Heath Ledger: The Truth Behind The Joker


David Garcia

Christopher Nolan started his Batman trilogy in 2005 with the movie Batman Begins. The movie was a success and led to a trilogy being born with the many hidden scenes that would set up the sequels. One of these major scenes was when James Gordon played by Gary Oldman showed Batman a joker card left at multiple murders. The fans became ecstatic with the tease of a brand new Joker to come. The search was on for the newest Joker. One who could fill the shoes of Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson’s clowns, but this search sadly would only end in tragedy.

DC and Warner Bros were on the search for the perfect actor which was long and thorough. Their main front runners included the likes of Robin Williams, Steve Carell, Adrien Brody, and Hugo Weaving who all showed interest in the character. It wasn’t until Christopher Nolan had considered the Australian actor Heath Ledger who had previously tried out for the part of Batman in Nolan’s first Batman movie. Nolan thought of having him play the iconic clown prince. The filmmakers wanted someone who was not only talented, but also fearless which fit Ledger’s traits. So Ledger’s casting was confirmed in July of 2006.

Ledger was already famous from his homeland Australia respectively. He starred in a couple Australian movies and then went looking for spots in Hollywood. In Hollywood he starred in movies such as 10 Things I hate About You, Knights Tale, and Lords of Dogtown. However, after Ledger’s casting was known Ledger and Nolan received backlash and comments about his poor choice to play Batman’s number one enemy. People believed that Ledgers previous roles showed that he wasn’t ready or able to bring out the character to its fullest. Along with people even the producers and studio behind the film didn’t get the casting and assumed he would be replaced.

Once Ledger was casted, screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (Christopher Nolan’s younger brother) took his time in creating and writing the part of the Joker. He wanted the Joker to go back to his comic book roots. The Nolans wanted to prepare Ledger as best they could, even though Jonathan was one of the individuals who didn’t understand the casting and doubted Ledger’s potential. Still with both of the Nolan brothers efforts they helped write the part of the Joker. Such as going into the old comics to find where he started out in his first appearances. Ledger set himself a goal that he wanted his Joker to be differentiated from Jack Nicholson iconic Joker role. It is believed that Ledger wanted to match the Joker’s voice and tone to that of singer/songwriter Tom Waits. To really get into the role of the character Ledger went to some very drastic routines.

Ledger is very into method acting, he took this role dramatically serious and for this role it was very different. Christopher Nolan had Ledger read Anthony Bridges “A Clockwork Orange” and studied artwork from Francis Bacon to provide Ledger with chaotic and emotionally charged inspiration. Months before the production on the Dark Knight, Heath spent a month in his London hotel room secluded and writing a Joker diary. Putting together disturbing images to help him get into the characters head. In 2007 Ledger spoke with Empire Online on set and stated, “ I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month. Locked myself away. Formed a little diary and experimented with voices. It was important to try and find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath. Someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts.”

Ledger also was a big part of creating the outfit for the Joker. It was too simple to just throw him into an iconic purple suit and say, you’re the Joker now. For a long amount of time Ledger worked with costume designer Lindy Hemming, makeup artist John Caglione, and Christopher Nolan himself to get every detail perfect, even down to the the Joker’s shoes. Once production on the Dark Knight started Ledger would be in full makeup and costume everyday. Even on set Ledger could be seen snarling to himself even when the cameras were not on, but he wasn’t always in character as many believed. He would be seen giving bear hugs to cast and crew and be joking around before and after filming. However, when they started filming Ledger had his Joker handbook in arms reach and reading it would bring the character out instantly like another personality of Heath.

As his main focus became the movie he began to suffer. Not in pain, but his energy was zapped from the many sleepless nights. Ledger told the New York Times that while the movie was in production he only slept a max of two hours. He would explain how his body would be exhausted, but his mind would be still going and he couldn’t stop thinking. His everyday life became restless and he started taking ambien to help him sleep. Most people believe that this was the start to of the fall in his life. The Dark Knight himself Christian Bale spoke about Ledger saying, “Heath turned up, and just kind of completely ruined all my plans.” “Because I went, ‘He’s so much more interesting than me and what I’m doing.” Heath was very destined to make this Joker perfect.

