5 behind-the-scenes facts about Heath Ledger on ‘The Dark Knight’ set
(Credit: Netflix)

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5 behind-the-scenes facts about Heath Ledger on ‘The Dark Knight’ set

A legend gone too soon, Heath Ledger has had an undeniable impact on cinema and has been cemented by the legacy of knockout filmography he has left behind. Snatched away by the cruel hands of fate at an early age, his phenomenal performances left an indelible mark in the industry, where people mourned the loss of an icon who left a palpable void in the hearts of many.

Strong-willed and determined, Hollywood owes a lot to the man who went from being a mere supporting actor in independent Aussie productions to a celebrated and adored A-lister by virtue of his perseverance and creative talent. 

Known for films like Brokeback Mountain, The Patriot, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Brothers Grimm, Candy etc., Ledger left an undeniable impact on cinema with his role as the psychotic and deranged supervillain, the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film, The Dark Knight alongside Christian Bale as the caped crusader, Batman. While many doubted the casting of Ledger, who was until then seen in typecast roles, as the sinister maniac and doubted his ability to fill in Jack Nicholson’s shoes, Ledger far-surpassed expectations, leaving an indelible mark with his chaotic and frenzied madness within the film.

Ledger transformed the maniacal villain into a defining pop-cultural sensation, immortalising his iconic lines “Why so serious?” The film is set in a timeline within a year after Nolan’s previous film Batman Begins and sees Bruce Wayne, James Gordon and Harvey Dent trying to protect Gotham city against organised crime. The sudden arrival of the unhinged criminal mastermind, called the Joker, who seems to have an extremely personal rivalry with Batman, sends their lives into terrifying turmoil. 

Ledger presented a brilliant psychological portrait of a mentally unsound man bent upon revenge and bloodlust. Alongside the likes of Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Cain, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ledger’s indelible and unforgettable performance added to the moody brilliance of the film, establishing him as one of Hollywood’s finest actors. He passed away soon after. 

On his birthday, we present to you five behind-the-scenes facts about Heath Ledger on The Dark Knight set, which is now streaming on Netflix: 

5 behind-the-scenes facts about Heath Ledger on ‘The Dark Knight’ set

5. Heath Ledger’s Joker was inspired by A Clockwork Orange 

Stanley Kubrick was notorious for his 1971 film A Clockwork Orange starring Malcolm McDowell. The film upheld the various roguish and nightmarish antics of Alex De large and his band of delinquents in a dystopian world. The film poster with Alex wearing face paint and a clownish outfit served as an inspiration for the Joker’s image. 

While Kubrick’s film was highly controversial and even banned for some time, Nolan cited the film as a reference. Ledger took the role quite seriously and imbibed Alex’s sinister persona within his character. He took great care in carefully studying and dissecting the role. He maintained a Joker journal where he wrote pages of absolute gibberish that often included gruesome imageries of what the Joker would do if he existed in real life, ranging from blinding babies to those with brain damage. 

4. His realism scared Michael Caine 

Ledger was truly immersed in his role as the Joker. His realism even shocked veteran actor Michael Caine who played Christian Bale’s aide and loyal butler, Alfred in the film. Caine opened up in an interview about an incident where his first exposure to Ledger’s avatar as the Joker left him genuinely scared and disturbed. It even made him forget his own lines. 

Calling the experience “terrifying”, Caine said, “So on the first rehearsal, I’ve never seen him. He has like seven dwarfs with him, like Snow White, only it’s not like that. When the bloody door opened on that lift, he came tearing out. I forgot every line.”

3. He wanted the interrogation scene to be realistic 

All the facts in this article hint at Ledger’s dedication, professionalism and obsession with the idea of making the Joker unique, unpredictable, insane and intense. During the famous interrogation scene with Batman, when Joker tests Batman’s patience by riling him up, parts of the sequence were supposedly real when Christian Bale was beating Ledger to a pulp. Ledger apparently egged Bale on to hit him and make the scene appear as gruesome and brutal as possible. 

Talking about the Joker’s masochistic behaviour in the scene, Bale shared, “As you see in the movie, Batman starts beating the Joker and realises that this is not your ordinary foe. Because the more I beat him the more he enjoys it”. Bale then spoke about Ledger’s unfathomable desire to make it happen in real-time and make it appear realistic. “He was kinda egging me on. I was saying, ‘You know what, I really don’t need to actually hit you. It’s going to look just as good if I don’t.’ And he’s going, ‘Go on. Go on. Go on….’”

2. Heath did his own makeup and improvised his smile 

Heath ledger was obsessed with the idea of making the Joker appear realistic. He took over the task of designing the Joker’s makeup and wanted to incorporate his vision of a psychopath using cheap drugstore makeup to make it appear even more unsettling. After the directors were pleased with the output, makeup artists took great care in learning the process and recreating the same look for every shot. 

Heath also came up with the idea of adding grisly scars to make himself look unique. He wanted to incorporate the notorious “Glasgow smile” which is how Scottish gangs in Glasgow would disfigure their foes forever. This horrifying feature made Ledger’s Joker unique, bizarre and oddly captivating. 

1. Heath Ledger made history as the Joker 

Heath Ledger was the youngest actor to be portraying the role of the infamous Joker. While many felt that he had been miscast in the role following Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance in Tim Burton’s Batman, Ledger surprised one and all with his depraved insanity in the film. He went the extra mile by isolating himself in a cheap motel room for 43 days to get into the dissociative state that would help him live the supervillain to his fullest potential. 

While juggling with substance abuse and dwindling relationships, Ledger gradually succumbed to his madness, with his sister often citing his role as the Joker as one of his last battles with reality. Gone too soon, Ledger’s legacy was defined by the Best Supporting Actor Award that he won posthumously, becoming the first-ever actor to win an Oscar for a superhero film.