It’s starting to become clear just how much of an actor-backed performance the titular role in Joker was. While Todd Phillips deserves credit for bringing the world of Gotham alive through the movie, Joaquin Phoenix had a big part to play in bringing in little unexpected moments that made Arthur Fleck an extremely fascinating character whom you couldn’t help but root for even while he committed acts of violence.
One such moment was during a scene in Arthur’s house, where he’s shown to be struggling with insomnia and climbs into the fridge. According to cinematographer Lawrence Sher, no one quite knew what was going to happen at that moment.
“While some scenes were very planned out, like when he’s in the phone booth or walking up the stairs, others had no plan at all. When he climbed in the refrigerator, we had no idea he was going to do that. We set up two camera positions, and Joaquin just thought about what he would do if he was a massive insomniac. Again, we lit it so he could go anywhere, and the first and only time he did it, we were mesmerized. I remember thinking, ‘What is he doing? Did he just crawl in the fridge?’ It was as fun and weird for us to watch it, too.”
Another unexpected moment took place in the bathroom of the subway after Arthur commits his first murder and celebrates with an impromptu jig.
“Joaquin created that whole dance and, after the success of that scene, we started creating more moments like that. Like when he’s playing with the gun and fires it into the wall. All we knew was that he’d fire the gun into the wall at some point, but we never planned when or knew that he’d stand and have that conversation with himself and begin dancing. We just had two cameras in there and let it happen, which became a major part of how we did a lot of things.”
It was these improvised moments that served to bolster the weirdness of Arthur Fleck, and it’s now difficult to imagine any actor other than Phoenix pulling off such a performance. His method of filming Joker has become the stuff of legend, thanks to various hints and behind-the-scenes footage that Phillips has dropped from time to time about how Phoenix went about his process. For instance, he would occasionally disappear from the set right in the middle of a scene, only to come back and nail the performance on the next shot.
Phoenix also chose to keep his distance from Robert De Niro, in addition to losing a ton of weight to bring himself to the point of starvation to properly embody the level of deprivation he felt a character like Arthur experienced in his life. All these preparations, while strange to a non-actor, have resulted in a performance that’s become an instant hit and a hot favorite for the Oscars.