It was a "hard thing" getting famously selective actor Joaquin Phoenix to star in Joker, admits director Todd Phillips, who recalls meeting with Phoenix over a period of months engaging in discussions about partnering on an R-rated origin story taking a deep dive into Batman's archenemy. Phoenix, who was once pursued by Marvel Studios for a leading role as magical superhero Doctor Strange, passed on that role to avoid joining a franchise. Phillips ultimately swayed Phoenix to join a comic book movie after the director pitched a Phoenix-led origin story exploring failed comedian Arthur Fleck's descent into madness — a pitch Phillips made to studio Warner Bros. before he ever approached or secured Phoenix.
"That's what's fun about it. All these actors who have taken Joker on in the past, they all bring [something different]," Phillips told Deadline's Behind the Lens. "It attracts great actors because there are no real rules to Joker, he's the definition of an unreliable narrator. So it attracts great actors. Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto, really interesting, unique actors in their own right, because they can really dive in and make it their own."
Phillips continued, "But with this in particular — I think even back to when I pitched it to Warner Bros. — I pitched it with Joaquin. I didn't have Joaquin, but just to put it in their heads of, 'Imagine Joaquin Phoenix, imagine we do this deep-dive character study into this fascinating villain.'"
After a year of trying, Phillips ultimately sold WB on the idea of a Batman-less origin story starring the Joker. The filmmaker he was less successful in his attempt to have Joker be the first film on a proposed "DC Black" label specializing in "down-and-dirty character studies" exclusively starring DC Comics villains.
Landing Phoenix was its own "hard thing," Phillips said.
"A lot of actors are resistant to stepping into that world because of the implications that come with it. I know Joaquin had been approached in that universe before, the comic book universe, and he's always not done it," he explained. "So it wasn't an easy thing, but he read the script and we just had these long meetings that went on for, quite frankly, months, of talking about what it could be, what it'll look like, what it'll feel like. I think he was also feeling me out as much as he was feeling out the idea of doing one of these kind of films."
Even before Joker became just the fourth DC Comics film to earn more than a billion at the global box office, Phoenix said he "can't stop thinking about" Arthur Fleck, calling Joker his "dream role."
"I talked to Todd a lot about what else we might be able to do, in general, just to work together, but also specifically, if there's something else we can do with Joker that might be interesting," Phoenix said on Popcorn with Peter Travers. "So, it ended up being a dream role. It's nothing that I really wanted to do prior to working on this movie."
Recent reports Phillips and Phoenix were signed on for a Joker sequel were premature. Phillips said there have been talks about a second film, but no contracts are in place, and Joker 2 is not yet officially in the works at Warner Bros.
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