There was a method to his madness.
Never before has an acting performance in a comic book superhero-derived film inspired such an advance avalanche of popular, critical and inside-Industry acclaim as Heath Ledger's turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight
Though only 28 when he took on the role, Ledger was already ranked among the upper echelon of film actors after receiving an Academy Award nomination for 2005's Brokeback Mountain
. But as word of his fierce and uniquely inspired performance began to filter through Hollywood and fandom, there was a growing buzz that the actor might just be poised to do something other Oscar-caliber thespians in cape-and-tights cinema – Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Ian McKellen and Halle Berry among them – have yet to achieve: earning the industry's most coveted honor for a three-dimensional interpretation of a character first rendered in the two-dimensional pages of the comics.
Ledger's shocking, unexpected death from an overdose of prescription drugs in January only increased the mystique surrounding his portrayal of The Joker – his last fully complete performance - inspiring everything from a mournful interest to morbid curiosity, especially given the character's more dark, deadly overtones.
Once advance audiences finally took in the full force of the actor's chilling, mesmerizing spin on the screen in what may be the most serious, intense and artistic interpretation of a comic book icon to date, the praise reached a fever pitch, suggesting that, sentiment aside, Ledger's a near-lock for a posthumous Oscar nomination.
Of course, no one had a better vantage point to gain insight on his performance and especially his personal character underneath the clown makeup than the film's director, Christopher Nolan, and Ledger's fellow "Dark Knight" actors – Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart among them.. They shared their thoughts with ComingSoon.net/Superhero Hype! on the actor, the Oscar, the man, and truth as to whether or not, as some have speculated, there may have also been a madness to his method.
Christopher Nolan - "When I was working on the script and he'd gone off to think about what he was going to do with the character he would call me from time to time and talk about the things that he was working on. But the truth is that when you're outside that process before you get to set it's all a bit abstract. So he was talking to me about how he'd been studying the way that ventriloquist dummies talk and things like that, I'd be sitting on the other end of the line going, 'Well, that's a bit peculiar. But what I'm really hearing is an actor really invested in trying to come up with something very unique.'"
Christian Bale - "I love that dynamic between The Joker and Batman: he completes him in a sense that he finally has a really worthy challenge, a worthy opponent that challenges him in a way that nobody else ever has. Yeah, [I've had that] with other actors, but I found that with Heath his immersion into the character makes it incredibly easy to work opposite and up everybody's game… I felt a real enjoyment. I was almost kind of chuckling inside and I didn't want to let it show when we were doing our first scene… I saw what he was going to do with it, and I felt I recognized the satisfaction he seemed to be getting in the pleasure from the role to be similar to the satisfaction that I get from acting as well. I felt very comfortable working with him."
Gary Oldman - "Heath can take those lines and he's got the freedom in the role to just take it places, and I think it also reflects in the way that it's shot. There's an immediacy and a danger in the scenes with Heath. Chris just says 'You know what? Put it on a Steadicam, put it on a handheld, and let's see what this kid does. Let's just sort of see what he's going to do as The Joker,' and there's this sort of freedom there."
Christopher Nolan - "Everything about what he does from every gesture, every little facial tick, everything he's doing with his voice – it all speaks to the heart of this character. It all speaks to this idea of a character who's devoted to a concept of pure anarchy and chaos. It's hard to get a handle on how those elements combine. The physicality reminds me of the great silent comedians. It has a bit of [Buster] Keaton and [Charlie] Chaplin about it."
Aaron Eckhart - "He loved this character of The Joker. It was his baby. He cared about The Joker very much, making the decisions and really thinking about him and creating him and creating his look. Really putting his stamp on it. It was fun because I was in the trailer while Heath was doing his makeup, so we got to have that time together and for him to play around with his makeup and do the funny faces and the noises and kind of do whatever that brought to us."
Maggie Gyllenhaal - "I knew immediately that he was doing something really unusual and rare and extremely special, even for the most talented and experienced actors, which is that he sort of found this stride where he was totally free. What's so incredible about that is that when that happens it bleeds over into everyone around you. Although the scene that I did with him was scary and full of tension, it actually was so fun, because he'd take anything that I threw at him. He threw all sorts of interesting things at me."
Christopher Nolan - "He always knew it would have to be iconic, but never losing sight of the reality of it. He plays the guy as a human being the whole time and The Joker's form of evil is a very human form of evil. And I think it is very important you believe in him as a human being as well as a monster."
Aaron Eckhart - "The crew was electrified by Heath. And doesn't always happen. Crews are usually blasé about the moviemaking process, but not with Heath. They wanted to be a part of it. They wanted to see what he was doing. I remember after that day was done and I, really tired, said 'That's why I'm an actor.' Because to work with guys like Heath – Heath was the consummate actor… Heath is one of those actors that other actors admire and want to be. To be so young and to be so good and to be so smart is rare."
Gary Oldman - "You can think of people like Jack Nicholson in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' Al Pacino in 'Dog Day Afternoon'… There's certain landmark performances where you just think that they just fly. And Heath has done that here. He's just tuning in to a radio station – he's got a frequency that none of us can hear. It was like he found something. And I knew it was special the first day I worked with him. I called a friend and they said "How is it?" and I said "It's good, it's good," and they said "How's Heath as The Joker" and I said "He's going to be sensational. You can tell already." How good he turned out to be is beyond my expectation, really."
