‘Joker’: Putting a New Face on Joaquin Phoenix’s Zeitgeist-Grabbing Anti-Hero

Phoenix wanted to do his own makeup and hair, but the Oscar-nominated team provided the expertise in shaping his iconic look.
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

Joaquin Phoenix might have initially wanted to do his own makeup and hair for “Joker,” but, thanks to the Oscar-nominated team of Nicki Ledermann and Kay Georgiou, it became one less thing the finicky Oscar favorite had to worry about in achieving his tour de force performance as bullied clown Arthur Fleck-turned killer Joker.

But craft and compromise went hand in hand for Ledermann and Georgiou, as they stayed on top of the messy, hand-made look that Phoenix envisioned. As they revealed at the makeup and hairstyling bake-off, they applied the work quickly (without prosthetics), but then bribed him with crackers to keep still while doing touch-ups to maintain continuity.

“The one thing that he was very adamant about was that the makeup itself was not perfect,” said makeup designer Ledermann. “It had to be very childlike, sad, not that skilled because he is not a painter. Even though he’s a professional clown, he’s emotionally everywhere, all over the map. And the mask is just something that he does, which matches the character. He’s like a lost child that wants to be saved and wants to belong and wants to be loved. It’s demented and tortured and in pain and in limbo in some ways. But there is a joy in there too. You see that when he does the dance.”

“Joker”Nico Tavernese/Warner Bros.

The initial design that Phoenix worked out with director Todd Phillips for his look was very primal, with just a hint of the DC comic book DNA, and that became the roadmap for Ledermann and Georgiou. “We worked with the colors that had to complement [Mark Friedberg’s] production design and [Mark Bridge’s] wardrobe,” added Ledermann.”The color palette was green, red, and gold.”

While there was none of the purple associated with Cesar Romero’s outrageous Joker, they accentuated the green, with costume designer Bridges even recommending the color of broccoli, which became the basis of the makeup and hair. But Ledermann made the blue on the teal side so that it worked better with the green. “It’s more romantic, more relatable, and more vintage. Everything is a little more vintage,” she added.

Meanwhile, when Phoenix arrived on set, his hair was long, in a ponytail, so that was the first task for Georgiou. “He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with Arthur,” she said. “He didn’t want it to look too contrived, he didn’t want it to look like he thought about it, or that he had been to a barber or a hairdresser. He and Todd discussed this greasy mop. I did end up cutting it shorter than it was.”

“Joker”Warner Bros.

Georgiou also dyed Phoenix’s brown hair a lighter shade because she knew it would look darker on screen, and she greased it up slightly to give it a messier look. For Fleck’s clown wig, she changed the initial design from pointy and straight to traditional and curly. And, like Ledermann, broccoli became the aha moment. “As soon as Mark said that, we got into the whole thing about what kind of broccoli and I ended up doing around seven different sets of color samples.”

It all came together for Joker’s grand entrance on Robert De Niro’s “Murray Franklin Show.” Up until then, we observe the Joker makeup and hair in stages as an organic transformation from Fleck. “And when the whole scene goes down with Murray, and he gets taken away in the cop car and it crashes, there’s blood and everything’s smeared,” said Ledermann. “And he gets up on top of the car and takes ownership of Joker. He has an iconic, bloody smile. There was a lot of work going into it, but it was very exciting going through the stages of smearing it and bloodying him up.”

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