So, let’s take a look at the lives and careers of these two amazing actors and what they had to go through on their road to become the Joker. Can you believe they were friends?
Born In the Land Down Under
Heath Ledger was born on the 4th of April, 1979, in Perth, Australia. His mother, Kim, was a French teacher, while his father was a race car driver and a mining engineer. He had an older sister Kate and two sisters from his parents’ second marriages – Ashleigh Bell and Olivia Ledger.
And even though he was a born Australian, Ledger had a mixed family heritage, with a bit of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, English, Sephardi, and Jewish DNA in his blood.
A Child of God
Joaquin Phoenix was born on October 28, 1974, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His parents were missionaries for the religious group Children of God. His family frequently moved all across Central and South America in his early life, before his parents John and Arlyn Bottom left the religious group later described as a sex cult and changed their surname to Phoenix.
Joaquin has four siblings – older brother and sister River and Rain and younger sisters Summer and Liberty. His family moved to Los Angeles when Joaquin was four, giving him and his brothers and sisters a chance to make it in Hollywood.
A Chess Prodigy and a Hockey Player
Before he became interested in acting, Ledger was mostly interested in sports. He first showed love for playing chess, and he won Western Australia’s Junior Chess Championship when he was just ten years old.
A little bit later, he started playing field hockey, and his friends and family believe that he could have become a professional. His childhood friend Trevor DiCarlo said in an interview that “He probably would have gone to the Olympics. Hockey was his life until he was about 16”.
Growing Up in Poverty
Unlike Ledger, who grew up in a middle-class family, Phoenix was growing up in a family without a fixed income that struggled to put food on the table. Once the family settled in LA, his father started working as a landscaper, while his mother was a secretary for NBC.
Joaquin and his siblings also contributed financially, performing at the streets of LA and various talent contests. They were singing and playing instruments since their early childhood.
Young Frontman with a Grunge Voice
In addition to his sports spirit, Ledger also loved music when he was a teenager. In his high school days, he was a frontman in a grunge band. Ledger was a talented singer, but he also knew how to play the guitar well.
According to his childhood friend, musician N’fa Jones, Ledger could have become a rock star if he decided to stick to music. “He was a frontman. The ultimate frontman.”
A Family of Child Actors
Joaquin and his sibling were performing on the street when they were discovered by Iris Burton, one of the leading children’s agents in Hollywood. He found work for the entire family, and soon the kids were doing commercials and appearances in various TV shows.
When he was just eight years old, Joaquin got his first acting gig in a TV show Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, alongside his brother Phoenix. His first major role also included his brother since they co-starred in the ABC Afterschool Special called Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia.
It All Started with Peter Pan
Even though he was mostly interested in sports and music during his childhood, Ledger also started acting very early. When he was around ten years old, he got the lead role in the school production of Peter Pan.
While he didn’t know back then that acting would become his life calling, he enjoyed being a stage performer. It was around this time that his parents were getting a divorce, so Heath found refuge in acting and music.
Taking a Break from Acting
Joaquin has become a true star as a child, appearing in many TV shows and movies. Some of his major works include CBS television film Kids Don’t Tell, a feature film Space Camp where he played a kid who receives astronaut training, a guest appearance in an episode of the anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a leading role in Russkies and a role in Ron Howard’s Parenthood.
Despite his success as a child actor, Phoenix decided to take a break from his career. He decided to travel to South America and Mexico with his father.
A Teenage Actor Looking for Work
It wasn’t before he was 16 that Ledger realized that his best chance at success lies at acting. He was still looking for a purpose in performing on stage, in dancing, acting, and choreography in high school productions.
He also started to look for acting gigs on the big screen. He worked as an extra in the movie Clowning Around and had a small role in Ship to Shore, a TV series. Then he decided to complete his early graduation exams and move to Sydney to pursue his acting career.
A Tragedy Occurs when Young Joaquin Loses His Brother
Just three days after turning 19, Joaquin and the entire Phoenix family got hit by a tragedy. Joaquin’s brother River, a young actor prodigy perhaps with the biggest potential of all the Phoenix siblings, died of a drug overdose.
This was a hard blow for Phoenix, who rarely talks publicly about his brother. However, he did credit his brother as he received an acting award at the Toronto International Film Festival. He said that River told him he was going to start acting again. ”He didn’t ask me, he told me. And I am indebted to him for that because acting has given me such an incredible life.”
Getting Noticed – First Movie Role and a Serious TV Show Gig
Ledger had a few small roles on television before getting a role in a feature film Blackrock in 1997. Thanks to this job, he was noticed by executives of the historical fantasy show Roar, where he co-starred along Keri Russell.
This TV show was backed by US financiers and got ledger exposed to the American audience. The series was even nominated for several awards, and Ledger decided to get an American agent and move to LA with his girlfriend, Liza Zane, a fellow actor.
Struggling to Get Back Into Business
A couple of years after his brother’s death, Joaquin decided to resurrect his acting career. However, he was struggling to find meaningful work for a while. In his first comeback film, he played a troubled teen seduced by a news reporter played by Nicole Kidman in Gus van Sant’s To Die For.
