How Joaquin Phoenix Perfected His 'Joker' Laugh (Exclusive)
By John Boone
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Jokerhopes to subvert your expectations at every turn. Director Todd Phillips' take on the origin story of DC's most notorious supervillain doesn't subscribe to many specifics from the comic books, but there is one thing any movie about the Joker must include: Laughter. And boy, does Joaquin Phoenix laugh.
As Arthur Fleck, his laugh comes spontaneously, first as a chuckle that turns into a maniacal full belly cackle, tears welling in his eyes as he strains to choke it down. The result is like one of the Joker's "HA HAHA HA HA" speech bubbles from the comics brought to life, though the process to find it weighed on Phoenix.
"I had the part, but I felt like I needed to audition the laugh because I didn't know if I had it or not," he told ET's Ash Crossan. "I asked Todd to come over to my house to audition the laugh, and he said that wasn't necessary. I said it was. It was very important that I was able to do it in front of him whenever I needed to."
The movie reframes the Joker's iconic laugh as a medical condition caused by neurological damage, sudden bouts of "uncontrollable laughter" often arising when Arthur finds himself in a tricky situation. Which, in Joker, is often. "I thought at some point that it would become easier, but I don't think it did. I think it became more difficult actually," Phoenix said.
"There were some scenes where, for whatever reason, it came out and it felt right and other scenes that it was a struggle," he recalled. "Sometimes one take would work and another wouldn't. I think it was something that was alive, in a way."
While Jokers played by the likes of Jack Nicholson and Jared Leto have bust out a move or two while dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight, dance became integral to Phoenix's iteration. The actor worked with choreographer Michael Arnold to nail down the film's stairwell performance, a sequence set to Gary Glitter's "Rock 'n' Roll Part 2."
"But a lot of it wasn't choreographed," Phoenix added. Instead, he found inspiration in vaudeville star Ray Bolger's performance of "The Old Soft Shoe" and found himself channeling Bolger's movements. "[Arthur] has this certain arrogance, this need to be revered and adored," he explained, an air he also sensed in Bolger's dance. "I saw that and immediately knew that that was Joker."