Portrait of a restless young spirit

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Portrait of a restless young spirit

Post  Admin on Sat Mar 08, 2008 7:17 pm

Portrait of a restless young spirit
Unlike all those male movie stars who turn out to be disappointingly tiny in person, Ledger was physically imposing and graceful with it. He made a pot of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table of his rented house, talking quickly and with a worldly intelligence about far too many topics to fit in one article. He talked about how much he admired Terry Gilliam and his excitement at doing Gilliam's next film. He talked about skateboarding through his Brooklyn neighbourhood. He talked about playing chess, about learning accents for movies, about directing music videos, about living a nomadic existence, about his restless search to challenge and surpass himself.

He told me loving stories about his daughter, Matilda, and urged me to read The Queen's Gambit, Walter Tevis's 1983 book about a chess-playing prodigy, saying it was an amazing book and that he hoped to make it into a film. (I read it; he was right.)

His intensity came, incongruously, with a laid-back demeanour and with a wry sense of humour and, when he showed me around the house, he made wicked jokes about the weird art left by its owner. As we traipsed through the bedrooms, their beds covered in rumpled white duvets, he mentioned that he'd tried to sleep in all of them - another effort to work his way out of his crippling insomnia.

With hindsight, our exchange about sleeplessness, in which Ledger confessed that he'd taken two sleeping pills that failed to help him, seems chilling, even grotesque. But he discussed it matter-of-factly, even humorously, and in the context of a conversation in which we swapped insomnia-combating tips. Who knows what demons he was fighting and why, last Tuesday, he took so many pills? I met him only once, for a couple of hours. But he was fizzing with life. And whatever the postmortem reveals, I'd like to believe what happened was a terrible accident, that he was simply - disastrously - just trying to get the rest he desperately needed.

The final interview

The neighbourhood was nothing special, just another anonymous street in north London, and the corrugated-iron front door suggested the entrance to a car repair shop or some kind of studio. But it opened into another world: a lush courtyard nestling inside a striking modern house with acres of white walls, exotic works of art and a roof garden, complete with burbling fountain.

Behind the door, too, was Heath Ledger, the tenant of the house, making coffee in the glass-walled kitchen and presenting his own deceptive exterior. What you see is a strapping 28-year-old with sleepy eyes, an amused, crinkly grin and out-of-control blondish hair, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and ripped jeans hanging low to reveal the waistband of a pair of light-blue, flannel underpants. What you get is a lot less obvious: a serious, but hard-to-pin-down actor disguised as a California stoner (he played one once, in Lords of Dogtown).

Ledger has resisted typecasting since his first Hollywood film, the perfectly decent teenage-romance comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, filled him with such foreboding about his possible future as a fluffy heart-throb that he turned down work for a year because all he was being offered were similar parts, although he has since appeared in light, romantic-hero roles in films like A Knight's Tale and Casanova

Ledger has also played a sensitive prison guard, a heroin addict spiralling out of control and, in a revelation of a part, a reluctantly gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain: a hodgepodge of characters deliberately unlike one another.

'I feel like I'm wasting time if I repeat myself,' he explained. Nor is he ever happy with his performance, exactly. 'I can't say I was proud of my work,' Ledger declared of his latest role, in I'm Not There, Todd Haynes's strange, audacious film which attempts to get to the heart of Bob Dylan by dancing around him. 'I feel the same way about everything I do. The day I say, "It's good" is the day I should start doing something else.'

In a telephone interview from Berlin, Haynes said that Ledger's character was inspired by 'photographs of Dylan taken in the mid-Sixties when he was hanging out in New York locations with dark-rimmed eyeglasses and shooting pool or reading the newspapers in the classic Godardian striped, crew-necked shirt'.

James Dean too. 'Dylan was completely inspired by James Dean, and Heath has a little bit of James Dean in him, even physically, a kind of precocious seriousness,' Haynes went on. 'As adult actors seem more and more infantile and refusing to grow up, middle-aged guys with their baseball caps, Heath is one of those young people who have a real intuition, a maturity beyond their years.'

Making the role all the more complicated was that Ledger's character is meant, in a way, to be a Dylan twice removed. In the movie, Ledger is not playing Dylan per se, but an actor famous, in the fictional world of I'm Not There, for portraying Dylan in his early years as a singer-songwriter of protest music.

But because Christian Bale, the actor who plays this early Dylan, was scheduled to film his scenes after Ledger, Ledger said he was faced with 'playing an actor portraying Christian portraying a Dylanesque character, and not being sure what Christian was going to do'. Or, to put it another way: 'Who was I playing when I was acting?'

It tied him in knots. 'I stressed out a little too much,' said Ledger.

