Exclusive: Joaquin Phoenix on His “Unique” Joker Movie and Why It Scares Him
It’s rare nowadays for any group of people to agree on anything. Whether it be politics, the environment, Star Wars movies, or almost any subject out there, you have people arguing about it online and in public, and it can get uncomfortable really fast.
But when rumors hit earlier this year that Joaquin Phoenix was in talks to play a version of the Joker for director Todd Phillips in a standalone DC movie, it was one of those rare moments where everyone came together and said, “Yes!” That’s because over his brilliant career, Joaquin Phoenix has delivered a number of exceptional performances that repeatedly demonstrate his ability to transform into the character he’s playing. The idea of Phoenix playing one of the most iconic comic book characters of all time is beyond exciting and yet another reason to think the comic book movie genre is not slowing down.
If you’re just finding out about this Joker movie, it’s not part of the established DC Extended Universe, but will instead offer a unique spin on the comic’s character in a one-off feature. Think of it as a DC graphic novel but in movie form. It deals with the characters you know but it’s a self-contained story.
Phillips, who previously helmed The Hangover trilogy and the crime film War Dogs, will direct from a script he co-wrote with Scott Silver. The film is described as “an exploration of a man disregarded by society [that] is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.” In addition, while most comic book movies have a huge budget, this Joker movie is rumored to be in the $55 million range, which suggests a riskier take on the material and perhaps an R-rated release. As someone that has covered movies for a long time, everything about the way they are planning this Joker movie sounds smart and it’s why fandom is so excited for this movie.
With director Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot hitting theaters this weekend (watch the trailer here), I recently landed an exclusive interview with Phoenix. While I’ll have the full conversation online really soon, I wanted to share what he had to say about the Joker movie today.
When I previously spoke with Phoenix a few months back, when it was just reported that he might be playing the Joker, he was guarded but willing to share why he thought comic book characters lent themselves to different people taking on the same role.
However, when I brought up the Joker this time, he was a lot more open about the role. When I asked how he got involved in the project and if he was nervous to take on such an iconic character, he said:
“I take a lot of time and consideration when making decisions and what I’m gonna work on always. So, in some ways, the process, which is obviously reading a script and meeting a filmmaker and then continuing to have meetings and discussions with Todd [Phillips]. I think he’s very impressive and he seems to have a very interesting understanding of this world and what he’s trying to say. And so there is something very appealing about that and working with him on this particular project. It feels unique, it is its own world in some ways, and maybe, mostly, it scares the fucking shit out of me or something. It might as well be the thing that scares you the most.”
Like I previously said, when Phoenix was linked to the role, it was universally hailed as a great casting choice. I wondered if he paid attention to what people and fans were saying about the project.
“It’s a magnified version of what you deal with as an actor. So, when you get a script, obviously, the writer— usually for me, it’s the writer/director, last several years I’ve worked with a filmmaker that was the writer and director— and they have their expectation, and they’ve imagined things in their head, and they’ve imagined different actors, and suddenly you take it on and so there’s this moment of anxiety of ‘Did I live up to their expectations?’ And at some point you have to just own it and say like, ‘I can’t consider who they might have thought up before or what the movie was for the 6 months ago, this is what it is now and I have to find my way into it.’ And so in some ways it’s a very similar experience, right? But it feels magnified because it’s not just one person’s expectations, but what you’re telling me is that there’s at least a dozen.”
Something I was surprised to learn during my talk with Phoenix was that he’d been thinking about a movie like this years ago. He said:
“Three or four years ago, I called my agent and said ‘Why don’t they want to take one of these characters and just make a lower budget film about it, a movie but a character study, and why not take one of the villains?’ And I thought, ‘You can’t do the Joker, because, you know, it’s just you can’t do that character, it’s just been done.’ So I was trying to think of other characters, and he said ‘I’ll set up a general meeting with Warner Bros.’ And I said ‘I’m not gonna go, I can’t go to a general meeting.’ So I completely forgot about it, and so then I heard about this idea, I was like, ‘Oh that’s so exciting, that’s the kind of experience I wanted to have, with a movie based on a comic character.’ I felt like you could get something on screen.”
Towards the end of the interview we got to talking about how the story is not connected to everything else and what kind of movie they’re trying to make. He said:
“I wouldn’t quite classify this as like any genre. I wouldn’t say it’s a superhero movie, or a studio movie or a … It feels unique, and I think more then anything, and probably the most important thing, is Todd seems very passionate about it and very giving, and so that’s exciting. I think, underneath the excitement of these films, and the size of them, there are these incredible characters that are dealing with real life struggles. And sometimes that is uncovered and exposed, and sometimes it isn’t, and so I always felt, like, there were characters in comics that were really interesting and deserve the opportunity to be kind of studied. And so I think that’s what Todd sees appealing about this idea.’
As a longtime comic book and comic book movie fan, everything about this Joker movie sounds great. I love that it’s a character study. I love that it isn’t going to worry about connecting to the bigger DC universe so it can just do what it wants to do. And, most important, I’m over the moon that someone like Joaquin Phoenix is going to take a swing with Todd Phillips at one of the most iconic comic book characters of all time.
Look for my full interview with Joaquin Phoenix very soon.