Hildur Guðnadóttir has had a historic few weeks.
It began Sunday, January 4th, when the Icelandic composer became the first solo woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Original Score for Joker; it continued the Tuesday after that, when she picked up two prizes — one for Joker, one for her music for TV show Chernobyl — at the inaugural Society of Composer & Lyricists’ awards; and it culminated today when she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.
Amid everything, though, Guðnadóttir had to accompany her husband to the doctor, which is where she had a distinctly Hollywood moment. “My husband got an ear infection, so I’m actually at the doctor’s office and one of the nurses just came up and congratulated me!” she told Rolling Stone with a laugh last Friday. “For a girl from a small town in Iceland, it’s kind of surreal to be sitting in a doctor’s office in L.A. and be congratulated by the nurse.”
A classically trained cellist, Guðnadóttir has been composing for film and television for nearly two decades. While the accolades have poured in for her work on Joker and Chernobyl (she won an Emmy for the latter last fall), her previous credits include films like The Oath, Mary Magdalene and Sicario: Day of the Soldado, while on top of all that she’s released several albums of her own music and collaborated with artists like Animal Collective, Sun O))) and the Knife.
Joker director Todd Phillips tapped Guðnadóttir to pen the music for his film when he was still working on the script. Usually music composition is saved for the latter stages of production, after shooting has finished, but Guðnadóttir says working off the script alone afforded her more space to develop tone and pacing, and in turn it allowed her music to grow in tandem with every other element of the film.
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In this way, Guðnadóttir’s music played a key role in shaping one of Joker’s most famous scenes: The bathroom dance, which (spoiler alert) takes place right after Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck, commits his first murder and begins his transformation into Joker. Originally, the scene called for a classic mirror moment, but Philips and Phoenix felt the scene demanded more. The final product began to come together after Phillips played Phoenix some of Guðnadóttir’s score.
“He came up with this dance, he was basically responding in real time and just performing,” she says. “It was so beautiful to see Joaquin completely embody what I had felt when I wrote the music. That was exactly the way I experienced the character and it was so magical to see his connection without having to explain it.”
Guðnadóttir admits she’s hardly had a chance to catch her breath in between her Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination, but she’s still keenly aware of the cultural significance of her success and what it means for improving opportunities for women composers.
Ten years ago, Guðnadóttir says she felt there was “a reluctance to trust women with these bigger projects,” and adds that the composition world has for so long been dominated by a handful of men. “These are, of course, wonderful composers, who are totally deserving of all their opportunities,” she says, “but it’s exciting to hear other voices.”
Guðnadóttir cites Mica Levi (Jackie) and Tamar-kali (Mudbound) as other women composers she admires, and says within the past five years she’s started to feel like Hollywood’s talk about improving diversity has actually manifested as actual change. For her part, Guðnadóttir knows that she has to make the most of this moment.
“I’m not really a person who seeks out attention much; I’ve always felt more comfortable in the shadows,” she says. “But since I have this opportunity to speak up, proudly, I’m just gonna take it and hope that it does inspire other women. I think the way to make the biggest change for young women — to see that this is a possibility, to go into this line of work — that’s the best way to do that. For young mothers, as well, because that’s another thing: Are you even allowed to have a family if you go into this line of work? And I, of course, am a mother, and I hope that inspires women to not let that get in the way, to show up and do the work.”