NEW YORK — After a week-long media circus surrounding the grand jury that may soon indict former president Donald Trump, the fake news finally arrived.
The former president had called on social media for his followers to “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK” and warned of “death and destruction” if he was indicted. But the 700 extras playing pro- or anti-Joker demonstrators over two days of the movie shoot easily outnumbered the pro-Trump supporters who’d shown up over the entire week, by a factor of nearly 30 to 1.
“That’s New York, baby, always trying to outdo itself,” said an NYPD officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, about the juxtaposition of Joker’s fictional trial and Trump’s real-life grand jury. Because everyone’s a cinephile, the officer also remarked on the “strong Scorsese energy” of the “Joker 2” shoot.
The weekend scene looked much like it had on weekdays, but bigger, with wide-angle cameras on cranes, smoke machines and 1980s police cars. Colorful broadcast vans for Gotham’s local TV news were parked in spaces that vans for CNN and NBC had occupied just 24 hours earlier. Gone was the scrum of cameras trying to snap Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg as he went to work. Now, photographers, paparazzi and NYU students with long lenses were jostling to get a money shot of Lady Gaga revealing her red, white, black and extremely blond steampunk look as Harley Quinn — the psychiatrist who falls in love with Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker and becomes his criminal partner — for the first time. There were far more extras playing Gotham City police officers in riot gear or on horseback than actual NYPD officers helping control the set.
Here’s @ladygaga shooting a scene where Harley Quinn heads to the courthouse amid pro- and anti-Joker protesters. She only raised her fist like that once, on the first take, but we LOVED it. I believe this was first time she’d revealed her costume. pic.twitter.com/egBDaQSqIk— Jada Yuan (@jadabird) March 27, 2023
The 2019 “Joker” earned 11 Oscar nominations, with Phoenix winning best actor, while becoming the first R-rated movie to rake in $1 billion worldwide. Detractors said that director Todd Phillips imbued the film with sympathy to MAGA culture. The new “Joker: Folie à Deux” (code-named “Juliet” on the fliers that claimed all the parking on seven downtown streets) is a “musical thriller” focusing on Gaga’s Quinn. Fans of the singer, following Instagram and TikTok accounts tracking her whereabouts, took hour-long subway rides from as far as Queens on a frigid, rainy Saturday to watch her run up the steps of the state Supreme Court amid a raucous crowd of Joker supporters and haters. And then repeat that scene 30 times.
“It was wild. People were getting knocked around. A lot of scrambling. Visually it looks like January 6th,” said William Mersey, 72, a “Joker 2” extra, about the mob scenes at that magnificent granite courthouse, which has enormous Roman columns and a huge set of stairs, not unlike the U.S. Capitol. (Don Barzini was assassinated on those steps in “The Godfather.”) At times, the extras were so into screaming at each other and pretending to protest that Phillips had to yell “Cut!” for half a minute straight before they’d stop.
Mersey was dressed as a media photographer from 1983, and is an actual freelance reporter. (Other extras were divided into punk-like pro-Joker fans, with clown makeup and clown masks, and anti-Joker elites in tan trench coats and twee scarves and hats.) Mersey spent a year at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, also in the neighborhood, with Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, as his cellmate while they were both locked up for tax fraud at the same time Jeffrey Epstein was there. “This is art imitating life, if you’re thinking about January 6th, or maybe it’s predicting life, if you’re looking forward to prospective Trump indictments,” Mersey said. “I hope they nail him on everything.”
Although the Trump grand jury’s movements have been a “Waiting for Godot”-type speculation game for the media, Bragg is expected to present more evidence Monday, with the jury perhaps reaching a decision in the coming days.
The “Joker 2” shoot has been in the works since September, and it just so happened that the big scene outside the courthouses coincided with Trump’s grand jury. Although the film crew has been working with court personnel to coordinate logistics, they found out about the conflict at the same time the public did. “We couldn’t have picked a better time,” said a member of production who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media.
The NYPD and Secret Service have been on high alert since Trump’s call to protest earlier this month, when he predicted that, “THE FAR & AWAY LEADING REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE AND FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK.” (So far, that has not happened.) Although he was famously banned from Twitter, Trump’s post was unmistakably reminiscent of his tweets encouraging supporters to demonstrate on Jan. 6, 2021: “Be there, will be wild!”
Trump’s courthouse demonstrations did not get off to an auspicious start. On March 20, only around 25 supporters showed up to a protest that the New York Young Republican Club said had a low turnout by design. Members were afraid of getting arrested like for Jan. 6, said the club’s president, Gavin Wax, 29, “so we sacrificed size for peace of mind.” The next day, a Trump supporter wearing a bandanna over his face was filmed accusing a man who’d worn elk horns and American flag face paint, in an homage to Jan. 6 rioter Jacob “QAnon Shaman” Chansley, of being a Democratic plant. By Wednesday, the turnout dwindled to just one Trump supporter pacing up and down the bike lane with a megaphone.
