Heath Ledger - The accidental hero

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Heath Ledger - The accidental hero Empty Heath Ledger - The accidental hero

Post  Admin on Sat Mar 08, 2008 4:31 pm

Times Saturday Magazine

Heath Ledger - The accidental hero
By:Kevin Maher

He fell into acting at school, and was quickly cast by Hollywood as the classic leading man. Now 27, Heath Ledger talks about breaking the mould and life after Brokeback

It’s been three days now, and Heath Ledger hasn’t touched a single drop of heroin. The drying-out, however, is killing him. He sits naked at the bottom of a narrow shower cubicle, his cadaverous frame locked in a tight foetal crunch as he punches his own head repeatedly, savagely, with fast, angry fists. It is uncomfortable viewing. But in his role as masochistic Dan, the junkie protagonist of new and sweetly lugubrious Australian love story Candy (showing at this year’s Times London Film Festival), Ledger is here hitting a pitch-perfect turn. Awards are doubtless imminent.

But the 27-year-old Perth native, emerging A-lister and Oscar-nominated star of Brokeback Mountain doesn’t see it that way. “I feel like nearly everyone knows how to play a junkie by now,” he shrugs. “As a subject, it’s been really over-exposed. You see it in movies, on TV and in books and magazines.” He frowns, concentrating, giving a no-big-deal scowl. “I feel like we all know the drying-out scene, y’know? We all know that it’s going to be painful.”

I have known him for approximately seven minutes, but already I sense that I’m being treated to some vintage Heath Ledger: cruelly self-deprecating, ever-so-slightly combative, uncomfortable, fitfully open, agitated yet ultimately brimful of honest intention. Here is an actor, like many of the best actors – like De Niro, like Day Lewis – for whom public introspection is painful. We’re sitting in a half-deserted dining room in a swanky Toronto Hotel. It’s midway through the city’s celebrated film festival and the only people within spitting distance are famous: Jennifer Lopez and husband Marc Anthony are setting up for a TV interview behind us; Penélope Cruz is marching back and forth in the lobby beside us; Brad Pitt and Matt Damon are just seconds away from being mobbed at the adjacent service exit.

Ledger, conversely, is in anti-star mode. The actor, who recently committed to playing the Joker in the upcoming Batman sequel, as well as one of seven Bob Dylans (of which, more later) in the Todd Haynes art-house biopic I’m Not There, sports scuffed denims, baggy black T-shirt and pillow-styled, shoulder-length hair. Slumped forward in his seat, he grips a starter knife and uses it to scrape the hotel logo from a specials menu while he speaks. In the past, he has often worn thick, black, wraparound shades at press interviews – he has suffered a tortuous relationship with the media, and was infamously drenched by water-pistol-wielding paparazzi at the Sydney premiere of Brokeback Mountain (retaliation for his allegedly “abusive” attitude towards them). Recently, however, he announced that he’s not fighting the process any more. Thus today he wears considerate, press-friendly shades, translucent indoors, that slowly reveal two devilish dark-brown pupils flickering intensely at the centre of those famous black brushstroke eyes.

We talk about Candy some more. The film, an adaptation of a bestselling Australian novel by Luke Davies, takes a Gadarene dive through the depths of heroin addiction. It is sprinkled also with moments of bittersweet levity and tragic affection between Ledger’s Dan and his eponymous smack-soaked paramour, played by newcomer Abbie Cornish. We talk drugs for a while. Yes, Ledger has smoked pot, but has never been addicted to anything stronger than nicotine. He discusses the gruelling rehearsal techniques. “We bought some heroin and we shot it up. Nah. Only joking. I lost some weight and stayed out of the sun instead.” I ask him if this role is yet another in a growing line of recent turns designed to raise two fingers to past perceptions of his so-called Hollywood It-Boy status.

He shifts, shrugs, and scrapes again at the specials menu. “I don’t know, mate. I really try not to be concerned about the reaction out there to what I do. Otherwise it would taper my choices. So it really doesn’t bother me.”

