Nowadays, it’s impossible to think of anyone else but the late Heath Ledger as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. His mesmeric performance changed the entire comic book movie genre forever, resulting in him receiving a posthumous Oscar. But was he always the first choice for the part?
When Nolan pitched his Batman idea to Warner Bros., he was given the creative license to go ahead and reinvigorate the franchise. Prior to Christian Bale’s casting, the acclaimed filmmaker met with numerous actors for the lead role, including Heath Ledger. However, both parties agreed that he wasn’t right for the part but kept in touch regardless.
Nolan decided to keep the Joker out of Batman Begins, saving him as the villain for the sequel. The filmmaker and studio understood how popular and iconic Jack Nicholson’s legacy as the character was, so they had to make sure the next person to step into the Clown Prince’s shoes was more than capable.
The Prime Candidate
With the news that a new Joker was about to be introduced in Gotham City, there were more than a few contenders who threw their hat into the ring, such as Robin Williams, Lachy Hulme, Adrien Brody, and Steve Carell. Williams, of course, had famously been used by Warner Bros. as a bait for Nicholson to accept the role in Tim Burton’s Batman.
However, there was one other name that many insiders considered to be the prime candidate for the part: Paul Bettany. Since the turn of the century, Bettany had been quietly making a name for himself in Hollywood, picking up accolades along the way. However, it was his shocking performance as Silas in The Da Vinci Code that seemed to cement his star status. It gave the full gamut of his acting range, showcasing subtle nuances that made him the perfect candidate to play a disturbing character like the Joker. Interestingly, Bettany starred alongside Ledger in A Knight’s Tale.
But Who Did Nolan Want?
Despite all the names linked to the part, Nolan wasn’t about to pick who everyone else expected him to choose. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly (via Digital Spy) about his Joker wishlist, he said:
“Heath [Ledger] was the only one on it. I knew he was it from the start. The guy had serious nuts. What I needed was someone who wouldn’t be afraid of the comparison with Jack Nicholson. And then I saw Heath’s incredible performance in Brokeback Mountain. Such a lack of vanity. This was an actor who wasn’t afraid to bury himself in his character—to a massive extent.”
Nolan’s choice wasn’t popular when it was announced, as many detractors rejected the possibility of Heath Ledger being the Joker. But that didn’t influence the filmmaker or actor one bit—in fact, it probably fuelled the fire.
Ledger’s Legacy as the Joker
Proving that you shouldn’t always listen to the fans, Ledger won over everyone with his portrayal. Even Nolan was left amazed—and sometimes confused—by what he did.
“He tried to articulate to me what he was doing with his voice, but it was sometimes hard to understand,” Nolan said. “He said he wanted the voice to have a mocking quality, a sort of disconnectedness.” Additionally, Nolan revealed that Ledger had started applying the make-up himself.
Thirteen years later, Ledger’s performance as the Joker lives on and is often cited as the definitive portrayal. Nolan certainly deserves a debt of gratitude for sticking to his guns and not bowing to external pressure.