Looking back on comic book movies from the last 25 years or so, few performances stand out like Heath Ledger as The Joker in the 2008’s The Dark Knight. His twisted, manic take on the quintessential Batman villain redefined the character for Nolan’s dark, grounded film and the approach resonated with audiences. When Ledger died months before the film was released, his death was the most-reported entertainment story of the year, and became inseparable from both his portrayal of The Joker as well as the film on a whole.
Ledger was first approached by Nolan to play the title character in 2005’s Batman Begins. Ledger replied politely that he’d “never do this kind of film,” and the role would eventually go to Christian Bale. The following year, when discussing the sequel, Nolan announced that Ledger would be cast as The Joker, and that he was “talented but fearless,” promising audiences that “watching Heath Ledger’s interpretation of this iconic character taking on Christian Bale’s Batman is going to be incredible.”
Regardless of Nolan’s assurances, when Ledger’s casting was announced, it was subject to the scrutiny of Bat-fans all over the internet. Of course there were similar reactions to Michael Keaton’s casting as Batman in the late 1980s, as well as Ben Affleck when it was announced he’d don the cowl for Dawn of Justice back in 2013. While Keaton and Affleck each won over many of the doubters, only Ledger managed to undo virtually every skeptical fan’s doubts.
During a Q&A at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2012, Nolan said that he never had to approach Ledger for the role, because, in his own words, “Heath chose me.”
He just was determined to do it. He just had a vision for something, and the way he termed it to me at the time was, he really didn’t like to work too much. He liked to do a character and then stop working then let enough time go by. He wanted to be hungry for it. And when he came to me, he was clearly in that state: Very hungry. He was ready to do something like that and just own it — which is what he did.
Ledger was no stranger to Method acting, and he took his commitment to the role seriously. Being cast before the script was written, Nolan explained that Ledger had “a very long time to obsess about it, think about what he was going to do, to really figure it out.” In addition, Nolan had Ledger read Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and study the paintings of Francis Bacon. Then, months before shooting began, Ledger isolated himself, writing and collaging images to help him get inside the character’s head. When Ledger spoke to Empire Online from the set of The Dark Knight in 2007, he explained his process.
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 to 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.
When production began, Ledger would be on set every day in full costume and makeup — but he’d only be in character when filming. Make-up artist John Caglione told Movie Geeks United in 2012 that Ledger would skateboard around, goof off, smoke cigarettes, and give out bear hugs at the beginning and the end of every workday. When it was time for him to work, however, he had his Joker diary close by to bring the character out at will.
As Ledger threw himself into the film, his sleep began to suffer. He told The New York Times when filming in London in 2007 that he “probably slept an average of two hours a night. I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” The article makes note of his manic behavior and compulsive ticks, his general restlessness, as well as the Ambien he began taking to help him sleep.
His Joker diary also comes up, observed by the interviewer when it was laying on a counter in the kitchen of his rental house, which Ledger sheepishly explained is there to help give him the character’s backstory.
When in character, he certainly made an impression on his co-stars. He startled Michael Caine so badly that he forgot his lines, and Bale told The Guardian earlier this year that Ledger had “turned up and just kind of completely ruined all my plans. Because I’m like, he’s so much more interesting than me and what I’m doing.” By Ledger’s own account, after production wrapped in October of 2007, he said his time playing The Joker was “the most fun I’ve ever had, or probably ever will have, playing a character.”
Then, on January 22, 2008, less than six months before the movie was slated for theaters, Ledger was found dead in his Manhattan loft. The cause was ruled as an accidental overdose of prescription pills, though rumors started to immediately circulate that the role of The Joker had taken its toll on him, contributing to, or even causing, his death.
This rampant speculation was fueled, in part, by Jack Nicholson, who had previously told MTV News in 2007 that he was “furious” over not being considered for the role of the Joker. When he was informed about Ledger’s death on camera, he gave a long pause before responding simply “I warned him.” A few days later Nicholson walked back these statements, explaining he was talking about the sleeping pills that were found in the loft with him, saying that he “didn’t know Heath Ledger, but I know those pills.”
When The Dark Knight was released in the summer of 2008, The New Yorker called his performance “terrifying,” praising it as a “heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss.” The review even speculates that Ledger must have “badly messed himself up” to conjure such a performance.
At the time of his death, Ledger was halfway through filming The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassas, and director Terry Gilliam brought in Johnny Deep, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law to play incarnations of his character, Tony, in order to complete the film. Gilliam refuted these notions that the role of The Joker killed Ledger, telling The Talk in 2012 that such allegations were all “bullsh*t.”
Heath was so solid. His feet were on the ground and he was the least neurotic person I’ve ever met. Heath was just great and that’s why it became so impossible to understand. But for the outside world they had to sort of invent a reason. He was incredibly intelligent, generous, sweet, wise, solid as a rock, and unbelievably playful. So when he acted it was like playing, but wherever that playing went he followed it fearlessly. But then I would say ‘cut’ and we’d be talking about football. So there was none of this twisted neurosis that a lot of actors suffer from.
Despite assurances from Gilliam, these ideas are explored in the 2012 German documentary Too Young To Die, where Ledger’s father explains his son’s Method approach to creating a character. “It was typical of Heath on any movie, he would certainly immerse himself in the character and I think this was just a whole new level.” There were other strangely personal attributes Ledger brought in, as his father explains his sister would dress him up as a nurse when playing as children, adding that it was “very funny” to see that on screen. In that same scene, his daughter’s name, Mathilda, appears on the uniform’s name tag.
Of course, the Joker diary is brought up in Too Young To Die, as his father, Kim Ledger, pores over the pages; he explains it was his son’s tool to “galvanize the character,” saying that it was typical of him to prepare in such a way. Although, there is a certain ominousness he finds at the diary’s end. “Before the end of the shooting he wrote ”bye bye” on the back of the page. It was hard to see this.”
Ledger would go on to posthumously win the Academy Award for his performance, a rare achievement for comic book adaptations, and his death is, to this day, synonymous with both The Joker and The Dark Knight. Back in 2008, just two days after Ledger’s death, Leonard Maltin speculated to the New York Daily News the kind of shadow this would cast over the production, as well as the bittersweet nature of this inevitability. “It says something about the curious nature of film, that someone can be so alive onscreen when we’re all too aware that they’ve passed. It underscores how we’re mortal, and films are immortal.”
Update: While some have speculated that the rigors of the role of the Joker had a hand in Ledger’s tragic early end, that has been strongly disputed by his sister.