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Joker 2019

Tears of a clown: Nicki Ledermann on making up Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker look


TextKristen Bateman

The make-up artist talks us through creating the original Joker’s iconic make-up, her unconventional methods and why she enjoyed every second of working with Joaquin

Ever since the latest Joker movie was released earlier this month, it seems that almost everyone has been talking about the controversial film. From Jared Leto claiming he tried to stop the production to reports of Joker being on its way of top-grossing R-rated film of all time, there’s no denying it’s been a hot topic. 

Along with that, the film is definitely one to watch for the make-up transformations seen on actor Joaquin Phoenix, who stars as the chilling clown. Using MAC Cosmetics, make-up artist Nicki Ledermann created several different iterations of Phoenix’s character, including everything from the iconic smeared lipstick to runny red eyebrows. “My task was to make sure not to copy any of the past Jokers,” Ledermann explains. “He was to be the original, realistic, not a superhero in a world of superpowers. I wanted it to be simple and the make-up to be organic. It needed to be messy and cool like Heath Ledger’s, classic like Nicholson and Romero but not campy, and touching and sad like the inspiration of Batman: The Man Who Laughs.” 

We sat down with Ledermann to learn more about how she transformed Phoenix, the key products used and the stories behind the different Joker make-up looks.

Can you walk us through the different Joker looks and the inspiration?

Nicki Ledermann: The director showed me a picture of a mock-up design that I used as a guideline for the placement, the right tone of colours, symmetries and asymmetries and the changing textures of the final design. I created versions to build the arch of the character, from Arthur Fleck’s working clown to beat-up clown, and then a spin-off of that working clown design evolving into Joker all the way through to the resurrection with the smeared bloody Joker smile finale. 

The working clown is classic vintage clown make-up – white face, big brown-red (rather than bright red) lips with a black outline, teal blue triangles above and below the eye and red matching eyebrows all in perfect symmetry, with a prop clown nose as the finishing touch. Joker, compared to the working clown, is not symmetric – everything from the uneven teal blue triangles, to the crooked red mouth without the black outline, to the asymmetrical eyebrows, and a painted-on red nose was sloppily but purposefully painted on to convey the insanity.

Which products did you use?

Nicki Ledermann: The main products I used for Joker and all the clowns were the MAC Chromacakes in Cyan, Pure White, Basic Red, Landscape Green and Black Black. I mixed a bit of the Landscape Green into the Cyan for the eyes and a touch of Black Black into the Basic Red. I also used Siân Richards 4K Longwear Creme palette and mixed the colours to match the MAC Chromacake colours. It was imperative to use products of superior quality for speed, flexibility and accuracy.

How long did the make-up looks take to apply? 

Nicki Ledermann: It took an average of 15-20 minutes to apply the make-up, partly because it was hard for Joaquin to sit still but also because I didn’t want it to look too precisely thought out. I had to be able to manipulate the make-up. To take it off and redo it fast after every take, matching it perfectly to the prior take, or to smear it during the take, then fix it in between, or to make it appear to smear but actually stay put without smudging during the take. To achieve this, I used and mixed different products to match the texture and colours exactly, freehand the placement and not interrupt the speedy pace and incredible intensity of filming, so it would look fluent and authentic. The hardest part of all was nailing continuity – when you film a movie, you don't shoot in scene order. One day you film a scene that is being continued days or weeks later and you have to match it exactly frame to frame. Because everything was freehand, it took a lot of record-keeping and solid painting skills to match and progress it.

“Before we started filming, I worked with Joaquin for a bunch of days applying make-up and playing with colours and textures until we both felt we got it and got Todd’s blessing. Joaquin was definitely my driving force and inspiration” – Nicki Ledermann

What was the collaboration process like? 

Nicki Ledermann: I truly believe that the reason this movie is so good and successful is because of the perfect collaboration all around between directing, acting, costume, hair, make-up, cinematography and production design. All of these departments worked extremely close and well together, always cross-referencing colour palettes, textures, tones, vibes and mood. I was grateful and in awe of all the talent and respect for each other to work together as a whole. 

How many iterations did you do before you knew you had arrived at the final perfected Joker look?

Nicki Ledermann: Before we started filming, I worked with Joaquin for a bunch of days applying make-up and playing with colours and textures until we both felt we got it and got Todd’s blessing. Joaquin was definitely my driving force and inspiration. Once I earned his trust, he could focus on his work while I got to control the make-up application process, and the brilliant Kay Georgiou magically transformed Arthur Fleck’s hair into Joker’s famous green do.

What was the biggest challenge of having to transform someone into the Joker character?

Nicki Ledermann: Not overthinking it and letting your creative instinct and skill guide you to achieve the design organically. Ultimately, it is the actor who will transform the make-up successfully onto the screen, it has to come from within or even the best make-up won’t work. Joaquin has nailed it like no-one else, he truly is one of the best actors of our lifetime. I have so much admiration and respect for him, and I enjoyed every second of working with him.

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