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A brief history of Jared Leto’s thirst for Joker publicity

We've been trapped in Jared Leto promotional hell for more than a year. Please send help.


Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Internet Culture

Posted on Aug 18, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 5:48 am CDT

Jared Leto‘s Joker could easily have been another forgettable blockbuster performance from a recent Oscar-winner, but no. He had to lead us on an 18-month rollercoaster of hype, promoting Suicide Squad as the most XXXTREME performance as his career—until the film came out, and he started complaining about being “tricked” into the role. 

Usually, it’s easy to feel sorry for actors who get screwed over by some uncontrollable aspect of the production process: bad wigs, brutal editing, unfair advertising. But after months of hearing about Jared Leto sending used condoms and bullets to his co-stars, we’re not feeling very sympathetic.

By the way, when we described this as an 18-month rollercoaster, we weren’t exaggerating. Suicide Squad‘s hype juggernaut has focused on Joker news for more than a year, and here’s the timeline to prove it.

December 2014

Jared Leto is cast as the Joker in Suicide Squad, nine months after winning an Academy Award for Dallas Buyers Club.

February 2015

In an interview with Billboard, Leto describes the Joker as a “nearly Shakespearean character” and a “beautiful disaster,” and talks about eating constantly to gain weight for the role. 

March 2015

Leto and director David Ayer start posting photos from the set, including Leto’s new clean-shaven appearance. Thousands of fans inspect Leto’s Snapchat for hints of Joker characterization.

April 2015

Warner Bros. releases a promotional image of the Joker, and everyone is like, “Seriously?” He has the word “damaged” tattooed across his forehead, showcasing a kind of mid-2000s emo Hot Topic aesthetic. A meme is born.

June 2015

Tales of Leto’s method acting begin to emerge. Scott Eastwood says he was “afraid to approach him” on set because he “didn’t want to mess with his thing going on.” Jai Courtney (Captain Boomerang) tells MTV he has never seen Leto out of character on set.

Adam Beach (Slipknot) reveals the now-infamous story of Leto giving Margot Robbie (Harley Quinna live rat as a “love letter.” Beach also mentions Leto giving cast members “a dead hog” and sending bullets to Will Smith (Deadshot). Describing Leto’s role on set, Beach says, “He encompasses this beautiful man and he shows it in, ‘Hello, how are you?,’ but in an instant, he goes to psychotic behavior where you’re in fear.”

Actor Ike Barinholtz later talks about someone throwing a dead pig on the table as a gift from “Mr. J” to “the Squad,” and then “all these bullets start to come out of it.”

Apparently, Suicide Squad has an on-set therapist.

July 2015

The first Suicide Squad trailer is a huge hit at Comic-Con.

August 2015

Margot Robbie praises Leto’s performance, especially his ability to inspire fear. “At first it was kind of confronting [to be up close] but now I’m so used to it.”

The Suicide Squad cast tattoo each other’s bodies with the word “SKWAD.” Except Will Smith, who is a 47-year-old multimillionaire movie star, and elected to not do that.

September 2015

“They’re going to lock me away in a box after this movie comes out,” Leto tells fans.

October 2015

“I’ve never actually met Jared Leto,” says Will Smith in a radio interview. “We worked together for six months and we’ve never exchanged a word outside of ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ I literally have not met him yet. So, the first time I see him will be ‘Hey, Jared. What’s up?’ He was all in on the Joker.” 

Leto describes his own performance as, “painful, like giving birth out of my prick-hole,” adding, “It was fun, playing those psychological games.” David Ayer describes his Joker as “scary” and “something transcendent.”

Speaking to Empire, Leto talks about listening to 1920s gospel music and reading about shamanism to prepare for the role. “I always get the sense that The Joker may be much older than people think,” he says. There is no sign of this in the eventual movie. 

January 2016

David Ayer praises Leto’s commitment, and admits that sometimes he was frightened of the Joker on set. He confirms that Leto’s method acting intentionally kept him separate from the other actors, which helped them bond as the Squad.

Leto’s method acting antics have now reached meme status, as people make fun of Leto and Ayer’s endless enthusiasm for edgy, PG-13 rated rebelliousness.

February 16, 2016

Director Guillermo del Toro tweets that he adopted the rat Leto gave to Margot Robbie. 

Stories about Leto’s weird gifts are still a staple of Suicide Squad coverage. Viola Davis says, “He gave some really horrific gifts. He had a henchman who would come into the rehearsal room. And the henchman came in with a dead pig and plopped it on the table.” 

April 2016

Leto tells EW that he met with “experts, doctors, psychiatrists that dealt with psychopaths and people who had committed horrendous crimes” as part of his research. He also says he sent anal beads and used condoms to “oh, everybody” in the cast.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaj (Killer Croc) says he received “sticky Playboy magazines,” which in any other workplace would be likely be grounds for a lawsuit. 

May 2016

Leto explains that he developed his Joker laugh by walking around the streets of Toronto and New York, laughing out loud until people seemed suitably freaked out by his creepiness. 

June 2016

Yahoo! publishes an account of a 2015 set visit where David Ayer talks about having the cast physically fight each other. “You learn a lot about who a person really is when you punch them in the face.” He also explains that the Joker’s tattoos illustrate a complex backstory, and Leto’s Joker is “working class.” He was partly inspired by “drug lords on Instagram.” 

People on set were instructed to refer to Jared Leto as Smiley or Mr. J, and the crew were used to him being in character 24/7.  “Sometimes he tried to terrify us,” said costume designer Rene Fontana. “But we’re strong women. He was growling at us, and we’d play back.”

August 2016

Suicide Squad is arguably the most anticipated blockbuster of the year. Released on Aug. 4, it is panned by critics but has a lucrative opening weekend. Reactions to Jared Leto’s Joker are mixed, but he certainly doesn’t inspire the same acclaim as Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson. There’s also no sign of the twisted rule-breaker Leto and Ayer described. He’s basically a gangster with strange fashion sense and an abusive attitude to his girlfriend, exhibiting fewer bizarre traits than Leto does in real life.

It’s also clear that a lot of his scenes were cut, to the extent that one fan tries to sue for “false advertising.”

Were there any [scenes] that didn’t get cut?” asks Leto, in an interview just one day after the film’s release. “I’m asking you, were there any that didn’t get cut?” A few days later he says that he probably filmed enough scenes for a Joker movie, but the filmmakers were “filtering for all the insanity,” possibly due to the desire for a PG-13 rating.

Which, at long last, brings us to the present day: Jared Leto reaching the “denial” part of the five stages of grief. At a 30 Seconds to Mars fan event this week, Leto reportedly said he felt “tricked into being a part of something that had been pitched to him very differently.” He also said that he hadn’t actually seen the film yet.

So far, none of his co-stars have expressed regret about starring in Suicide Squad, and have either emphasized the importance of fan reactions over critics, or stuck to positive PR responses. The rest of the cast are also very fond of taking selfies together without Jared Leto, presumably due to his “method” of behaving like a creep while everyone got on with their jobs. Audiences overwhelmingly prefer Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn.

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*First Published: Aug 18, 2016, 3:09 pm CDT