Heath Ledger’s Joker Was Uncannily Like This Video of Tom Waits

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 30 2012 2:42 PM

Was Heath Ledger’s Joker Inspired by Tom Waits?

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Tom Waits performs in New York City in 2005.

Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images

Just as The Dark Knight Rises led its second weekend at the box office last weekend, new speculation arose surrounding the inspiration for Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in the last Batman film. Batfans have been stunned to discover this 30-year-old Australian interview with chameleonic rocker Tom Waits on The Don Lane Show. While Waits doesn’t sport any scars or lipstick, there’s no denying that his voice sounds uncannily like that of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (skip to about 1:30 for the interview):

Even Waits’ hunched-over, lopsided posture brings to mind The Joker’s.

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So could Ledger have been inspired by Tom Waits? Some have pointed out that Ledger and Waits both starred in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, in Ledger’s last starring role. However, Parnassus was filmed in December 2007, after The Dark Knight had finished filming, and it seems unclear whether the two men ever met. This rare video, similarly, wasn’t uploaded to YouTube until December 2008, so Ledger would have had to have seen it elsewhere, such as on a fan bootleg. (Waits is well-known for giving bizarre, almost surreal interviews—just look at the interview he did last fall with Brow Beat—but his manner in this particular TV interview seems to be one of a kind.)

Such an inspiration wouldn’t be unprecedented, however. Johnny Depp famously based his portrayal of Jack Sparrow in large part on Keith Richards, a fact acknowledged by Richards' cameo in the sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. And it wouldn’t take away any of the genius of Ledger’s characterization, either, if this were confirmed as an inspiration. After all, Ledger’s performance goes far beyond this one peculiar voice—think of his duck-footed walk, the way he licks his lips, and even the way he drops unexpectedly into a growl (“Why so serious?”), not to mention his timing and intensity and all the other aspects that make up an actor’s performance.

I’ve reached out to Waits through his publicist, and will update as soon as I get a response.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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