Jared Leto’s portrayal of The Joker in Suicide Squad is a hollow creation. It’s not a character as much as a collection of vocal mannerisms and facial tics, a candy shell that looks like The Joker rather than an informed representation of the character.
It would be perversely amusing if not for the way that Leto treated his co-stars while crafting his flaccid performance. Under the guise of method acting, Jared Leto interpreted his role as a license to behave like an asshole, sending inappropriate ‘gifts’ to co-stars and generally making everyone feel uncomfortable. His antics were so extreme that they almost overshadowed the equally troubling choices of director David Ayer. Both Ayer and Leto exposed co-workers to potential harm, terrorizing the cast with everything from fist fights, drugs, and police interrogations (Ayer) to unwrapped condoms and much worse. (Leto).
All of which is to say that it seems like a good time to talk about method acting. While Leto has rightfully been the subject of derision, there’s an unsettling undercurrent to the mockery of his performance, which began long before anyone had seen Suicide Squad and which seems to suggest that Leto’s behavior would be more tolerable in a more ambitious movie. We’re so used to lavishing awards on method actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Dustin Hoffman that we seldom question men behaving badly as long as they’re behaving badly in service of their art.
I don’t like that implication for a couple of reasons. First of all, it suggests that comic movies are a lesser form of cinema, which simply isn’t the case. More importantly, it divorces the end result from the means taken to get there. Had Suicide Squad been good, fans and media would have justified Leto’s behavior as the sacrifice needed to produce great art. Instead, Suicide Squad turned out to be a disaster, a bizarrely circular film that keeps talking about itself in the hopes that it will turn into something interesting. There are too many characters, none of them have arcs, and the plot doesn’t have an inciting incident.
The point is that the performance doesn’t matter because intrusive method acting is unacceptable regardless of the quality or genre of the film. There is never a valid reason to violate someone else’s boundaries without consent, and that’s as true in the arts as it is in society. When I studied theatre tech, the one inviolable rule was that you never do anything that jeopardizes the safety of any member of the cast or crew. People have the right to live their lives as they see fit, which is why no work of art is more important than the physical and mental health of another human being.
Then again, I’m not convinced that Leto qualifies as a method actor, and I think his approach helps explain why Suicide Squad is a bad movie. Yes, he used a lot of method techniques and talked about them at length. But the method approach is a tool that was designed for a very specific purpose. The method helps an actor understand a character’s inner life and motivations, and that understanding in turn leads to a better performance on the stage or screen. The end goal is the performance – the part that the audience actually sees – which is noteworthy because it serves as a reminder that every individual performance needs to fit with the rest of the ensemble.
Leto doesn’t seem to grasp the second part of that equation. Cinema is a collaborative art form, which means that everyone needs to perform at a high level in order to create a cohesive product. Abusing co-workers is counterproductive because it destabilizes the working relationship and fosters an environment in which people feel unsafe. A method actor may choose to make personal sacrifices, but not everyone will make that choice – though highly praised, the late Heath Ledger’s self-destructive Joker is a cautionary tale about the dangers of taking the method too far – so the basic rules of human decency still apply. You need to have an implicit recognition and respect for other people’s boundaries.
Phrased differently, Daniel Day-Lewis being moody and aloof but otherwise functional is not the same as Jared Leto being a belligerent dick, and method acting is no longer useful when it interferes with the work of everyone else. You need to be able to talk to your co-workers to negotiate the practical logistics of making a movie. You can’t contribute to the creative process if you can’t have a constructive conversation with the people around you (multiple co–stars have said that they never met Leto on set because he refused to break character).
I’d therefore argue that Suicide Squad is bad because Leto and Ayer conflated the surface of method acting with the substance. Do No Harm is a good rule in pretty much every walk of life, but it’s particularly useful in the arts because it helps you avoid needlessly dangerous situations and refocus on the things that matter. Art is fundamentally a form of communication about the human experience. What are you trying to say, and why do you need to say it?
In most cases, that thematic core can be expressed without much in the way of spectacle. In the real world, no one has superpowers, but we still experience triumph and heartbreak and overcome adversity. Superhero movies splash those narratives across a bigger screen, but the emotional truths that allow them to resonate remain relatively grounded.
The key is that artists always need to be asking ‘why.’ Stunts can be fun and looking for an adrenaline rush is fine as long as everyone understands the risks, but doing something dangerous is foolish if you don’t know why you’re doing it. It’s not bold or daring or provocatively transgressive. It’s moronic and narrow-minded, like jumping down an open elevator shaft and then claiming you didn’t know you were allowed to take the stairs.
It’s also cruel if you’re throwing other people down that elevator shaft without asking for permission. Leto tormented people on set but The Joker that shows up in the movie is devoid of personality, which indicates that Leto was so preoccupied with the idea of being The Joker that never stopped to think about how that character would translate to the screen. Since that’s more or less the only function of cinematic acting, it’s hard to interpret his performance as anything but a failure.
David Ayer, meanwhile, loved Leto’s performance and seems to have fallen into a similar trap as the director. He invested so much time and energy in gritty ice breakers that he lost sight of their intended purpose, making his cast members fight each other when he would have been better served making re-writes to his script. Suicide Squad has a few cool scenes because Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Viola Davis all pull their weight as movie stars and it’s a pleasure to watch them work. Sadly, you’re left wishing they they had dialogue worthy of their time.
It’s ultimately telling that Smith and Davis give excellent performances without resorting to Leto’s antics. As the cast’s elder statesmen, they showed up to work, listened to those around them, and handled their business like professionals because good actors can pretend to be someone else without losing sight of themselves and their responsibilities. To call what Leto did ‘acting’ diminishes the craft because it overlooks the importance of communication.
Suicide Squad plays like a movie in which method interfered with basic function. Whether you’re an actor, an executive, a director, or a plumber, there is never a good excuse to mistreat people in a professional setting. If you ever feel like you need to be an asshole in order to do your job, then it should damn well be a sign that it’s time to rethink your method.