The inspiration behind Barry Keoghan’s Joker

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It’s become something of a cliché in modern Hollywood that any fast-rising star will be tapped for a comic book property sooner rather than later. Barry Keoghan has embraced that notion by doing it twice in quick succession.

Less than four months after making his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut as Druig in Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, he made a surprise appearance as the Joker in Matt Reeves’ The Batman. Even though his participation in the latter was restricted to a single scene, it was more than enough to raise anticipation for his presumed involvement in the upcoming sequel.

It’s remarkable to think that nobody played the Joker in a live-action feature in the two decades between Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger donning the makeup, only for Keoghan to become the fourth in the space of 14 years. He followed the Academy Award-winning work of Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix, as well as whatever Jared Leto was trying to accomplish in Suicide Squad.

Even though his face remained largely obscured, it was clear that Keoghan’s take on the Jester of Genocide was the gnarliest version of the Joker seen on the silver screen yet, from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Spending hours in the makeup chair for the purpose of being deliberately hidden was all part of the plan, to quote Ledger’s interpretation, with a big future undoubtedly in store.

Harking back to the iconic villain’s original inspiration, Reeves acknowledged that “he’s very much out of the Conrad Veidt mould, and that idea of the silent film of The Man Who Laughs.” Rooting it in his more realistic version of Gotham City, the director explained that “he’s got this congenital disease” that means “he can never stop smiling.”

Name-dropping David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, Reeves elaborated on his grounded approach. “What if this is something that he’s been touched by from birth and that he has a congenital disease that refuses to let him stop smiling?” he said. “And he’s had this very dark reaction to it, and he’s had to spend a life of people looking at him in a certain way, and he knows how to get into your head.”

In Reeves’ eyes, living with an affliction has instilled him with the belief that “life has been a cruel joke on him, and this is his response”. For his part, Keoghan stated the obvious in that “it’s very intimidating playing the Joker,” with the previous names to have embodied the part ensuring there’s a certain list of traits and characteristics he’d deliberately avoid.

Calling Ledger’s “the best”, the Academy Award nominee mysteriously hinted that “no one has seen my version of it”. The Batman certainly whetted appetites, and it stands to reason that Keoghan’s Joker will have a much larger part to play in the follow-up.

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