Everybody loves a clown. Well, they love one clown, anyways; the Joker is one of the most popular characters in superhero history, despite (and because of) his psychopathic tendencies.
Over the years, various actors have tried to put their own spin on Joker, with varying results. We’ve ranked the most well-known Clown Princes of Crime, and it wasn’t easy. We also looked into the prepwork the actors did to get into character (and how they got the part in the first place).
Some put themselves through psychological torture, some lost incredible amounts of weight, and some barely did anything. They’re all great in their own way.
8. Jared Leto
Leto played the Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad, starring alongside Will Smith and Margot Robbie. In the film, Joker is a vicious, sadistic monster, but he’s not exactly subtle. He’s also more…shirtless than the other jokers on this list.
Oh, and he’s covered with tattoos, some of which say “ha ha,” because he is a Joker, and Jokers laugh. Get it?
— David Ayer (@DavidAyerMovies) April 25, 2015
How He Prepared for the Role: Leto went to incredible lengths for Suicide Squad. Co-star Will Smith claimed that he never met Leto in six months of filming, as Leto wanted to remain in character at all times on set. That led to some rumors in tabloids; per the reports, Leto unleashed vicious, gruesome, and downright inappropriate pranks on his co-stars. According to the actor, those rumors were untrue.
“I gave wrapped gifts to everyone, and people were thrilled to get them,” Leto said later. “They were laughing. We were giving whatever the Joker would give was the idea … It was really touching at the end, to go and give the gifts.”
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
“We’d be filming and people would be laughing, and they’d go and open up and there’d be [an adult] magazine or something, you know, … ‘It would be whatever would be funny. You know, whatever would be absurd or outrageous.”
However, Leto says that his gifts were relatively tame, and stories about his on-set pranks were embellished in tabloids to drum up press for the movie.
reports saying jared leto taught his suicide squad costars how to draw the letter "S" in a cool new way. "its not the normal way" said jared
— leon (@leyawn) April 13, 2016
“What are you going to do at that moment?” he said of the coverage. “It doesn’t matter how loudly you shout or hold up a sign with your pants off in Times Square, people are going to go with the story that they want to run. And it just wasn’t true.”
To be fair, Leto didn’t actually try holding up a sign in Times Square with his pants off. Maybe that would have squashed the rumors (or at least replaced them with some different rumors).
The Verdict: Leto gets points for dedicating himself to the role, but his Joker is painfully lame. Blame the script—Suicide Squad was one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of 2016, and the fact that the Joker literally had the word “DAMAGED” tattooed on his head didn’t help.
In preparation for his role as the Joker, Jared Leto cooked oven fries in the microwave. Pure, unbridled anarchy.
— Mark Leggett (@markleggett) April 20, 2016
Leto’s Joker was too over-the-top, but he was in an over-the-top film, so we can’t really fault him for that. Hopefully, he gets a chance to redeem his portrayal of the character at some point in the future (but given the film’s less-than-stellar reviews, we wouldn’t count on it).
He’s a talented actor and he tried his best, but in Suicide Squad, the joke was on him.
7. Zach Galifianakis
The comedian played the Joker in The Lego Batman Movie (2017), and some diehard Batman fans will cringe to see him included in this list. Nevertheless, Galifianakis did a fine job—and probably introduced quite a few young fans to the character.
If you missed this flick, The Lego Batman Movie is silly, but not the way that Suicide Squad was silly. The animated film was a crossover, with characters cropping up from other franchises like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, so it certainly wasn’t an in-canon Batman story.
How He Prepared for the Role: Galifianakis says that he took the part immediately, but was disappointed when he learned that he was only lending his voice to the Gotham City villain. His agent had simply asked if he wanted to play the Joker.
“I said, ‘Yes, of course I do,’” he recalled. ‘Then they said, ‘It’s the toy movie.’”
Disappointment aside, the gig wasn’t too difficult. The film’s star-studded cast recorded their lines in studios around the world, so Galiafanakis didn’t have to go far from home. He didn’t even do much acting; he basically just played himself.
The Verdict: For serious fans, the biggest issue with The Lego Batman Movie’s Joker is that he’s too sensitive. He yearns to be Batman’s biggest supervillain, and in doing so, he casts off many of the traits we associate with the character.
Then again, the movie didn’t take itself seriously—Voldemort and King Kong make appearances—so we can forgive the Joker’s sudden ultra-sensitivity.
At the end of the day, Galifianakis played the part earnestly and made audiences laugh. When we’re talking about a villainous clown, laughing isn’t such a bad thing, is it?
6. Cameron Monaghan
We’ve got to put a big asterisk next to Monaghan’s name, as he didn’t technically play the Joker during his time on Fox’s Gotham. DC Comics reserves the name “Joker” for the character’s big-screen appearances, so while Monaghan donned the makeup, his official name was “Jerome,” “Jeremiah,” or simply “J.” There’s a bit more to it than that, but it involves some spoilers, so we’ll leave it there for now.