Bale revealed that during interrogation scene, the first scene the actors filmed together, Ledger had told Bale to hit him as hard as he could, which Bale agreed to. Ledger wanted to make this scene be extremely realistic. When Bale tossed Ledger around in this scene the walls were completely fixed tile. However, Heath was throwing his full body weight into the walls cracking and breaking them showed how dedicated he is to playing these scenes and his role as if it were real. Michael Caine was so stunned at Ledger’s Joker that the famous actor actually forgot his lines. When the first trailer for the movie came out in December in 2007, all the hateful comments about Ledger completely flipped loving his act in only a few seconds of time.

People who watched the trailer saw that something beautiful was becoming of Heath. From his laugh, his voice, the smacking of his lips, and his iconic “why so serious” quotes were making the fans ecstatic. Despite what was going on during Heath’s personal life it didn’t affect his work on the Dark Knight. In fact Ledger stated it was the most fun he had playing a character. Ledger would do so many things to dedicate himself to this role. Such as his own makeup most days just to get the feel that a crazy person had done it. Sometimes he would change scenes up like the hospital scene where the Joker blows everything up. Ledger was suppose to be far away from the explosion just walking away without a care, but stayed very close to the building and even stopped and readjusted the detonator as the explosion delayed. This was all completely different from the script. It ranged from the small changes to the big changes, that Ledger made to the film which made it and him great hits with the fans. Heath Ledger was instantly the next major star of Hollywood. 

Six months before the movie was to come out, on January 22, 2008 Heath Ledger was found dead. He was found in his bed by his housekeeper and a masseuse, in his Manhattan loft. It had only been four months after the Dark Knight finished filming and six months before it was set to release. Ledger was only twenty eight at the time and sadly he would never get to see the final act. It is to be remembered as one of the best Joker performances. The cause of death was labeled as an accident, by him accidentally combining prescription drugs used to help with sleep loss. But theories about him getting so dedicated to the roll drove him over the edge and took a huge toll on him. When previous Joker Jack Nicholson heard about Heath’s death he responded with, “I warned him.” He later stated that he knew of the drugs also, “I didn’t know Ledger, but I know those drugs.” Ledger’s sister Kate Ledger stated that medication was a big part of Heath’s life and tried pushing him into rehab. Ledger’s funeral took place in Perth, Australia on February 9 at Penrose College. More than six hundred people attended and Heath’s parents and sister gave moving eulogies.

Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon) said Ledger was a sweet guy who oozed charisma. Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent) called Heath “…just a great guy.” Christopher Nolan said what Heath did was nothing short from phenomenal and mesmerizing. Christian Bale said “he did a damn good job as the Joker and he misses him deeply.” Bale also completely dismissed the idea of not having the Dark Knight be released. He insisted that Ledgers talent should be celebrated and that he’d want his performance to be seen.

In February of 2009, Ledger was nominated and won an Oscar for best supporting actor. He was the first and only person to win an Oscar for not only a superhero movie, but for playing a villain. He beat the likes of Robert Downey. Jr and Josh Brolin. While some claimed he earned it because he died, most friends and celebrities thought he rightfully earned it with his performance. A decision was made that Ledger’s daughter Matilda Rose Ledger would keep the award when she turns eighteen. Ledger’s parents and sister accepted the award on Heath’s behalf at the ceremony.

It has been more than eleven years after Ledger’s death and still many questions have no answers and will sadly be left a mystery. Such as what other roles would he have landed? Would he give up acting? How far would he have taken the Joker role going forward? This year Joaquin Phoenix has been cast to play the Joker role. However, in early February before he was cast, Phoenix said that Ledger’s role wasn’t hard to fulfill because the character could be reinterpreted. He didn’t find it intimidating, but the standard had been set high. After all that happened with Heath Ledger he will be remembered for playing the most iconic, crazy, and famous Joker who had the last laugh.