Joker had its premiere over the weekend as part of the Venice Film Festival, and the reviews are rave. Todd Phillips’ R-rated character study about the iconic Batman villain reportedly earned an eight-minute standing ovation at the screening. At the center of the praise is the performance by Joaquin Phoenix as the title character. Speaking with reporters after the debut, the actor discussed how he evolved the character, including developing his signature laugh and losing weight to embody the Joker’s physicality.
Phoenix put his body and mind through the wringer for the part, losing 52 pounds in a very short period of time. “It turns out that affects your psychology,” he said of the dramatic change in his physique (via The Hollywood Reporter). “You start to go mad.”
Speaking on the character’s trademark laugh, Phillips said there were three separate modulations: the “affliction laugh,” the “one of the guys laugh,” and one of “authentic joy.” Phoenix worked on the different vocalizations for months, practicing by himself before having Phillips over to “audition my laugh.” He wanted the laugh to be “something that’s almost painful. I think for Joker it’s a part of him that wants to emerge. I think we all kind of assume what a Joker laugh is and it felt like a new, fresh way of looking at it… It was really uncomfortable. It took me a long time.”
In Phillips’ and co-writer Scott Silver’s script, the Joker’s howling cackle is actually an uncontrollable part of a pathological condition. Though the character is heavily medicated at the beginning of the film, Phoenix said they avoided diagnosing him with any specific disorder. “We would get close at times where I found that I would identify certain parts of his personality or his motivation and then I would back away from that because I wanted there to be a mystery to the character,” revealed the actor. “Throughout the course of shooting it felt like every day we were discovering new parts of his personality, up until the very last day.”
Phoenix also went into depth about why playing the Joker appealed to him as a performer:
“It was his struggle to find happiness and to feel connected and to feel warmth and love and that’s the part of the character I was interested in. He was so many different things to me. Who he was in the first few weeks of shooting was completely different than who he was in the end. He was constantly evolving. I’ve never had an experience like this. The more unpredictable and looser we left it, the more exciting it was.”
For his part, Phillips touched on what he saw as the character’s driving motivation, saying,
“I don’t think this Joker’s goal was to watch the world burn. This Joker had an entirely different goal in mind. In the beginning of the movie he’s searching for identity. I think he mistakenly became a symbol. His goal was to genuinely make people laugh. He made a few bad decisions along the way but that was not his goal.”
All this careful consideration looks to have led to a comic book movie unlike even The Dark Knight or Logan. There’s already a flurry of Oscar buzz around Phoenix, even after just one screening of the movie. The rest of us will have a chance to see if the hype is met when Joker opens wide on October 4th.