Christian Bale - "Seeing Heath's commitment [in the first scene we shot together] – Heath, man, he received some heavy bangs and bruises and he loved every second of it. He just adored it – he was egging me on for more. The walls were buckling in from doing that scene. He had total commitment to it, he created this really iconic villain, portrayed The Joker in a way that he's never been portrayed before: far creepier, far more anarchic than anything we've seen. You know, "Clockwork Orange"-style Joker, and it was a great scene to kick off with, literally."
Christopher Nolan - "I would say, honestly, every scene he did as The Joker was surprising in some way. I always knew he was going to be able to produce the degree of intensity that we needed, to do something extraordinary, but I really had no idea how he was going to do that. The performance is very complex and it has very particular elements that make it up… There's an unpredictability to everything and that is what you felt on the set every day, the unpredictable nature of the character. You felt that in the performance as well, and there were always choices he made and the way he chose to perform them that were not at all what I had in mind when I visualized the scene at script stage, but really seemed to work. He really did his homework. He had the entire film precisely plotted out."
Aaron Eckhart - "I don't think Chris could've stopped Heath if he wanted to."
Christian Bale - "I love the fact that – regardless of whether it ever comes to fruition or not – the fact that Chris has created in this movie even the possibility that people are talking about accolades for an actor in a superhero action genre movie. Usually that is never even considered. So kudos to Chris for doing that, and to Heath for coming forward with that devastating performance. He has raised the bar completely with it. He was absolutely committed."
Gary Oldman - "I think [he'll be nominated]. I think the Academy tends to overlook movies like this. They somehow seem to don't take it so seriously because it just doesn't fall into their thing. They don't tend to look at work in movies like this. But in this case I think the acting is so good, I think his performance is so good, I think it's going to be very hard to avoid it."
Christopher Nolan - "I'm very confident that the performance has been edited exactly as it would've been had Heath not died. It was very important to me that his performance be put out there exactly the way that we had intended it, and that he had intended it to be seen as well."
Almost immediately after news of Ledger's death broke, many media outlets began speculating about a connection with insanity, chaos and darkness within the mind of The Joker and whatever personal demons may have ultimately contributed to the actor's demise, suggesting that Ledger never fully shook the character out of his head.
Christopher Nolan - "I'll answer that simply to say that it diminishes his skill as an actor. The job of an actor is someone who takes on a character and distinguishes between real life and a character. Anyone who's spent time on a movie set knows that it's a very artificial environment and the great skill of someone like Heath Ledger or Christian Bale, all these guys is that they can be jobbing along in a workaday environment and then when the camera rolls they can find this great character.
Aaron Eckhart - "This was a movie [set] where kids were all around. Everybody was talking about kids. Everybody was showing pictures of their kids. I was the only one in the trailer that didn't have kids. Heath showed me pictures and talked about it and would come in say 'Matilda did this, and she did that,' and Maggie just had her child. Gary has two kids. Chris just had a kid during the movie."
Gary Oldman - "People talk about the intensity of someone like Christian. And I've heard someone say 'Christian's a Method actor.' Well, Christian's still alive. I mean, Heath, in between takes, would laugh and joke and sit down on the curb and have a cigarette and talk about Matilda. I think it's just the sort of thing that everybody wants to go 'Oh, it's the role. It drove him…' You'd have to be neurologically f**king mental, you'd have to have a disorder to play a part and let it affect you so much that you can't sleep. People want a darker story than there really is… I don't know if he had substance abuse in the past – people talk about partying and the stuff he used to do, but I was never witness to that."
Christopher Nolan - "I would say he was a very charismatic, very ordinary person. Very warm, very friendly, he put everyone at ease. He was very considerate of the people around him while he was working, really a great pleasure and a great professional. Those that knew him and those that had the privilege of working with him, it's pretty amazing the disparity between the person he was and the monster that he created for us for the film. To see that on a daily basis, to see that being created from this very gentle person is a real testament to his skill as an actor and it was very exciting to watch."
Aaron Eckhart - "I think that Heath will give me strength as an actor, opening up and being vulnerable and going for the fences and stretching myself as an actor, by virtue of his performance. I think that my time with Heath, however small, will always live with me and make me be a braver actor."
Gary Oldman - "I worked with a sweet kid who had such a heart, who was a lovely guy. I worked with this guy who was completely committed to the role and the work, wanted more than anything to be taken seriously as an actor. He was on time, he knew the lines, and he was a nice kid."
Christian Bale - "I enjoyed working with him immensely. Clearly it is tragic that we are talking about this as his last complete performance. I would love it if he were to be walking in the room right now – he would be talking, he's great company. I looked forward to working with him many times in the future, I looked forward to being his friend for many years to come. But this movie can be a celebration of his talent… He was a fierce talent and I was very fortunate to get to witness that talent and work with it and know the man during his lifetime."
Gary Oldman - "The saddest thing is, really, it's a shame he's not here to talk about it."