Just when you think the Joker can sink no lower, the villain turns around and beats Jason Todd half to death with a crowbar. For this particularly nasty version of Bruce Wayne's arch-nemesis in Batman: Death in the Family (on sale tomorrow), voice actor John DiMaggio decided to dig into the erratic nature of the famous character.
"It’s like Hamlet, everybody gets to interpret it their own way," he tells SYFY WIRE. "And so, everybody’s Joker is different and interesting and special in their own way. I just decided to approach it as the reality of evil and really tried to play that: the unpredictability, the chaotic evil of the character."
DiMaggio (who you probably know as the voice of Bender on Futurama, Dr. Drakken on Kim Possible, or Jake the Dog on Adventure Time), admits that Joker's crowbar beatdown of Robin is a "pretty heavy-duty" place to start for a role. "It’s pretty serious and so, we just had to get into it."
"As long as you get there emotionally and within the moment and [you’re] motivated and you have your backstory in check and you’re ready to go, you can just dive in," he continues. "It’s such a wonderful role to play because of the uncertainty of where the Joker will take you next. The unpredictability of the Joker is what makes him so fascinating. It’s just such a wild character to [play] and sometimes, I still can’t believe I have actually got the chance to play this character."
DiMaggio knew that his hard work paid off when he got a thumbs up from one of the most beloved Jokers in history: Mark Hamill (Batman: The Animated Series). "I appreciate all the other Jokers and stuff like that and they appreciate me," he continues. "We’re kind of like this weird fraternity of actors that have played the part. It’s kind of fun. You know you did OK when Mark Hamill says, ‘John, I love what you did with the Joker. It’s great!’"
Building on elements from 2010's Batman: Under the Red Hood, Death in the Family is DC's first interactive film. Young Justice creator Brandon Vietti helmed the animated feature, which is directly inspired by the 1988 comic book storyline — the one that infamously let readers vote on the outcome (the vote did not go well for Jason Todd).
"It’s pretty cool. It falls in line with the nerd-dom that is comic books and playing Dungeons & Dragons and video games and all that kind of stuff," DiMaggio says. "Everything is involved because you have to do different recordings for different outcomes and all kinds of stuff like that. Brandon Vietti is this incredible Batman Dungeon Master, if you will. It’s really pretty special; I’m really excited about it and it’s just an interesting way to tell the stories."
While the movie offers several different paths for the viewer, the interactive nature of the project didn't really have an impact on the voice recording process. "It’s the same thing if you’re just doing different storylines and different outcomes. It’s the same approach, acting-wise and performance-wise," DiMaggio continues. "It’s just that everything is different for the viewer, which is what it all comes down to. [It's] really one of the big things that makes this project so special, that the viewer gets to decide. That’s the part of the gig of us filling the void of the storyline."
DiMaggio explains that Joker has endured for so long because he is the flip side to Batman (the Jekyll half of the Caped Crusader, one might say). Fans are always eager to find an explanation for the enigmatic insanity.
"Batman is one of the greatest superheroes of all time and Joker is his ultimate foil, his ultimate enemy. There are two sides to every story; people are always fascinated to find out the backstory of Joker, how he became Joker, and what he does eventually as Joker — to the city of Gotham, to the world, to Batman himself," the actor says. "It’s a deep character, there’s a lot to find out about him through the research of the character, through the performance of where you have to go. You don’t even have to know anything about the Joker if you just read the script, you can just figure out who he is. So, it’s all in how you approach it, but Joker is just many, many, many layers. Like I said, it’s Shakespearean, this character is unbelievable."
He compares the Clown Prince of Crime's exploits to a car crash: "People are drawn to that... People want to see: ‘How did he get there?’ If you saw Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Joker, you finally figure out how someone like that gets that way. And it’s hard to watch, it’s awful [and] terrible, but that’s what happens with a character like this."
Looking at some of his other DC voiceover roles, the actor counts his stint as Aquaman on Batman: The Brave and the Bold among his favorites.
"I got to do a lot of stuff on that show, which was unbelievable and so much fun. Getting to sing all those songs — like really great songs — as Aquaman and just being this fun, secondary character, it was great," he says. "And being second banana to Diedrich Bader’s Batman, it was pretty cool, it was a good gig. It was a blast doing that, but playing the Joker, the two are pretty much right neck-and-neck. And I’ve had fun with the other characters I’ve played, too, so it’s all good. The Vigilante was a lot of fun on Batman: Brave and the Bold. Look up the 'Gray and Blue,' look that song up, that was a good one."
DiMaggio's animation voices are unquestionably iconic, but he also has a slew of live-action credits to his name. Just this year, he appeared in Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet and Better Call Saul. "I’ve been doing on-camera stuff forever," he says. "I’m not just a voice actor, I’m an actor, so when people are like, ‘Oh, I just saw you on something,’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, because I auditioned for it and I got it!’ For a long time, I wasn’t booking anything on-camera, but I was booking plenty of stuff in the booth. I’ve never been averse to being on camera and [have been] booking stuff lately, which is nice."
With Better Call Saul about to wrap up with its sixth season, DiMaggio doesn't think Peter Gould or Vince Gilligan will be "calling anytime soon." Nevertheless, he "had a great time doing that and got to work with Bob Odenkirk, whose brother, Bill, worked on Futurama, so we had an immediate rapport. It was very cool and his brother also writes for Disenchantment as well, so it’s cool to find out... when you show up on a set like that, you know you’re supposed to be there when you run into people either through the first or second degree of knowing them, or somebody that you’ve known for a while. It’s pretty cool."
DiMaggio could still reprise the role of Cold Alliance Studios producer Dan Williams in Mythic Quest. The Apple TV+ comedy series about a workforce of bickering video game developers was forced to place its Season 2 production on hold over coronavirus concerns. However, it did manage to shoot a special episode entirely in quarantine.
Batman: Death in the Family hits digital and Blu-ray tomorrow, Oct. 13. Only the Blu-ray copy of the film comes with the interactive component and five extra minutes of footage, while the digital release contains four different versions of the movie that can't be altered. Both Blu-ray and digital come with four DC Showcase shorts: Sgt. Rock, Adam Strange, Death, and The Phantom Stranger. Check out an exclusive scene right here.
Bruce Greenwood ("Bruce Wayne"), Vincent Martella ("Jason Todd/Red Hood"), Zehra Fazal ("Talia al Ghul"), and Gary Cole ("Jim Gordon/Two-Face") are also part of the feature's voice cast. "You guys gotta watch it for cryin’ out loud. Go get it on DVD and Blu-ray. You can Bat-Signal for that s***. That’s all I gotta say," DiMaggio concludes with a hearty laugh.