Jared Leto’s Joker is an uncomfortable, unhinged presence on-screen, and the gnarly stunts he pulled in the name of method acting on the set of Suicide Squad were extreme, but not exactly out of character for the part — or out of step with the men who have taken on the role in the past.
In her recent essay for The Atlantic, Angelica Jade Bastién convicts Leto for the murder of method acting. She swiftly makes the case that the actor and his preparation for the part were not for the benefits and artistic achievements that the time-tested technique can unleash, but for the opportunity and promotional panache to say that, yeah, he toootally went method in his attempt at a decent performance. (Critics are nearly unanimous in their agreement that this effort ultimately failed, spectacularly.)
Bastién goes on to provide a brief history of method acting and how, today, it enforces problematic gender politics in film, feeds the voracious PR machine, and has become award-snatching criteria as opposed to an earnest and difficult-to-master tool for those who’ve got the chops to use it. Leto himself and his costar, Matthew McConaughey, both won Oscars for their performances in Dallas Buyers Club largely thanks to their method approach to their respective roles, which involved extreme transformations that were balked at in the press and that drummed up a leering interest in the film. Bastién highlights Leonardo DiCaprio’s more recent Oscar turn with The Revenant as a vivid example of how his borderline masochistic tendencies on set played a huge part in netting him his first Oscar earlier this year. Her kicker sums up her feelings on this instance of Leto’s practice and the scope of the piece in one fell swoop: “The unimaginative and overly stylized quirks of Leto’s performance as the Joker is a reminder to audiences, performers, and critics just how unrewarding and empty method acting has become with all its excesses. To buy into it is to limit the discussion about what kind of performances are worthwhile. It is to feed into a culture that lets actors get away with dangerous stunts in the name of ego and marketing — not art.”
But there’s one imaginary PS to Bastién’s logic that vaults the reader down a bit of a rabbit hole. Leto, by sending dead animals to his costars and bingeing on horrifically violent news stories, wasn’t just subscribing to what he understood to be method acting: He was clutching the complicated history of The Joker, and the actors who’ve played the role, to his chest as gospel. This was made plain by the Rolling Stone cover story in which Leto told the writer, unprompted, that if The Joker were doing the interview, “he’d definitely castrate you and make you eat your own testicles. Just for fun. That’s if he liked you.”
The part is so steeped in its own folklore that the press surrounding the men who play it is just as known to audiences as their performances. It’s impossible to have a conversation about The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s smoldering performance without mentioning or thinking of his shocking, tragic death, along with the posthumous Oscar that marked his most ambitious effort on screen. Any mention of Ledger’s Joker also recalls his dedication to the part and the journal he kept over the course of production, one immortalized in a stark profile published by the New York Times two months before his death:
He carries his interests around with him, and his kitchen table was awash in objects: a chess set, assorted books, various empty glasses, items of clothing. Here too was his Joker diary, which he began compiling four months before filming began. It is filled with images and thoughts helpful to the Joker back story, like a list of things the Joker would find funny. (AIDS is one of them.) Mr. Ledger seemed almost embarrassed that the book had been spotted, as if he had been caught trying to get extra credit in school.
Later, in the German docuseries Too Young to Die, Ledger’s father, Kim, flips through the diary, a haunting scene that pores over the scrawled-on pages and clippings he compiled. Ledger’s performance was extraordinary, and Leto’s not so much, but their methodology was simple and rooted in the interest of the character they shared: Leto devoured violent news clips while prepping to play The Joker, and his choice to do so came from a similar place as Ledger’s to cut out disturbing snippets from the newspaper for his diary.
The Times piece also mentions Ledger’s sleep issues — specifically, that he wasn’t getting any of it during the filming of The Dark Knight — and that this wasn’t a unique issue for the actor, in that he typically had trouble sleeping when he fully threw himself into a role. When the toxicology report came back weeks after his death on January 22, 2008, it showed that Ledger died of an accidental overdose on a cocktail of medications typically prescribed for treating the kind of insomnia and anxiety the Times described in its feature. Ledger’s Joker then took on a lethal shade that leapt off the screen and into the very real headlines of the present, and Jack Nicholson — who played The Joker in Tim Burton’s own 1989 contribution to the Batman legacy — further strengthened the sinister sinews of the part when he told the flash-popping paparazzi blurting out news of Ledger’s death that he had “warned him.”
Nicholson himself had trouble letting go of The Joker. In a 2007 interview with MTV News that ran two days after the Times feature, Nicholson said that he was “furious” that he hadn’t been approached to play The Joker in The Dark Knight, and that he felt a particular ownership of the role due to his childhood fondness for the character, a connection to Batman that Burton shared. Meanwhile, Mark Hamill can’t let go of The Joker, thanks to the hugely successful cartoon and video game branches of the franchise. He tried to retire the part in 2011, but Hamill once again gave voice to Gotham’s demonic gangster in this summer’s controversial feature-length, animated, R-rated epic, Batman: The Killing Joke, his latest installment in a 24-year run of Batman-fueled work.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Hamill compared The Joker to one of the most respected — and tortured — roles an actor can play on stage or screen: “It’s just like Hamlet or any of those great stage roles that are meant to be reinterpreted by actors for a long time to come.” Before that, he compared The Joker to a strong spice, and one to be used sparingly. “He’s probably like a spice, a very distinctive spice. If you add too much of it, it’ll probably make you slightly nauseous. But you crave it when you don’t have it. That’s what The Joker is like for me."
Hamill’s description — innocent, enthusiastic, and well-meaning though it is — is one of addictive language. For those chemically or psychologically hooked on the “spice” of their drug of choice, be it booze, heroin, or a character with sociopathic, homicidal tendencies, there’s a very real danger of overdosing, of losing yourself in the experience. For Hamill, it’s “nausea” or fatigue; for Nicholson, it’s nostalgia and pride. Ledger’s Joker was constructed by a meticulous, hard study that appeared to have consumed its maker, one that later fit a tragic mold; Leto’s is one that was informed by the men who came before him whose dedication to, fascination with, and addiction to the part were just as heralded as the Jokers they brought to the screen.
As such, Leto’s Joker isn’t so much a disastrous method acting experiment, but a performance of a part that continues to prove it leaves an unusual impact on the men who play it. Method acting didn’t make Leto unleash a live rat in Margot Robbie’s trailer or litter the Suicide Squad set with condoms, but the legacy of The Joker — and the pressure put on the actors who take up that cackling mantle — certainly did.