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Kyle Smith (Twitter: @rkylesmith) is critic-at-large for National Review, theater critic for The New Criterion and the author of the novels Love Monkey and A Christmas Caroline. Type a title in the box above to locate a review.

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    Did Playing the Joker Kill Heath Ledger?

    By kyle | January 23, 2008

    In a disturbing New York Times interview a few weeks ago, the late Heath Ledger said that the stress of playing the Joker–a psychopath with zero empathy–was interfering with his sleep. As he completed filming on “The Dark Knight” in London, he spoke of popping a couple of Ambien and still being able to sleep only an hour, suggesting that he might have felt the need to keep upping the dosage to dangerous levels.

    Warner Bros., which is running a chilling trailer of “The Dark Knight,” is going to have not just a marketing challenge but a creepy issue on its hands when the film comes out, and the Method actors’ ideal of hurling oneself utterly–mind, body and soul–into a role may come under some serious scrutiny.

    The Times interview contains another grim portent, too: Todd Haynes, who directed Ledger as an isotope of Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There,” compared Ledger to James Dean.

    “Dylan was completely inspired by James Dean, and Heath has a little bit of James Dean in him, even physically, a kind of precocious seriousness,” Mr. Haynes went on. “As adult actors seem more and more infantile and refusing to grow up, middle-aged guys with their baseball caps, Heath is one of those young people who have a real intuition, a maturity beyond their years.

    Topics: Movies | 17 Comments »

    17 Responses to “Did Playing the Joker Kill Heath Ledger?”

    1. jack Says:
      January 24th, 2008 at 2:24 pm

      If anything Ledger’s death, as sad as it is, will be a boost to the movies. After an artist’s death their works always become more popular and famous.

      As far as blaming Ledger’s addiction to Ambien because he played Joker in the movie, i mean does that really make any sense. Actors have to take drugs to get in a role? Somehow I don’t think it was playing Joker that got Ledger addicted to the drug. I’m certain the problem started way before that. Drugs and Hollywood aren’t usually too far apart from each other.

    2. jic Says:
      January 24th, 2008 at 4:02 pm

      “Somehow I don’t think it was playing Joker that got Ledger addicted to the drug. I’m certain the problem started way before that. Drugs and Hollywood aren’t usually too far apart from each other.”

      To the best of my knowledge, it has not been established at the time of writing that Ledger was addicted to or otherwise abusing drugs. Of course it’s a strong possibility in a case like this, but we should hold off from that kind of stuff until there is some sort of official report.

    3. jack Says:
      January 24th, 2008 at 10:28 pm

      Maybe your’e right, I have no evidence to prove you wrong but I’m just saying what common sense and logic would dictate, why would someone need to come on to drugs to play a part in a movie. I really have never heard of that before.

    4. jason Says:
      January 26th, 2008 at 4:00 am

      I’m not going to insinuate that Ledger died because of his role as Joker, but as far as a character following an actor past the production – I did some method acting in college, and I had to play a scene in which I found my best friend dead. I was far from a professional actor, and I asked the director how in the hell to even approach this situation. He asked me if I’d ever had something nearly as tragic occur in my life. Well, when I was 15 i was home alone with my uncle and woke up to find him overdosed on the couch, needle still in arm, dead. So in the scene, that was my inspiration. Mentally, I took myself back to that place; perhaps an even darker place than it had originally been because hindsight always is layered with more emotion. I cried driving home that day; I couldn’t sleep; every day I had to perform, using that, it tore me up. I spent a good 6 months dreaming of the situation. So, as I said, I’m not saying this is what killed Heath Ledger. But just know, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

    5. jester Says:
      January 26th, 2008 at 8:24 pm

      i Dont think heath had to take the drugs to get into the role…but after playing the joker,he had trouble sleeping,THEN he started taking Ambien to help him sleep…

    6. Lais Says:
      January 30th, 2008 at 5:47 pm

      I dont think that the joker is the cause of his death…I know is a really strong and difficult job…and could let him stressed..but…he always wanted make this character and it wouldnt take over him…because is a amazing job and everybody would like to do it!!!
      He wouldt die because of this…no way!

    7. John Says:
      February 7th, 2008 at 6:26 pm

      I think it’s pretty clear what happened… He was over worked, stressed and just mixed up his meds. I wouldn’t say that that the Joker’s twisted character messed with his head, but having that many projects on your hands and using method acting can take it’s toll. My question is; what doctor would put someone on that many controlled substances? The ME reported his death was the result of acute intoxication by the combined effect of 2 opioids, 3 benzos, and a sedating antihistamine, all prescription drugs.

    8. chris wolf Says:
      February 13th, 2008 at 9:31 pm

      I believe playing the Joker definitely contributed to Heath Ledger’s demise. For one thing Ledger was a young, professionally untrained actor who had talent but no experience playing “dark” demonic roles. He should have consulted with Jack Nicholson and other actors who were seasoned at playing these negative characters, but he chose instead to handle the role without their advice. Acting can definitely pose psychological problems that show up at night in nightmares, anxiety and insomnia. These problems can be so strong that even potent sleeping pills can’t silence them. I only wish Heath Ledger had used restraint and better judgment with regard to the Joker role.

