Jared Leto and director David Ayer caused quite a stir earlier this week when they teased pictures showing the actor’s signature long locks pulled into a pony tail with a pair of scissors ready to make the big cut. Leto, in preparation for his new role as the Joker for the upcoming film Suicide Squad, broke quite a few hearts at the mere thought of him changing his appearance to take on the Clown Prince of Crime. Certainly a physical transformation is required to play the Joker, but if we are to believe the stories that have made the rounds for decades, now, there may be something much more serious for Leto to worry about.
The Joker is a sinister character whose madness goes to his very core, and this madness seems to deeply affect those who play him so much so that some say the role is cursed. Where did this idea come from? For that, we have to take a step back in time to the 1960s.
In 1966, 20th Century Fox Television debuted its brand new Batman television series, and it wouldn’t be long before the Joker made the first of his many appearances during its three season run. Casting completely against type, the producers brought in Cesar Romero to play the role. Romero was known as a matinee idol playing a list of heartthrob roles as a Latin lover, and he reportedly never understood the role or why they wanted him to play it. Even though the high camp series downplayed the character’s homicidal side and turned him into more a bumbling clown, Romero simply could not find a place for himself in the character, and he spoke of his problems with this duality many times in later interviews. He often left the set confused and unsure of himself and complained of severe headaches when he was brought in for an episode. He would later liken it to being in a constant war between himself and the Joker.
Flash forward to 1989. Tim Burton, a director who at the time was known mostly for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, brought his vision of Batman to the big screen. His larger than life visuals needed larger than life actors to fill the role of both Batman and his arch-nemesis, the Joker. For Batman, Burton brought in his Beetlejuice front man Michael Keaton, and in a casting coup, Jack Nicholson joined the team as the Joker. Burton allowed Nicholson to dive head first into the darkness of the role and in the beginning, the actor relished the freedom of playing a man with no conscience who enjoyed killing and mutilation simply for the thrill of it.
His joy in the role would not last long, however. He began to complain of restlessness and severe insomnia. The stress of playing the mad clown seeped into all parts of his life, and though he has always spoken of how pleased he was with his work, he still alludes from time to time of the weight and toll the character took on him.
Mark Hamill, who famously starred as Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars Trilogy, has been the voice of the Joker on various animated series and features for 20 years making him the record holder. While you would think that merely supplying the voice for a character would not have the same effect as completely embodying him, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Hamill has repeatedly referred to the Joker as an animal, and has reported the same anxieties and sleeplessness from time to time that his predecessors experienced.
With all of these examples, you would think any actor would really step back and consider before jumping in to play this schizophrenic jester, but when Heath Ledger was offered the role, he committed to it in ways that no one before him had. He described the Joker as “a psychotic, mass-murdering clown with zero empathy.” Ledger was already in a less than ideal place in his life, having just ended his relationship with Michelle Williams and being separated from his daughter, Matilda.
As filming began, his fellow actors began to notice the effect the Joker was having on the actor. He seemed unable to leave the character on the set. They compared him to Daniel Day-Lewis and his deep method acting techniques. Day-Lewis, however, had never tackled a character with the psychopathy of the Joker. If Burton unleashed the darkness in his Batman, Nolan dug into that darkness and extracted the nightmares hiding in the corners. It wasn’t long before the depression, anxiety and insomnia set in that by now we can call typical of an actor in this role. He saw a variety of doctors during this time and was prescribed medications with dangerous interactions.
Heath Ledger was found dead in his apartment of an accidental overdose on January 22, 2008, a full 6 months before the movie was released. His father revealed later that Heath had kept a Joker diary filled with pictures of hyenas, comic images and on the last page, the words “Bye Bye” written in bold letters. When Nicholson was told about Ledger’s death, he said, “Well, I warned him.” It was revealed that he was talking about a warning he had given the younger actor about some of the sleep medication he was taking, but it’s hard not to read a dual meaning in the words.
So, with all this talk of the curse of playing the Joker, what would make an actor take on this role? What makes the role irresistible to actors and the character such a favorite of fans? I asked my friend and DC comics aficionado, Bryson Moore, his thoughts and here’s what he had to say.
“There are roles that people watch in film and want to believe that the actor is that character. My first thought is John Wayne. You WANTED him to actually be the cowboy he portrayed. Then there are roles like The Joker. Where the actor rather than the fan wants the audience to believe they are that character because no other villain do people fall in love with in the same way. You ask any fan who’s your favorite Batman villain, nine times out of ten you will hear Joker. His character has to be the epitome of evil. There are no limits to the Joker’s depravity within the DC Comics universe. Because of that I believe any learned actor understands the performance the fans want. Now people from Nicholson to Ledger to Hamill, who did nothing but his voice, all say you have to go to a very dark place to play that character. If the curse came from anywhere it comes from the larger than life evil clown the comic books created.”
No matter how you look at it, Jared Leto has been brought into an exclusive club by taking on this iconic character, and he certainly has his work cut out for him as he delves into the depths of the Joker’s psyche. I can only hope that he takes care and perhaps he can escape some of the emotional trauma his peers experienced in the same role. Suicide Squad is set for release in August of 2016.