Joker movie: How Joaquin Phoenix put on a happy face

Makeup artist Nicki Ledermann got in Phoenix's face to apply the iconic makeup. "I wouldn't wanna call him weird..."

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
7 min read

Joaquin Phoenix turns his frown upside down in Joker.

Niko Tavernise

The Joker is one of the most recognizable characters in pop culture history. Yet every version of the Batman villain has its own very different face, from the '60s TV show's dayglo colors to the scarred look of the Dark Knight movies. And for gritty new movie Joker, Joaquin Phoenix puts on a happy face full of creepy face paint -- courtesy of Nicki Ledermann and her makeup team.

Ledermann has worked on everything from Sex and the City and The Greatest Showman to The Knick and forthcoming Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark. The Emmy-winning makeup artist also worked on Netflix's The Irishman, in which Robert De Niro and Al Pacino's infamous faces are digitally de-aged with computer effects.

For Joker, Ledermann realized director Todd Philips' vision of the DC comics character as a ground-down clown. I chatted with Ledermann to find out what it was like painting Joaquin Phoenix's face, how movie makeup is much more interesting than simply slapping on greasepaint, and what it's like for a makeup artist in the era of CG-enhanced faces.

How do you come up with a fresh look for a character that's been done many times before?
We started with a concept from Todd. It was a picture of Joaquin with some makeup Photoshopped on it -- it was pretty raw. But it was definitely like, OK, this is how you wanna go, a kind of creepy but simplistic clown. Which I thought was fantastic -- the more simple and raw you keep it, the more intense it'll translate. We took that concept of the makeup and the look and basically translated how can we best achieve that, making sure the colors and the placement are right. It was definitely a collaboration on the whole look between Joaquin, Todd, the production designer Mark Friedberg, Kay Georgiou [hair] and me.

There were two different looks [for the character] -- well, there were many different looks, but in terms of clown makeup it was the hired clown who gets beaten up, and then it's Joker.

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Makeup is a big part of this Joker's psychological makeup.

Niko Tavernise

Did the design change much?
It was more about what product we used to achieve the right texture, to achieve the perfect color tone, maybe change the placement -- how big the mouth was, how small the nose, how weird the eyebrows, how smeared or not smeared.

We test all these because I have to use different products that do different things, but have to look the same. For example, we have to do makeup I could wash off between every take and reapply because there were scenes where he's washing his face in the bathroom, and then we have to reset so we have to put it all back on. And there were a lot of scenarios where I had to make it look smeared, or appear to smear in the scene, but it can't actually smear because I can't reset it for the next take. It's all very tense on set as everything has to happen fast.

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What kind of products are we talking about?
Grease makeup versus water-based makeup, or products that smear easily when you touch versus a makeup that's waterproof and doesn't move. And because the texture is different of each product, you had to build it so it looks the same. I don't want viewers to think this looks weird, all the colors are different.

That's how you make a film -- there's so much more than just applying the makeup and making it look good. There's the technical aspect behind the scenes where you have to do different takes, you shoot something one day then you come back to the same thing like a month later and it has to match exactly. That's really the tricky part when you make a movie.

How did you make up Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur when he isn't wearing the Joker face paint? 
It was on the paler side, enhancing the scrawniness and the tiredness. He lost a lot of weight for the part, but we tried to enhance it with makeup to make his cheekbones pop, to look really skinny and exhausted.

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No kidding: Joaquin Phoenix as put-upon wannabe comedian Arthur.

Niko Tavernise

What kind of techniques do you use to achieve that?
That's basic highlighted shading, but you have to be very light-handed because you don't want to make it look like he's wearing makeup. You use nude tones that work with the skin tone to highlight and shape those features of the face.

So there's hapless Arthur going to work in his clown makeup, and then there's the Joker. What are the incremental changes that make a face go from funny to creepy? 
On the working clown, it was really important to make it perfectly symmetric, versus the Joker where everything's asymmetric, everything's off, and that makes it creepy. And then obviously, Joaquin's facial expression and his eyes intensify everything a thousand times. It's definitely a collaboration between the makeup and the acting.

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Joking apart: The Joker's facepaint goes through various stages of messiness as he spirals into violence.

Warner Bros. Pictures

What's it like sitting Joaquin Phoenix down and getting so close to his face?
Joaquin is such an incredibly human creature. I've never worked with anybody like that. I wouldn't wanna call him weird, although that would be a good description. He is very intense. Very intelligent. Everything had to happen fast, because he just can't sit still, so that was challenging. It's really important that he feels comfortable and he's not that kind of person that trusts you easily, but I turned out being completely and utterly in love with him. He's so intense, and that's really funny because he realizes he is like that. He loves to joke around. He's incredibly dry and sarcastic, so in the beginning, not knowing him at all, I was like, oh my god, is he joking? But then you figure it out and it's whatever, shut up, let's do this.

The part of the Joker is incredibly challenging because you have Arthur Fleck and then when he turns into the Joker he's a completely different being. That's hard, to go back and forth all the time. Joaquin's physical performance, his physical language -- he did a lot of stunts himself, he was like a rubber doll flying all over the place, down stairs and being beaten up. Oh my god, this guy is unbelievable. I mean the whole crew was in awe of his talent.

Working with him was one of the highlights in my career. He's such an incredible actor, probably the best American actor I've ever worked with. He gives it his all and more.

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Did you look at previous versions of the Joker, like Jared Leto and Jack Nicholson? 
I love that they were all different. Heath Ledger's Joker is my personal favorite, because it adapted the grittiness and the madness of Joker in a new way, versus the other Jokers who were all pretty clean and crisp.

I love Romero's Joker, too. What I really loved about his was you could actually see the mustache under the makeup. That was hilarious. It was so campy and beautiful and fantastic in a way.

Are you excited about seeing this Joker re-created by fans?
I love it. I actually just posted on my Instagram page all the products I use and gave tips for people who wanna go as the Joker. I hope I see a lot of Jokers out there this Halloween. 

Throughout the film there's a theme of red and yellow echoed in the costume and set design. Hope do you work with the different departments to get that unified look?
It's really important that wardrobe, production design, hair and makeup really work closely together on a color palette that compliments each other. It has to seamlessly look like it all comes not from four different departments, but from one place.

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What movies influenced the film? 
We all looked at Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which have the same feel. I was a teenager in the 80s so I kinda felt I know that time, so I wanna give that but make it more gritty because of what's happening with the society. People shouldn't look like they're made up, their hair shouldn't be done. People are broke, there's no money, they're hungry. You want to see the rawness.

You also worked on The Irishman, in which the stars are altered with CGI -- were you doing makeup for scenes where you knew the face would be digitally changed?
I designed the look of all the people, but I did not work with De Niro and Pesci and Al Pacino, our three main actors who were digitally de-aged a lot in the movie. When they had to be de-aged they were shot with a different camera which was called a "monster head". The camera could pick up dots on their faces which they'd then use later as reference points to manipulate and change the face for the de-aging part, so they didn't really per se wear makeup on those scenes. But there were also a lot of scenes where Robert De Niro was aged with makeup.

Is it becoming part of your job now, working with visual effects?
Sometimes. It's really hard to de-age an actor [with makeup]. It's easier to age an actor. It's common to use visual effects to enhance makeup or hair or production design, but it really depends on the project. Sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes not at all.

So it's definitely important to work with the visual effects department, but you also wanna make sure that as little as possible has to be done afterwards because it's expensive. And I wanna hold on to my job! 

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Originally published Oct. 6.