    9. amanda Says:
      August 11th, 2008 at 12:26 am

      first of all. heath ledger may be the greatest actor ever.

      and i think that playing the joker has a part in his death, but i think that alot of the stress was from missing his daughter.

      but, i also think that he played a complete physco.
      the joker was a crazy maniac who laughed no matter how much he got punched or kicked. and that movie was really long too.

      so he played that crazy freaky dude for a long time.

      for me, just looking at that was kimda scary, so imagine being that.
      even if it wasnt real, that could really mess up a persons mind.
      and he was REALLY into that character, that was the best acting ive ever seen in my life, he WAS the joker.
      so really. i think that he also took sleeping pills because he wanted to get away from ”the joker”

      rest in peace heath, you were great.

    10. gayan Says:
      February 23rd, 2009 at 4:28 pm

      .heath’s portrayl of the joker may b the best performance by an actor ever.and i think that the joker role caused his death

    11. gayan Says:
      February 24th, 2009 at 5:08 pm

      wow! ledger won the best supporting actor award at 81st academy awards.i knew he’d win an oscar even before the nominees were announced

    12. Saphira Says:
      January 19th, 2012 at 3:11 pm

      The first time I watched The Dark Knight, The Joker scared me. A lot. Heath’s performance is dark, demonic, twisted and utterly, utterly brilliant.
      Reading up on all of this, I do believe that The Joker had some part in his death. Plus the fact he was a method actor, and spent about 6 weeks in seclusion with nothing but plenty of comics on the Joker.
      I would love to know what was really going on through his head. rest in peace heath, you were incredible.

    13. deanbaxendale Says:
      April 29th, 2012 at 9:01 am

      Heath did inquire to Jack Nicholson about the Joker role, didn’t he?

    14. lakes Says:
      June 18th, 2012 at 11:14 pm

      We all know method actors completely emerse themselves within the lifestyle and mindset of the character they are portraying.
      As Jason pointed out back in 2008 – techniques are often adopted which can take the actor to a painful place in their own history, which they must then draw upon to help adjust their mindset and general demeanour, before fully understanding a character and its motivation.
      This must take its toll when playing say, a war veteran who has seen atrocities on the field of battle, or a sex pervert (?!), but how one would go about altering their persona to the extremes of a comic-book arch rival? 
      This is quite literally the personification of evil. 
      A character dreamt up many years ago, two-dimensionally at first I would imagine, as just plain evil for the sake of it. 
      Over the years the role has been further developed in the comic books, and on screen, to an unrealistic almost impossable portrayal of a grievous, diabolical monster.
      I cannot imagine the level of torment required to sustain this role over a period of weeks.. and to say that (in my opinion) Ledgers performance of The Joker far outshone Jack Nicholsons excellent reprisal of the role says much to me. Especially as the latter is considered one of the greatest method actors of all time.
      I would go as far as suggesting that Ledgers Joker was as twisted and meniacal, or even more so than Nicholsons lead in ‘The Shining’. Whether it’s a better performance is not for me to say. The people in this thread talking of ‘the best acting they’ve ever seen’ should consider Nicholson in The Shining, he is fucking fantastic.

      With or without guidance from a pro, I find it entirely believable that the role alone could cause enough stress and turmoil to cause extreme sleep deprivation, leading to the use of those eventually fateful drugs. This combined with other stresses and the poor decisions made by the physician would likely have all contributed though, so it’s hard to say its any one thing. I would suggest a combination of terrible circumstances which lead to the untimely death of an amazing talent.
      Were any charges bought against the physician, in a similar vein to those bought against Michael Jackson’s (ex)physician?

    15. jim raynor Says:
      July 21st, 2012 at 7:51 am

      Despite of fact that to being a great actor why a person needs a reputation for a cause to kill himself without taking his own time. Rather than that drug might be another option but instead of putting a harsh circumstance why federal authorities are hiding the information of a psychopath suicide than a murder by any cause. A fictitious role of being a villain is an offer but not like a deprivation or kind of madness. Mr. Bale already committed that ledger never revived him from the role of a mad joker so indirectly he is blaming the casting the director for being an irrational pervert or might be possible that ledger’s family decided to retain the untimely death of their loving son.

    16. girl Says:
      February 1st, 2014 at 1:04 pm

      Its all about method..

    17. Amy Wight Says:
      March 14th, 2014 at 2:36 am

      Hello, I am doing some research on Method Acting for my Extended Project (A-Level) and I was wondering if any of you would be willing to answer a few questions on the impacts of Method Acting to you. I am currently studying drama and have interviewed a few people in my class already, but I would love to broaden my findings. I know this type of subject can be very sensitive in certain cases and so I understand if many are not willing to do it, I’d be most grateful for anyone who wishes to participate though.

      If you are interested, here is my email.