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Heath Ledger's Lonesome Trail

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Ledger enlisted his mother on a reassurance mission: He was really just terrible in the show – wasn't he? He couldn't act at all – could he? "And she just said, 'Well, that's OK.' The honesty kind of slipped out of her, in the most beautiful way. She didn't even bother with 'No, honey, you were great, I'm so proud of you.' No one else around you, except your mum, is going to tell you that you suck. She straight-up told me, 'There are other things to do in life."'

Ledger does a rueful head shake. "I think that's the problem with a lot of actors in the industry. We all just think we're brilliant, you know? And ninety-eight percent of us are crap. And we've got to realize that, before we can improve."

He began picking apart his performance, the way he'd watched his dad reassemble car engines. He wasn't listening to the other actors; he wasn't connecting; he was doing way too much blinking. "I started to make changes," he says, "to . . . direct myself."

Halfway through eleventh grade, Ledger sat for his graduation exams, "got my marks and fucked off." ("I was a bit of a punk at that age. I had a problem with authority.") School is an airport terminal, organized waiting; he'd already caught his flight. He packed a car, drove the 2,000 miles to Sydney, which is where Australians go to meet their fates. He borrowed gas money from his parents, and never took anything from them again.

Ledger decides on a walk. This being Little Italy, sedans creep by with guys in suits staring out, guys to whom Ledger is not a film star but one more invader turning the old neighborhood into a damned hipster sandbox. I ask Ledger for a cigarette; he turns out to have quit a year ago. Why? "I couldn't breathe properly." He leads me to a store anyway – and there's Ledger, bobbing and craning to get a fix on something behind the counter. "Try those," he says, pointing to a brand of cigarettes. "They're buttery."

As before, it's difficult to tell: Is this street theater or legitimate tobacco interest? Later, at a bench in one of the city's subatomic parks, I turn to Ledger: "It is buttery." He flicks a quick, nostalgic ex smoker's grin. "It is, right?"

By the late Nineties, Ledger had found his way to Los Angeles. He'd done an Australian gun movie, Two Hands. He'd top lined a Fox TV sword-and-sandals drama called Roar, which laid down its arms after thirteen episodes. ("It started off quite dignified and Braveheart-esque. But as they got desperate for ratings, slowly no one's wearing clothes. I'm like, 'Why is there a gang of fucking bikini models fighting?"') He and a girlfriend lived in a group house, the sort of place where people swap food and social contacts. Somebody knew a screenwriter dreaming up a teen comedy, 10 Things I Hate About You. Ledger played the boyfriend – after which he refused offers to play high school bullies, loners, wooers. "But what had I done to prove myself otherwise? I had to make an effort to cut the line." He stuck in the house, broke and hungry, ignored the gossip he was developing the big head, and waited.

He turned out to be waiting for Mel Gibson. Midway in his 1999 audition to play Gibson's son in The Patriot, he'd lowered his script, told producers he was wasting their time and his. "I am the worst auditioner in the world," he says. "I really am fucking shit. You're being tested – I almost, like, rebel against the situation." He recalls, "I got this movie, without auditioning." This was A Knight's Tale, a summer epic he would carry himself.

Ledger was just nineteen; as the film's release approached, he had a slippery feeling in his stomach. Every day, drivers could see his giant-size head, in the billboard exhibition along Sunset Boulevard; all across the country, his face, the title, the tagline: "He Will Rock You." "It freaked me the fuck out," he says. "I was like, 'What if I don't rock 'em?'"

As Ledger grew nervous – "I pretty much had anxiety attacks about just leaving the house" – the studio turned enthusiastic. At meetings, executives mapped out a career with the shape of an Entourage season: tours, paydays, more billboards, bigger projects – they wanted Ledger to play Spider-Man. It made him less confident. "I didn't feel like I deserved it," he says. "I didn't really know how to act properly yet." Ledger sat, listening. "I started to feel like a bottle of Coke," he says. "And there was a whole marketing scheme to turn me into a very popular bottle. And, you know, Coke tastes like shit. But there's posters everywhere so people will buy it. So I felt like I tasted like shit, and I was being bought for no reason."

As the executives finished their presentation, every head at the table clocked toward Ledger together. Ledger stood up. "Could you . . . could you wait one second, please?" He slipped to the bathroom, slammed the door. "And pretty much burst into tears. I was so full of 'Oh! Oh, fuck!' I was hitting my head, hitting the walls. It was a full-on anxiety attack."

That's when Ledger's rep as a difficult presence began to spread. "I'd been concentrating on how to act," he says, "not how to . . . be a salesman. Agents, publicists – they all say, 'Go out and create a character!' I don't want to create a fucking character, but on the same hand I don't want to give myself, I either. When you don't go on Letterman and say, 'Hey! I've got a joke!' – when you sit there honest and nervous and like a normal human being, you get written down as boring and ungrateful."

Ledger keeps trying to find a better position to slouch in, as his memory has become an uncomfortable place. "Obviously now, I've. . . . uh. . . . found more diplomatic ways to approach it. But back then, it was just 'Fuck this.'"

He set about finding roles to dirty himself up: The Four Feathers, The Order, Ned Kelly. "I wanted to take the blond out of my career, kill the direction it was going. I wanted to be bad, I wanted to be good. I was like, 'Well, now, how am I gonna make this a career I would like to have?"' If no audiences came, "Good. That's gonna help me out."

On this strange quest, Ledger met success. "I got to the point where it worked: Nobody wanted to work with me." He laughs. "I'd finally – whether consciously or unconsciously – I perfectly sabotaged any studio interest in working with me."

In 1997, Annie Proulx wrote a story about intensely filmable people (modern cowboys) getting up to something' pretty unfilmable (having sex with each other). Actors had been romancing Brokeback Mountain, as if it were a beautiful rancher's daughter with a drug problem. Who'd be man enough to play gay? "My agent told me, 'I think you're perfect for this one.'"

It's a simple story. Ennis Del Mar falls in love with Jack Twist, then spends two decades frustrating the other man's attempts to love him at close range. Producers initially saw Ledger as Jack. He, of course, said no. "Because unlike Jake [Gyllenhaal], who had to pretend he was comfortable, Ennis was fucking . . . fighting it." After all, for years, what had Ledger been doing but Ennis Del Mar? Subtract the romance, and Ennis was who Ledger had been playing since he left his dad's garage.

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