He tends to do that. He is here in London filming the latest episode of the Batman franchise, The Dark Knight (Bale plays Batman, Ledger the Joker). It is a physically and mentally draining role - his Joker is a 'psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy,' he says cheerfully and, as often happens when he throws himself into a part, he is not sleeping much.

'Last week, I probably slept an average of two hours a night,' he said. 'I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted and my mind was still going.' One night, he took an Ambien sleeping pill, which didn't work. He took a second one and fell into a stupor, only to wake up an hour later, his mind still racing.

Even as he spoke, Ledger was hard-pressed to keep still. He got up and poured more coffee. He stepped outside into the courtyard and smoked a cigarette. He shook his hair out from under its hood, put a rubber band around it, took out the rubber band, put on a hat, took off the hat, put the hood back up. He went outside and had another cigarette. Polite and charming, he none the less gave off the sense that the last thing he wanted to do was delve deep into himself for public consumption. 'It can be a little distressing to have to over-intellectualise yourself,' is how he put it, a little apologetically.

Conducting a tour of the house, which he is renting for a few months, he made wry remarks about the art. One painting depicts a crowd of creatures who appear to be in hell, but who seem determined to extract as much sexual pleasure as they can from their eternity of free time; Ledger has turned another one around and hung it upside down, to no apparent ill advantage.

An open bag with clothes spilling out lay on the floor of the master bedroom. 'I'm kind of addicted to moving,' Ledger said, perhaps on account of having had to shuttle back and forth after his parents' divorce when he was 11. He carries his interests around with him and his kitchen table was awash with objects: a chess set, books, empty glasses, clothes. Here, too, was his Joker diary, which he began compiling four months before filming began. It is filled with images and thoughts helpful to the Joker backstory, like a list of things the Joker would find funny (Aids is one of them). Ledger seemed almost embarrassed that the book had been spotted, as if he had been caught trying to get extra marks at school.

'He's very disciplined and takes it very seriously,' said Marc Forster, who directed Ledger in Monster's Ball, in which he played a troubled prison guard. Ledger came to the part at the last minute, but caught on quickly. 'Heath at the time was something like 22 and I thought, "He's incredible. He's so smart and so intuitive and so observant and he really understood the part and the character."'

Also on the table is a winsome photograph of Ledger's daughter, Matilda, now a toddler. Ledger met Matilda's mother, actress Michelle Williams, while filming Brokeback Mountain and fell into a very public whirlwind romance and then into loved-up domestication in Brooklyn; they appear together in I'm Not There, but have recently separated. He is wary of talking about their relationship, but heaps spontaneous praise on Williams's performance. Ledger now lives in Manhattan and, when he's home, likes to play chess with the chess sharks who hang out in Washington Square Park; sometimes, he beats them. But mostly he likes to hang out with Matilda - 'It's kind of like your whole body has a lump in its throat,' he said of having to be away - and goes back to see her as often as he can.

Ledger was born in Perth, Australia, a place so far away, he said, that 'sometimes when you're there, it feels like the Earth really is flat and you're sitting right on the edge'. He acted in some Australian soap operas before moving to Hollywood to be with a girlfriend (the relationship did not last). He was cast in 10 Things opposite Julia Stiles, starred in a short-lived television series and began appearing in movies like A Knight's Tale, playing a swashbuckling, medieval lover-jouster.

'I was more concerned with having a good time than with focusing on work,' he said. But suddenly he realised that he cared. 'I started to look at the work and think, "Oh, God, maybe I should be taking this seriously, because people are going to see this,"' he said. 'All I saw were mistakes - a lack of care, lack of attention to detail.'

Among other things, he began working with Gerry Grennell, his dialect coach, who has seen him through a dizzying spectrum of dialects and intonations. ('It's rare that there's a role that requires an Australian accent,' Ledger said.) Among his next projects are a film directed by Terry Gilliam, and another by Terrence Malick. Ledger is learning to play the piano and sing. He also directs music videos, has a small independent record label called Masses Music in Los Angeles and is planning to direct a film at the end of next year.

One of the things that struck him most about the Dylan who emerges in I'm Not There, he said, was Dylan's continual effort to resist easy categorisation and his willingness to 'recreate himself and not conform to people's ambitions to put him in a box'.

That is how Ledger feels, too, and he likes to keep an element of surprise, for the world at large and for himself. 'Some people find their shtick,' he said. 'I've never figured out who "Heath Ledger" is on film: "This is what you expect when you hire me and it will be recognisable."'

He continued: 'People always feel compelled to sum you up, to presume that they have you and can describe you. That's fine. But there are many stories inside of me and a lot I want to achieve outside of one flat note.'

© New York Times

Rest In Peace Heath Ledger
You will be Never forgotten


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