one should be surprised.