And yet, there was surely a point, sometime around the summer blockbuster A Knight’s Tale when you were being… Tish-tish tum, tish-tish tum, tish-tish tum… the R&B-flavoured ringtone of Ledger’s mobile phone cuts into our conversation. He grabs it, answers, and his face lights up like Christmas. “Hey, my baby!” he says, beaming. It’s Michelle Williams, his fiancée, Oscar-nominated Brokeback Mountain co-star and mother of their 11-month-old baby, Matilda Rose. “I’m so sorry,” he says, shooting out of his chair. “Can I take two minutes for this?”

Ledger met the 26-year-old Williams on the set of Brokeback Mountain. It was love at first sight, according to director Ang Lee. There had been others in the past, yes. Heather Graham from Boogie Nights was one. Naomi Watts from King Kong another. As was Lisa (sister of Billy) Zane. But this time it was different: Ang Lee has suggested, obliquely, that Ledger might even have loved Williams before he actually met her. Ledger himself speaks of an overwhelming desire to protect Williams. Candy director Neil Armfield adds that Ledger’s relationship with Williams has provided him with the kind of emotional sustenance that was absent from his years of burgeoning stardom. “I think he was a bit damaged by the American publicity machine,” says Armfield. “He lost those crucial years between 19 and 24, when you discover who you are as an adult. That happened to him very quickly, and in a very foreign environment. So I think that’s why he’s treasuring his relationship with Michelle and Matilda now. It’s made him much more centred.”

The so-called Lost Years of Ledger describe the period between his break-out teen comedy Ten Things I Hate About You (1999) and his flop Vatican thriller The Order (2003), during which time the actor was brutally groomed for super-stratospheric success by the Hollywood star-making machine. Ledger’s relationship with acting was slackly ambivalent from the start. “I never watched movies growing up,” he explains later. “My parents never took me to movies, either.” Instead, he apparently fell into acting in high school, after opting for drama lessons as the only alternative to a cookery class. Subsequently, he secured his older sister’s talent agent. “He put me out for little things here and there. I got a gig, and thought, ‘This is great!’ And that’s really it.”

Ledger segued effortlessly from playing a Celtic warrior in the short-lived TV series Roar to the romantic lead in Ten Things to the action hero in big-budget epics such as A Knight’s Tale and The Patriot. In the latter in particular, in his many confrontational moments as Mel Gibson’s hot-tempered son, there’s an implicit sense that we are witnessing a passing of mantles from one Australian icon to another. Here, with his leonine mane, granite features and deep John Wayne drawl, Ledger is somehow completing the trinity of antipodean movie megastars – with Gibson, the daddy of them all, and Russell Crowe. Fanciful, perhaps, but for many executives in Hollywood boardrooms it was a bottom-dollar reality. And certainly, Ledger has spoken about the humiliating process of being marketed like a bottle of Coke and about having full-on anxiety attacks in the middle of crass studio marketing meetings.

The phone conversation over, Ledger sits back down with a softly rejuvenated spring in his slump. “So, where were we?” he asks, nodding enthusiastically. We go back to Candy, to his career path, and to the two fingers raised at the past. I tell him that he was once the new Mel Gibson. He laughs. “The new Mel Gibson?! Oh, that’s funny.” I agree that it’s funny, but suggest that it’s also true. And that everything he’s done since A Knight’s Tale has seemed to be a reaction against that very possibility. He stops laughing. “It was. Kind of,” he half-agrees. “I think up until that point I was just, well, I almost didn’t feel like I could do anything else, and I didn’t have the confidence to say, ‘Stop! I don’t want to do this any more!’ And I had been incredibly grateful, too. I was this kid from Perth, and I was like, ‘OK, sure! I’ll be a knight! Rock’n’roll music? Great!’”

