Every iteration of The Joker since the Clown Prince of Crime was first introduced onscreen in 1966 has told a different story. Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1966 live-action series Batman was a laid-back goofball that skipped around Gotham in sinister glee; Jack Nicholson presented Joker as an erratic, wounded soul in 1989. With just one line—Why so serious?—and a terrifying presence, Heath Ledger’s 2008 portrayal became the darkest and most cruel Joker to date. Then came Jared Leto’s “damaged” jester in Suicide Squad and most recently, Joaquin Phoenix’s emotionally bruised version in this year’s Joker film. But as frequently as The Joker’s story changes, few things remain as constant as The Joker’s signature look—acid green hair, pasty white face, and a creepy red grin.
So how does one reinvent an iconic look, etched into the minds of comic enthusiasts for decades, for a new audience and entirely different story? Nicki Ledermann, award-winning makeup artist whose resume boasts credits for Sex and The City, The Greatest Showman, The Devil Wears Prada, and more, was tasked with the job for Phoenix’s 2019 Joker portrayal. However, Nicki Ledermann’s 2019 version of The Joker trades in the dark, bloodshot, hollowed eyes and the prosthetic smile of past Jokers in favor of a look that felt more authentic for Phoenix’s real-life clown who exists in the real world where “humanity, close to its worst, leads this storyline, not super powers.”
Ahead, the award-winning makeup artist breaks down exactly how she transformed Joaquin Phoenix into Gotham’s grinning villain and the exact products used so you can recreate the look this Halloween.
How much research did you do to prepare for this film?
I researched clowns. I think by now I have all the books there are about clowns. It was really fascinating to look at all the different type of clowns, going very far back into the history of time. Pretty much every clown makeup is copy written, so you have to come up with something new, maybe borrowed but not identical, like in music or any other creative field, an inspiration, a reminiscent vibe, a color theme, made into something new.
When I met with Todd [Phillips, the director] for the first time he showed the inspiration that he, Joaquin and the production designer liked. I took that design, and translated it to create the Joker, working on placement, texture and color palette and making sure it was one of a kind. The look of the Joker also has to fit into the look of the overall movie. Collaborating was the key: hair, costume design, production design and cinematography, we all worked closely together to “paint” the overall picture of the movie, always referencing each other in mood, texture and color palette for synchronicity. But most importantly it was Joaquin’s incredible performance that brought the makeup look to life. He made the look iconic, because it has to come from within to make it so powerful.
We know the Joker’s look by now, but what’s different about Joaquin’s version?
Joker’s looks over the years have been iconic, all some different and they all relate to each other. Joaquin’s version is a clown makeup that is realist and organic in terms of the application. This joker is not a super villain that lives in a super hero world with super powers, he didn’t fall into chemicals that bleached the skin. Our joker lives in the real world, neglected and abused as a child, in a society that doesn’t take care of each other especially the vulnerable and innocent, the weak and the needy. Kind of too close to home, isn’t it? He works as a clown to support himself and his mother, he puts the makeup on himself, he is not really that skilled. It was important to show that in the movie to keep it authentic and real.
Joaquin’s version of Joker is much different than the Suicide Squad portrayal. How did the difference in storylines influence the makeup?
Every past joker had a very cool and interesting twist and style, but sharing a similar world. This Joker’s story line stands out from the others. It is the story of his origin, he hasn’t evolved into neither Jared Leto’s Joker, nor Heath Ledger’s Joker or Jack Nicholson’s Joker, or any other Joker, and he never will. This origin story could take us to a whole new other Joker, because we are not in superhero world, we are in our existing world, where humanity, close to its worst, leads this storyline, not super powers.
How long would Joaquin sit with you in the chair on a given shooting day for makeup?
Joaquin couldn’t sit still for very long, that’s just who he is, and being hungry all the time (he lost over 50 pounds for this movie) didn’t help. But he was incredibly trusting and appreciative while sitting in the hair and makeup chair. Often Kay, our brilliant hair designer, doubled teamed to get the makeup and the wig on at the same time to get him out of the chair. We tried to get him ready under 20 min. On set touch ups were the times we finalized the look.
He does a lot of running in the movie, especially in the scene where he’s running from the cops. How’d you ensure his makeup would stay put?
The hardest part besides designing the look wasn’t the actual makeup application, but to match continuity and building the arc of the makeup. When filming a movie or a TV show, you never film in order of the scenes. You film one sequence one day and then you might come back to it a week or even months later, and you have to make it exactly the same so it can intercut. It was imperative being able to manipulate the makeup so I could take it off and redo it fast after every take matching it perfectly to the prior take, or having to have it smear during the take, then fix it in between, or having to make it appear to smear but actually have it stay put without smudging during the take. To achieve this, I had to use a lot of different products all the time, and I had to make sure to exactly match the texture and the colors. I had to freehand the placement and not interrupt the speedy pace and incredible intensity of filming, so it would look fluent and authentic. I used mainly MAC Cosmetics Chromacakes for my water-based makeup and Sian Richards 4k brio palette for smear and waterproof makeup.
Joaquin’s Joker has blue diamonds painted around the eyes. Where’d you draw inspiration for this?
Those diamonds are a very classic look inspired the Italian opera clown, a clown that is not too scary, and still conveys some vulnerability, even some innocence.
Joaquin did his own makeup in the movie. How’d you walk him through it?
He had to do a couple of simple but intense applications. The makeup was designed so literally anybody can do it. It was important that he could do it in the moment and there was really no wrong way to do it, as the whole point of the design was that it was spontaneous and not super-skilled. I showed him the best way to do it, gave him the tools and makeup to use in the scene and he just perfected it.
With Halloween on the horizon, can you describe—in layman’s terms—how one can recreate the look?
Most important: DON’T OVERTHINK IT. Use any water activated makeup like the MAC Cosmetics Chromacake. Try Landscape Green, Cyan, Black, Black and Basic Red. Turn on your favorite song and blast it out loud, feel the moment and have fun with it. It will be perfect.