Heath Ledger's death at the turn of the year was, in a word, chilling. Sure, he was young and famous. But more than that, the Australian had recently completed work on his twisted turn as The Joker in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight. Whispers of the enormity of his performance had just begun to filter through. After his death, they were everywhere. Spooky and everywhere.
With the film hitting cinemas very soon, FHM decided to do some serious digging. We've got our hands on the late actor's last interview, conducted on set in Chicago at the tail end of 2007. It's fascinating stuff, and makes an awesome prologue to what will certainly be the best superhero film yet. How do we know? Because we've seen it - and the one-word review reads like this: "Awesome."
How are you?
I just got off a plane. I was picked up at 4am from my house this morning in LA. It’s okay.
Are you lucid enough to tell all?
(laughs) You caught me at a good moment.
Everyone said that you were fearless taking on this role, is that really true?
I definitely feared it. Anything that fears me, I guess, excites me at the same time and so I don’t know if I was fearless, but I certainly had to put on a brave face and believe that I had something up my sleeve and something that was different.
Did you watch any of the Jack Nicholson stuff?
Oh yeah. (laughs) I mean, not after I got the role, but I’ve seen it many times before, I was a huge fan of it and having seen Chris’ first film, I knew that there’s a big difference between a Chris Nolan film and a Tim Burton film and so therefore there was enough room for a fresh portrayal and so I’ve kind of steered away from what Jack did (laughs) hopefully.
In what way?
I don’t know. I’m not at liberty to say. (laughs)
How did you build your character? Did you start with the comic books or the movies or the tv series?
A bit of both. Like I sat around a hotel room in London, for about a month and I just locked myself away and formed a little diary and experimented with voices and I’ll answer your question (laughs), he’s you know I ended up making him within the realm of a psychopath kind of like zero empathy or very little to no conscience towards his acts which is fun because there’s no real limits on their boundaries to what he would say or how he would say something or what he would do. So, yeah that, I don’t know it’s always a very personal process in terms of how you land in your characters shoes, so to speak, and it’s a combination of reading all the comic books I could and the script, and then just really closing my eyes and meditating on it, you know? Chris and I very much saw, see eye to eye on how the character should be played, and that was evident from the first kind of meeting we had on the project. We both had identical images in our minds and so I went away, found it, came back.
Do we see the man behind The Joker?
I don’t know. (laughs) I really don’t know what to say, I feel like I’ll be assassinated if I tell you something wrong…
We know there’s a prologue, but we don’t know exactly what is in that...
Okay, I’m really not sure what I’m allowed to say. (laughs)
Again, with that process of getting into The Joker is the idea that he may have once been a normal person?
Yeah, I think most of the villains in kind of the Chris Nolan style of Batman movies are normal people, once were normal people. I definitely kind of came to my own conclusions to his background and but one thing, and I don’t know whether I’d be putting my foot in my mouth by giving you that, I guess it’s my secret too at this point so I don’t know. This is the first time I’d had to speak about it and no ones really prepped me and (laughs) on what I can say or not...
How long does it take to put the face on?
An hour and a half kinda thing. It’s pretty quick. They come up with a new technology for the mouthpiece , the scars are made out of silicone, not prosthetic, and so they have three silicon stamps that they put on here, here and here, the whole bottom lip is fake essentially, and they glue it on in here and so yeah, it takes like half an hour to put those on and then twenty minutes, half an hour to paint the face.
Has your daughter seen you as The Joker
No, no. I think she’s seen like an image of it but…
Was she scared?
She just kind of frowned at it you know. (laughs). I don’t think she connected me to it yeah.
So does that really help with the character? You got a costume in there as well and the whole feel, look…
Yeah, yeah, it’s definitely the icing on the cake toward all the research that you do prior to shooting. There’s something about the metaphor to work behind a mask and from within a mask always gives you the license to do whatever you want or the freedom, free of feeling like you’re being judged or viewed and so I’m literally wearing a mask now which empowers me twice as much to kind of feel free and feel unrestrained here and it’s pretty exciting.
How do you get into the mindset of evil?
