Heath Ledger's Lonesome Trail

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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.

This story is from the March 23rd, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.

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