The career choices were uneven at first. He did a deftly troubled jailor’s son in Monster’s Ball. But he was hampered by a comical beard and a creaky Oirish accent in the insufferably worthy Ned Kelly (gazing into co-star Naomi Watts’s unbelieving eyes, “Oi tink yir de most bewtiful woman Oi’ve ever seen!”). Some of the more serious directors were uncertain of the genuine abilities of this golden-locked glamour boy. “Heath had been suggested to me at first for Candy,” says director Armfield. “But I initially resisted because I felt that he carried this basically heroic persona along with him.” It was a difficult time for Ledger, whose only screen relief surfaced in the role of twitchy, nervy Jacob Grimm, the eccentric oddball intellectual in Terry Gilliam’s Brothers Grimm.

But then came Brokeback Mountain. The “gay cowboy movie” changed everything. Ledger’s performance as the essentially unattainable love object, Ennis Del Mar – a maelstrom of strangulated mutterings, aggression and vulnerable confusion, all emanating from a mouth that appeared to be stapled shut with frustration – was instantly Oscar-worthy. The film became cultural currency, and was duly appropriated by TV talk-show hosts, newspaper editorials, political satirists and internet bloggers. Ledger and co-star Jake Gyllenhaal were subjected to a barrage of half-baked innuendo. “I know how to love a woman,” Ledger said at the time, seeming to tire slightly of the whole process. In the end, he dutifully appeared at umpteen awards ceremonies (Brokeback was incessantly fêted throughout the year), sat in his seat, and politely grimaced as another overworked “man-on-man” routine was tossed his way.

“I don’t think I was pissed off at the jokes as much as the fact that I was there in the first place,” he explains. “It was such an exhausting process. The whole thing.” So, was it a relief when the Brokeback hoopla faded? “F***, yes!” When did it officially end? “The second the Oscars were over. Everyone was just so sick of it.” And yet, when you’re in your dotage and you look back on your career, will Brokeback Mountain not be one of the standouts, one of the most cherished? “I guess so,” he whispers.

For wonderful things have flowed for Ledger from Brokeback. There’s a credible career as a heavyweight actor – the depths of Candy are just the beginning. And, more importantly, there’s a partner in Williams and a daughter in Matilda. They live together, in the unpretentious South Brooklyn neighbourhood of Boerum Hill. And in their next movie, I’m Not There, the couple will star together. A meditation on the life and work of Bob Dylan, the film features the likes of Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Adrien Brody and Ben Whishaw as “Dylan-esque” characters. “I have no idea what it’s about,” Ledger chuckles. “Michelle is shooting as we speak. It’s like, seven different characters playing aspects of his life. I saw Cate Blanchett on set the other day and it was weird. She looked the spitting image of Dylan!”
He’s back with Bale, of course, in next year’s The Dark Knight, the much-anticipated second movie in Christopher Nolan’s newer, grimier Batman franchise. He’s playing the Joker. He won’t, however, be doing a Jack Nicholson. “I love that performance,” he says, referring to Nicholson’s screen-chewing turn in the 1989 Batman. “And I adore Jack Nicholson. There’s no way I’m even going to try to fill his shoes.” He talks some more about self-criticism, about parenting chores, and about his long-term directorial plans; he’s already directing pop videos, including a dreamy promo for folk musician Ben Harper. And so, with Oscar gravitas, blockbusting movies, and critical kudos in the bag, does he, that actor slacker boy from Perth, ever wake up in the morning and shake his head at the surreality of it all?

“Yeah, definitely!” he says, before launching into something of an official answer. “I’m incredibly grateful, and it kind of blows me away sometimes, and, yeah…” He then pauses, nods down to his phone, and regroups. “It’s actually less about waking up and thinking about how lucky I am to be in this business. It’s more about how lucky I am to have this family, right now.” He stops, and starts again. “That, for me, blows my mind. A billion times more than anything else. It’s like, everything else? Who gives a f***?”

Rest In Peace Heath Ledger
You will be Never forgotten
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