The Acting Joke: Jared Leto’s Joker And White Male Privilege

Don't tell me Viola Davis would have gotten away with this behavior.

In an interview with Good Morning America, Jared Leto said that playing the Joker in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie was “the most fun I think I’ve ever had.”

Oh boy.

Yup, it’s that lady again, writing to renew my concerns about the worship of Jared Leto.  Suicide Squad is out in theatres now, so I have the entire run-up to examine.  Let’s look at the facts.

Jared Leto has been proclaimed a METHOD ACTOR, refusing to break character on set.  He’s well known for doing this in Dallas Buyers Club, maintaining his character as a ‘trans woman,’ (I say this with scare quotes), despite complaining about having to shave his legs in interviews.

Well, we could debate the virtues of Method acting all day [1].  But I need to get to the point, because I’m sure some of you are already on team tl;dr[2] here.  The point is, Method acting sure can lead to a lot of inconvenience, as in the case of Daniel Day-Lewis [3], or self-destruction, as in the case of our dear departed Heath Ledger, a proper Joker, may flights of angels sing him to his rest [4].  But Jared Leto seems to have turned this vaunted professional tool into a weapon.

By now you’ve heard the stories.  It would be difficult not to hear them.  Leto again refused to break character on the set of Suicide Squad, insisting all his fellow cast members call him “Mr. J” and sending them horrifying “gifts” such as live and dead animals, used condoms, and…anal beads?  Not sure where he was going with that one.

Leto took on the role with nye-masturbatory levels of seriousness, telling Entertainment Weekly, “He became a real person. I don’t know if person is the right word.  I think the Joker lives in between reality and another plane.  Kind of a shaman in a way.”  In that old actor’s cliche, he called his work “a transformative process.”  I’ll try not to roll my eyes as we proceed.

This “shaman” treated his fellow cast members with a combination of harassment and withholding, traditionally abusive behaviors.  Early in rehearsals, he had his henchman (yes, he hired henchman) deliver a dead pig onto the reading table where his fellow cast members worked (he refused to work with them, always rehearsing separately).  Most disturbingly from my perspective, he sent Margo Robbie a live rat (along with a love note).  The “gifting” of unwanted live animals is…definitely a form of animal abuse.  Luckily, not every cast member was in character at all times, so the animal was cared for [5].

But oh, it gets weirder.  Refusing to keep his madness on set, Leto sent boxes of bullets to Will Smith and Viola Davis at their private residences.  Smith and Davis both expressed fear responses to these “gifts;” in a Vanity Fair interview, Davis’ first reaction to the mention of Suicide Squad was to say, “He did some bad things, Jared Leto did.  He gave some really horrific gifts.”  Davis was “terrified” by Leto on the set, she admits.  How much more terrifying, then, did things get when Leto started sending used condoms—or, in the case of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who plays Killer Croc, sticky Playboy magazines—to his co-stars? [6].

In an excellent column, screenwriter Danny Bowes calls Leto’s on-set behavior both “sexual assault” and “the nadir of misunderstanding about what Method acting is.”  I don’t want to quote too much, as you should definitely go read the column, but I do want to point out one great observation he makes: “Following a process that focuses exclusively on the self, Method actors are at risk of forgetting that other actors exist in a given piece and that their individual personal journey is not necessarily the raison d’etre of that piece.”

Reviews of the Suicide Squad film, our own among them, have pointed out that Leto’s Joker is barely involved.  True to the pattern of narcissism Leto has shown throughout this process, he whined copiously about how little he appeared on screen, wondering, “were there any [scenes featuring the Joker] that didn’t get cut?”

Guys, we need to get real here.  I don’t admire Method acting, but I have to agree with Bowes that what Leto is doing here isn’t even that.  It’s simply narcissistic, attention-seeking, manipulative, and controlling behavior, heavily featuring sexual assault and animal abuse.  Leto said it himself: “The point was to get a reaction, to manipulate, to maybe inspire some chaos and insanity on the set.”  Well, at least he copped to it this time.

Since we’re talking about narcissism here, back to me for a second.  As I hinted above, I accidentally got Z-list Internet famous about a year ago for writing about several former fans’ accusations of sexual assault and misconduct against Leto—accusations never made formally, but carefully spread around in forums where other fans would see them and hopefully be warned.  It’s not supposed to be about me, but I am going to repeat what I said then, because it’s the message I’m still trying desperately to get out: “Talent, male genitalia, and white skin should not be get-out-of-jail-free cards for abuse.”

I’m not wholeheartedly criticizing our culture of celebrity worship here.  I genuinely enjoy it, study it, profit off of it.  It’s part of who we are in this age.  But I do feel, strongly, that we should pay attention to whom we worship and why.  Jared Leto may deserve our pity for the way toxic masculinity and white male privilege have warped his mind, but he does not deserve our defense, our admiration, or our money.  Stop it, guys.  Just stop.


[1] As someone with a theatre degree, I have my opinions about Method acting.  For full disclosure, I should let you know that I’m not a fan.  I feel that it inconveniences one’s director, crew, and fellow cast members, as well as one’s family and friends, only to produce a performance that can easily be matched by skilled ‘artificial’ acting.  Actually, I see it as cheating—are you really acting if you “become” the character?  But these are my personal gripes, and I try not to let them get in the way here.

[2] tl;dr (adj.): old, old internet speak for “too long; did not read.”

[3] For his (admittedly excellent) performance as Proctor in the movie version of The Crucible, Day-Lewis went months without bathing or brushing his teeth.  I might put this in the category of “passive” or “harmless” Method acting, except that he was married at the time and, regardless, poor Winona Ryder had to kiss him on set.  At any rate, someone should have told the man that seventeenth-century Europeans did take baths, though infrequently, and had methods of cleaning their teeth (twigs, my friends.  Twigs).

[4] In late interviews, Ledger seems to have attributed the prescription drug addiction that eventually killed him to psychological disturbances brought on by delving deeply into the psyche of his Joker.

[5] The rat, called Venustiano, was adored by the actors on set and eventually adopted by Guillermo del Toro.

[6] Apparently Leto’s method acting does not extend to actual suicidal behavior, since he did not offer the used condom ‘gifts’ to Davis, whose professionalism and indelible toughness would no doubt have spurred her to put an end to such nonsense.  In fact, she threatened to send her (apparently physically formidable) husband after Leto if he did so.

Correction: In a comment above, I specify “male genitalia” as an aspect of male privilege.  This is a transphobic association, and I should instead have specified “cisgender masculinity.”  Apologies for the mistake.

Daughter of a high school English teacher and an English professor, Evangeline is working on her PhD, also in English. She has one fat cat and a lot of feelings.
One Comment

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  • Ian
    10 August 2016 at 6:30 am

    Do you have a source for the Heath Ledger interviews you refer to? By all accounts from his directors, fellow actors, and Michelle Williams, he was perfectly happy and sociable working on The Dark Knight, described it as the most fun he’d ever had working on a character, and had insomnia/anxiety problems long before taking on the role. The idea that playing the Joker drove him over the edge has been dismissed as nonsense many times.

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