How 'Joker's' Broccoli-Green Hair and Consistently Smeared Makeup Created a "Handmade" DC Villain

Joker_BTS - Publicity - H 2019
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.
Makeup artist Nicki Ledermann and hairstylist Kay Georgiou reveal what went into crafting Joaquin? Phoenix’s new take on the classic character.

There is perhaps no higher-profile job for a movie hair and makeup team than creating a new Joker. So makeup artist Nicki Ledermann and hairstylist Kay Georgiou were understandably nervous in September 2018, when director Todd Phillips released the first look at Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker on Instagram. At first glance, some fans were concerned this new Joker didn't seem like the one in the comics, but that was by design. "The whole point for this Joker was to be handmade and realistic," says Ledermann, who along with Georgiou received an Oscar nomination Monday for best makeup and hair styling.

The makeup artist studied the previous onscreen Jokers and received drawings from Phillips, who had his own ideas. Ultimately, the biggest challenge came during production, when she had to ensure the makeup was perfectly and consistently smeared. In one of the film's most famous shots, Phoenix's Arthur Fleck retreats into a bathroom after killing three men on a subway and performs a little dance for himself. In the original version, after the dance, he also washes off his Joker makeup, which meant Ledermann had to reapply it before every take, about 16 times in all.

Phoenix famously put himself through the wringer for the role, losing 52 pounds. He suffered hunger pangs and had trouble sitting still, so Ledermann and Georgiou made a pact with the actor early in the process: Both women would perform their work at the same time to minimize the actor's time in the chair. It took about 40 minutes on the long end. They also tried to work quietly "to let him have his space so he could be in his head and prepare for the scene," notes Ledermann.

Georgiou envisioned Arthur as a man who cut his own hair and didn't wash it often. She dyed Phoenix's hair a dark brown several months before shooting, knowing that it would get lighter by the time cameras rolled. "I would put a lot of grease and product in it," says Georgiou.

Costume designer Mark Bridges suggested broccoli green for the Joker's hair, a look achieved through a series of wigs because the shooting schedule demanded Phoenix go back and forth between Arthur and Joker.

Though Joker is much less special-effects driven than the typical comic book film, its crowning shot was achieved with a little CGI help. A key moment sees Joker stand atop a car and paint a smile on his face using his own blood, which was added in post. Says Ledermann, "That was one of the few moments where we did have help from CGI to create exactly the way we needed it to be."

This story first appeared in a The Hollywood Reporter awards standalone. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.