It’s no easy feat to take on a comic book character that’s been immortalized in cinema by the likes of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger with performances so riveting, Ledger’s turn landed him a posthumous Oscar. So it was only with a deep commitment that Jared Leto, himself an Oscar winner for his role in Dallas Buyers Club, would take on the Joker part in Warner Bros.’ upcoming summer release Suicide Squad, a part he and director David Ayer redefined for today’s audience.
“The Joker has a lot of different looks, sort of built from the looks throughout the history of DC Comics but with a new sort of flair and flavor on him so he does feel like a modern-day gangster, because… he’s always been a gangster,” says Ayer.
Leto’s eccentric approach has already become the stuff of legend. We chatted with the actor for EW’s Summer Movie Preview Issue, which is on stands Friday. Leto hasn’t talked much yet about the role in the August release. Here are some choice excerpts from our interview.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were your original thoughts when you were approached about taking on a character that has become so iconic?
JARED LETO: You take a deep breath. There is a responsibility I suppose that you can feel but it’s also incredibly exciting. The work that’s been done on this character by so many people before me has been so impactful, so incredible, so much fun, so profound, so risky, that it’s a very special thing to be asked to take on that responsibility.
What did you want to do with him to make him feel original in comparison to what had been done before?
We knew we had to strike new ground. There had been such great work that we knew we had to go in a different direction. So you had a kind of direction from the very beginning, knowing that you can’t go that way, so you have to head this way. That was really helpful. But the Joker is fantastic because there are no rules. The Joker operates from instinct.
What kind of conversations did you have with David about who this guy was going to be?
David and I had conversations and I think he trusted that I was going to go out and experiment and explore and come back with something for him to continue the collaboration with. And it was nice to have that trust from him. He really let me lose and encouraged me. That was a priceless thing when you’re working with a director to have that faith and trust.
So what did you do to create this guy? What did you go and do? Who did this guy become to you?
He became a real person. I don’t know if person is the right word. I think the Joker lives in between reality and another plane. Kind of a shaman in a way. It’s a very intoxicating role to take on. You have permission to break rules and to challenge yourself and anyone around you in a really unique way.
I first started at the beginning, educating myself, researching, reading as much as I could, going back to the source material. And then at a certain point, I knew I had to stop doing that. Because the Joker has been redefined, reinvented many times before. I think the fun thing about it is when people have done it in the past, there is some spirit of the Joker essence that they keep, but they either build upon something or tear something down and start again at the beginning. For me, I knew once I had gone through the process of educating myself, I had to throw everything away and start from the beginning and really build this from the ground up. It was a transformative process. There was a physical transformation. There was a physical conditioning.
What, specifically, did you do?
There are a lot of things. It’s probably better to not get into it but to the Joker, violence is a symphony. This is someone who gets an extreme reward from the act of violence and manipulation. Those are the songs he sings and he is very in tune with what makes people tick. I did meet with people that were experts, doctors, psychiatrists that dealt with psychopaths and people who had committed horrendous crimes, and then I spent some time with those people themselves, people who have been institutionalized for great periods of time. I guess when you take on a role, any role, you become part detective, part writer, and for me that’s my favorite time of the entire process, the discovering, the uncovering, and the building of a character. Yeah, it’s really fun.
Now, how difficult was it staying in that character for the entire shoot?
It was challenging but it was also fun. He has a great sense of humor, depending on who you ask. [Laughs]
Like your castmates?
Yeah, you can ask them about that. But for me, I knew I had to be committed as much as possible. I had to be committed beyond belief. And I did what I needed to do to deliver the best I possibly could. There was a lot on the line and I want to do justice for all the work that has been done before. It’s not a part-time job. It’s immersive. It takes over your life and that’s what I needed to do for myself. Other people can show up and are genius but I did what I needed to do to deliver. And we had a good time with it. I think it was exactly what was needed for me, at least.
Tell me about the video you made for your castmates before your henchman dropped a pig on the table in the middle of the rehearsal room. How did that whole thing go down?
I think in the beginning it was important to set up and define our relationship, so to speak. [laughs] There were a lot of things. It was fun. You’ve got to remember doing these things isn’t just about the result, it’s the process. It’s working with Mr. Frost, who is the Joker’s henchman. It’s making the choice and the decision of how am I going to introduce the Joker to the very first people who will meet him. So it becomes an exercise as much for me as it is for anyone else. And it’s as much about the process as it is about the results. How do you go about these sorts of things? How do you work with the people around you? It was a lot of fun. The attention to detail and the process that we went through helped to bring a life to the character for me. Those actions and those gestures—the joker loves a grand gesture. Those were really important. And they were fun. The Joker is someone who doesn’t take things too seriously.
Where did you get the pig?
If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. Nah, I can’t tell you. But there was a method to the madness and a point for all of it. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. It was a really wonderful experience. I really loved the opportunity and I have a lot of gratitude for the chance to take this on and to share it with a new generation of younger people and people who may have been familiar, to revisit it in a different way.
How involved were you in creating the Joker’s look?
David had some very specific ideas. As far as the look of the Joker, it was a collaborative process. There were things I brought to the table and things David brought to the table and it was a mashup of both of our sick and twisted minds. There were specific things that he liked and wanted and I was there to help bring them to life in the best way I could.
What specific things did you bring to it?
I think the most important thing I brought was probably not to do with the outside but with the internal. But you know David was specific with tattoos. They were his idea but there was a lot to play with. Who knows what will end up in the final film?
I think for the Joker and the process, it’s probably best to talk to the other people. I don’t mean that dismissively, but I think it will be more interesting. What I think is interesting is what did the crew think, what did the DP think? They must have thought I was completely f—in crazy, but I know this, every time I walked on the set, I saw a lot of smiles and people were so glad to have smiley back and that was really touching and a nice thing that they got a sense of joy out of whatever was happening. I was happy to make everyone smile… even if I had to cut their tongues out.
Suicide Squad opens on Aug. 5.
For more from our Summer Movie Preview, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands today, or buy your choice of four collectible covers here – and subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.