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How Joaquin Phoenix transformed into the Joker

How do you become a madman? Or maybe the question should be, how do you become the madman?

The very fact that a Joker film exists is proof that this classic comic book villain has grown far beyond his origin as an eccentric antagonist to Batman and became a cultural icon — the clown-faced ambassador of madness. No actor stepping into the role can take the job lightly, and arguably that goes double for Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, because he has no Batman to square off against. Phoenix had to create a compelling character who would keep our attention without jackets full of lethal toys and fights in bell towers. According to what the critics have to say so far, he's succeeded

So exactly how did Joaquin Phoenix become the Joker? Sure, he's played mentally ill characters before. But Arthur Fleck doesn't seem to have much in common with Freddie Quell from The Master or the obsessed Roman Emperor Commodus in Gladiator. He's a completely different animal, and according to Phoenix's own words, some of the steps he took to become this newest version of Gotham's Clown Prince of Crime chipped away at his mental and emotional well-being. To learn about those techniques and more, keep reading about how Joaquin Phoenix transformed into the Joker. 

Joaquin Phoenix wasn't interested in yesterday's Joker

In June, Daily Iowan columnist Austin J. Yerington argued that Gotham's green-haired nemesis is "the new Hamlet," pointing out not only how many acclaimed actors gravitate to the role of Joker but how — just like in the case of different thespians' portrayals of Hamlet — each actor puts enough of a twist on the character that he never seems like the same guy. 

Yerington isn't wrong, and because of that you might assume the first thing on Joaquin Phoenix's to-do list — or that of any actor tasked with playing the Joker — was to study all those famous Joker portrayals. Jared Leto in Suicide Squad, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Jack Nicholson in Batman, and all the way back to Cesar Romero in the campy '60s Batman series. He might even want some binges of Gotham and the short-lived Birds of Prey series, or to keep an ear open for the many voice actors who have portrayed the Joker; most famously Mark Hamill.

But according to Phoenix, that was the last thing he wanted to do. 

"For me, the attraction to make [Joker] and this character was that we were going to approach it in our own way," Phoenix said at the Venice Film Festival. "So for me, I didn't refer to past interpretations of the character." 

It's a bold strategy — and from what the critics are saying, it paid off. 

The Joaquin Phoenix Who Laughs

Arguably, Phoenix isn't completely accurate when he says he didn't study any previous film incarnations of the Joker. At the 2019 Venice Film Festival, Joker director Todd Phillips said one of the movies he found particularly important in his preparation for the role of Arthur Fleck was the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs. Based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, The Man Who Laughs stars Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine, a freak show attraction who has been disfigured with a permanent smile since birth. 

The Man Who Laughs is often cited as the inspiration for the Joker, who premiered in 1940's Batman #1. DC Comics paid tribute to that early inspiration with its villain the Batman Who Laughs, an alternate universe version of Bruce Wayne who succumbs to the Joker's madness. Grant Morrison — who wrote Batman for seven years and, among other things, introduced Batman's son Damian Wayne, a.k.a. the current Robin, to the mythos — called the creation of Joker a "straight lift" from The Man Who Laughs in his 2011 book Supergods. He goes so far to say it's a wonder how Joker's creators "got away with it."

So in a sense, even though the Jokers of Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson weren't considered in the creation of Arthur Fleck, you could argue Philips and Phoenix studied every Joker by skipping them all and going straight to the source. 

Joaquin Phoenix went 'mad' losing weight to play the Joker

Joker director Todd Philips has been clear he doesn't want anyone to go into Joker thinking they're going to be seeing the adaptation of a particular comic, or that they should expect much inspiration from the comics at all. Ironically, there's at least one way Arthur Fleck's character mirrors the Joker of the comics perhaps more closely than any of the film adaptations we've seen so far. The Joker is almost always depicted as being very skinny in the comics, sometimes impossibly so. According to Phoenix, the first thing he did to prepare for Joker was to lose weight so quickly that it messed with his mental health. 

"The first thing for us was the weight loss — I think that's really what I started with," Phoenix said at the Venice Film Festival. Fittingly, the weight loss didn't just make Phoenix look more like the Joker — it may have made him think more like him too. "[A]s it turns out, that then affects your psychology," Phoenix said. "You start to go mad when you lose that amount of weight in that amount of time."

Joaquin Phoenix studied the '70s for 'Joker'

While The Man Who Laughs came out in 1928, other films influencing Joker came from a very different era — specifically, the '70s and early '80s. 

That probably isn't a surprise. As soon as the first Joker trailer was released, fans and critics saw the similarities to specific '70s films, particularly those directed by acclaimed director Martin Scorsese — who was originally attached as an executive producer for Joker but had to bow out due to conflicting commitments. Phillips named as some of his chief inspirations 1976's Taxi Driver 1982's King of Comedy, both of which star Robert De Niro. King of Comedy, like Joker, follows a failed and mentally ill stand-up comic, played by De Niro.

