As director Todd Phillips’ take on the Clown Prince of Crime has begun asking audiences to laugh a little more since its debut at the Venice Film Festival, the conversation around Joker has deviated away from Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the title character. Phoenix’s Joker, aka Arthur Fleck, is getting a unique origin story separate from the comics in order to fulfill the R-rated promises of this dark and gritty standalone film. And that fits in with its star’s relationship with the character, since he was basically a newcomer to the comic villain in the first place.
In a new interview with TotalFilm, Phoenix described his acting process and his comic history — both shedding light on how his Joker would be different from all those that had faced Batman before him. “It took me a while [to commit],” Phoenix explained. Part of that was the professional implications of signing on to a huge comic book movie, while some was following in the footsteps of greats like Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson. But part of it was that he’d only read a single piece of Joker fiction: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.
The 1989 Grant Morrison and Dave McKean graphic novel was Morrison’s first and Arkham Asylum’s defining moment. It also featured one of the iconic takes on Joker, giving the villain a more intimate relationship with the Caped Crusader that played into Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight. Phoenix enjoyed the book so much (“It’s some of the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen”) that in retrospect it’s hard for him to recall his uncertainty when offered the role. “Now, when I look back, I don’t understand why [I procrastinated],” he said.
As for his own performance, Phoenix found that he was drawing from some unexpected corners of his own beloved genre franchises. “You know, after shooting [a take], it was like, ‘What was that?'” Phoenix said. “And I said, ‘Oh, it’s f***ing Frank-N-Furter. I didn’t realize. I’ve just jacked Frank-N-Furter! Because [The] Rocky Horror [Picture] Show is one of my favorite movies. I’ve watched it a million times. And I love Frank-N-Furter. And I suddenly realized like, ‘Oh, there’s Frank-N-Furter in here. And a little Katharine Hepburn.’”
Somewhere between Tim Curry and Katharine Hepburn? Sounds just mad enough for that Joker to be a hit when the origin story hits theaters on Oct. 4.