With his magnificent performance of the Joker in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger succeeded in doing what no living actor has ever accomplished: match Jack Nicholson in portraying a character. And while Nicholson’s Joker from Tim Burton’s original film had a comedic angle to him, Ledger’s villain had more than a hint of madness to his character.
A method actor, Ledger went to great lengths to prepare for the role as thoroughly as possible; some even believe that his obsession with the Joker might even have played a part in the actor spiraling into depression and dying from an overdose not long after. Let’s look at what transforming into the Joker meant for Heath Ledger.
1. His Joker terrified Michael Caine
Michael Caine played Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler in all of the Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. According to the legendary English actor, the difference between Jack Nicholson’s and Ledger’s portrayal of the main villain was that Jack’s Joker had a sense of humor, whereas Ledger had constructed a true psychopath.
The first time that Caine saw Heath in his full Joker makeup was during the filming of the elevator scene, and Ledger was so intense that Caine stumbled and forgot his lines. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who played Batman’s love interest, said she was so scared of him that she couldn’t even look at Heath when he came into the room.
2. Ledger originally wanted to play Batman
After Christian Bale got the role, the producers soon realized that Ledger would be perfect for the role of the Joker.
3. He locked himself away to prepare for the role
Before filming began, Ledger locked himself up in a hotel for 43 days wanting to isolate himself from the world in the way that the Joker would, to truly understand the feeling of being alone. He got so into it that his disassociation started to affect his relationship with his partner Michelle Williams.
4. He was the first actor to win an Oscar playing a villain
The Dark Knight was nominated for eight Oscars during the 81st Academy Awards. Ledger won his posthumous Best Supporting Actor, being the first actor ever to win the statuette playing a villain in a superhero movie.
5. “The Joker Journal”
While on set, Ledger was often seen carrying around a diary. It was later revealed that the Perth-born actor made journal entries as if he was the Joker. It contained incoherent ramblings and things that the Joker might find funny.
6. Ledger was inspired by Clockwork Orange
While researching for the role, Ledger found enormous inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 masterpiece A Clockwork Orange, especially in the lead character Alex De Large, played by Malcolm McDowell whose mannerisms led Ledger to creating his own.
7. He encouraged Christian Bale to beat him up
Batman beating up the Joker during the interrogation scene seems so real because it was. Attempting to make everything as authentic as possible, Ledger asked Bale to beat him up as hard as possible.
8. Ledger created his own makeup
Makeup artists weren’t in charge of the Joker look that Ledger adapted. He wanted it to look like it was done by a man with cheap makeup at his disposal – so that’s what he did. The distressed yet original look was approved by the directors, and so it was up to the makeup team to recreate the psychopathic look every day.
9. He saw the Joker as a genius
For Ledger, the Joker was a brilliant psychopath. In the scene where he tries to convince Harvey Dent to join his cause, the Joker points the gun at himself and gives Dentan decision to either kill him or join his crew. What the viewer probably doesn’t notice at first is that he places his finger in such a way that even if Dent tried to kill him, the trigger hammer would not go off, meaning he never had any intention of giving Dent a choice – he had no other option but to get on board or be killed.
By embracing the mind of a mad man, Ledger was able to add a lot of ingenious improvisations to scenes, most of which made it to the final cut. The famous mock-clapping in the scene where James Gordon (played by Gary Oldman) finds out that he has been promoted to Commissioner was not in the script.
11. The hospital explosion was unscripted
In the nurse scene, it was agreed by the team that the explosion would be delayed for a while, but the button in Heath’s hand was actually the real button to set it off. He decided on his own when the explosion would happen.
12.The Generational Mask
During the bank robbery scene, The Joker is seen wearing a very unusual mask – it was actually a mask from the original 1960’s Batman series where it was worn by first Joker – played by Cesar Romero!
13. Ledger cut a menacing figure on set
Ledger liked to stay in character as much as possible, even in-between shootings. He famously rode a skateboard around in a full Joker costume during breaks. According to crew members, he was always in good spirits and would often try to make the crew and cast laugh during filming, resulting in a very relaxed atmosphere on set.
14. His scars are called a “Glasgow Smile”
A Glasgow smile is a gang scare tactic done using a knife or a credit card. Ledger wanted his scars to be different from anything else people had seen as the Joker didn’t have scars in previous incarnations.
15. His death impacted the movie
The Australian passed away shortly after filming finished so he wasn’t around to promote the movie, which came out surrounded by sadness.