Joaquin Phoenix's predecessors on TV and video say that cackle takes strenuous effort. The voice actor they revere? Mark Hamill.
For years, Andrea Romano gave a crucial note to actors who voiced the Joker on Batman: The Animated Series: Do not wear noisy shirts. "It was rare that someone would come in to do the Joker voice for more than 20 minutes who didn't end up bathed in sweat. It requires a tremendous amount of energy," said Romano, who served as the voice and casting director for that show, Justice League and other animated series. "You want to flail your arms around and not have a take ruined by the sound of clothing."
As Joaquin Phoenix shows in the new Joker film, vocally portraying the DC Comics villain with the full-throated laugh is physically and emotionally demanding. The Joker carries a devastating nihilism, a deep well of anger and an inability to hold back homicidal impulses. To do it right, Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger and Jared Leto, along with several other actors, have had to develop timbres of pure evil and concoct different flavours of insane laughter.
In 2008's The Dark Knight, Ledger threw his entire face into the laugh, pushing out whoops as if giving painful birth. Leto has acknowledged his lack of a naturally boisterous laugh, so in 2016's Suicide Squad he went with a raspy "ha-ha-HYAH."
In Joker, Phoenix employs a range of chuckles, snorts and drooling hisses, blurting out ill-timed "HA HA HAs" in his deep speaking voice and building to a hysterical high pitch. Phoenix and Todd Phillips wouldn't comment for this article, but in a news conference the actor credited the director for inspiring him with videos of people who suffer from "laughter that's almost painful." He said the laugh "took me a long time."
Pulling off the Joker's voice was so challenging that Kevin Michael Richardson nearly fainted several times while working on The Batman TV series from 2004 to 2008. "I remember laughing so hard that I was like, 'Uh-oh.' Thank goodness I was sitting down and a wall was behind me." Richardson said. "Commitment is one thing, but jeez Louise, you don't want to kick the bucket while you're recording."
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For the 2017 live-action indie The Joker, British character actor Martin Challinor took several minutes of quiet time in a separate room to recover from the hyperventilating takes he had just put himself through. "The first time, I was still chuckling to myself. It's just like, 'Right. Breathe,'" Challinor recalled by phone from London. "We had to wait half an hour so I could earth myself down, be me again, and go and do Take 2. And my throat was killing me right at the end, I tell you. It was hard."
The colours of the laugh differed for every actor. Richardson constructed his from Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter and Martin Short's oafish Jiminy Glick. Michael Emerson, who took on a dark and murderous Joker in the two-part animated video Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, said he "back-engineered" the tone after inventing his own laugh during walks through the streets.
"You try out a couple of things, hopefully in private, so that your wife doesn't glare at you," said the veteran character actor, best known as Ben Linus on Lost. "You can come up with a maniacal laugh for the purposes of Halloween, but there must be a voice that is from the same instrument, from the same source."
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To a generation of TV watchers, Romero established the character as a kid-friendly bad guy, cast against type as a campy, high-pitched, R-rolling Joker in the '60s Batman TV series. For the 1989 Batman film, Jack Nicholson lowered the nemesis' register, making him more menacing but still cartoonish.
Both voices informed Hamill's portrayal in the bleaker Batman: The Animated Series in the early '90s. Hamill initially voiced other roles on the series; soon the producers asked him to take a crack at replacing Tim Curry, who wasn't quite right for this Joker.
When Hamill received the audition script, his copy read: "Don't think Nicholson." So he reached back to his Broadway experience as Mozart in Amadeus — the composer was said to have stunned the imperial court in Vienna with his donkey's bray of a laugh. Hamill tossed in notes from the Blue Meanies in the Beatles' film Yellow Submarine and 1930s Dracula actor Dwight Frye, among other things, and won the role.
"I looked at this drawing, and he seemed to be all teeth, all teeth, all TEETH," Hamill said by phone from his Los Angeles home, drawing out the Blue Meanie creepiness of the line. "I don't want there to be a Joker laugh — I want there to be a palette of colours, sinister, intimidating, gleeful, insane, every emotion that you can think of. It's a large part of how he communicates."
Besides that series, which ran from 1992 to 1995, Hamill has played the Joker in multiple spinoffs on television and in video games. With his arsenal of laughs — on the phone, he delightfully offered a low, chuckling "hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm," a softly whooping "hoo hoo" and what he called a "big, broad ah-hah-HA-HA-HA-HAH!" — Hamill set the standard for the character's vocal depth and richness.
Veteran voice actor Troy Baker borrowed heavily from Hamill for his various renditions, beginning with the 2013 video game Batman: Arkham Origins. (Baker watched the Hamill series as a teenager and said that he didn't make the correlation with Luke Skywalker until many years later.)
John DiMaggio deliberately pitched his Joker lower than Hamill's, to an almost Orson Welles-like tone, for the 2010 video Batman: Under the Red Hood and other projects. Reprising the voice by phone, DiMaggio said with a laugh: "I suppose there's a little bit of 'nyah-hah, that Champagne is celebrated for its excellence' in there."
Voice actor Steve Blum played a subdued, sarcastic Joker in Lego Batman: The Videogame (2008) and he called Hamill "the greatest voice of Joker of all time." Jefferson Bell, who imitated Leto's Suicide Squad Joker for a 2016 short called Mad Love: The Joker Harley Story, added that Luke Skywalker provides irony: "You hear a voice like Mark Hamill talking about how he's going to blow up a hospital, and you're like, 'Oh, wow, I don't even know what to trust anymore.'"
Cameron Monaghan, who played a pre-Joker character, Jerome Valeska, on Fox's live-action Gotham, grew up absorbing Hamill in Batman: The Animated Series on Saturday mornings and was just old enough to catch Ledger's nuanced Joker in The Dark Knight in 2008. "I would sketch pictures of what he did, and what I thought he'd look like, and what he was, and I'd just laugh," he said. "I'd laugh over and over."
Written by: Steve Knopper
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