There are few cinematic performances that are as celebrated as the late Heath Ledger’s bravura portrayal of Batman’s iconic villain in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The scene-stealing role earned Ledger enormous praise and a number of accolades, including a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
While cinema will never forget Ledger’s critically acclaimed performance, many do not realize just how deep the eminent actor dove to channel the disturbed super villain.
Here are 24 things you may not have known about Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Gotham City’s maniacal master criminal, The Joker.
1. Heath Leadger took a method approach to get into the disturbed mindset of the Joker and was adamant to not have his performance echo that of Jack Nicholson’s previous effort. To delve deep into the psychology of the character, Ledger isolated himself in a hotel room for about six weeks. He devoted his time alone to mastering the Joker’s sinister laugh and voice to make the character his own.
2. In The Dark Knight, there are two homemade videos sent to GCN (Gotham City News) by the joker himself to promote terror amongst society. These videos were actually directed by Heath Ledger. The first video shows the Joker torturing a fake Batman, which director Christopher Nolan supervised. However, after being so impressed by Ledger’s own personal direction of the video, he allowed the actor to have full control over the second tape and felt no need to be there when it came time to film the scene where reporter Mike Engel reads the Joker’s statement.
3. Actors Michael Caine and Maggie Gyllenhaal had not seen Ledger in full makeup and costume prior to shooting the party scene at Wayne Enterprises where the Joker crashes the event. Overwhelmed by Ledger’s appearance as the character, it’s been reported that Maggie Gyllenhaal couldn’t even look at him and Michael Caine completely forgot his lines.
4. The makeup design was created by Ledger himself, stating he didn’t think his character would allow anyone else to apple his makeup for him. The makeup team worked continually to replicate Ledger’s design throughout production. The Joker’s look is sad to be partially inspired by Brandon Lee’s character in The Crow, an actor who also passed away prior to their film’s release.
5. One iconic scene in The Dark Knight is when the Joker begins mockingly clapping inside of his jail cell when Gordon gets promoted to Commissioner. This moment was not in the actual script, Ledger improvised his sardonic deadpan applause during the take and Christopher Nolan encouraged the crew to continue filming without hesitation.
6. A notable tick in Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker is how he constantly licks his lips in an unsettling manner. The reason Ledger did this was to keep his mouth moist, which is necessary in order to speak in the Joker’s voice. Many people said that Heath Ledger has always had this habit but he emphasized it drastically to keep his performance consistent.
7. Many believe that Heath Ledger was always in a dark head space on set to be able to stay in character. However, what’s even more impressive about his performance is how easily he was able to turn it on and off. Many cast and crew recall Ledger being very much himself when he was off camera and would often skateboard around set in full costume.
8. Heath Ledger had a penchant for making every scene as real as he possibly could when it came to benefiting his performance. In the scene where Batman interrogates the Joker, Christian Bale admitted that Ledger requested he did not hold back and actually beat him as hard as possible to contribute to the authenticity of the scene.
9. During the hospital scene when the Joker is in a nurse’s costume, his name tag says the name, ‘Matilda.’ Ledger chose this name specifically as a tribute to his daughter, Matilda Ledger. He also added something extra to the end of this scene by improvising the moment he messes with the buttons when attempting to detonate the hospital.
10. One of the ways Heath Ledger was able to jump back into the Joker’s sadistic mindset when preparing to shoot a scene was a character’s diary he created and would carry around. The scrapbook-like book was compiled of horrific news stories, disturbing drawings, and any other ominous triggers that worked for him. At the end of shooting, Ledger allegedly wrote the words, “BYE BYE” over the last page.
11. Heath Ledger, at 6’1” is the second tallest Joker after Cesar Romero, who stood at 6’3” and played the role in Batman: The Movie in 1966 and in the series for the following two years. Ledger is also the youngest actor to play the role and the first time the Joker has been played by an actor younger than Batman.
12. Ledger would show up to set in full costume even on days when he wasn’t shooting. Makeup artist John Caglione recalled that Ledger allowed the crew to interact with him dressed as the Joker, but stated, “He always was in good humor. Never lost it or anything like that. Never was mean to anyone.”