He had only a few notable roles in the 90s, like Oliver Stone’s Inventing the Abbots, where he co-starred next to Liv Tyler and Jennifer Connelly. His best role in the decade was Return to Paradise, where he portrayed an American prisoner in Malaysia.
A Quick Rise in Hollywood – The Role that Made Ledger Famous
Not long after moving to LA, Ledger bagged what will turn out to be his breakout role. In 1999, he was starring alongside Julia Stiles in a cult teenage movie 10 Things I Hate About You. The movie was an instant success, and Ledger soon got many offers to play in other teenage flicks.
But he refused them all because he didn’t want to be stuck in a certain type of role. And he wasn’t really confident about his acting skills yet. “I didn’t feel like I deserved it,” he said in a Rolling Stone interview, “I didn’t really know how to act properly yet.”
A Breakout Role in Gladiator
The start of the new century brought much-deserved recognition to Phoenix thanks to his role as Roman emperor Commodus in Gladiator. The movie got Phoenix his first Oscar nomination, and major roles have been pouring in ever since.
The role of Commodus was challenging, and Phoenix thought that the character was very complex. ”You don’t expect to find a character dealing with issues like parental neglect and paranoia in a movie like this.”
Getting Recognized as a Great Actor
After 10 Things I Hate About You, Ledger moved on to more serious roles. He was cast as Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot, had a big role in a low-budget flick Monster’s Ball alongside Billy Bob Thornton, and tried his acting abilities in a highly unusual and experimental A Knight’s Tale.
Ledger showed versatility as an actor by playing various roles, and he was soon getting recognized in Hollywood as more than just a pretty teenage boy. So, it was not a surprise when he showed Oscar-worthy performance in his next major movie.
Two More Oscar Nominations for Phoenix
In addition to his role as Commodus for which he was nominated for Best Support Role, Phoenix has been nominated for an Oscar twice more, both times for Best Leading Role. The first one was for The Master, where he played a troubled World War II veteran falling under the spell of a religious cult and its leader portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
The other Oscar nomination for Phoenix came for Walk the Line. In this movie, he played Johnny Cash, the legendary singer, and musician. In fact, Joaquin was hand-picked for the role by Cash, who loved his performance in Gladiator.
Brokeback Mountain – A Tale of Forbidden Love
After working on a few independent films for a couple of years, Ledger got a role in a controversial story of two gay cowboys and their lifelong affair. Brokeback Mountain showed just how much range Ledger has and cemented his place as one of the best young actors in Hollywood.
This movie, in which he starred alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, got Ledger his first Oscar nomination at the age of 26, making him one of the youngest nominees ever. He also received awards for best actor from the New York Film Critics Circle and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle for his performance, as well as a Golden Globe nomination.
Many Critically Acclaimed Roles
In his prominent career, especially since the turn of the century, Phoenix gave us many memorable performances. His role in The Yards where he played a dangerous criminal was received great, as well as his quirky character in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.
Phoenix had a few major roles post-2010 as well, with his performance in Her, where he plays a character who falls in love with a sophisticated A.I. voiced by Scarlett Johansson touted as his best. He also shined in The Immigrant, and You Were Never Really Here.
Finding Love on the Set
As is the case with many actors, Ledger found love on the set of Brokeback Mountain – actress Michelle Williams who played the role of his wife in the movie. A year later, Heath and Michelle welcomed their daughter Matilda into the world.
Although they never married, they got engaged in 2006. “I really don’t feel like I need a piece of paper to validate the love I have for her,” Ledger said. “She’s my soul mate.” Unfortunately, the couple separated in 2007 while Ledger was working on The Dark Knight.
I’m Still Here
In late 2008, Phoenix perplexed everybody when he announced retirement from acting so he can pursue a rapping career. In his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, Phoenix seemed incoherent and unresponsive. His eccentric behavior led many to worry about his wellbeing.
When he appeared at Letterman’s a year later, Phoenix revealed that his strange behavior and capricious appearance were a stunt for a mockumentary filmed by his former brother-in-law Casey Affleck. Titled I’m Still Here, the documentary was released in 2011, after which Phoenix returned to his regular acting job.
Playing a Psychopath
Playing Joker was a real challenge for Ledger and his acting. His dedication to the role is well-known, as well as his method acting that Christian Bale talked about when he mentioned how Ledger wanted him to actually hit him during the infamous interrogation scene.
Ledger was the first non-American to play the Joker character and he was also the youngest actor to do so. He was also often improvising on the set, letting Joker really speak through him. For example, the clapping scene was completely improvised but also the scene in which the bomb doesn’t go off.
Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger were friends
According to Comicbook, Phoenix and Ledger were good friends in real life. They both found their footing in Hollywood and began to reach critical success around the same time, being the early 2000s. Phoenix reached international levels of fame for his portrayal of Commodus in the 2000 film Gladiator, while Ledger was receiving positive acclaim for his performance in the romantic-comedy 10 Things I Hate About You.