Phillips also mentioned 1973's Serpico and 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The latter is perhaps the most fitting of the bunch, not only because it takes place in a mental institution, but because it's one of the landmarks in the career of one of the most memorable movie Jokers — Jack Nicholson. So again, while Phoenix didn't study other move Jokers, in a way he may have done so indirectly.

Joaquin Phoenix studied the killers of kings for 'Joker'

Films weren't the only media Joaquin Phoenix studied to become the Joker. At the 2019 Venice Film Festival, he mentioned reading a book that broke down the personality types of political assassins. We don't know exactly which books he read because he didn't offer specifics, though one likely candidate might be James W. Clarke's 1990 book On Being Mad or Merely Angry, which among other things looks at John Hinckley's 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

Regardless of exactly what Phoenix read, the subject is telling in terms of the departure from previous incarnations of the Joker. While the Joker of the comics and other films would likely have few qualms about killing politicians — Heath Ledger's Joker tries and fails to assassinate the mayor of Gotham in The Dark Knight — it isn't something he focuses on primarily. 

It also speaks to just how strongly the films Phillips mentioned will influence Joker. Political assassination is very much on Travis Bickle's mind in 1976's Taxi Driver. And the early '80s setting of Joker places it right around the time Hinckley's own mental illness drove him to try to murder President Reagan. 

Arthur Fleck's journal

If you want to find out about someone, you might try reading their diary. Instead of sneaking a peek at a journal, when Joaquin Phoenix wanted to get inside Arthur Fleck's mind, he wrote Fleck's journal for him. 

At the 2019 Venice Film Festival, Phoenix talked about how writing Fleck's journal helped him begin to form the characters. He told reporters that Todd Phillips sent him a blank notebook to act as Fleck's "journal and joke diary."

"[T]hat was really helpful," Phoenix said, "because I had been there for a couple of weeks and wasn't sure how I was going to start." The actor apparently was a little stymied at first. "I didn't know what to write, so I asked [Phillips] for some suggestions, and after a few days, I ignored his suggestions and suddenly it was coming out. It became a really important part of the discovery of the character."

Presumably, we've already gotten a glimpse at some of that source of discovery. In the first Joker trailer, one shot shows Fleck reviewing a spiral bound notebook. It says "JOKES" at the top of the page, though toward the bottom the handwriting gets larger and more crazed, suggesting by the end it's Fleck's mental illness we're seeing spill out more than his creativity. 

Nothing was set in stone for 'Joker'

In talking about how he handled the filming process, Joaquin Phoenix has made it clear he never wanted to be finished getting to know Arthur Fleck. At the 2019 Venice Film Festival, he said he didn't want Fleck to simply be seen as an example of an easily recognized psychological disorder. "I didn't want a psychologist to be able to identify what kind of person he was… [I] wanted there to remain a mystery about the character."

So early on, Phoenix decided he would never completely want to define his version of the Joker — to come up with a personality profile that definitively dictated how Arthur Fleck would act in different situations. When talking about the production he said he believed he succeeded. Phoenix told the press in Venice that "Throughout the course of shooting, every day we were discovering new aspects to his character and shades to his personality up until the very last day."   

Joaquin Phoenix listened to no one while creating his Joker

Following Joaquin Phoenix's words on the subject of Joker since he was cast in the role in 2018, at least one common theme about his process becomes clear — he doesn't care about your feedback. 

As mentioned previously in regards to the Arthur Fleck journal and joke diary, even when Phoenix specifically asked for feedback, he rejected it. Speaking of getting started on the journal, Phoenix said he initially asked Todd Phillips for suggestions and then "after a few days" he ignored the director's feedback and "suddenly [the writing] was coming out."

His commitment to giving no weight to outside opinions goes beyond the Joker cast and crew. When asked in 2018 about fan reaction to Joker, he was clear about his feelings. "I couldn't care less," Phoenix said. "I don't really think that much about what people think. Who cares, who cares? My approach to every movie is the same. What I'm interested in is the filmmaker and the idea of the character."

First, Joaquin Phoenix created Joker's laugh

Joaquin Phoenix says he thinks one of the things that makes his take on the Joker "a fresh, new way" at approaching the character is the notion that the Joker is a persona that already exists within Arthur Fleck "trying to emerge." The actor said one of the earliest things he tackled was the madman's infamous laugh. We hear a bit of it in the first Joker teaser and get a little more in the final trailer. According to Phoenix, the laugh wasn't easy to nail down. 

"Before I even read the script, Todd came over and talked me through what he wanted out of this character and this movie… and he described the laughter as something that was almost painful," Phoenix told the press in Venice. "[H]onestly, I didn't think that I could do it. I would practice alone and then asked Todd to come over to audition my laugh, because I felt like I had to do it on the spot and in front of somebody else. It took me a long time."

Reviewing the final trailer with Phoenix's words in mind is interesting. During his confrontation with Thomas Wayne, you can hear what Phoenix is talking about as far as the laughter being "almost painful." Earlier, when he laughs loudly and abruptly stops, it's easy to imagine this is a reflection of what Phoenix means when he talks about the laughter showing that Joker is something "trying to emerge" from Fleck.