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The serious story behind Joaquin Phoenix's Joker clown makeup

By Jordan Zakarin

The Joker might be the most iconic villain in comic book history, but he's also the most flexible. The Clown Prince of Crime is like a Rorschach blot for storytellers, his makeup and costume so frequently shifting based on the tone, era, and purpose of the tale in which he is undoubtedly tormenting unsuspecting citizens. And between appearances in comics, cartoons, and movies, the last 11 years has been the busiest time in the character's long, twisted history, a gauntlet that has set the stage for the Joker's first solo movie, and with it an unprecedented level of attention.

For Joker writer/director Todd Phillips, distinguishing his version of the villain was easy enough: Stick him in another setting (gritty '80s Gotham) and swear off any comics canon. But it was a bit more difficult for makeup artist Nicki Ledermann, who was tasked with creating a look that would be instantly recognizable yet completely distinct from all the past Jokers, including two cinematic iterations of the character that have dominated cosplay and public consciousness (for better or worse). Anyone who has been to a comics convention or cosplay contest over the last decade can attest to the sheer domination of Heath Ledger's The Dark Knight version of the Joker, and anyone who went to one during a certain period in 2016 remembers Jared Leto's Suicide Squad Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix's version of the Joker came with its own clownish complications. Not only was it tied to a specific era in the early '80s, but it also required its own evolution. Arthur Fleck is a poorly employed street clown at the start of the movie, spinning signs in front of a furniture store on a grimy Times Square street, trying and failing to lure people into a liquidation sale. He evolves into what we know as the Joker over time, which added a new element to designing his makeup. Ledermann took some time to talk to SYFY WIRE about the process in the days before Joker hits theaters.


How did you begin planning the makeup? Were there guidelines or inspirations?

Because it is set in the human environment with no superpowers, that changes things drastically. He showed us a concept of Joaquin with a clown look and a complementary Joker look to that clown look. We didn't really go and stray away from that concept. We took that concept, and then just tried to translate it onto Joaquin's face in a way that we can film, that will work for the character, because you have to work on colors, you have to work on textures, you have to work on placement.

For a couple of weeks in August, Joaquin would come to the studio, and I would just sit with him and paint. We'd paint his face with different products, mixing colors, until we nailed what we felt like that's the [clown] look. And then we incorporated that design to move over to the Joker. Because the clown look that he has when he's working as a clown to earn money, it is the same sort of concept of what he then uses when he turns into the Joker. It's just a question of how do we change them, but keep them related to each other? Because even though it's an evolution, it's still the same person.

What did Todd present to you?

His principle was to stick to a classic simple design, like a classic clown design. But it's really hard to come up with clown makeup, because there's so many out there, and they're all copyrighted, so you can't touch them. Whatever you come up with has to be unique so you can use it. There are books on it with all these looks, like the hobo clown. We had actually a hobo clown look in the movie too, and I had to make it different, because the hobo clown is a hobo clown. I can't use it. I won't get the clearance for that.

You mentioned that this not being a world with superheroes makes a big difference — how so?

Well, when the first pictures of Joaquin came out when we started shooting, people were really upset that he doesn't have the scars, that he doesn't have this, and he just looked like Ronald McDonald, he looked like a 5-year-old painted it on him. And we were kind of like good, good, because that's what we're going for, you know?

That was really important, because we're not in a world of superheroes, where there are these crazy scars and his skin is all bleached out, because he fell into a vat of chemicals, of bleach. It's the real world. He's a working clown. He doesn't really know how to make up. He just puts makeup on, he's not very skilled, but it's a routine for him, so he knows how to do it, and that had to reflect in the makeup. It couldn't be perfect, and it had to smear, and it had to move.

It had to be organic versus the Joker that we know from our supernatural world, he's a supernatural person. That stuff is supernatural, and it always stays the same. But in our movie, it doesn't stay the same. It's organic.

Joaquin Phoenix Joker

So it couldn't be like other Jokers at all, really.

There's also so many [versions of] Joker makeup. You don't want to repeat the Joker makeup. The whole point is to create something different, so that was a challenge. But Todd wanted it to be simple and not distracting, and yet have the power of the clown makeup that is sad, that is almost vulnerable, but also really creepy as hell at the same time.

Every clown has something really sad and innocent, but at the same time something really wicked. So we wanted to keep the clown face on the sad side, and then Joker into the creepier side. Because, clearly, Joker is creepy as hell, and he's dangerous, and you don't want to mess with that guy. The clown on the other hand, "Oh, yeah, that poor little dude, pathetic."

What is it about clowns that make them so sad? The eyes?

It's the symmetry of it. Like, when you have a clown, they're all very symmetric. Your classic clown, the features are very symmetric. The smile goes from one end to the other, and it's perfectly in the same spot on the left that it is on the right.

But sadness in general, you can really find the emotion in the face by the eyebrows, really. And that's what I felt like, if you put eyebrows on him, you can determine which way you go. And so you have these cute little arch, classic eyebrows. But they're high up on the forehead, and when you have really high eyebrows, it has a bit of an effect of innocence. You see all the Madonna paintings in the past, all the women who are supposed to look innocent, if you notice, all their eyebrows are very high up on their forehead versus lower to the eyeball.

Then you can take these eyebrows and put them on the menacing person, and you don't keep the symmetry of it, you mess them up a little bit, and then all of a sudden it turns into something really crazy and weird.


So it's eyebrows that indicate craziness or innocence or something else.

Well, it makes them scary. If you have a distorted face, then your eyebrows are not symmetrical, right? Then you have to make sure you don't put them perfectly next to each other. I mean, it's really hard, because you can do so much with makeup, but what's behind that makeup is really what makes or breaks it. And that's really what Joaquin brought that to life. The makeup is his mask to give him the permission to take it wherever he wants to take it, and that's really up to him.

What kind of makeup did you wind up using?

In general, when you make a movie, you don't shoot first scene, then second scene, and then the third scene and on. You board all the scenes, then you shoot one scene one day, and then two months later you come back to the same scene to do a pickup. So you have to go back and forth, and you also have moments where you have a scene in which he either puts his makeup on or takes it off.

So I have to use makeup that I can remove and repaint really easily between every single take; then I have to use a makeup that I can clean up and put back on really easily. And then I have scenes where he fights, where the makeup needs to appear that it smears at the moment, but it doesn't, it has to stay on. It can't smear, so I had to use a lot of different products — waterproof, or water-based, or greasy, or a combination of it all. But I had to create the same exact color and the exact texture, because textures [of makeups] are different.