We’ve all heard several variations of the story. Actors often have to go to dark places within themselves to find the complex and violent characters they are playing. Those stories may be sincere, but they did not apply to Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Fellow members of the press and I sat down with Phoenix and director Todd Phillips for a brief Q&A after an early screening of the film. Phoenix was asked how he got into the presumably dark frame of mind to play The Joker, and how he got out of it after production ended.
“I’m honestly gonna disappoint you,” the actor warned. “I just, I don’t think I did. I think we had a good time. We laughed like every day.” Phoenix referred to someone else, not at this event, mentioning that there’s nothing to really laugh at in Joker, which made him think, “‘Oh, we kind of are fucked up.’”
Phoenix may even be a little jealous of his peers who’ve had less pleasant experiences playing dark characters. “I love those stories of actors,” he added. “I kind of do wish that I was that way because it sounds so cool, but I didn’t have that experience.”
Playing hard on set did not come at the expense of working hard. Phillips noted that Phoenix prepared quite a bit for the role and the actor described it as an ongoing process during each day of the shoot. Phoenix and Phillips were working overtime together.
“We would arrive two hours before call and be in the fuckin’ trailer working and then we’d go home and we’d call each other,” Phoenix recalled. “Well, we’d text for a couple hours and then get frustrated with the texting and go, ‘Just fucking call.’ I’d call you and you wouldn’t answer a few times and then I kept calling back and finally, you were like, What?!’
Part of the preparation, and fun, was coming up with Arthur Fleck/Joker’s movements, particularly the dancing. It was a mix of what was already in the script and improvisation on set.
“One of the earliest things we spoke about was that Arthur had music in him,” Phillips said. “It just existed in him. Some people that you might know personally have that feeling and I always thought that about Arthur, but it was sort of kept in and trapped.
“And there was something about that evolving, but the scene in the bathroom where he just starts dancing, that’s not in the script. That’s just something that kind of evolved. This is a moment where we can show that it’s fighting to get out.”
There was one specific element of Phoenix’s performance that made him nervous and it wasn’t the dancing. It was, understandably, the laugh. It is an essential, iconic part of any Joker performance and the actor had to get it right.
“I auditioned myself,” Phoneix said. “I had [Todd] come over to audition the laugh because I didn’t think I could do it.” Phoenix eventually found his laugh, and a few variations, which allowed him to put on a happy face on set.
Joker is in theaters October 4.