first impression I had of Heath Ledger when he entered the room for his “Brokeback Mountain” interview three years ago was
how small and fragile he looked. Nothing like the hot-blooded warrior of “The
Patriot” or the bungling jouster of “A Knight’s Tale” or
even the character he played in “Brokeback,” that
laconic, lean and secretly gay cowpoke who kicks the asses of a trio of drunks
harassing his family. He seemed troubled, too, and shy and uncomfortable,
notwithstanding the fact that he and co-star Michelle Williams's
romance and newborn daughter were among the chief talking points of the
compared him to James Dean, but that fisticuffs scene in “Brokeback” reminded
me more of wispy Montgomery Clift going preposterously mano-a-mano with John
Wayne in “Red River.” We’ll never know if he
would have equaled the accomplishments of either. Dead at 28 of yet to be
determined causes, he
only really had that one outstanding “Brokeback” performance. Or perhaps two if
the early reports on his Joker in “The Dark Knight” hold true. Dean, meanwhile,
though dead at 24 in 1955, had three iconic performances in a little more than
a year (“East of Eden,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant.”). As for Clift, by
the age of 28 he had already made “The Search,” “The Heiress” and “Red River” and had another 18 years and 15 movies to go.
all three have in common is their utter, self-immolating commitment made to
their work. His last two roles — as a
Dylan persona in Todd Haynes “I’m Not There” and
in the yet to be released “Dark Knight” — seem to have taken their toll. Interviewed
in the “New York
last November 4, he described the Joker as a “psychopathic, mass-murdering,
schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.” He added that the role had given him
insomnia, for which he was taking Ambien, to no avail.
Marlene Dietrich in “Touch of Evil,” “What does it matter what you say about
people?” So I’ll conclude with this transcript of the interview with Ledger
(Was it a roundtable? If so I’ll deny responsibility for the dumb questions) .
Q: I read in "Details" magazine that Jake said he doesn't
believe the characters are gay. What do you think?
A: I think it's a
touchy subject. I think if we say that, that there will be a lot of
disappointed people who want it to be. And it is. Essentially its two men that
fall in love. It's hard to escape that. I think maybe what Jake was meaning by
that. Certainly from my character, I wanted to tell a story of just someone who
transcends the label of gay or straight, who he's just purely a human being
whose soul falls in love with another soul which is in the vessel of a man. I
think Jake's character was more relaxed and comfortable in his situation and
willing to express it, where as Ennis was more confused. I don't know what my
Q: Do you think Ennis was always confused? Or was it not
until he met Jake's character?
A: Yeah. I don't think Ennis was a person who asked any
questions. I think once he met Jake's character it was an innate kind of
reaction to meeting this person.
Q: It was either Jake or one of the sheep?
A: Probably. Yeah. (laughs)
Q: Was Ennis ever in love with Alma? A: I think he believed he was. I think
he felt like he should be. I don't think so, at the end of the day, I don't
think it was the love he had with Jack. No.
Q: Had they not met at the mountain do you think he would
have led a normal life? A: Yeah maybe he would have denied himself of that.
Q: It took a lot to maintain that performance. You have to
hold a degree of restraint. What did it take to do that? Tell us about your
process. A: Just a lot of preparation. I really wanted to investigate him
thoroughly. I had to ask a lot more questions than Ennis obviously had ever
asked himself. So I essentially knew a lot more about him than he ever will. So
after discovering his battles and what he was battling against, and why he was
so unable to express and love. And then the physical. His walk and his speech.
I wanted him be clenched. A clenched fist. I wanted his mouth to be clenched.
Any form of expression had to be painful. I put a lot thought into that. And of
course the aging I thought was a really important aspect. If we couldn't pull
that off then we're up shit creek without a paddle.
Q: When you choose a role about a character or your career,
what comes into the equation (cannot understand entire question)?
A: No. No. If I did that, then my choices would have been as
boring as they had been in the past. Because it becomes too self conscious. I
just kind of came to that conclusion. I'm really not in the business to make a
bunch of people happy. In order to further myself, and get better at what I do,
I just have to make choices based upon what is going to help me mature as a
person and as an actor.
