Putting her stamp on an iconic DC villain with Joker, makeup designer Nicki Ledermann’s task on the project was to develop a gritty, colorful and compelling look that could be applied to actor Joaquin Phoenix in no time flat.
“Joaquin is not really a person that loves to mingle and be social, and he is also not the kind of person that is very comfortable with being touched all the time. Being in makeup is hard because it’s a very intimate situation where you constantly are being touched, and he wasn’t really that comfortable with it,” Ledermann says. “But before we even started doing anything, he said, ‘I’m so sorry. I know I can be difficult, and whatever I do, please don’t ever take anything personal. It’s not you, it’s me.’”
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker centers on Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a mentally disturbed, aspiring comedian who becomes increasingly disillusioned with the society of Gotham, which either badly mistreats him or simply ignores him, depending on the day. Spiraling downward, Fleck finds himself on a path toward murderous revolution, ultimately transforming into the iconic Clown Prince of Crime.
In her first meeting with Phillips, Phoenix and hair designer Kay Georgiou, Ledermann was met with a digital mock-up, presenting the look the director and his star wanted to pursue for Joker. Apart from this mock-up, Ledermann’s work was inspired by one particular film that Phillips asked her to watch as a reference. “Todd told us to watch this documentary by Chantal Akerman called [News] From Home, about New York in 1977, which featured all the grittiness and poverty, and the destruction of New York City back in the ’70s,” the makeup designer explains. “He gave it to us as an inspiration of mood, and color, and texture, and flavor, to translate not only into the makeup, but also into hair, wardrobe, cinematography and production design.”
With these artistic guideposts in mind, the first-time Oscar nominee then sat down with Phoenix for a series of makeup tests. “We tried out a couple of things to honor the design, but at the same time, I also had to make sure that design didn’t have any copyright restrictions. Because there are hundreds and hundreds of clown faces out there, and each and every one of them are copywritten,” Ledermann says. “You can’t duplicate them. You have to come up with something completely new. Otherwise, people could get sued.”
What the makeup designer ultimately pursued was an organic look that meshed well with the gritty realism of Joker—a film that centered on a comic book character, but was not shot in a traditional comic book style. “It couldn’t be this perfect clown makeup that’s really precise and perfectly painted on. It needed to be strategically messy,” she notes. “It needed to be evolving; it needed to morph from a paint job into a character of its own, and that was a huge challenge.”
To perfect the look of Joker, and map out its evolution over the course of the film, Ledermann couldn’t rely on Phoenix alone. Because the actor couldn’t sit still for long, the makeup artist practiced applying the look to the face of a production assistant, as well as that of Georgiou’s husband. “That was really helpful, and I’m really grateful that [they] let me do that, because I didn’t want to bother Joaquin so much with trial-and-error practicing,” the makeup artist said. “Because he had so much other stuff to do, and wanted to be handled as little as possible, I had to just practice on my own a little bit and play around, in order to be secure when I actually dealt with him that I knew what I was doing.”
Knowing that she needed to minimize touch-ups between takes, Ledermann turned to a wide range of makeup products, that would transform Phoenix properly, while allowing her to interfere as little as possible with his process. “ I had to use a water-soluble makeup, because it had to come off easily, so that I could then start from scratch easily. It had to look like it was smearing, but it wasn’t smearing because it was staying put,” she explained. “So, I had to play with a lot of different products to get the consistency for it to smear, or not smear, or come off easily, or look smeared without smearing, all these different scenarios.”
For the makeup artist, the run-and-gun nature of the Joker shoot was a huge challenge, manifest most clearly in her experience of the now-iconic bathroom ballet scene. “Originally when we shot it, it was all one take, and we shot it over and over. Actually, it was cut pretty much in half because when we shot it, we shot up to a point where he goes after the dance to the sink and washes off his makeup,” she shares. “So, we had to reset that after every single take, and it was really hard because it was such an intense scene for Joaquin.”
Between takes, “we had to [reapply the makeup] on the side of the set, in the dark, on an apple box, while Kay was holding a phone with a light, and a picture for me to match [to],” Ledermann adds. “Situations like that came up quite often, where I didn’t have the ideal environment to do my work.”
While Ledermann was forced to work on Joker in a way she never had before, the situation had its silver lining. “It was a really great exercise in, ‘Don’t think about it too much. Let it go. Just do it.’ Even though it was incredibly hard and frustrating at the same time, as an artist, it helped me to be less uptight about my own work, and let myself flow with what I have,” the makeup artist says. “It was probably one of the hardest, if not the hardest, job I’ve ever done. But I would do it all over again.”
For Ledermann, the highlight of the experience was watching Phoenix transform into Joker with the help of her makeup, day in and day out. “I have to say, I’ve worked with a lot of amazing actors, but Joaquin is the most special one because the performance that he gave was truly unbelievable, just to watch on set. His physicality, the way he moved, his expressions. He did a lot of his own stunts. The fact that he lost 50 pounds…The dedication was truly extraordinary,” she says. “It was hard to work with somebody that’s running around and hard to wrangle, and being in this headspace of that character all the time. I can’t even imagine how he dealt with it. But to watch what he was doing with it was truly mesmerizing.”