The waiting game was punctured by viral AI-generated images of Trump in vivid scenes of arrest and imprisonment. The possible unprecedented indictment of a former president has also been heightened by Trump’s two other imminent legal threats, in Florida and Georgia, related to classified material he stored at his Mar-a-Lago estate and his efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election.
On Saturday, as the movie filmed in New York, Trump was holding the first mega-rally of his 2024 campaign in Waco, Tex., which he — believe it or not — turned into a musical, with a choir of Jan. 6 prisoners singing the national anthem and a song called “Justice for All.” A case of life imitating art?
Trump is, as he said, far and away leading his closest GOP rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in the polls. At the rally, Trump called his former ally disloyal and said he was “dropping like a rock.” The governor, who has not officially declared his candidacy, only weighed in on Trump’s possible indictment by labeling Bragg as “Soros-funded.” (Tying Democratic candidates to billionaire George Soros is a common right-wing attack for labeling someone a raging liberal who is funded by Jews.) DeSantis pointedly didn’t defend Trump and made a dig at his “porn star hush-money payments,” while saying he had “no interest in getting involved” if authorities have to extradite Trump from Florida to New York.
“Joker 2” is perhaps the most fitting film to coincide with the grand jury. The first film depicted a lawless Gotham City overflowing with garbage, with a broken government cutting off mental health services (which is how the Joker goes off his meds), and energized by the violence of the Joker’s murders of bro-ish employees of the multinational conglomerate Wayne Enterprises — as well as Robert De Niro’s condescending late-night talk show host — as a rebuke for the city’s elites.
That’s not far off from how Trump described his hometown before moving to Florida, as a lawless “ghost town” that has been “lost to the looters, thugs, Radical Left, and all other forms of Lowlife & Scum.” (The former president has preferred comparisons to Superman, and even wanted to wear the superhero’s “S” while returning to the White House after recovering from covid.)
Trump’s association with the Joker is something of a running gag. The former president screened Phoenix’s movie at the White House and reportedly liked it. “The Trumpster” is a series of animated readings of Trump’s tweets performed as the Joker by Mark Hamill, the Star Wars actor who voiced the villain on “Batman: The Animated Series.” In 2017, “The Daily Show” digitally added Joker makeup to a Trump interview in which the then-president said: “The world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets. … The world is an angry place.” Trump himself also illegally used music from “The Dark Knight Rises” in a 2019 campaign ad. With the “Joker” sequel due to debut in theaters October 2024, a month before the presidential election, the dynamic duo’s last laugh is anybody’s guess.
As rain drizzled down in the wee hours of Saturday morning, a parade of extras in hair and makeup walked several blocks to the set in face paint and clown wigs. Anyone with brightly colored, dyed hair seemed to have been cast. They’d been handed signs to hold, with phrases such as “Free Joker,” “Guilty as Charged” and “Eat the Rich.” A voice on a loudspeaker instructed the assembled to try out different moods to greet Gaga-as-Quinn’s arrival, such as curious, mellow, raucous. “Enjoy it. You’re here at the trial of the century, and the Joker’s girlfriend has just arrived,” the voice said.
A block from the film set, the city went on. An annual antiabortion protest marched along just off-camera, complete with a full band with bagpipes and a tuba. They’d been confronted by counterprotesters from Gays Against Guns who were dancing, banging on drums and chanting, “Pro-life, that’s a lie, you don’t care if people die.” A wall of police stood between them. Both groups were bigger than any who’d come out for Trump during the week.
Then, in a moment of perfect madcap New York serendipity, a running club of very fit people pierced both the real protest and the fake “Joker 2” mob on the courthouse steps. A passing group of French-speaking students on a school trip from Montreal descended on the film set with excited selfie-taking teenage energy.
“I grew up here, and I’ve never felt so New York,” said a “Joker 2” extra after a long day of shooting. (He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he had signed a nondisclosure agreement.) “Gotham is New York. New York is Gotham. It’s about not knowing what’s next. Turn the page of the comic book, right?”
Phoenix would arrive on set as Joker on Sunday, in a vintage prison van emblazoned with “Gotham Correction,” as extras banged on the windows, both screaming at him and cheering him on. Time will tell whether Trump follows suit. Send in the clowns.
A previous version of this article gave the incorrect year that a "Daily Show" segment aired. This version has been corrected.