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How Makeup, Hair and Costume Team Gave ‘Joker’ a New Look for Origin Story

“We’re not in the superhero world,” says Nicki Ledermann, makeup head on Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” which reimagines the iconic comic book villain’s origin in an acclaimed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. “This story is treated as real life, and that’s what made the project so interesting.”

In this most recent take on Batman’s nemesis — a role played by Jack Nicholson in 1989 and which won a posthumous Oscar for Heath Ledger for 2008’s “The Dark Knight” — it’s Gotham City, circa 1981. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives a stagnant, innocuous life bringing joy to those around him by working as a clown — until a string of bad decisions sends him down a more sinister path. “Everything in Gotham is dark and gritty,” says Ledermann, whose credits include “The Greatest Showman” and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “The Irishman.” “We wanted to connect that air to Arthur and, eventually, Joker.”

Ledermann, hair department head Kay Georgiou and costume designer Mark Bridges learned during an early meeting that Phillips and Phoenix had clear ideas for Joker’s appearance. “They came to the table with a digital mock-up, but we had more of a discussion about each look rather than sharing a bunch of visual references,” Georgiou says. 

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Arthur’s hair is described in the script as black, but Georgiou knew that would be too dark. The stylist instead played with hairpieces to decide on the exact shape and length before reaching for the scissors to cut Phoenix’s actual hair. She then dyed it in a way that wasn’t distracting or wouldn’t get lost in the lighting designs by cinematographer Lawrence Sher. “Whatever you do for hair in real life, it always lights darker on film, so we wanted to go with his normal hair but a shade darker,” Georgiou says. Completing the style, she added grease and texture to make it look lived in. 

Bridges dressed Arthur in polyester, tying in an era-appropriate color palette. “I imagined if he ever did laundry, everything went into the washer at the same time. We made a kind of bad laundry feel to the clothing. It’s those subtle choices you can make for a character that inform the audience who they are and how they live,” says Bridges, who won Oscars for “Phantom Thread” and “The Artist.”

Arthur’s appearance as a classic clown needed a familiar yet unique style to deliver his working look at the beginning of the film, says Ledermann. “But we needed to create simple clown makeup that would not be compared with anyone else,” she adds. 

When Arthur transforms into Joker, his guise is driven by his past. “As Arthur progresses, we made little movements toward darker colors in his wardrobe right before he becomes Joker to echo what goes on emotionally for him in the story,” Bridges says.

Ultimately Bridges designed the Joker outfit as a 1970s-inspired maroon-colored suit that has a slightly longer line in the jacket while connecting subtleties in his previous life. “His clown waistcoat is his Joker’s vest. The clown tie becomes a necktie that he wears. Everything has a motivation, and it all comes out organically,” he says. 

For Joker’s iconic green hair, it was production designer Mark Friedberg who suggested what became the final look. “He said it should be a broccoli green,” says Georgiou. “Todd was all for it, and then it was a matter of what type of broccoli — organic broccoli, cheaper broccoli, freshly cut, older broccoli; there’s a plethora of broccoli greens out there.” Georgiou ended up taking several swatches and dying them different colors for Phillips to choose from.

Adding to the menacing persona is the makeup. “When he turns into Joker, that clown character he hides behind to make people laugh is gone and he’s completely crazy, but we had to relate the makeup between the clown and Joker,” says Ledermann. 

Joker’s white face is never pure in color and more matte than glossy. Blues and reds are tonally subdued, too. 

“We didn’t want the makeup to reflect in the light so that it could fit with the muted color palette, since nothing is shiny in this movie,” says Ledermann. “The colors are a bit antique-y, meaning they’re not pure but have some warmth. The blue is a mix of greens and teal. The red is a reddish-brown color that resembles blood. Even his slanted smile is a metaphor that everything is not perfect. Maybe it’s funny — maybe it’s not.” 

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