Joaquin Phoenix became the star of director Todd Phillips’ Joker in a roundabout way. He was never looking to be a big box office superhero juggernaut, nor did he have an obsession to play a comic character. He wanted to get into a complicated character’s head and the R-rated take on the Batman villain gave him the opportunity. The film’s win at the Venice Film Festival has kickstarted buzz for his performance and the film at large, but Phoenix and Phillips are still looking to take fans behind the scenes to understand how the gritty origin story was put together — including aspects like Phoenix’s extreme weight loss.
Speaking to The New York Times, Phoenix was candid about his experiences with losing weight for roles. “It’s a horrible way to live,” Phoenix said. In fact, when conceiving of his personal Joker, the film’s Arthur Fleck, he had a totally different vision for the character’s build. “I think he should be kind of heavy,” the actor explained. But his director disagreed. “Todd was like, ‘I think you should do the real thin person’,” said Phoenix, referencing the more classical Joker look from the comics and animated shows that made the Clown Prince of Crime into an otherworldly spindle. To make that a reality, Phoenix needed to lose a lot of weight: 52 pounds in total.
It’s been reported that this extreme weight loss had a psychological impact on his performance, which also counted dancing, greasepaint application, and joke-journaling among its many preparatory activities. “It turns out that affects your psychology,” Phoenix said. “You start to go mad."
At that point, minor complications on set — like ditching scenes when he wasn’t vibing with them — seem par for the course. “In the middle of the scene, he’ll just walk away and walk out,” Phillips said. “And the poor other actor thinks it’s them and it was never them — it was always him, and he just wasn’t feeling it.” But then “we’ll take a walk and we’ll come back and we’ll do it,” Phillips said. But it’s not like he was overly difficult for his co-stars. “Joaquin was very intense in what he was doing, as it should be, as he should be,” said Robert De Niro, who plays a self-referential talk show host. “There’s nothing to talk about, personally, on the side, ‘Let’s have coffee.’ Let’s just do the stuff.”
In fact, Phoenix was so committed to the character study side of the film that the comic elements were road bumps rather than perks. “He never liked saying the name Thomas Wayne,” Phillips said. Makes sense that this Joker will never meet Robert Pattinson's Batman. “It would have been easier for him if the movie was called ‘Arthur’ and had nothing to do with any of that stuff. But in the long run, I think he got it and appreciated it.”
Will fans appreciate Phoenix’s sacrifice and Phillips’ vision of the infamous character? Or will Phoenix’s idea of the villain, heavy and strange, go unfulfilled? Audiences can see for themselves when Joker hits theaters on Oct. 4.