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Exclusive: Joaquin Phoenix reveals his hesitations over playing the Joker: "There was a lot of fear"

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Joaquin Phoenix doesn't work with just anybody. The Oscar-nominated actor remains relatively elusive in Hollywood, staying away from commercial blockbusters in favour of working with auteurs such as Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master, Inherent Vice), Spike Jonze (Her), and Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here). However, later this year, Phoenix will appear as the eponymous character in Joker, something he admits took some convincing to come around to doing.

“It took me a while [to commit],” Phoenix, who turned down playing both Hulk (to replace Edward Norton) and Doctor Strange for Marvel, tells Total Film, our sister publication, of taking the part. "Now, when I look back, I don’t understand why."

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Why the procrastination? Was it partly fear of taking on such an iconic character, on page and screen? “There was a lot of fear, yeah,” he admits. “But I always say there’s motivating fear and debilitating fear. There’s the fear where you cannot make a fucking step, and there’s the kind where it’s like, ‘OK, what do we do? That’s not good enough.’ And you’re digging deeper and deeper. I love that kind of fear. It guides us, makes us work harder.” 

Phoenix adds that there was another reason for not taking the part. “I think oftentimes, in these movies, we have these simplified, reductive archetypes, and that allows for the audience to be distant from the character, just like we would do in real life, where it’s easy to label somebody as evil, and therefore say, ‘Well, I’m not that,’” he explains. 

“And yet we all are guilty. We all have sinned. And I thought that here was this film, and these characters, where it wouldn’t be easy for you as an audience. There are times where you’re going to feel yourself connected to him, and rooting for him, and times when you should be repulsed by him. And I like that idea of challenging the audience, and challenging myself to explore a character like that. It’s rare to explore characters like that in any movies, but specifically in the superhero genre.” 

For director Todd Phillips, there was only one person who could have played this version of the Joker. "We wrote this script for Joaquin. It’s true," he says. "Joaquin knows it. Half the reason we wanted to even attempt writing it was, ‘Man, imagine if we get Joaquin. Think of what we could do.’ The goal was never to introduce Joaquin Phoenix into the comic book movie universe. The goal was to introduce comic book movies into the Joaquin Phoenix universe.” 

Phoenix and Phillips spoke at length with Total Film magazine about the movie for the latest issue's cover feature, with Phillips also touching on how the movie has been influenced by The Hangover trilogy and whether there could be a sequel. The new issue reaches store shelves on August 23. Meanwhile, Joker reaches cinemas October 4.

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