The Oscar-nominated actor’s extremely restrictive diet had to be supervised by a doctor.
Joker star Joaquin Phoenix is a favorite to win Best Actor at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards for his portrayal of the iconic antihero—but the role certainly came with its challenges. To make this version of the Joker legendary, Phoenix completely transformed his body and lost 52 pounds to get the troubled, perpetually laughing character of Arthur Fleck, who becomes the Joker over the course of the film, just right.
A few months before filming began, the 45-year-old actor read through the script and met with writer and director Todd Phillips. It was decided that he needed to “look hungry and unhealthy” to do the part justice.
Before undergoing an extremely restrictive diet, Phoenix met with a doctor to ensure his health wasn’t put at risk. “It’s something I’ve done before and you work with a doctor regimented and overseen and safe,” he told Access Hollywood. (In fact, he worked with the same doctor who helped him drop weight for 2012’s The Master, which also coincidentally earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.) Most of the process involved restricting calories in a short time span so that his character would appear malnourished, with his ribs and spine protruding.
Initially, Phillips was a bit nervous. “It was already like June and he hadn’t started [losing weight] and we start shooting in September,” he said. And he’s like, 180 pounds. He wasn’t fat but we’re talking about getting to 125 pounds.”
Rumors swirled that Phoenix ate only an apple a day to prep for the role, but he brushed that one off. “It wasn’t an apple a day. No, you’ve also got lettuce and steamed green beans,” he said.
However, in an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live last October, Phoenix admitted the process was “difficult” physically and even walking up flights of steps “takes like 30 seconds” to “talk yourself into it” (making his now-iconic stair dance scene even more meaningful).
He also explained that he obsessed over even tiny changes in figure. “So much of what’s difficult is waking up every day and being obsessed over, like, 0.3 pounds. Right? And you really develop a disorder,” he revealed to the Associated Press.
However, Phoenix said the weight loss also gave him a sense of control and the confidence to dig deep into the Joker’s persona.“I felt like I could move my body in ways that I hadn’t been able to before. And I think that really lent itself to some of the physical movement that started to emerge as an important part of the character,” he told the AP.
Still, speaking at the Venice Film Festival last August, Phoenix was clear about the ramifications of taking such extreme measures for Joker, which is nominated for a total of 11 Academy Awards. “As it turns out, that impacts your psychology,” he said, “and you really start to go mad when you lose that much weight in that amount of time.”