Q: Now-a-days there is a gay rodeo cowboy circuit. Did you
look into that to find out what was going on in the gay community within the
cowboy world back then?
A: I don't think
there was anything back then that we know of. I thought Annie Proulx's short
story and the script that Larry and Diana wrote was so beautifully thorough and
descriptive of the time and of these characters that I really needed to do very
little external research. I really didn't. In terms of being a cowboy or a
ranch hand, I grew up in western
Australia, a lot of farm folk. There's something very
universal about people who spend all day and night on horseback. Right down
physically. Once they get off the horse it still looks like there's a horse
between their legs as they walk off. It's a universal thing. And they all see
the world through the same eyes.
Q: I'm sure you've been offered cowboy movies before, read
them at least. Is there a difference between a cowboy movie and a Larry
McMurtry cowboy movie?
A: Sure. I think "Anything for Billy" is something
I'm kind of interested in. He's actually put together a screenplay of that.
It's a beautiful book. But I'm not actually a fan of the Western genre. I never
grew up watching cowboy and Indian films. I'm not really a huge fan of John
Wayne and all that.
Q: Is there anyone you based your character off of?
A: George Bush.
Q: Do you think he'll watch this movie?
A: Probably in private. (laughs)
Q: James Schamus said this is a movie he would enjoy
watching with his wife.
A: Oh right,
probably. To answer your question, I really didn't have a model for the character.
No. It was very obvious from the screenplay and from the short story of how it
had to be played. Who the characters were, I thought anyway.
Q: When this story was optioned they couldn't find anyone to
take the role on. Why were you willing to jump in there?
A: It's obviously the most complex and internal character
that I have been offered to play. It would take a more matured performance out
of me to complete this character. It was the perfect script, it was the perfect
director. It was a story that hadn't been told, which is extremely rare in this
industry or anywhere really. I think the story of love, in general, it's just
kind of a little recycled and it's a little stale. And this hadn't been put to
script. I think it was really rare. I thought I'd be crazy to turn it down.
Q: Was there a point where you were like, this has explicit
gay sex and kissing a guy throughout the picture, was there a point that you
said my image can't take this?
A: No. Not really. Obviously I had to think about it and go
"Oh geez". It wasn't that huge a problem for me. Everyone always asks
"what was the most difficult aspect of the movie for you, or physically
what was the most difficult". Making out with Jake Gyllenhaal (laughs).
It's a really obvious answer to give. At the end of the day once we got the
first take out of the way. It was like "oh okay, alright whatever".
Let's finish the day, let's continue. All the mystery had been taken away and
we're still acting, it's a movie, lets get on with it and it really wasn't such
a big deal.
Q: Is he a good kisser?
A: Yeah. He's a really good kisser. (laughs)
Q: You have two movies out at the same time, roughly, that
deal with different aspects of sexuality. It's an important subject to examine
in the world today. Does this give you some unusual insight into it as a
A: Nothing really. I am, unlike like Ennis, I'm very
expressive and I've investigated love. I'm in love with love. It's never been a
problem of mine. If anything, I wish I could have taught Ennis a thing or two.
It's frustrating that I couldn't. I didn't walk away thinking "Oh right,
men can fall in love, together." It's something I always knew and
respected and never had a problem with it. So, not really.
Q: Even if this story happened today, would Ennis have ended
up alone anyway because of the man he is?
A: Yeah perhaps. I guess so. I think one way or another he
is self destructive. He punishes himself, the conflict within, which he doesn't
understand. I think he would have manifested the loneliness in him.
Q: Does the flashback of the dead guy have anything to do
with his personality?
A: To a certain degree. I always felt that was a big part of
his struggle, was battling his genetic structure. His dad and the generations
before him, and their fears, and their traditions. I think it was so deeply
imbedded in him. Yeah, I think it had a lot to do with it and it ultimately
defeats him. Because he opts out of happiness and love.
Q: Do you think their love would have been that strong if
they were with each other day-to-day?
