MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Heath Ledger's distinctive portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight was due to the actor trying to get fired from the film so that he could get paid without having to actually film the movie.
Reader Suzanne D. wrote in to suggest the following legend:
I've run into a statement presented as fact online that I don't think I've seen anywhere else:
'It's pretty well-confirmed that Heath Ledger did a fair amount of ad-libbing as the Joker. But supposedly, Heath Ledger this was part of Ledger INTENTIONALLY trying to give a bad performance so that he'd be fired, as (for some unspecified reason) he no longer wanted to be on the movie. Ledger's supposed plan backfired, or so the story goes, because everybody loved his "bad" performance.'
The story seems wildly implausible on any number of levels, but apparently someone believes it....
It certainly seemed absurd when Suzanne sent it to me. However, there is actually someone close to the late actor who specifically claimed that that was precisely what Ledger was doing with the role.
Peter Biskind did an excellent profile on Ledger in Vanity Fair following the actor's death and one of the things that came up was the fact that Ledger had a "pay or play" contract for The Dark Knight, which means that the production was obligated to pay him whether they used him in the film or not. In other words, even if they fired Ledger, they would still have to pay him.
Traditionally, that contract situation has been cited as specifically something that Ledger needed so that he felt that he could go to weird places with the role, so that he didn't have to worry about losing out on a big paycheck if his take on the character didn't match up against the studio's view.
That's how Biskind lays it out here, describing an actor who was famously hesitant to take nearly any role...
[A]fter Brokeback Mountain and Casanova, released the same year, in which he had unhappily starred for director Lasse Hallström, Ledger was so distressed he wanted to stop working. (He did stop for a year and a half after his daughter, Matilda, was born, on October 28, 2005.) He told his friends that one of the reasons he had taken The Dark Knight was that it would be such a long shoot it would give him an excuse to turn down other offers. In fact, a few years earlier he had met with director Christopher Nolan regarding the title role in the first of his Batman films, Batman Begins, but the actor was reluctant to become involved in a franchise. Says Alexander, “He was always hesitant to be in a summer blockbuster, with the dolls and action figures and everything else that comes with one of those movies. He was afraid it would define him and limit his choices.” But on The Dark Knight, he had a pay-or-play deal, so he felt he had the freedom to do whatever he wanted as the Joker, no matter how crazy. “We talked about Johnny Depp’s episode on Pirates of the Caribbean,” says Pecorini. “The very first day, Johnny showed up with 40 gold teeth. [Producer Jerry] Bruckheimer wanted to get rid of him. Finally, they said, ‘O.K., keep six.’ And that’s what he wanted, six.”
Pecorini is Nicola Pecorini, Terry Gilliam's longtime Director of Photography, who became close friends with Ledger when the actor did Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Alexander is Scott Alexander, Ledger's agent and close friend.
So far, this all makes sense - get a pay or play contract, get a lot of money, be allowed to turn down other roles without any hassle and also have the freedom to do the role the way that you want to play it.
However, Pecorini then went a step further, as Biskind noted, "According to Pecorini, Ledger went Depp one better, hoping his performance would be so far-out he’d be fired, and thus become the beneficiary of a lengthy, paid vacation."
Alexander, though, had a whole other take on the situation, as Biskind explained, "Alexander, who now works with Charles Roven, producer of the Batman franchise, insists Ledger was eager to take the part, but wanted to follow up The Dark Knight with something less conventional. Among other projects he was considering was The Tree of Life, a coming-of-age story set in the 1950s to be directed by Terrence Malick (and now starring Brad Pitt)."
It's obviously difficult with a situation where the main person involved has been dead for over a decade, but I think that there's enough info to think that Pecorini's take might be a bit of an exaggeration. Ledger was interviewed by Olly Richards of Empire while filming Dark Knight and he sounded like a guy who was worried about the role, but was also excited about the challenge:
"I definitely feared it," says Ledger of taking a role that every fanboy around the world demands to see done right. "Although anything that makes me afraid I guess excites me at the same time. I don’t know if I was fearless, but I certainly had to put on a brave face and believe that I have something up my sleeve. Something different...”
This is not your Jack Nicholson or Cesar Romero Joker. The new incarnation of the character is cruel and psycho to the core. And getting into that mindset meant Ledger marinading himself in nothing but Joker before shooting.
"It’s a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script and then just closing my eyes and meditating on it," he says. "I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices — it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath — someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts. He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown, and Chris has given me free rein. Which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what The Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke"
Since Pecorini is the only person I've ever seen say that Ledger wanted to get fired and Alexander disputes a number of other Pecorini takes on Ledger in the Vanity Fair article (including some comments about Ledger's relationship with Michelle Williams that really seems at odds with Ledger's other statements about Williams), I feel confident in thinking that while Ledger might have made that comment to Pecorini, it was not a serious goal. Therefore, I am going with the legend as...
STATUS: False Enough for a False
Thanks to Peter Biskind and Olly Richards for the excellent information. And thanks to Suzanne for suggesting the legend!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.