In any case, this Joker wasn’t the Joker, even though he was the Joker, kind of. It’s complicated, but it worked. We’ll let Monaghan explain.
“Pure green was off-limits to us (as well as the name ‘Joker’), a decision from high-up as they wanted to reserve these for films,” the actor wrote on social media after wrapping his final scenes for the show. “A decision which ultimately I respect. They did not want to dilute the very lucrative brand. It allowed for creativity on our end.”
Still, Monaghan stopped short of saying that his character was not the Joker.
“I think the whole fun with the character is [that] you, the audience member, get to pick the backstory you think works for him. It should be ambiguous, or as J himself has famously put it, multiple choice.”
“It’s convoluted, it’s fantastical, and it’s a little silly. Isn’t that who the Clown Prince should be? You, dear viewer, decide.”
How He Prepared for the Role: Monaghan referred to the role as a “lifelong dream,” and his passion for the character certainly came out over the course of Gotham’s five-series run. He took a serious approach, practicing the Joker’s laugh for extended periods of time.
“Look, you have to drive yourself a little insane to be able to play a role like this, and I think with the voice, the movement, and with the laugh specifically, it’s very important that you get it right,” he said during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers. “That means a lot of repetition, and so I would just sit and stare at myself in the mirror and make any face that I wanted to make and laugh, just laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh.”
“I think all my neighbors were like, ‘that dude has some serious problems, he needs to get on some heavy medication, we need to put this guy down.’ And I’ve continued to do that over the course of the show.”
The Verdict: Monaghan stole every scene he was in. His Joker was sociopathic, arrogant, and intelligent—in short, he was a perfect antagonist for the show. Over time, Gotham got better and better, and the decision to put Monaghan in the clown makeup certainly helped. Even if J. didn’t have the Joker’s name, he had all of the same appeal.
The only downside: Many casual fans skipped Gotham. If you missed it and you’re at all interested in the world of Gotham City (and, given that you’re reading this article, we think that’s a safe bet), it’s worth a watch. With that said, the scene linked below includes major spoilers.
5. Cesar Romero
Romero played Joker throughout the ‘60s as part of the original cast of Batman, reprising the role on the big screen for 1966’s Batman: The Movie. He was the first live-action Joker, and he played his part wonderfully, but his Joker is markedly different from later portrayals. He’s silly and slightly inept, far from the menacing clown in modern interpretations.
How He Prepared for the Role: Romero didn’t go to great lengths to play the character. In fact, he wasn’t a method actor, and he didn’t even shave off his trademark mustache. Look closely at his episodes on Batman, and you’ll see greasepaint caked over the actor’s facial hair.
To be fair, the world of Batman was campy kids’ stuff in the 1960s, and Romero was an accomplished singer, dancer, and actor; he wasn’t going to compromise his world-famous mug for a comic book character.
“There was certainly nothing hard about that assignment,” Romero said later. “Even the makeup sessions weren’t too bad. It took about an hour-and-a-half to put the full makeup on, including the green wig. I didn’t mind it at all.”
That’s not to say that the role was a quick paycheck. Romero played Joker with enthusiasm, establishing many of the character’s most recognizable characteristics (including his cackling laugh).
“Sure, it’s a lot of fun,” he said of the Joker. “We have a lot of fun doing this show, and we had a lot of fun making the movie. It’s a part that you can do everything that you’ve always been told not to do as an actor. In other words, you can get as hammy as you like and go all out. It’s great fun, I enjoy it.”
The Verdict: Romero’s Joker wasn’t as dark, twisted, or macabre as some of the other entries on this list, but the world wasn’t quite ready for a homicidal clown. As the first well-respected actor to don green hair and a purple suit—and the only non-white actor to play the role to date—Romero certainly deserves his place towards the top of the rankings.
4. Joaquin Phoenix
The newest Joker on this list, Phoenix played the character in 2019’s Joker. It’s the first feature film to focus entirely on the Joker, and it explores the clown’s backstory as a failed comedian named Arthur Fleck. A miserable loner, Fleck eventually goes insane, turning to crime to strike back at the society that rejected him.
Why so serious? We’re not sure, but audiences love it.
How He Prepared for the Role: To properly play the anti-hero, Phoenix lost 52 pounds, following an extremely restrictive diet (he’s since gained back 25 pounds). He also tried to get inside Joker’s head—a somewhat dangerous proposition.
“You start to go mad,” Phoenix told fans at the Venice Film Festival.
“It wasn’t just the torment,” he continued. “It was the joy, his struggle to find happiness and to feel connected. To have warmth and love.”
