It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a decade since Heath Ledger’s twisted portrayal of everyone’s favorite comic book villain. His dramatization of the Joker in The Dark Knight is still widely discussed and debated eight years later – a true sign of lasting significance in the art of acting. And undoubtedly, Ledger gave himself completely to the role, both on screen and off it.
There are some subtleties in his performance, however, that even the most die-hard fans might have missed. The following list, for example, includes some of the most obscure facts surrounding the method actor and his extreme approach to the character. And there are some entries that are sure to put a smile on your face…
20. Joker DIY
The make-up used to transform Ledger into the Joker was perfectly on point, but you might be surprised to learn that the star himself was actually the one who developed the look. Ledger perfected the chilling mask effect on his own face using drugstore makeup. The film’s makeup artists were then tasked with reproducing the unsettling design on set, on the orders of the eccentric performer.
19. Vicious influences
Ledger’s look was greatly inspired by that of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, while a variety of different sources influenced his clothing choices, ranging from Vivienne Westwood to Iggy Pop. The mannerisms Ledger brilliantly perfected for the role, meanwhile, were directly influenced by Malcolm McDowell’s character in A Clockwork Orange. And Ledger was also partially inspired by Brandon Lee’s character in The Crow: an actor who also passed away while his project was still in the making.
18. What makes you tick
The greatest thing about Ledger’s performance as the crazed psychopath is the subtleties he injects into the character. The facial tics he incorporates, for example, were initially due to a reaction from the makeup, before Christopher Nolan agreed that they should be used in the movie. And as you will see on this list, such spontaneity and creativity from Ledger was a reoccurring theme throughout filming.
17. Doing the grunt work
It’s clear by now that Ledger’s preparation for the role was as intense as they come, and his dedication to the job would leak onto the set, too. Indeed, Aaron Eckhart, who played Two-Face, later reminisced about Ledger’s devotion to the role during an interview on Larry King Now. According to Eckhart, Ledger would grunt in character for hours in preparation for the scene the two had together, before delivering the lines effortlessly when the cameras began to roll.
16. Pencil it in
One of the most iconic scenes in the movie was the infamous pencil trick scene, which had audiences either laughing in hysterics or gasping in horror. It’s a fine line, in fact, on which Ledger treads throughout the movie. What’s most surprising though, is that this great scene almost didn’t make the final cut. And it was only thanks to Ledger that it did – he was determined that the scene be included in the movie, so it was eventually given the green light.
15. Opening shot blues
The bank heist at the start of The Dark Knight is arguably one of the greatest opening scenes in modern cinematic history. In fact, in full IMAX glory, the breadth of it is simply breathtaking. But, while shooting, an unfortunate out-of-focus shot caused the crew to have to redo the entire scene. And although it wasn’t his fault at all, Ledger – the ultimate perfectionist – was reportedly distraught by the decision, even ringing Nolan to ask, “What have I done?”
14. Pulling no punches
If you needed further proof of Ledger’s commitment to the role, nothing says it more than the fact that the actor actually asked to be hit for real during the famous interrogation scene. Ledger wanted to give his performance a gritty realism and, if you watch the scene, you’ll see that Christian Bale certainly holds nothing back. We’re sure that didn’t put a smile on the face of Ledger, but the Joker? Well, that’s another story.
13. Taking it to the next level
Ledger reportedly told colleagues that he was going to deliver a Dark Knight performance that was “so far out he’d be fired.” This alleged tale is no surprise to anyone that’s seen the movie, especially considering how far Ledger takes his role. And according to cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, his aim was to take his new-found leave and enjoy a paid holiday. Ledger wasn’t fired in the end, obviously, but he certainly pushed the boundaries of character development to its absolute pinnacle.
12. A far cry from Bridget Jones’s Diary
While we now know just how brilliantly dark Ledger’s on-screen portrayal of the Joker turned out to be, the off-screen preparation that went into the role was arguably even darker. In fact, it seems that Ledger, completely on his own volition, delved into a deep black hole filled with the Joker’s most disturbing thoughts. His diary included jokes that he believed the character would find funny – including some disturbing ones about AIDS, landmines and brain damage. Plus, he kept it on him at all times throughout filming, ensuring that he was never far away from the mind-corrupting insanity that was scrawled all over its pages.
