Star Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips both shared a “certain fear” about Joker, their grounded origin story inspired by DC Comics’ most famous supervillain. For Phillips, who penned Joker with Phoenix in mind, the filmmaker had a trepidation about stepping into the comic book movie realm, where the clown prince of crime has been famously portrayed by a lineup of actors that includes Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and Jared Leto. Their Batman-less spinoff exploring the Dark Knight’s most recurring enemy was a “big thing to take on,” and both Phoenix and Phillips felt the pressure of approaching an iconic character with a take Phillips knew wasn't for everyone.
“Joaquin certainly had a ton of questions, and I think he also had the same thing I had, which is this fear — this is a big thing to take on. This isn’t going to be a small, little anonymous film,” Phillips says in the Joker: Vision & Fury featurette, included in Joker’s special features. “The Joker’s been interpreted and done so many times over the years, and I think there hasn’t been a bad one yet. So there’s a certain fear.”
It was new territory for the selective Phoenix, who was only swayed after much convincing from Phillips.
“I love that fear. I kind of turn it into adrenaline, and you just go and make the movie,” he says. “But I think a lot of it was just us talking through that stuff. And I’m sure he had his own certain reservations about having never worked with me and all these other things. It just becomes a process of getting to know each other, and I think we spent a few months doing that before he said he would do it.”
Because writing with an actor in mind “just helps fuel the writing,” Phillips adds, “I really, specifically wrote for Joaquin Phoenix.”
“Todd sent me a drawing of Joker in the subway, and it looked just like Joaquin Phoenix,” adds producer Bradley Cooper. “He said, ‘Yeah, I can’t get him out of my head.’ And this was years ago!”
Phillips was drawn to Phoenix’s “unpredictability,” making him a perfect fit for the erratic Arthur Fleck. As the director puts it, the actor is “playing jazz while other people are doing math. He’s just doing his own thing. And I feel like that’s very much what we saw the character of Arthur-slash-Joker as. I thought, ‘Boy, if we get him, we can really do something special.’”
Says Phoenix, “For me, when I work with a director, I just want somebody that has a singular vision and a really unique take on the material. And it was clear from Todd’s screenplay that he had a real sensitivity to the challenges that Arthur is going through. He felt things in a way that I hadn’t expected.”
Joker is available to own on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray January 7.