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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Awards Contenders: How Joaquin Phoenix's Joker got his iconic hair and makeup

By Jennifer Vineyard
Joker makeup

Welcome to Awards Contenders. This month, SYFY WIRE is speaking to a long list of actors, artists, and artisans whose work earned them Oscars, Golden Globes, Critics Choice, SAG, and other nominations this year. Today we speak with Kay Georgiou and Nicki Ledermann, the head hair and make-up designers on Joker.

Finding a style for Joker was no easy feat, especially the designing of Joaquin Phoenix's hair and make-up. Chief hairstylist Kay Georgiou, for example, wound up having to visit a grocery store’s produce aisle for hair-color inspiration. And head make-up artist Nicki Ledermann resorted to using the faces of several production assistants to practice the character’s distinctive face paint before trying it on Phoenix. ("Everybody was really into it!" she says.)

The key to creating this new Joker was to avoid copying the iconic looks of Jokers past. Early on, director Todd Phillips and his production design team created a digital mock-up of Phoenix's face that showed what kind of image he was aiming for — something creepy and sad, but simple.

"I'm such a big fan of past Jokers," Ledermann says. "But they were very extreme and had prosthetic makeup, which we didn't, because we're not that kind of a superhero movie. But there was some influence from previous Jokers."

In order to create the make-up Arthur Fleck used in his job as a street clown, Ledermann looked back to Cesar Romero's TV Joker from the '60s (who also appeared in a 1966 feature film). "Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson both had a classic interpretation of a clown," Ledermann says. Heath Ledger completely modernized that image, with an accent on imperfections.

"I love the brittle texture of Heath Ledger's makeup," Ledermann says, "how it's crackling off a little bit." She felt that Jared Leto's Joker, with his tattoos and grill, was too modern. So in order to create a more timeless look, she blended Romero's more cartoonish face with Ledger's wild, wrecked-looking version.

The biggest updates Ledermann added to this new Joker were red eyebrows (to make Joker look less like a ghost) and some tactical smearing as Arthur becomes more unbalanced. She also adapted teal-blue diamonds around Arthur's eyes (cutting across his eyes and eyelids) from Italian opera clowns. "I wanted to come up with the perfect blue," she says. "I wanted it to be antique-y. Not bright, but still a dominant blue. And there had to be some green in it to go with the hair."

Joker makeup

The search for a perfect hair color led stylist Kay Georgiou to what must now be called broccoli green. The idea came up during an early production meeting, leading Georgiou to visit that grocery store in search of the ideal type of broccoli. Organic? Freshly cut? Steamed? Many iPhone photos were required to find the most vibrant shade.

In order not to damage Phoenix's real hair, they used a wig and created a special green water out of makeup for the scene in which Arthur Fleck dyes his hair. "When Arthur killed Randall in his apartment, it was quite darkly lit," Georgiou says. "The green hair wasn't registering enough, so Todd said, 'We need to see him dyeing his hair,' and that’s how that scene came about."

There was some purist revolt on this point. How could a guy with brown hair dye it green without bleaching it first? Georgiou concedes that that would in fact be necessary, and recommends fans trying to recreate the look use a temporary hair color spray in emerald green, which is what she used for early camera tests.

Georgiou says her job on Joker wasn't to make the characters look beautiful, but more beaten down. Actress Frances Conroy, for instance, has luxurious red hair in real life, but since her character is supposed to be housebound, Georgiou decided to remove her hair's luster and shine. And to create Arthur's unkempt look, she rubbed American Crew grooming cream, Bumble and Bumble grooming cream, and Moroccanoil Light into Phoenix's damp hair to create a radically unwashed look.

"It's actually quite hard to do that," Georgiou says. "Everyone wants to look their best, and when someone sits in your chair, your instant reaction is to make them look good. But our job was to do the opposite."