Opinion over the Joker movie and its message for society may be hotly debated, but everyone agrees that Joaquin Phoenix was brilliant in the titular role, thanks not only to his acting but also his emaciated appearance in the film, suggestive of a deeply unhealthy life filled with deprivation. According to director Todd Phillips though, Phoenix refused to consult a nutritionist for his weight loss regimen, instead choosing to make do with eating only a single apple a day to lose 52 pounds in record time.
For the actor, such a dramatic loss in physical weight also affected his psychology while playing the role, causing him to feel like he was going mad from the lack of food. And in a recent interview, Phillips delved deeper into the effort it took to have Phoenix transform physically into Arthur Fleck, with the director saying:
“We talked a lot about, ‘How skinny should Arthur be? How far do we want to go? And I kept saying to him, ‘When are you gonna start losing weight? At what point do you start this?’ Because it was already like June, and he hadn’t started, and we started shooting in September. And he’s like 180 pounds. He wasn’t fat, but we’re talking getting to 125 pounds.”
“And he goes, ‘I got it, I got it.’ I go, ‘We can hire a guy, I’ve got this woman who’s a nutritionist, you might want to [talk to her].’ ‘No no, that’s not how I do it.’ I go, ‘How do you do it?’ He goes, ‘I just stop eating and I starve myself.’ He just ate an apple a day for the whole summer.”
Aside from working on the look of the character, Phillips and Phoenix also held intensive discussions about what went on inside the head of the down-on-his-luck clown turned vengeful criminal, with Phillips saying:
“We talked a lot about who would he be, and why is he like this, and what is his thing, and where does that laugh come from, and why does he wear makeup or not, [and so on]. And we really just started reading a lot about narcissism, and ego, and things that we think that are kind of baked into our version of Joker.”
“The ego is Arthur, the ego is the thing that’s trying to control this wild force that is Joker. But Joker is pure id. So we just thought, ‘What happens when you go through your life wearing a mask?’ Which a lot of people do, you’re wearing a mask and you’re pretending to be a certain way. And Arthur is very kind of controlled, but there are these glimpses of who he is underneath. And what happens when you take the mask off, which is kind of a weird flip, because actually Joker wears a mask — or makeup — but the idea is, ‘What happens when you stop living that life, and live as the shadow?’ Then you just make the movie and you forget all that, and you just make the film, and you hope it makes sense on some level.”
All those preparations and thought exercises combined to create a stellar film and a performance that will go down in cinema history as one of the finest studies of neglect and mental illness that an actor has ever portrayed. In fact, so successful was Phoenix in making Fleck an empathetic and realistic character that it’s difficult to imagine the man someday becoming known as the Clown Prince of Crime, engaging in spirited battle atop Gotham buildings against someone dressed in tights and sporting a bat-like mask.
With the unprecedented success of Joker, Phillips and Phoenix now have an open invitation from Warner Bros. to return to the world they created for multiple sequels, although both maintain they would only do so if they can develop a story for a follow-up that’s as compelling as the original. Let’s just hope such a film doesn’t necessitate Phoenix having to once again dangerously subsist on a single apple a day.