I think we all have it in us, you know. I don’t know, once again, it’s kind of you know, like for awhile there I was thinking that sometimes I’ll connect some exterior thoughts, I’m kind of eating raw meat and what that does to your mouth and to your eyes and simple little visuals like that that can kind of twist your mind a little bit and it feels evil when it’s not necessarily an evil thought, but it may look and come across as evil. I don’t know, I guess just the rest is trusting like your research and trusting all the definitions of these words, a psychopath and you know, and then just running with it. You know? I don’t know, I’m trying not to give it too much thought at this point and…
Nicholson said the first time he saw himself as The Joker he forgot his lines. Was there a moment you looked at your performance and felt a certain way?
I haven’t looked at it yet. I’ve heard it, in the trailer and it kinda creeped me out a little bit but I haven’t seen it yet.
Why? Why haven’t you seen it?
I just, I don’t know where I’d see it. We don’t have playback, I don’t want to see playback, and I just, I haven’t seen, I don’t know if you’d, they’ve put together a trailer of some sort for…
You never see dailies of the film?
No. I did. I did. I used to. But now I just find it’s a waste of time. (laughs) I’d rather go home, go to sleep (laughs)… it’s too late.
Is that because you found you were readjusting your performance when you were doing that?
Sometimes, yeah, sometimes. I mean, just out of insecurities I used to do it, and schooling, self-tutored.
How is his physicality? He must be much more physical than the last one? He’s younger etc. And Christian Bale is a very physical actor and very athletic...
It’s been, I’ve been, yeah, Christian’s beaten me up a couple of times (laughs) through the film. (laughs) he actually punched me in the jaw at one point!
Yeah, not hard. He’s a total gentleman about it. He kind of tapped me on the shoulder and it’s been physical, but I enjoy that. I get battered and bruised, but I don’t know, I like feeling pain too, it’s kind of acting, in a way, uhm, yeah.
And you found a way to walk etc?
Yeah, yeah. Definitely, I found an interesting kind of posture of sort, which I felt went with his aggressive nature and a walk and it’s hard to describe I guess, it’s a little hunched.
Where are you shooting tomorrow?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I am shooting tomorrow. I think I shoot, wait, what day is it today?
Okay. I shoot Sunday. Yeah.
Is this a role you had to go to the gym much?
No. (laughs) Thank God, yeah.
So that’s good.
Can you talk about your scenes with Christian. You’re the nemesis you know, the iconic Batman nemesis it must be some electricity?
Well, firstly, it’s an honour to work with Christian. I mean the cast in general is pretty outstanding, I mean, every single one of these people I’ve wanted to work with, and have inspired me at some point and so it’s ridiculous, the cast and my first scene was with Gary Oldman, which was mind blowing. Then after he leaves the interrogation room, Batman arrives (laughs), you know? And suddenly, I realized what movie I was in (laughs) and it’s quite fun actually because you know I was supposed to, you know, nothing really gets under my skin, including Batman, and it’s quite easy, as an actor, because it’s kind of funny, seeing someone dressed up in a bat suit, it was easy to laugh at it but he’s incredibly professional and incredibly focused and you know, one of the loveliest guys I’ve ever worked with and a brilliant actor and, even down to Batman like how serious he takes it, and how he transforms and his voice shifts and aggressive he gets, it’s really inspiring stuff.
So the concept is that Batman uses fear, and that Joker has no fear of Batman – it’s that kind of relationship?
Yeah. They can’t really live without each other. It’s that kind of relationship. You know? Like they have no real purpose in life without each other. So they don’t really want each other dead.
And how about working with Maggie Gyllenhaal, because obviously you’ve worked with her brother before and did you know her before?
Yeah. Yeah I did. Yeah, that’s been great too. I stuck a knife (laughs) into her and… no, it’s been a lot of fun and you know, she’s also a Brooklynite and so we’ve just been kinda, trading a lot of family stories and yeah, it’s been fun.
Could you describe what sets Chris Nolan apart from other directors?
