Michael Jai White Explains Gambol's Bizarre Death Scene in 'The Dark Knight'

As the 10th anniversary of the Batman installment nears, the actor opens up about working with Heath Ledger, that awkward, ambiguous death scene and much more.
YouTube/Screengrab
Michael Jai White as Gambol in 'The Dark Knight'

No one was more surprised by the demise of Gambol in The Dark Knight than actor Michael Jai White, who played the menacing gangster.

Having shot additional scenes, and the fact that the script never called for the gangster to be killed, White told The Hollywood Reporter he didn't see the move coming — that is, until he attended the premiere. Still, having worked on both sides of the camera throughout his decades-long career, he says he understood the thought process. 

With the middle (and arguably best) film in the classic Christopher Nolan Batman series nearing its 10th anniversary (July 18), White granted an interview to discuss his time on the picture, including lessons learned from the late Heath Ledger and Gambol's awkward, ambiguous death scene, plus much more. 

Gambol's quietus 

Nolan offered White the role of Gambol — the no-nonsense gangster who signed his own death warrant when he tried to tangle with The Joker, brought to life by Ledger in an Oscar-winning performance. 

While never a principal role, Gambol was bigger in the script and during production, White says. 

"It was the kind of thing where they had deeper intentions for Gambol; it was a character who was written for future use, I think," he says. "There were other plans to do stuff with that character and some things that were cut out. I think it's because of unfortunately losing Heath Ledger."

Calling it a matter of "tying up loose ends," White says he got why Nolan made the choice in postproduction. 

So, how exactly did Gambol die? That has been a topic of debate among fans on Reddit for nearly a decade. Was the moment so horrid the ratings board made Nolan cut it? No. The answer is simple, yet complicated. 

In the film, Gambol puts a bounty on The Joker ($1 million alive, $500,000 dead) for insulting the gangs of Gotham by stealing their money and infiltrating a meeting. Later, believing The Joker has been killed, the body delivered by another street gang, Gambol readies to pay. It is at that moment The Joker springs to life, killing two of Gambol's men before sticking a knife in Gambol's mouth. He proceeds to tell the gangster that he got his Glasgow smile (cheeks slit from the lips) from his deranged, drunk father. The music hits a bang, a gang member winces at what he witnesses, and Gambol falls to the ground. 

That's it.

It turns out, though, Gambol was not written to die, just to get a Glasgow smile of his own, White explains. 

"I think that people can tell by the strange cut that I never shot a death scene," White says. "The character wasn't supposed to be gone. That is something that happened in editing later."

He continues, "You don't see mistakes in a movie of that magnitude. When you see something that is somewhat a mistake or is not clarified, there is something behind that." 

Fans may have gone back and forth over how Gambol died, but White says he never gave it a second thought. Once the shock of the moment wore off at the premiere, he was over it, the actor tells THR

"Being that I have been on both sides of the camera, I understood," White says. "I was as surprised as anybody. The next few moments after Gambol hit the ground, I was in a state of confusion, like 'What the hell happened? I guess I am not coming back.' But, I have a producer's and director's mind-set, so I was able to look at it and think, 'I guess they must have wanted to go this way.'"

Magic tricks 

A surefire way to piss off White is to speak ill of Ledger. 

The gifted actor died Jan. 22, 2008, at the age of 28 from an accidental mixing of prescription drugs.

"It has always upset me that he was put in this category of being a drug-addled, irresponsible type of actor. That gets me aggravated," White says.

It was speculated at the time of his death that Ledger went total method to become The Joker, which took a toll on his mind-set. White says he doesn't buy that theory.

"It upsets me that Heath gets put in a category, like he was a method actor who inhabited this darkness that consumed him because people write that story in their head," he says. "And that couldn't have been further from the truth. Heath was playful. When the director would say 'cut,' he would go back to this easygoing, very affable type of guy. Even when there was a day player or people in shorter roles, naturally they tend to give him his privacy and space, but Heath would be on the one initiating the conversation. He was that type of guy."

Some of White's fondest memories from his time on the set were performing magic tricks (no, not like the gruesome pencil one from the movie) with Ledger between takes. 

"He and I were trading a lot of magic tricks," White says, chucking. "He picked up some sleight of hand stuff, and I'm kind of an amateur magician myself. So Heath and I shared a lot of tricks on set, and we couldn't wait to finish the shot so we could go back to doing that stuff." 

An actor's actor 

Ledger was nothing if not giving of the actors around him, White recalls from his time on The Dark Knight

One time in particular stands out in White's memory. It happened while filming the scene where The Joker lets himself in to the joint meeting of Gotham's gangs.

"So the first half of the day, until lunch, Heath is in full makeup, but the camera is shooting toward us," White begins. "So, Heath is not on camera. And I asked Christoper Nolan what we were shooting after lunch and he said we would finish up with our half of the room. And I said, 'So, you mean, Heath has gotten into makeup knowing that he is not going to be shot today?!' And he said, 'Yeah, that's right.' And I said, 'Oh, wow.'"

White continues, still baffled, "As a guy who played Spawn, if I knew I was not going to be on camera, there was no way I would have been in costume for the benefit of others to look at me," White says with a laugh. "And that was a testament to who Heath Ledger was, that this man would go through hours of makeup for the benefit of his fellow actors. He could have been in a T-shirt and jeans, but that's the kind of guy he was." 

(White notes as an aside he is not a fan of his Spawn film. "There is no footage of me ever saying that I liked Spawn. I have never said that I thought that was a good movie," he says.)  

White also recalls that Ledger wanted feedback on their most intense scene (which in the finished film ends in Gambol's demise), a first for White. 

"I remember he would modulate his voice differently during different takes and he asked me what I thought," White says. "There was this timber he would get — it reminds me of [rock/blues singer] Tom Waits — it was a darker, deeper tone. And I said, 'You know what, being up close to you when you use that tone is otherworldly.' And I believe that is the take that was used."

White is still stunned by their interaction during the moment. 

"It came out of him asking, not me offering," he says. "This was about him asking me what I thought was more effective. And no one had ever done that before. Not one actor in my lifetime had asked my opinion in that way. And that taught me to do that with others, to not succumb to my ego." 

The intimidating tough guy

White is a straight shooter. He does not mince words when asked what or whom he looked to when preparing to play Gambol. 

"This may sound very non-actor or that I am diminishing what I did, but in all honesty, I'm playing a threatening black man," he says. "I could do that if I got out of a sickbed with a 103-degree temperature. It's not going to change. It's harder for me to not be an intimidating tough guy."

White has a number of upcoming projects, including Making a Killing, Triple Threat, The Family Business and Outlaw Johnny Black

As for where the film rates in his book, White says he is extremely proud of the work everyone put in on the Batman film. 

"I love Dark Knight," he says. "I love the fact that when superhero movies go dark, it is well appreciated because that really gets into the psyche of someone who would feel it necessary to fight crime. That is a dark idea. If that happened in reality, that comes from a very troubled place. So, psychologically, I think that is just great."