Was Sean Penn once in the running to play the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight? That was the rumor more than 10 years ago, following the release of Batman Begins and before Heath Ledger landed the villainous role that would earn him a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Yet according to Penn himself, Nolan never came to him with an offer.
Speaking with Josh Horowitz for the Happy Sad Confused podcast as part of the promotional tour for his debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, Penn says he has no memory of ever being offered the role.
"I don't recall that. If he did, he never told me himself. ... Between the indelible one that Jack [Nicholson] did and when Heath Ledger came along and made it a new kind of rock and roll, I mean, extraordinary things," he said. "Listen, yes, over the years I've been offered a couple of things that became extremely successful genre pictures. In most cases, when I looked at them, I think, with me in it they would not have been extremely successful genre pictures."
Back in 2005, when Batman Begins was still in theaters, rumors circulated that Penn was Nolan's choice to play the Joker in the second part of his Batman trilogy. The rumor appears to have started in a British tabloid magazine and was pushed by Ain't It Cool News, so there's a decent chance it was never more than speculation.
Penn has avoided genre roles throughout his career — though he did provide a voice for the Angry Birds Movie. Asked by Horowitz why he never made the leap to genre like contemporaries Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp, Penn says, "I would not do nearly as well. Tom is so lit up in those films, and he's extraordinary in them, and that's a talent ... I don't have now, and I never had. ... I'm wrong for it."
If Penn had played the Joker, he would have joined an illustrious fraternity of actors that includes Ledger, Nicholson, the legendary Cesar Romero, voice actors Mark Hamill, Zach Galifianakis, and Michael Emerson, and maybe Cameron Monaghan in TV's Gotham — though officially not!
Jared Leto is the incumbent in the role thaks to Suicide Squad and the planned follow-up DC Extended Universe movies, but Joaquin Phoenix may be next to don the greasepaint if the Joker origin movie from director Todd Phillips and producer Martin Scorsese gets off the ground. The Room auteur Tommy Wiseau is probably not in the running, despite lobbying for the part. A better or worse choice than Sean Penn? We will probably never know.