Making the Joker: Heath Ledger and Jared Leto's Makeup Artists on the Job of a Lifetime

"You can only hope in some small way to help his performance" says 'The Dark Knight' makeup artist John Caglione.
Warner Bros./Photofest

The Joker.

No job for a big screen makeup artist faces more scrutiny. The first look at Heath Ledger's Joker sparked pandemonium when it was revealed in 2007. Jared Leto's first image as the Clown Prince of Crime in Suicide Squad was dissected even more so, as he had the impossible task of following up Ledger's Oscar-winning work in The Dark Knight.

Now, in their own words, the makeup artists behind Ledger and Leto's iconic looks look back on how they saw each actor transform before their eyes. 

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (Courtesy Warner Bros.)

JOHN CAGLIONE JR.

John Caglione earned an Oscar for his work on Dick Tracy (1990) as well as a nomination for The Dark Knight.

You read the script first and you try to understand the character. Then I started doing some sketches — overlays of Heath's headshot. I did five or six different clown makeups, painted hair, with the scars, the whole thing.

I flew to London and started to talk with Chris Nolan, and we started playing with some makeup. We wanted something very worn, lived in. We wanted to make it blurry, distorted and disturbing. Chris wanted everything to be organic in that film. Everything had to be plausible. This Joker, he doesn't change his clothes. Does he sleep in his makeup? Does he wash his hair?

Heath and I started playing around with things. As a makeup artist, you are trained to seek perfection. The first few stabs at it for me — it was too clean. And I had to force myself to turn a corner and realize that imperfection was perfection in this design. I had to let my hand go and let things blur and drip and be craggy.

And Heath really helped me find that, the great actor he was. You can only hope in some small way to help his performance. So when he looks in the mirror, he can believe what his reflection is. Heath was amazing. Incredible.

Heath would contort his face while I was laying makeup on it so it would look like it was lived in. It created cracks and crevices. It was kind of like a dance in the makeup chair. He knew where I was going with a certain brush and a different color, and he'd squint his eyes and raise his forehead and make these facial gestures and I would just paint over it to create all of those crevices.

As shooting goes on, you both know where you're going and how to help each other. That was the case with Heath. That makeup took maybe an hour at the start of shooting. By the end of the film, we had it down to 25 or 30 minutes.

[Cinematographer] Wally Pfister just shot the hell out of it. I love the shot where Heath's in the interrogation room and it looks like there's a floating head in black. That was a great image. It's just this crazy clown face in black, with this light source coming from nowhere. It's incredible.

I was nominated, but I didn't think I would win the Oscar for clown makeup, and I was right. But I'm glad that Heath won. Because to tell you the truth, I was just gilding the lily. That performance was amazing. I think this will be the work that will be in my obituary. "The guy that did the Joker makeup died today." Looking back, now that I'm 57, it's a cornerstone, definitely. I was glad I was born at the right place and the right time for that. Because it sure was a blast. 

Jared Leto in Suicide Squad (Courtesy: Warner Bros.)

ALESSANDRO BERTOLAZZI

Alessandro Bertolazzi worked with Suicide Squad director David Ayer on his previous film, Fury, and his many other credits include Skyfall, where he worked to create Javier Bardem's distinctive look. 

I was surprised when David Ayer called me. I said, "I'm not the right guy for this movie. I don't know anything about comics." I like comics, but I'm not a superfan. David said, "I want you, because you can give me a different point of view with this job."

Joker is the guy with the green hair. This is what I knew. Then I started looking around, and I saw Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, and everything else. I wanted to do something that was not the same, and Warner Bros. said, "OK, do your Joker." Usually with a big movie studio, people suggest things, have an opinion or give me guidance. With this, nothing! 

They give me Jared Leto, a guy with hair and a long beard. A month before starting, I studied The Man Who Laughs, the 1928 film from which the Joker was inspired. It's so beautiful.

I ask David, "Who is this guy? What is his story?" David says to me, "He's also a poet." He's in love. It's a sick love, but still love. I tried to find something to make him super scary, but at the same time, a romantic.  I always loved that contrast. I want a guy who is a poet, a romantic, and a devil all at the same time. He is completely sick.

Then we start painting in the face. And we do the skin. We work a lot on the skin, because the skin is the most important. I wanted it to look like a really dirty, really sick. It's three hours of makeup, with six or seven layers. With the pale skin and the veins and a wound —  I make it dirty.  He's a guy who hasn't taken a shower in forever. This is The Joker.

Then he needs something else. David said, "Why don't we give him a scar?" That's interesting. Then I decided to do seven scars. This guy is completely crazy — I imagine him in front of the mirror in the morning, where he never brushes his teeth, but instead he might take a blade and he cuts his face. Just for fun.

This is my process.

During the shoot, every day, every single shot, we changed something. I have more details or I have less, depending on the moment.

What was incredible, Warner Bros. and DC Comics are obsessed about everything, but they never asked me to change anything in my makeup. Not one single thing. They let me do everything I wanted.

Jared had to be completely in connection with me. Jared was amazing. We had a special makeup department only for Jared. When he arrived in the morning, he'd come straight to the makeup department without seeing anyone else and we'd start the process of the transformation. The Joker's part of the film, it's like another movie inside Suicide Squad. So we decided to keep him completely separate. He had the whole makeup department and it was just me and him alone for three hours.

It started in silence. During this process he slowly, slowly he started to act like the Joker. And then … "Oh my god!" He becomes the Joker for real.

For a month, Jared had no contact with any actors except as the Joker. You know how actors go to the lounge and get coffee? Not Jared. Never. He was the Joker, 100 percent. Margot Robbie and everyone saw him only as the Joker for the whole shooting. This makes the difference.

People look at me and say, "Oh my God. It must have been so tough for you." No. It was amazing. Because I made the Joker.

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