Arthur Fleck is different. This is evident in the first five seconds of “Joker,” as tears drip down the clown for hire’s painted face. Fleck, played by actor Joaquin Phoenix, is of course, on his way to becoming Joker, the infamous DC Comics Batman villain.
Fleck’s chilly laugh — the result of a neurological disorder likely caused by beatings as a child — is a window into his unrelenting grief. He tells his mother, who nicknamed him Happy, that he hasn’t been “happy” one day out of his entire life.
Fellow actors have praised Phoenix’s performance. “It’s one of the greatest pieces of acting that I’ve ever seen,” Jessica Chastain recently Tweeted. “Mouth was dropped open in the theatre as it played. It left me shook.”
But the film has also been highly criticized for its portrayal of mental illness and violence when violent hate crimes committed by mentally ill (and mostly white) men are at an all-time high. But despite the backlash, it won big at the box office, bringing in the largest numbers for an October release in movie history. Phoenix and director Todd Phillips are reportedly now in discussions for a sequel after the film earned more than $1 billion.
Despite the controversies, Phoenix’s performance is earning him Oscar nods. Should Phoenix win the Best Actor Academy Award — which many say is likey — he could use that national stage to address animal rights, similar to Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 Best Actor acceptance speech for “The Revenant.” The actor and environmental activist spoke out against climate change and the urgent need for global leaders to take action.
A Platform for Animals
As Phoenix continues to dominate the spotlight, the longtime vegan appears to be using his platform for animals every chance he gets.
In a recent PETA campaign that hit both New York City and Los Angeles, Phoenix calls for an end to speciesism in an image that has him eye-to-eye with a chicken.
Just hours before receiving the Tribute Actor Award at the Toronto Film Festival, he led a protest at the St. George Subway Transit Station. He spoke to reporters outside the station calling for an end to animal suffering while praising the work of activists.
Along with his fiance and fellow vegan actor Rooney Mara, Phoenix has been spotted at a number of animal rights events. The two led a mock funeral procession at LA’s Animal Rights Day last spring. And both were spotted at a recent pig vigil in downtown Los Angeles. While awaiting their fate outside the slaughterhouse, pigs are offered water and comfort by the throngs of activists, including Phoenix and Mara, hovering around the trucks.
Phoenix also made his way around Los Angeles for a number of “Joker” premieres. He appeared clad in an Animal Liberation Front sweatshirt. Made up of activists rescuing and exposing animal cruelty, the faceless organization often breaks the law to do so.
Phoenix also executive produced “The Animal People,” a documentary that just premiered at the Austin Film Festival. He’s not new to animal rights documentaries. He narrated two — 2005’s “Earthlings” and 2019’s “Dominion.”
In a recent video for Brut, Phoenix explained how he came to veganism. “Me and my siblings witnessed fish being killed in a really violent and aggressive way,” he recalled. “It was just absolutely obvious that it was something that we didn’t want to participate in and we didn’t want to support. To me, it just seems obvious. I don’t want to cause pain to another living empathetic creature.”
He called the livestock industry “absurd and barbaric,” for fattening animals up just to be slaughtered.
Vegan Goes Mainstream
Phoenix’s timing couldn’t be more fitting. Demand for vegan food is skyrocketing. All of the leading fast-food outfits: Dunkin’, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, and KFC have hopped on board recently, too.
Burger King has seen sales spike since it added the Impossible Whopper to its menus in April. The burger is made from the vegan Impossible Foods patty. McDonald’s has been adding vegan items to menus in Europe, Israel, and most recently the Beyond Meat Burger joined its menu in Canada.
Just this month, Wendy’s launched its own vegan burger option in Canada.
Dunkin’ recently launched a breakfast sandwich made with Beyond Meat’s vegan sausage. It partnered with rapper and Beyond Meat fan Snoop Dogg in a publicity promotion for the new sausages.
KFC’s recent vegan chicken trial in Atlanta — also a Beyond Meat product — had customers lined up around the block for hours. Most of them weren’t vegan customers, either.
That’s where the biggest shift is happening — meat-eaters are still eating meat, but they’re eating much less of it. They’re diversifying their protein like many have embraced plant-based milk options. Polls show eating healthy is often the top choice for the shift, but many are doing it to reduce their carbon footprint, too. But when it comes to ethics — should we or shouldn’t we kill animals for food — the lines get murkier.
Becoming an Ethical Vegan
In a recent podcast interview with Joe Rogan, comedian Penn Jillette explained how going vegan for his health turned him vegan for the animals.
The magician insisted that at first, he was an “unethical” vegan — removing animals from his diet purely for health reasons.
He claims though that after a few months of eating clean, the gut bacteria changed in his body. And that led to a shift in perspective, too.
“I just found a real emotional change. All of a sudden I went, ‘I don’t want to be a part of that suffering.’ It was really strange how that changed.”
Filmmaker Kevin Smith had a similar change of heart. Smith says his inspiration to go vegan came after reading Jillette’s book (“Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales”). Like Jillette, Smith went vegan for his health after suffering a massive heart attack. His daughter, the actress Harley Quinn Smith, is a longtime ethical vegan. But after Smith’s shift for his health, he, too, found he could no longer look at animals with the same disregard. Last year he appeared in a video for animal rescue group Farm Sanctuary. Along with his daughter and some rescue turkeys, Smith encourages his fans to skip the traditional Thanksgiving meal.
For Phoenix, animal suffering has always been front and center.
“I don’t understand how you could witness [animal slaughter] and not be affected by it,” Phoenix said in that Brut video. “[I]t’s just, it’s my life and always has been my life and it’s really one of the most important things to me.”
Could his unwavering ethics have a similar effect on his fans? Can he pique a global “vegan-curious” movement? One thing’s for sure — when it comes to animal rights, for Phoenix, there’s no joking around.