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Heath Ledger's Lonesome Trail

The breakout performer in the year's most talked-about film has all the makings of a classic leading man. Too bad he hates being a movie star

March 23, 2006
heath ledger rolling stone sam jones
Heath Ledger on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Sam Jones

When actors become movie stars, it puts a strain on everybody. Family members get phone-called with no adjustment for the time difference; paparazzi stake out a fresh address; the rest of us lift our eyes to another personality we're obliged to have an opinion about. This is a drag for Heath Ledger, who is twenty-six and has learned to keep his personality locked in the house – where it whines at doors, tears up furniture, gets into the yard at just the worst moments. "In the past," he says, "I've tried so hard to withhold myself – even down to giving a smile." The actor, who is Australian, speaks with a commonwealth accent that's both arch and street. "I didn't want to be people's opinions of who I am or what I said," he says.

One day, his girlfriend, Michelle Williams, wrote a song title – "Old Man River" – on his forearm. Ledger got a tattoo artist to run the needles over her words, the way a shopkeeper will frame his first dollar. The song comes from a sad musical, and contains this key advice: "He must know somethin', he don't say nothin'." So last summer, when the couple first saw Brokeback Mountain – sitting in one of the poker-faced office towers of Manhattan – it should have been perfect: no people, no opinions. The room went dark. Ledger rides a horse, falls in love with another man, breaks his heart, misses out on the chance of his life. The lights came up, Ledger and Williams moved through the lobby. And Ledger had no idea what he'd just seen. "I understood that it flowed, it was presented well. But whether it was good, whether it was bad – we walked out not knowing what we'd just watched."

Video: A Look at Heath Ledger's Best Performances

And sometimes the dog gets loose. When we meet, Ledger discusses a rough moment: Williams, playing his unlucky wife, slips to a doorway in find Ledger in an embrace with co-star Jake Gyllenhaal. In a tight shot, you see her see her face cloud over: Williams understands she'll never make the man she loves happy. Ledger wants to hear about audience response. I say they gasped. Ledger takes this in. "Yeah," he says. "Her poor character. Michelle played it so well – just that look on her lace." He shrugs. "Every time I see it, I can't help but laugh."

It's months later, and everything has changed. David Letterman is doing the top ten signs of being a gay cowboy. Brokeback has become a cultural moment, a film to take sides about, the toll charge for entering the national conversation. Ledger arrived in Hollywood as a flyaway figure. Now he's receiving the media attention that usually goes to kids in wells. Oscar bowed deepest this year to Brokeback Mountain, crowning Ledger with his first nomination as Best Actor. Ledger retains his physical size and shape: in every other aspect, he's becoming larger.

Photos: Leading Men on the Cover of Rolling Stone

Ennis Del Mar is Ledger's starmaker role, and if you strip off the coating, he's done it the old-fashioned way. It's the part Robert Redford made a career out of in The Way We Were: the love object who doesn't want to be loved, who flickers out of reach.

His approach to being interviewed is not dissimilar. For Ledger, reporters are the sadistic border guards of a country he must pass through. Last August, when he disliked an Australian interviewer's questions, he clammed up, peeled an orange on live TV. So when he wants to meet for lunch in New York, my canny move is to dress like him. When I arrive at a tidy New York espresso bar in shorts, T-shirt, crapped-up jacket. Ledger's eyes drift right past me. "Wouldn't have picked you for a journalist," he says. "Which is good."

The Lord gave Ledger marketable looks – a Connery brow and jawline, framing a mouth peaked for kisses – but lots of days he looks like he woke up inside an oil drum. He has the handsome star's mixed feelings: It's the invitation that gets you through the door, which you ditch in a flowerpot once inside the party. He's got a zip-up hoodie that says Brooklyn, black earrings, wispy goatee, wraparound sunglasses he never once removes, Frankenstein boots.

Ledger clomps us into an Australian restaurant, where he becomes all slouch, wit and charm. He doesn't put stock in the nice word around his performance. "It's a relief," he says. "But I've had people say it" – he laughs – "about a lot of really bad films I've done." He's shrewd about work – and generally, when actors dip into shop talk, you wish they'd get onto something interesting, like photocopier repair. "I'm always gonna pull myself apart and dissect it. I mean, there's no such thing as perfection in what we do. Pornos are more perfect than we are, because they're actually fucking." He's not a fastidious eater – there's finger-sucking, a belch, an "excuse me." Throughout, he retains something slyly mocking, a driver submitting to the roadside breathalyzer when he knows he hasn't been near a drink. And though Ledger makes the crazy money actors make, he doesn't throw it around. The check arrives, Ledger goes for his wallet; I assure him I've got it. "Good, because I've only got, like, two dollars." If I hadn't brought cash? "Then we'd be fucked." he says. "We'd be back there doing the dishes."

Ledger did not grow up with money. "Or movies or art," he says. Like a million families: solid middle-class parents – Kim Ledger designed race cars, Sally kept the home – with a couple of kids, riding out a problem marriage. After dinner, his dad might crack open a Lee Iacocca boss-people-my-way paperback; his mom would find relief in Danielle Steel. Manning the VCR, Ledger would pop in Chuck Norris. "I'm not knocking Delta Force," Ledger says. "I love Chuck."

This was in Perth, western Australia – Ledger calls it "the most isolated city in the world." He was eleven when his parents finally divorced. "I'm sure there was, like, one week where they didn't speak to each other." Otherwise, they became the kind of ex-couple, theorized by psychiatrists, who share family dinners and joint trips. For Ledger, the divorce provided a lifestyle boot camp. "I enjoyed being at one house for three weeks, then going, 'OK, right, I'm off,"' he says. "It set me up for this bohemian life I've been leading – I feel like I've been traveling with the same bag since I was eleven."

At the same time, Ledger split with the child he'd been. "Every kid up to age thirteen thinks they are their parents, basically," he says. Ledger had crossed over. His long apprenticeship in disappointing people, in moving out under his own orders, began. His father had manly, family-line ambitions: Ledger would race cars ("I was prepped to be the next Michael Schumacher"). Instead, he stepped into the drama department.

Ledger had an advantage: He already looked like Heath Ledger. Golden hair, bold features – like many child performers, his face seemed to already exist in a tight adult focus. His older sister was making feints toward an acting career. Ledger met her agent, walked out with an audition. "I started to realize that acting was gonna give me more money, and more time off," he says. "I didn't really give a shit. I was still pretty caught up in just being a teenager."

Here's a cool fact for Nostradamus fans. Ledger's first big role – in the Australian TV series called Sweat – was a gay bicyclist. And in A Knight's Tale, the 2001 film that would bring Ledger his first wide notice, there's the scene where – for funny, apropos reasons – Ledger receives a peck from a guy on his jousting crew.

Watching Sweat for the first time, the seventeen-year-old Ledger was in for another kind of shock. "I was crap," he says. The show chugged ahead. "I remember just burying my face in my hands thinking, 'This is the end, it hasn't even begun."'

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