Phoenix stayed in character during filming, which led to some rumors about his mental state. When Phoenix promoted the film on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Kimmel surprised him with a video that apparently showed Phoenix yelling at a man named Larry for his “constant whispering” on set.
That man was cinematographer Lawrence Sher, who defended Phoenix when the clip went viral. According to Sher, the clip came from a prank Phoenix played on director Todd Phillips.
“[He was] such a good actor that nobody even got it on set,” Sher said. “He played it too straight.”
Phoenix was a consummate professional, and while he’s a method actor, he was able to maintain some amount of separation from his character.
“For me, I always thought that acting should be like a documentary,” Phoenix told Vanity Fair. “That you should just feel whatever it is that you’re feeling, what you think the character is going through at that moment.”
His co-star Robert De Niro agreed with his approach.
“His character and my character, we didn’t need to talk about anything,” says De Niro. “We just say, ‘Do the work. Relate as the characters to each other.’ It makes it simpler and we don’t [talk]. There’s no reason to.”
The Verdict: While Joker isn’t a perfect movie—it borrows a bit too heavily from other films like Taxi Driver for our taste—Phoenix’s wounded, tortured Joker is a fresh take on the character. The actor delved into Joker’s psychological instabilities, with engaging results.
While we’ll need some time to see how the film fits into the Batman canon, it’s well received, and it broke the October opening weekend box-office record with a mammoth $96 million take. Fans seem to appreciate Phoenix’s dedication to Joker…and that includes one person who actually played the character.
The #JokerMovie opens today. The awesome Joaquin Phoenix, Todd Phillips & Scott Silver brilliantly reimagine the character as never seen before! 2 thumbs up from that old-school, comic book version… me. 👍👍🃏 pic.twitter.com/Ex4is4OvPC
— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) October 4, 2019
3. Mark Hamill
While Mark Hamill is most famous for his portrayal of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Batman fans know him as the voice of the Joker. Hamill played the part in Batman: The Animated Series, and he reportedly lobbied hard for the role—but almost missed out.
That’s because Tim Curry, who played Pennywise in the original It miniseries, recorded several episodes of Batman: The Animated Series as the Joker, but left the show, clearing a path for Hamill. Why? One rumor holds that DC believed Curry’s Joker would be too scary for the show’s young viewers. Curry has a different explanation.
“I did play Joker for a while, but I had bronchitis and they fired me…and hired Mark Hamill,” he told Screen Geek. “That’s life.”
No offense to Curry, as he’s a legend in his own right, but his loss was our gain.
How He Prepared for the Role: Initially, Hamill developed his character by doing impressions.
“I would imitate the old Universal horror films and I realize, in retrospect, I wasn’t doing it consciously, but Claude Rains as The Invisible Man,’” Hamill said. “So he had sort of the grit that I incorporated into it. And I said to voiceover people later—I would do a character, and I would say, ‘It’s sort of like Howard Cosell meets Jay Leno, is that a cheat?’ And they said, ‘No, we do that all the time.’”
“People don’t even realize, you take elements…I don’t do a very good Jay Leno, but just [imitates Leno], ‘Ya know, that cadence,’ And I’ll use people all the time.”
Over time, Hamill developed his Joker, and his razor-sharp delivery helped to make Batman: The Animated Series one of the most memorable interpretations of the Caped Crusader’s story. Since that series ended, Hamill has reprised the role on TV (Justice League Action), in video games (including Arkham Asylum), and in films (Batman: The Killing Joke, among others).
The Verdict: Hamill is almost certainly the greatest small-screen Joker, and some fans argue that his Clown Prince is the most iconic.
Unlike the other actors on this list, Hamill played a range of different Jokers; his character could be a goofy klutz, a psychopathic maniac, or an unstoppable mastermind, depending on the script. He constantly reinterpreted the character, and while he briefly “retired” in 2011, he hasn’t hung up the purple suit for good (according to some rumors, he may even play a live-action Joker at some point in the future, though we’d take those reports with a big grain of salt).
Directors keep going back to him for a simple reason: Hamill’s charm makes the character work. In July 2018, the actor reflected on his time voicing the Joker.
It was truly an honor to be entrusted to play the character in the original Batman:TAS back in '92. I had no idea at the time the impact it would have on my career or how it would be received by Bat-fans worldwide- but it's the gift that keeps on giving! 🃏 https://t.co/9SizIQb10T
— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) July 14, 2018
“It was truly an honor to be entrusted to play the character in the original [Batman: The Animated Series] back in ’92,” Hamill said on Twitter. “I had no idea at the time the impact it would have on my career or how it would be received by Bat-fans worldwide—but it’s the gift that keeps on giving!”