11. Master of puppets
Ever noticed the almost puppet-like facial expressions that the Joker pulls? Well, these strange mannerisms were actually wholly intentional. Because while Ledger worked with a vocal coach in order to nail the voice of the Joker, he also spent time carefully observing ventriloquist dummies in order to replicate their creepy way of “communicating.”
10. Why so serious?
Although many believe that Ledger’s commitment to the role of the Joker never let up – and may even have been detrimental to his mental health – it turns out that the actor was actually very much himself on set. In fact, he even cheered up the cast and crew behind the scenes. It seems then that, contrary to popular belief, Ledger was able to step out of character when he needed to.
9. Tongue in cheek
It turns out that the lip-licking actions of this famous villain were actually a very necessary part of the role. Yes, the tongue-twisting habits of the Joker were more than a character quirk – they were needed to keep Ledger’s mouth wet for his unique timbre. The dreaded makeup has to take its share of the blame as well too, though, as the discomfort of it caused the Aussie to flick his tongue out like a lizard.
8. Am I late to the party?
It’s said that Ledger actually showed up in full Joker regalia, even on days where he had no scenes. Talk about dedication to his art. Not only that, but he took things one step further by skating around as the frantic freak between takes. It’s fair to say, then, that this all-encompassing approach to method acting was just one of the reasons why Ledger’s Joker was so believable.
7. Improvisation was key
There were a number of key improvisational moments in The Dark Knight, most of which can be attributed to Ledger’s stellar performance. For instance, the actor had to improvise the “look at me” line in the penthouse scene because Maggie Gyllenhaal was actually so scared she couldn’t maintain eye contact. Ledger also improvised during the hospital explosion scene, as well as the eerie clapping scene in the cell. This latter part, in fact, was actually unscripted, but Nolan left the cameras rolling and inserted it into the movie later.
6. All by myself
Before filming for The Dark Knight began, Ledger barricaded himself in a hotel room for six weeks and dedicated all his time to getting into character. Undoubtedly, he took a more reclusive and serious approach to the role than his successor Jared Leto, who mailed out joker cards and odd gifts to his Suicide Squad costars. Sorry Leto, Ledger is the quintessential Joker of the 21st century.
5. Lights, camera, mayhem!
Ledger not only put his extreme character in front of the cameras, he also went behind the camera to direct two small scenes in the movie, too. Yes, the terrorist videos that the Joker uses to convey his insanity were actually helmed by Ledger. Moreover, Nolan even trusted the actor’s ingenuity in the director’s chair so much that he left the second video completely up to him.
4. Art imitating life
Now this one could be merely coincidental, but it’s just too similar to simply dismiss. Outsider musician Tom Waits is renowned for being a somewhat peculiar person, to say the least, and nothing proves this more than an interview he gave in 1979 in which he sounds exactly like Ledger’s evil villain. It’s no secret that music played a key role in Ledger’s performance, too. And so could Waits be the unsung missing link between rock music’s wild antics and the Joker’s madcap nihilism?
3. No laughing matter
You know you’ve done something special when the President of the United States refers to you – and for Ledger, his role as the Joker just happens to fall into that elite category. Yes, Obama once actually compared Ledger’s Joker to ISIS, likening the extremist group’s philosophy to the destructive nature of the infamous Batman villain.
2. Hospitable nurse
This one’s quite heart-warming. Not many people know that Ledger tried to offset his wicked character and break away from his intense performance by using tidbits from his personal life. For example, in the hospital scene with Harvey Dent, the Joker is wearing a female nursing uniform. But did you notice that the name badge reads Matilda? Which happens to be the name of Ledger’s daughter, proving that Ledger never really forgot about what was important to him in life, even while in character.
1. A record-setting legacy
Ledger’s legacy has been cast in stone thanks to his stellar career performances, and in what would be his last ever performance, the committed actor really lived and breathed the role of the Joker. It’s little wonder, then, that he’s the only person ever to have won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor posthumously, cementing himself as one of America’s greatest modern actors in the process. In a lot of ways, though, the real winner was his Batman audience. Ledger truly left an indelible mark on the superhero franchise and will no doubt go down as a legend in the pantheon of motion picture greats – and deservedly so.