A: I guess so. I
haven't put that much thought into it. It definitely made it more exciting for
them to. I'm not sure. I think for Ennis, the fact that it was forbidden didn't
necessarily make it more exciting for him, obviously. I think the story for me
was this incredibly masculine figure who just had this innate love for another
soul that comes in a vessel of a man. I'm not sure how he would fare in New York City. (laughs)
Q: Was there any question of what this film would be rated?
A: Not to me. Once again Ang and all those people would have thought about
that. I think America
is the only country that has given it an R.
Q: Madonna is saying it's shocking and you see it and it's
tame. A: I guess its all relative to who you are.
Q: So the tragic core of the characters is that they're gay?
A: No, not at all. I think it's the society they are in, the
restrictions that surround them. Their genes. Their inability to break free of
society's requirements of them.. People's opinions on a grand scale and how
heavily that affects their lives. That's not being gay at all.
Q: Do you think audiences will accept the film because their
not punished in the end?
A: I guess a majority
of the audience these days likes to be spoon fed happy endings, but its not
really how life works.
Q: You had a film this year that connects with audiences,
"Lords of Dogtown". It seems you were channeling Val Kilmer for that
A: Everyone says that.
Q: What attracted you to that role?
A: I grew up skating and surfing as a kid. Having met Skip,
I was channeling him. He talks like that man (mimmicks voice). He's all nasaly.
He's got big teeth. He's out of control, he is bigger than life. I still talk
to Skip. He calls me out of the blue. He's sending me skateboards for my
daughter. He's really sweet.
Q: You've had so many roles that had been really different.
Looking back has this been your best year?
A: Yeah. I guess so. It's definitely been the first year
where I've been throwing everyone else's opinions and choices out the window
and made my own. It took a long time coming. It definitely started off in
another light. It was somewhat spoon fed to me and things were handed to me on
a platter. I didn't really like what was on the platter. I didn't feel like I
had a choice. I was never really happy with the direction I was being pushed
in. It took a while to go off and stamp it out a little bit and kind of be bad
and make bad choices and be a little ruthless in order to take the gloss off
everything. Then finally it was Terry Gilliam who came around and gave me the
shot [with “The Brothers Grimm”]. As soon as Terry gave me the shot, everyone
else was like, "oh, oh OK. If Terry is giving him one, then we might give
him another shot."
Q: Do you find a common thread or did you find them
contrasting in what you learned from each one?
A: It's definitely very different experiences. Which is what
I was after. It was funny how I lined them up. Going from "Brothers
Grimm" to 'Lords of Dogtown" to "Brokeback Mountain"
to "Casanova" to "Candy". I don't know if I consciously did
it, but I kind of went from one, expelled something from within me, and to this
one, and went to one, hahahaha all light and kind of fluffy, and not giving a
shit, and not taking it too seriously. Having like a rest, kind of a
professional rest. Then going back into something gritty that takes some
thought. And it kind of just worked out. So while I was doing one thing, I was
refueling myself for the next. I also had a lot of time before diving into all
of these projects to wrap my head around what I was going to do. I think just
how heavy the contrast was between the films kind of helped me switch so
sharply back and forth between [snaps fingers successively]. If it was just
subtle differences it would have been harder to define where I would come from
and what I'm doing next. They were all so drastically different.
Q: You also fell in love.
A.Yeah I did. That's the best thing I got out of it. We are
Q: Did that add to the chemistry of the relationship with
A: It didn't for us.
Michelle and I are very professional people. We were there to make the best
possible film and story. We didn't walk around all day holding hands. We had a
very serious story we were all passionate about telling.
Q: There are rumors about a sequel to "A Knight’s
Tale". Is that happening?
Q: Do you like living in New York?
A: I love living in New
York. I love it. I love Brooklyn.
Q: You still drive.
A: Yeah, I do. Yeah.
Just around Brooklyn. Not in Manhattan. If I want to go to Manhattan I take the
Q: How is being a dad for the first time?
A: It's incredible.
It's incredibly humbling. It's the most selfless act you can ever encounter in
your life. Yeah it's brilliant. It's beautiful.
Q: Anything else coming up?