While other villains go for long dark cloaks, sharp suits or menacing armour, the Joker wears a brightly coloured outfit and comes at you with a smile. The other villains have plans to take over the world, or destroy it, or just want to kill the hero, but the Joker simply doesn’t care about those things. For him, the joy is in the (sometimes literal) execution. He just wants to get Batman’s attention, create some chaos, and more often than not he’s smiling as he’s dragged, bruised and battered, into the back of a police van.
And that’s what makes him so scary. How can you beat a bad guy that doesn’t care whether they win or not?
It’s not overreaching to call the Joker the Hamlet of comic book super villains. He’s a challenge some truly great actors have taken on, and once an actor plays the role you can be sure it’ll be attached to their name forever.
This was the challenge that Jared Leto took on when he agreed to play the Joker in Suicide Squad, and he had no illusions about the scale of the job when he started. However, he also saw an opportunity for creativity and reinvention.
“The Joker has been written about in pop culture for 75 years,” Leto says. “The actors, the voice actors, the television series, the writers, the artists and the fans. People have taken the Joker and reinvented and redefined.”
Getting into the Joker’s Head
An actor playing the Joker has a number of questions to answer. Is the Joker crazy, or does he just find that acting crazy is the best way to get what he wants? Does he hate Batman, or is Batman the closest thing he has to a friend? Does he really just make everything up as he goes along, or has he planned everything out meticulously in advance and just has a sense of showmanship? These are complicated questions, but Leto has certainly relished the chance to get into the Joker’s head.
“I took a pretty deep dive,” he says. “But this was a unique opportunity and I couldn’t imagine doing it another way. It was fun, playing those psychological games.”
Leto worked closely with director David Ayer to craft a new version of the Joker, but Leto’s performance is very much his own creation. Leto says that David Ayer “really let me loose and encouraged me” as he got fully into character to play the Clown Prince of Crime.
The Joker is a character the gives an actor a lot of options, and Leto was keen to make sure he didn’t repeat what had already been done before.
“We knew we had to strike new ground,” he says. “So you had a kind of direction from the very beginning – knowing that you can't go that way, so you have to head this way. That was really helpful. But the Joker is fantastic because there are no rules. The Joker operates from instinct.”
The thing is the joker has been funny, and he’s been sinister, he’s been a pantomime villain, a gangster and a terrorist. So just where is there for the character to go next? Leto isn’t spilling the beans, but he’s clear on where he isn’t going to go.
“When the Joker has been done and done so well, it gives you a bit of an indication of where you shouldn’t go,” he says. “There’s a bit of a map there. That’s the good part about it.”