The most anticipated film of the fall, Joker examines how a failed stand-up comedian and troubled loner morphs into the Gotham psychopath we all know and dread. The movie’s star, Joaquin Phoenix, unleashes a jittery, terrifying turn that’s already gathering Oscar buzz. The actor himself has a rep for being an occasionally tense sit-down—“Most of the time, I just try to get to the end of interviews,” he tells us, unpromisingly—but we caught him on a good day: direct, laid-back and eager to chat about his turn as the DC supervillain.
Do you need to like a character in order to play him?
Frankly, this was a challenge. Sometimes, while reading the script, I felt sympathetic. Other times, I was repulsed. It made no fucking sense. He was pathetic, whiny. I saw traces of post-traumatic stress disorder in him. When Arthur is attacked by kids at the start of the movie, he freezes up like a statue, unable to respond. This guy was physically abused when he was a child. It’s difficult not to feel some empathy for someone who’s been through that. That sort of thing changes your brain, the way you think. But at the start, I wanted him to go fuck himself.
Did you study mental health problems in any way?
I watched some videos and read two books in particular. I’m not going to tell you which ones, as I don’t want to give the criminals they’re about more attention than they deserve. The general idea was that political assassins and mass murderers have similar personalities. On the one hand, Arthur’s a nervous, introverted guy who tries to disappear from the world. On the other, the Joker he becomes is a narcissist who wants to be seen and revered.
People are talking about the amount of weight you lost, Joaquin. Does it annoy you when the press brings that up?
I couldn’t give a shit. For an actor, losing weight isn’t just a question of looks and performance. Losing weight affects how you feel. I’ll feel hungry. It’ll create that constant lack of satisfaction that’s so integral to the Joker’s personality.
Arthur is very much a loner. How do you find spending time alone?
That’s what I like best. For that reason, it’s difficult for me to know what to think of him. The movie’s key scene in the subway is a good example. He sees a woman being harassed by three drunk men. Not only does he not intervene, but he studies the behavior of these guys quite stoically, as he doesn’t know how to speak to girls. He thinks it’s normal. There’s something quite harrowing about it. At the same time, you want to shout, “Asshole, why isn’t instinct telling you to step in?” Then he starts laughing uncontrollably. That gets him into trouble—he’s attacked by these men. And he defends himself. In two minutes, the character has sent us off in several different directions. That’s what I loved about it.
His disquieting laugh is a constant in the film.
In the script, the laugh appears to be the result of trauma. When I started working with Frances Conroy, who plays the Joker’s mother, something in her behavior made me think about what it must have been like to be her child. I imagined a younger Arthur, laughing in an inappropriate way at school. I imagined she may have made up that Arthur suffered from some sort of illness. One morning, [director] Todd Phillips and I added some dialogue in a scene where the Joker speaks to his mother: “You always told me that I laughed too much because I was ill, but you’re wrong, this laugh is who I really am.”
Photo: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.
You can definitely detect the influence of Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy in Joker. Robert De Niro plays a TV presenter in your film, too.
I don’t like namechecking other movies, even if great past works have clearly influenced us. But either way, we didn’t speak about that beforehand. What Joker does share with ’70s cinema is that it depicts a complex protagonist in a cinematographic form that doesn’t tell us exactly how we should feel. I’m not a fucking cinephile for sure, but I sense that we’ve lost that. In movies based on comics, motivations and behavior are always too obvious. It’s always simplified. And I don’t think that reflects how things are in real life. I prefer ambiguity. I want Joker to make audiences think.
I was struck by the fact that such a personal film could be produced by a major studio.
Yeah, it was pretty gutsy on their part. They let Todd Phillips pretty much do what he liked. I never thought of Joker as a blockbuster, and approached it like any one of my other movies.
Be it for Paul Thomas Anderson, James Gray or Ridley Scott, you’ve always gone for these sorts of roles.
As long as there are good filmmakers with things to say, they’ll say them. Sometimes difficulty can be liberating. It wasn’t easy for Todd Phillips to get the green light to direct Joker with the conditions he thought necessary. But this struggle fed into his work. I don’t think I’d like things to become too easy any day soon.