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
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."
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.
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."'
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.
The film shot for four months in the mountains of Calgary, Alberta, winter melting off to a cool, stubby spring. At night, Ledger was falling in love with Michelle Williams. By day, the work with Jake. For eight weeks, the sex scenes loomed ahead of them, the motel and bedroll stuff that had run other actors off.
"My biggest anxiety," Ledger says, "wasn't having to kiss Jake." For a decade, he'd been hoping for the right part – the chance to show what he could do. "It was a perfect script, and Ang Lee was the perfect director. So the anxiety for me was – I didn't want to be the one to fuck it up." He laughs. "And I was willing to do anything. . . ."
So that's how you approached the love scenes? He looks at me sharply. I mean, you'd never thought –
"About going out and fucking a guy for the first time?" he asks.
"Look, I've experienced love. I know how to love a woman – and I've been in love with many women, and I am in love with the most beautiful woman right now – so I know the extent of love. I guess you'd love for me to say that it was difficult, that I wanted to vomit. But the straight fact is, it was just another person. Now, by no means do I wanna fuck him, we're both very straight and sensible. It wasn't like Ang said, 'OK, guys, just have fun with it – roll camera!' We had to choreograph, it was definitely like walking on the moon for the first time. But it wasn't . . . the butt of a mule: I was kissing a human being with a soul. And part of the magic of acting is, you harness the infinite power of belief. Because if for a second we stopped believing, and looked into Heath and Jake's eyes, it would have been 'Oh, God. OK. Hmm. This is . . . '"
His eyes move away, then back to me. "You know when you see the preachers down South? And they grab a believer and they go, 'Bwoom! I touch you with the hand of God!' And they believe so strongly, they're on the ground shaking and spitting. And fuck's sake, that's the power of belief." He shakes his head. "Now, I don't believe in Jesus, but I believe in my performance. And if you can understand that the power of belief is one of the great tools of our time and that a lot of acting comes from it, you can do anything."
Ledger stands, asks the time, nods. "I've gotta get back to my girl. Girls." In October, Michelle Williams gave birth to the couple's daughter: Matilda Rose. Ledger jokes that he's carrying twenty-five extra pounds of sympathy weight. "Don't want to be away too long. I've gotta keep the house clean, my girls fed. I've got duties."
Heading down the sidewalk to his motorcycle, he asks, "How many more questions you got on you? Do you maybe want to come out to Brooklyn, then? In the next few days – we'll grab a few beers, go for a walk."
As weeks pass, it's clear: I've been Ennis-ed. There's no call to Brooklyn. So in the interim, I speak with Annie Proulx, who wrote the story "Brokeback Mountain." She has won a Pulitzer Prize and speaks in a voice that's small and precise as a granite chip. "Heath understood the character better than I did," she says. "It scared me how much he got inside Ennis."
And I call Ang Lee. Lee knew the picture simply could not work if Ennis wasn't right: "He anchors the movie." During production Lee watched the actor become a star. "You spend so much money to make movies, and usually it rests on a face or two." Lee says. "The audience identifies with themselves, with human faces. You need good actors. But you also need the image to carry the movie on – and that's the movie star. I think Heath is both. I didn't know for sure before. After this movie, I hope people will want to bet their movie on him."
The backstage romance – Ledger falling for Williams – Lee saw as a good thing. "On the set I push him toward Jake," he says, "and off the set he has this great escape the other way." The director is pleased for the couple. "The baby keeps staring at me. Michelle said she doesn't usually stare at people like that. I said maybe she remembers I am the reason she came into existence."
When I speak with Ledger again, we're on the phone. It's a few weeks later. His voice is backed by clucking people and shutting doors. "We've got Michelle's parents – Michelle's mom and, um, her boyfriend – and Michelle's sister is in town. So we're all running around frantically here. I'm kind of pulling the tired-father card."
The phone offers one consolation. When I ask about his former girlfriends, there's less chance of Ledger pitching a fit. He once dated Heather Graham and Naomi Watts, and like any sensible human being I'm interested in hearing about it.
"Well, I don't . . ." Ledger begins. "I'd honestly, out of respect for both Naomi and Michelle, I really would rather not dive into the past." Which is about as sporting a demur as you're going to get. For the record, he dated Graham for less than a year, when he was twenty-two and she was just past thirty. For the record, he dated Watts for nearly two years – she was thirty-five, he twenty-five – with a one-month, neutral-corners breather in the middle. She described their breakup to a reporter as sad and inevitable: "I think deep down we both knew there wasn't a forever plan."
But then Ledger gives the particulars on how he met Williams, 25, who's still probably best known as Jen, the girl with the darkest back story on Dawson's Creek. It was the first day of shooting. "We were knee-deep in snow," he says. "And on the fifth take, Michelle and I tobogganing down the hill, we were supposed to fall off, having a fun time, ho ho ho. And Michelle was screaming in pain. And I thought she's acting: ha ha ha. 'No, I'm really in pain.' She'd twisted her knee – she was pretty much on crutches for the rest of the shoot." Ledger thinks it over. "And I felt I always had to look after her after that."
They never made any firm decision about having kids: "We just fell very deeply into one another's arms. Our bodies definitely made those decisions for us. I mean, the second you acknowledge it as a possibility, the body just inevitably hits a switch and it happens." They conceived outside Sydney, in a resort called Byron Bay, a place favored by surfers and travelers seeking enlightenment. "It's very romantic," he says. "It's very spiritual. There are a lot of hippies out there."
After Williams gave birth, the Brooklyn neighbors started turning up with casserole dishes. "It was very sweet," says Ledger. "I made a big feast for them, we got to know each other."
I ask Ledger how old his own father was when he was born. "Um . . . good question. Hmm! I'm pretty sure my dad was the same age I was."
Right now, career decisions are on hold. Candy, the Aussie film in which he plays a heroin addict, opens in April. Then what? "I've had a year off," he says. "If my agent had his way, I'd be working every fucking day of my life." He's being careful. "Because in this industry, interest in you comes in waves, it's so tidal. And so I don't really want to jump on the first wave that comes along."
Award season has ended now. The system, which Ledger calls "the monster," follows the political model; you've got to go campaigning. For Ledger it's been a tough trail. He wins the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor but doesn't show up to collect the prize – he's back in Australia, where a paparazzi shoots him with a water pistol, and it's international news. Every Hollywood week seems to bring another bungle. He delivers a speech at the Screen Actors Guild Awards that seems to mock Brokeback's content. But if you know Ledger, what he's making fun of is the award-speech genre itself. Then he announces that George Clooney deserves the same Best Supporting Actor award that Jake Gyllenhaal is nominated for. Word circulates that Ledger is a bad boy – not, perhaps, in the good way voters like. But all of this is honorable. Many stars pocket the benefits of saying they're rebellious, claiming they dislike the system, at no cost to themselves. Ledger really seems not to know any way to act but as himself – he's still playing to his own standard of goofball, prickly honesty. I remember the last thing he said on the phone: "It's not that hard to understand, right? I'd like to be responsible for my own actions. If you're gonna paint a picture, you want to pick the colors yourself, and where and how they go."
And there was the moment we got up from lunch. When he was twenty, Ledger had felt like a soda bottle, just an item to be marketed. But as he stood, Ledger realized he could do with a drink. He flagged a waitress: "I wouldn't mind a Coke – could I get a Coca-Cola?" She said they were out.
Isn't that the way it goes? You give in to the system, just a little, and you still walk outside the restaurant thirsty.