For a generation of kids, Hamill’s Joker was the Joker, and Hamill showed that he was capable of substantial range and depth. He certainly deserves a mention in any list of the all-time greatest voice actors, and the Joker is his greatest role.
2. Jack Nicholson
Released in 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman brought a darker edge to Gotham City. That was notable, since to that point, superhero movies had been fairly lighthearted. Most were aimed at younger audiences, and Romero’s Joker was still the definitive version—nobody was ready for a comic villain with a lethal hand buzzer and an acid-spewing lapel flower.
Burton called on Jack Nicholson, who was already firmly established as one of the most accomplished actors of his generation. By taking on the Joker, he helped to legitimize Batman as a serious film.
“The Joker comes from my childhood,” Nicholson told MTV in 2007. “That’s how I got involved with it in the first place. It’s a part I always thought I should play.”
How He Prepared for the Role: While Nicholson committed to his role, his contract had a few key stipulations: He wanted to approve the makeup designer before the production began (understandable, since makeup was a key part of the character…and Nicholson reportedly had an allergy to certain Hollywood cosmetics).
He also set a strict filming schedule to accommodate his unconventional lifestyle; he’d arrive on set at 10:00 a.m. at the earliest and sometimes slept in his make-up chair as the artists applied his prosthetics.
In short, he didn’t prepare in the same way as some of the method actors on this list. He preferred to let the character speak for himself, and his approach worked, as his performance was widely credited as a huge component of the film’s success.
Oh, and speaking of that success, Nicholson’s contract had one more requirement: He wanted a percentage of the film’s gross. As a result, he reportedly earned around $60 million.
The Verdict: Nicholson gave us the first onscreen Joker that resembles our modern ideas about the character. He was dark, dangerous…and hilarious. Lines like “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” gave Joker charm, and during many scenes, he outshone Michael Keaton’s Batman.
“The thing I like about The Joker is that his sense of humor is completely tasteless,” Nicholson said later.
Even so, Nicholson’s greatest contribution to the character was much simpler: He took the role seriously. He also showed some jealousy towards other actors; in 2007, he said he was “furious” that Heath Ledger was cast in the then-upcoming blockbuster The Dark Knight.
“I’m furious. I’m furious,” Nicholson said, laughing. “They never asked me about a sequel with the Joker. I know how to do that! Nobody ever asked me.”
In that interview, Nicholson said that he wouldn’t watch The Dark Knight unless it was “good,” so we assume that he’s seen it by this point. Nevertheless, he hasn’t commented on Ledger’s performance, other than to express sadness at his fellow actor’s untimely death.
Drama aside, Nicholson’s Joker was legendary, and probably the best interpretation of the villain—with one exception.
1. Heath Ledger
When Heath Ledger landed the coveted Joker role in 2008’s The Dark Knight, Batman fans were underwhelmed.
“Heath?” one fan asked on Reddit at the time. “Let’s reminisce on the days of A Knight’s Tale and Ten Things I Hate About You. Heath? The Joker? Bad casting. Bad joke.”
“Probably the worst casting of all time,” another wrote.
“On no, it’s wrong on every level.”
Some internet comments don’t age well. Heath Ledger’s stunning performance set a new standard and helped to launch the modern Golden Age of superhero flicks.
How He Prepared for the Role: Ledger was a method actor, and as such, he took great care in crafting his performance. In 2018, Heath’s father, Kim Ledger, revealed that the actor had kept a diary while filming The Dark Knight.
“He pretty well locked himself up in a hotel room for weeks,” Kim said. “He galvanised the upcoming character. That was typical of Heath. He would do that. He liked to dive into his characters, but this time he really took it up a notch.”
Sadly, Ledger passed away before The Dark Knight hit theaters. That changed the course of Nolan’s Batman franchise, and fans will always wonder what directions the final film of the franchise might have taken if Ledger had reprised his role.
His family, by the way, adamantly denies the idea that Ledger’s commitment to his craft caused his early death.
“Honestly, that’s been the biggest thing for us as a family,” Kate Ledger, Heath’s older sister, told Associated Press. “He had an amazing sense of humour and certainly playing The Joker, for him it was one big gag. He had so much fun doing that. It was actually the exact opposite. There was no doom and gloom. … That was a shock to me that people even thought that, really.”
The Verdict: By this point, Ledger’s twisted take on the Joker has been dissected, criticized, and lauded from every conceivable angle. The actor’s untimely death may have helped critics take The Dark Knight seriously, but his performance stands on its own. While Nicholson helped to take the Joker in a darker direction, Ledger’s version was pitch-black, an evil clown with no discernible motives or morals.
Every future Joker will be compared with Ledger’s, and that’s a testament to his power as an actor. He took the villain into the real world, creating a genuinely terrifying character that leaves a lasting impression—while delivering a few sick laughs in the process.