Back in the day, Cesar Romero wouldn’t shave his mustache. Known for playing a Latin lover on the big screen, Romero wasn’t about to change his signature look, especially not to play the Joker on television (in the 1960s, TV was considered a big step down for a movie star). So, the makeup department on the 1966 Batman series just painted over his mustache and hoped no one would notice. After all, playing a Batman villain used to be a lark — it was comic book stuff; nothing to be taken seriously.
But after Heath Ledger’s 2008 performance as the Joker in the Dark Knight, actors began to take the assignment more seriously. Batman villains are generally seen as having interesting psychological profiles, so actors have increasingly decided to dive into their psyches with method acting, sometimes so much that it bleeds into their personal lives. The most recent example is Paul Dano, who told Entertainment Weekly that he found it hard to sleep at night after playing his creepy take on the Riddler in the newest Batman film.
Again, though, Dano is far from the only performer to plunge himself into psychosis while playing a Bat-villain. Here are all the other times playing a member of the Dark Knight’s rogues’ gallery might have landed an actor in Arkham Asylum.
Paul Dano Couldn’t Sleep
Movie: The Batman (2022)
Villain: The Riddler
How They Went Bat-Shit Crazy: In The Batman, director Matt Reeves takes a deadlier approach to the Riddler than we’ve seen in the past, making him a serial killer inspired by the Zodiac Killer. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Dano said, “There’s a sequence with Peter Sarsgaard’s character [Gotham district attorney Gil Colson]. That was intense. There were some nights around that I probably didn’t sleep as well as I would’ve wanted to just because it was a little hard to come down from this character. It takes a lot of energy to get there. And so you almost have to sustain it once you’re there because going up and down is kind of hard.”
Admittedly, on Good Morning America, Dano clarified that his sleeplessness was more about the adrenaline rush, as opposed to the “psychological torture” people made it out to be. After all, that kind of torment is mostly reserved for actors playing the Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Weight Loss Caused “Psychological Changes”
Movie: The Joker (2019)
Villain: The Joker
How They Went Bat-Shit Crazy: Losing weight or gaining muscle is pretty much par for the course when it comes to superhero movies, but when Phoenix lost 52 pounds to play the Joker, he said that the dramatic change in his diet resulted in “psychological changes.”
Phoenix reported feelings of “dissatisfaction, hunger [and] vulnerability.” He also noted that he withdrew from social events and was so fatigued he could barely climb stairs. “As it turns out, that impacts your psychology,” Phoenix said during a Venice Film Festival press conference in 2019. “You really start to go mad when you lose that much weight in that amount of time.”
Jared Leto Was Even More Annoying Behind the Scenes Than He Was On-Screen
Movie: Suicide Squad (2016)
Villain: The Joker
How They Went Bat-Shit Crazy: While there are people out there that stand by Leto’s take on the Joker, many comic book fans — myself included — found his performance insufferable. Still, audience members didn’t get it nearly as bad as Leto’s castmates did. Aside from reports of him generally creeping out Will Smith and Scott Eastwood, he also gave really disgusting “gifts” to his co-stars.
These gifts have been a matter of dispute, but among them was supposedly a dead pig, which he had someone throw on a table in front of the cast during a rehearsal. He may also have sent anal beads to Smith, “sticky” old Playboy magazines to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, a live rat to Margot Robbie and used condoms to several other cast members. Leto would later deny these rumors — even though he had started some of them himself — claiming that all the gifts were appropriate.
The exact nature of the gifts, however, has never been made clear, which calls into question some of the other ways he supposedly prepared for the role. He may also have been locked in a cell after the filming wrapped in a prison one night, as well as spent time in a real asylum interviewing inmates. There were reports, too, that he made everyone on set call him, “Mr. J.” The rumored behavior ranged from simply annoying to outright harassment, but if any of it is true, it’s perfectly in line with a performance that tries way, way too hard.
Heath Ledger Locked Himself in a Hotel Room and Kept a Joker Diary
Movie: The Dark Knight (2008)
Villain: The Joker
How They Went Bat-Shit Crazy: Really, the method approach to playing a Batman villain began with Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker. The actor obviously never lived to see the final product, but he did share in a few interviews what he put himself through in preparation for the part. In 2007, he told Empire, he “sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices.”
Ledger’s “Joker Diary” was filled with comic book panels, Joker dialogue from The Dark Knight, joker cards and clippings of images that influenced the part, including Malcolm McDowell’s performance in A Clockwork Orange and a picture of a hyena (which Ledger based Joker’s laugh on). It also contained a list of things that Ledger thought the Joker would find funny (AIDS being the most commonly cited example). Ledger reported having insomnia from playing what he described as a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.”
His dedication to the part has become so legendary that many have speculated that it contributed to his untimely death at 28 years old. Ledger’s sister has denied this, saying that Ledger enjoyed playing the part. His father said much the same, citing Ledger’s substance abuse issues as the sole reason for his son’s demise.
Tommy Lee Jones Was Driven Crazy By Jim Carrey’s Buffoonery
Movie: Batman Forever (1995)
Villain: Two Face
How They Went Bat-Shit Crazy: Apparently, Jones’ mental torture had nothing to do with playing Two Face and everything to do with working with Carrey, who had a very silly take on the Riddler. For years, there had been rumors about a feud between the two, and in a 2019 Vulture interview, director Joel Schumacher confirmed that Jones was indeed unkind and unprofessional to Carrey. Schumacher didn’t get into the specifics of how Jones was mean to Carrey, but he speculated that it was because Carrey is a “scene stealer” and that Jones had resented Carrey’s sudden rise to fame in the early 1990s.
It may also have been that Jones just found Carrey’s acting style to be annoying, as Carrey’s favorite story about the feud suggests. Telling the tale on Norm MacDonald’s podcast in 2017, Carrey explained that during production on Batman Forever, he happened to go to the same restaurant as Jones and he went over to say hello. But when he got close to Jones, Jones told Carrey, “I hate you” and “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.”
That quote — “I cannot sanction your buffoonery” — is easily the greatest thing to come out of the abysmal Batman Forever.
Danny DeVito Had His Balls Attacked By a Monkey
Movie: Batman Returns (1992)
Villain: The Penguin
How They Went Bat-Shit Crazy: While Danny DeVito spent hours in a makeup chair to become Oswald Cobblepot, he’s not the type of actor to go so “method” that he fucks up his psyche. By his own account, DeVito had a great time playing the Penguin, but the shoot wasn’t without its moments. In one scene, a monkey was supposed to deliver him a message. During rehearsal, it went fine, but during filming, something about the black goo DeVito had in his mouth for the role freaked the monkey out. As DeVito recounted on The Graham Norton Show, the monkey took one look at him and then “lept for [his] balls.” Fortunately, the padding in the Penguin suit meant DeVito’s frank and beans remained intact, but he did describe the incident as “horrifying.”
If I’m being honest, I’d rather have an angry monkey lunge at my balls than spend five minutes with Jared Leto on the set of Suicide Squad.