The pair reportedly had a fair amount of mutual respect and admiration for each other, making the tribute in Joker especially touching.
Heath Ledger’s Joker
For six weeks, Ledger isolated himself in a hotel room spending his time creating the character’s chilling laugh and voice. He devoted himself to authentically living in the role.
In order to return back to the twisted psychology of The Joker, Heath Ledger would carry around a character diary he created on set. The book contained all sorts of horrors, from creepy drawings and sketches to actual disturbing news stories. On the final day of shooting, Ledger wrote the words “BYE BYE” in large letters over the last page.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker carries around a similar journal
Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker carried a journal as well. The journal contains very disturbing drawings and phrases, but also a very genuine cry for help when Fleck (the character’s name) writes, “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
Making such a unique character habit such a focal point of the movie couldn’t have been done by accident. While Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the evil comic book clown was very much his own, there’s no doubt that this piece of Arthur Fleck’s character came from the dedication and sacrifice of Ledger’s performance as a tribute to an old friend.
In a Serious Relationship
Just like Ledger, Phoenix also found love at work. His long-time girlfriend is Rooney Mara. The couple has been in a relationship since 2016 and they have recently announced that they are getting engaged. “She’s the only girl I ever looked up on the internet,” Joaquin said in his interview for Vanity Fair. “We were just friends, email friends. I’d never done that. Never looked up a girl online.”
Before Mara, Phoenix was engaged once before, again to a colleague, Liv Tyler. While they ultimately broke off the engagement, they are still friends.
I Am Heath Ledger
Despite being a famous movie star, Ledger was actually shy and introverted in his personal life. He often talked about fame and how he didn’t enjoy being on the center stage. That’s why he preferred to be behind the camera, often enjoying taking photographs and making home movies.
In a documentary I Am Heath Ledger, his close friends mentioned that acting was only a way for Ledger to get into the directing business. He did work on a few music videos but his lifelong dream was to direct a movie based on the novel The Queen’s Gambit.
A Prominent Animal Rights Activist and a Vegan
Phoenix is famously vegan ever since his early childhood since his parents were vegan as well and Joaquin and his sibling were raised vegan as well. Phoenix kept the lifestyle until now and he is also very vocal about animal rights, serving as a spokesman for PETA.
Phoenix also refuses to wear clothes made of animal skin for his roles. He always insists that his clothes are from synthetic materials.
Going Down the Dark Path
Even though his career was doing well, Ledger was suffering from sleeping issues and often had long bouts of insomnia. He was using sleeping pills and, by his own admission, slept only two hours a night for the majority of The Dark Knight filming.
In addition to his sleeping woes, Ledger also struggled with drug abuse. It was reported that his separation with Williams was a result of his drug use. Even though this was unconfirmed, it was a sign of a dark path Ledger was on.
Fear of Flying and Nervous Jitters
Having a name like Phoenix doesn’t mean that you like to fly since Joaquin has a fear of flying. He was even struck by a panic attack during one flight and the crew in the plane had to physically restrain him. According to Phoenix, even the pilot had to interfere and punch him to calm him down.
However, being on a plane is not the only time when Phoenix gets nervous. By his own admission, he gets “uncontrollably nervous” when he is shooting a movie. He says that each film feels like his first.
A Brilliant Career Cut Short
On January 22, 2008, Heath Ledger was found dead by his housekeeper and his masseuse in his Manhattan apartment. The official cause of death was a cardiac arrest caused by an accidental prescription drug overdose.
Ledger was later cremated and his ashes were scattered on his family plot in Karrakatta Cemetary, back in Perth, Australia. Behind him, Ledger left his daughter Matilda and many memorable moments in cinematic history.
A New Origin Story for Joker
Director Todd Phillip and Joaquin Phoenix plunged into a tough job. They wanted to create a new origin story for Joker, differing from his story in the comic books. The movie was widely anticipated for this but also for Joaquin’s psychological portrayal of a man turning into a villain.
It seems that comic book fans don’t mind the alternative origin story since the movie has been a major box office success. In addition to this, Phoenix has already been getting awards for the role since he received a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival alongside standing ovations from the audience.
Posthumous Oscar and Legacy
Heath Ledger didn’t get to see his work on The Dark Knight being rewarded with an Oscar. Nevertheless, the Academy awarded him the prestigious statue posthumously for the Best Supporting Role, thus honoring his life and career for eternity.
His legacy in Australia is also standing, with a scholarship awarded in his name by the Film Society. The scholarship is given to Australian actors who live and work in the USA and Ledger’s father donates money for the cause on a yearly basis.
Two Oscars for Joker?
Phoenix turned in a masterful performance as Joker and critics and audience agree that he has a real chance at getting the nod for the Oscar. We will have to wait and see but it seems that a new Oscar nomination for Phoenix is a safe bet.
With Ledger already receiving an Oscar for his portrayal of the famous villain, could we witness history next year and see two Oscars for one character for the first and only time since Vito Corleone?