Heath Ledger, tragically lost at the age of 28, is often remembered for one of his final performances. His turn as the Joker in writer/director Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight won him an Oscar for the role, making it the most highly-acclaimed performance to date in a superhero movie.
We’ve yet to see a villain like him since, likely because nobody has been able to take their character as seriously, without losing the original spirit. The performance also benefited, as a newly unearthed series of interviews with the cast describes, from more method acting than was previously known.
The interviews, between Ledger, Nolan, and Christian Bale (who played Batman in the film), were published in the book 100 Things Batman Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Joseph McCabe. McCabe spoke with Nolan and Bale around the time of the film’s release, but Ledger, who died about six months before the film came out, was interviewed in 2007 while promoting I’m Not There.
In book excerpts from The Hollywood Reporter, Bale recalled that during the confrontational interrogation room scene -- the first scene Bale and Ledger shot together during production of the film -- Ledger “was kinda egging [him] on.” The scene involves the Joker pushing Batman further and further towards the latter’s violent proclivities, trying to make the hero break his oft-touted rule against killing.
Apparently in the role, Ledger embodied this purposeful masochism to get a similarly visceral response from his co-star. As Bale remembers, “I was saying, ‘You know what, I really don’t need to actually hit you. It’s going to look just as good if I don’t.’”
Ledger demanded authenticity, asking for real physicality to the point that “he was slamming himself around,” even damaging the tiled walls of the prison cell set “from him hurling himself into them.”
It had previously been known that Ledger, in preparation for the role, had locked himself in an isolated hotel room for a month. He took only source and inspiration material (comics and other books), allowing himself to become fully immersed in the Joker’s headspace, all while keeping a creepy journal.
However, during shooting, when the makeup came off, so did the Joker. As much as Bale says Ledger “[treated] this as a serious drama,” there were still limits to staying in character, and how much acting was truly “method” -- something later Jokers have been known to take too far.