Joaquin Phoenix’s Interest in Playing the Joker All About Character, Not Genre

This past February we wrote about a potential dream paring of actor and character: Joaquin Phoenix was potentially eying playing the most iconic villain of all—the Joker. Variety‘s scoop had it that Phoenix was in talks to play the Clown Prince of Chaos for Todd Phillips still untitled Joker origin film, you know, the one being produced by Martin Scorsese. We were excited. This excitement was based not only on Phoenix’s track record for excellence, but also in details of the film itself, which is slated to be a Joker origin story that will exist outside of the DC extended universe, allowing the filmmakers and actor portraying the Joker to go for broke. Scorsese’s involvement only sweetens the deal, giving us dreams of a Joker film with a Taxi Driver vibe. With the script done and pre-production likely not too far out, we’ve just been waiting on confirmation that Phoenix was officially on board.

We’re still waiting.

Yet the cagey actor (his brilliance on screen is only matched by his reticence off) has recently opened up—a bit—about what would draw him to a Joker film. Speaking to Fandango recently, Phoenix discussed how what he looks for in a project isn’t really informed by whatever genre it might be, but by the filmmakers involved and the nuances of the character. This tracks, considering he’s had a hugely successful career going his own way, following filmmakers he admires and parts he can sink his teeth into, whether they’re playing a traumatized veteran and hitman in Lynne Ramsay’s blood-splattered You Were Never Really Here (opening April 6), a soulful brokenheart in Spike Jonze’s sci-fi masterpiece Her, or a perpetually stoned detective in Paul Thomas Anderson’s trippy Inherent Vice. 

“I don’t know… it could be an interesting character, I don’t know,” Phoenix said to Fandango, not outright denying that he’s even in talks for the role, as he has before. Then he expounded more than he ever has about the possibility of playing the Joker.

“I see it as any other movie. I wouldn’t say…’I won’t do Westerns.’ It depends on what it is. I don’t really care about the genre, I care about the character and the filmmaker. If you have the ability to transcend the genre, then that’s what you want to do. So I wouldn’t say, hands down, no – I wouldn’t do that kind of movie. There are things where I’ve flirted with the possibility where there was the potential for this to be… something that’s actually interesting to me. But then for whatever reason they never got to that place where everyone else feels the same way. And that’s key. Everyone has to want to explore the same thing or else it just doesn’t f**king work. I’m not opposed to it. I don’t make decisions on budget or things like that – it’s really the filmmaker and the character.”

The Joker has been around for a long, long time, yet has never been giving a definitive origin story. This has partly been a smart move—keeping his origins murky has kept him a vibrant, unpredictable menace. Created in 1940 by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, the Joker was slated to be killed off in his very first appearance, only to be saved by an editorial intervention at DC Comics and, of course, going on to become the most iconic villain of all them.

On the big screen, the Joker has been portrayed by some formidable talents. Jack Nicholson’s turn as the joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman gave him a bit of a backstory (and Nicholson’s larger-than-life persona), was a major hit. You would have thought it would be impossible to top Jack’s Joker, but that’s precisely what Heath Ledger did in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, delivering one of the most incredible performances in any superhero film, ever. Vulture voted Ledger’s performance the best movie supervillain of all time, beating out Michael B. Jordan’s electric turn as Erik Killmonger in Black Panther. 

Phoenix would be in very good company if he put on the clown paint. Should everyone get on the same page and have a coherent vision for what a proper Joker origin story should be, we can think of few actors with the right combination of gravitas and oddball charm than Phoenix for this role. He may be keeping his Joker cards close to his chest, but one imagines that with Scorsese’s involvement, Phoenix is more than a little interested in seeing how this plays out.

Featured image: CANNES, FRANCE – MAY 28: Joaquin Phoenix attends the Closing Ceremony of the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 28, 2017 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)


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The Credits is an online magazine that tells the story behind the story to celebrate our large and diverse creative community. Focusing on profiles of below-the-line filmmakers, The Credits celebrates the often uncelebrated individuals who are indispensable to the films and TV shows we love.