He drinks a lot more tea than I’ve seen another director drink (laughs). That definitely sets him apart. He’s so young, but seems so old and he’s just incredibly mature and organized and relaxed on set, and he’s definitely in his world. He has a wonderful relationship with his DP, Wally, and those two kind of seem to have the entire world mapped out, and we just kind of follow in their path. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like directing a movie this size, but he manages to kind of keep a clear head and he’s super organized, he actually just, surprisingly enough, like as organized as he is, he really just shoots as he goes too, like he makes a lot of it up, as he goes and he’s very flexible in that way.
Since he’s also the co-writer is he also involved in any fine tuning of Joker’s lines…
Me? No, not really. No he was all there, he was all on page. They did a really good job.
Everybody says how dark the film is but is there any moment of just kind of twisted fun that The Joker brings to the table?
Yeah, yeah, all the time. There’s nothing consistent about him at all, so he’s not consistently dark or consistently fun, or funny, just going up and down the whole time.
You had fun in terms of playing it?
Yeah, it’s the most fun I’ve had, playing a role.
This must be the most different thing since your character in Brokeback Mountain who is so restrained?
Yeah, no, absolutely, I mean, yeah, I’m really surprised Chris knew that I or thought or believed that I had something in me like this and I don’t know how he came to ask me to do it. But yeah it is. It’s definitely the most fun I’ve had and the most freedom I’ve had and the work schedule’s great (laughs), I work two days and have three weeks off (laughs) It’s like that for six months so went surfing a lot.
But you do some work?!
Yeah, yeah, I do. It’s just a long schedule, and there’s a lot of action sequences, so action sequences take three weeks to a month sometimes to shoot.
I’m Not There is coming out soon – do you have any scenes with Christian Bale in that and what is your take on Dylan?
No I don’t act with Christian, but I play him, yeah. He plays a Dylanesque character in this ficticious world and I play an actor who tries to portray him, in a film.
How has being a father affected you as an actor?
I don’t know. I mean it hasn’t made me like less evil than I ought to be. (laughs)
Did it make you think about what things are important in life?
Yeah, I think that’s a much broader question you know than just how I perform I mean just in general, in life, it has that effect on me, but I’m not sure if it’s had that effect on like the roles I wanna play or how I play a role. I think if anything, it’s the opposite, I’m like, all right, I have more perspective, in terms of that in life, and there’s more need to be evil now through work and to express other things through work (laughs) I mean not literally.
Will you be back for another Batman?
If they invite me.
More bad guy roles? I mean this is, this is your first bad guy role?
I mean, would you like that?
I do like it. Yeah, yeah.
And you’ve got followers as well in this. How is that?
It’s good. They’re silent, but deadly. (laughs).
Any injuries or hairy moments?
No but I let Christian, he went and stood up on the Sears Tower himself, they took him right up to the very top and he took his feet right to the edge. And they put him on a thin wire and he just leaned off the tower like this (demonstrating) which I thought was a pretty cool story. There’s been a lot of car chases and there was an Imax camera that got busted up, got jammed between a truck and a car and they just you know, replaced it (laughs), kept on shooting, as you do.
Is this the most expensive movie you’ve ever made?
Does that have an influence on your performance? It’s different from Brokeback Mountain?
Yeah, it’s completely different. It doesn’t really change that space of time between action and cut that’s always the same no matter what’s around you, it’s the same place you live in. But yeah it’s a different ballgame, it’s quite amazing, it’s quite jaw dropping, yeah. It’s fun. It’s been a lot of fun watching it.
Besides being a masked guy, what does he have? a car? Something special?
The Jokermobile? (laughs) Rollerblades, yeah (laughs), that would be funny. No he doesn’t have a set of wheels - he just steals whatever’s around.
He has that image of someone who has that flower that squirts acid, that sort of thing?
No, not a lot of gimmicks.
Just you and a knife?
He’s just bloody, yeah.
It’s a gory one?
I mean it’s, you know, it’s a PG-13 isn’t it? I think, so not really, you know, I think it suggests more gore, I remember going into this thinking it was PG-13 but I wanted to present an X rated performance, if I could. So it’s kind of what I’ve been going for and the power of suggestion. It is pretty dark, but there’s not a lot of gore.
Have you run into Jack Nicholson since you go the part?
I wish. (laughs) I’ve never run into him but I’d like to. Not literally.