13. Actors Paul Bettany, Lachy Hulme, Adrien Brody, Steve Carell, and Robin Williams all publicly expressed interest in playing the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s highly-anticipated follow-up to Batman Begins. However, despite what initial casting speculations would suggest, the director admitted that he always had Heath Ledger as his foremost choice for the role.
14. Aaron Eckhart revealed that during the hospital scene he had alongside Ledger, that before they exchanged lines, he walked around in character mumbling to himself in an unsettlingly odd manner. Eckhart recalled that it went on for several minutes before Ledger approached him and Eckhart decided to spontaneously raise his hand, which he grabbed in a fierce manner. When the scene was over, Ledger told him, “That’s what acting’s all about.”
15. The casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker influenced costume designer, Lindy Hemming, on the look she was inspired to create for the villain. Hemming wanted to modify the Joker’s look to be younger and trendier to represent Ledger’s generation. To do this, Hemming took reference from Vivienne Westwood, John Lydon, Iggy Pop, Pete Doherty, and Alexander McQueen.
16. Jack Nicholson is another actor who was highly praised for his portrayal of the Joker. Heath Ledger interviewed Nicholson before taking on the role and The Shining actor told him, “The role of being The Joker will haunt you, the role is so dark, that you probably won’t be able to sleep, but enjoy the role as the Clown Prince of Crime, because it’s nothing but good fun.”
17. When it was announced that Heath Ledger would be taking on the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight, there was a significant amount of backlash from the media and fans alike due to his age and lack of similar roles. However, Ledger silenced critics with the film’s release and is highly regarded as one of the best portrayals of the iconic character ever to grace the screen.
18. Outside of isolating himself in a hotel to nail the voice of the Joker, Heath Ledger spent several months working with a vocal coach to perfect his sound. It’s reported that he used ventriloquist dummies as inspiration for how he mouthed his dialog to embody a disconnected yet mocking quality to his performance.
19. His role as the Joker was the only time Heath Ledger ever played a villain, however, Christopher Nolan was inspired to cast him due to his Oscar-nominated performance in the romantic drama Brokeback Mountain. Nolan stated he was drawn to Ledger’s performance in the film because “he had such a lack of vanity … He wasn’t afraid to bury himself in his character.”
20. Other than the more technical categories, it’s rare that comic-book film adaptations are recognized at the annual Academy Awards. Heath Ledger’s posthumous win for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Dark Knight marked the first time an Academy Award had been awarded to a comic book film in a major category.
21. Heath Ledger’s Oscar nomination was coincidentally announced on the first anniversary of his death. He would go on to win 32 Best Actor in a Supporting Role awards for his portrayal of the Joker posthumously. There were only two awards that year that he was nominated for and didn’t win, the Satellite Award and the London Film Critics’ Circle Award for Actor of the Year.
22. Heath Ledger’s interpretation of The Joker’s appearance is said to have been inspired primarily by the chaotic look of punk rocker Sid Vicious. When it came to his performance, Ledger was heavily influenced by the psychotic mannerisms of Malcolm McDowell’s character, Alex DeLarge, from Stanley Kubrick’s critically acclaimed 1971 dystopian crime film, A Clockwork Orange.
23. The opening bank heist scene of the film was actually the first scene that was shot. However, a mistake was made while shooting with IMAX film and some of the resulting footage ended up blurry, which would require reshoots. Considering this was Ledger’s first time unveiling his version of the Joker, he thought that the reshoots were due to his performance. However, this ended up being far from the truth as Nolan ended up still using some of the blurrier footage just because he loved Ledger’s performance so much.
24. Heath Ledger passed away while Christopher Nolan was in the process of editing the film. Instead of taking time off to mourn, Nolan chose to continue editing the film as a tribute to the late actor. While promoting The Dark Knight, Nolan told the media, “I see him everyday in my edit suite … I study his face, his voice. And I miss him terribly.”