“I’m not supposed to be talking about this with you. This is not something that is supposed to be happening right now,” musician Ben Harper says at the beginning of the new Spike TV documentary I Am Heath Ledger. “Some people are just bigger than the world has room for.”
Harper, a close friend of the actor who died in 2008 of an accidental drug overdose, is one of several friends, peers and family members who discuss both the actor’s singular talents and constant search for adventure and creative pursuits. The poignant film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last month and made its network debut on Spike last night, culls from archival interviews of the actor alongside handheld footage the actor shot throughout his life (as the film shows, Ledger was rarely without a camera).
More than just a cradle-to-grave portrait, I Am Heath Ledger transcends box-checking filmography and gushing tributes, looking past Ledger The Movie Star to focus on the young man who dedicated his life to pursuing – and helping others pursue – a wide variety of creative endeavors. Directors Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis spend as much time on the actor’s other pursuits – music, directing, nurturing talent – as his acting, giving a 360-degree view of the perpetually energetic and curious star. Here are 10 things we learned from the informative doc.
1. Venice Carnival Inspired His Early Development
Prior to auditioning for 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, Ledger’s then-girlfriend Lisa Zane took the actor to the Carnival of Venice. The pair donned costumes and shot 8mm films; it was that trip, according to friend and Ledger’s creative collaborator Matt Amato, “that created him as an actor.” Ledger would go on to nab the role of the romantic lead in that teen-comedy take on The Taming of the Shrew, which became an unexpected hit and his first big break in Hollywood.
2. He Thought He Bombed The Patriot Screen Test
Midway through his screen test for The Patriot, Ledger stopped and said, “Sorry, I’m wasting your time.” Despite telling his agent he bombed, he got the part of Gabriel Martin, Mel Gibson’s oldest child who joins the Continental Army. Intimidated by the opportunity to act alongside his idol, Ledger had what his agent calls an on-set “crisis of confidence … Heath would get caught up in the fear of whether or not he could accomplish what he wanted to do. He almost pulled out of every movie he ended up doing.” This self-doubt would haunt Ledger his whole career.
3. He Loved Burning Man
In 1999, Ledger and his friends went to Burning Man to enjoy downtime between movies, and the actor quickly became awestruck at the creativity of the Nevada festival’s participants. “I think Burning Man was his favorite place on Earth,” friend Matt Amato said. Added another longtime buddy Trevor DiCarlo, “It was a bunch of half-naked people and dance music 24/7 … we fit in really well.”
4. He Loathed Being a “Salesman” of His Films
Virtually the entire marketing campaign for 2001’s A Knight’s Tale revolved around Ledger, a fact that upset the burgeoning superstar. “I could see him getting more and more upset [in interviews],” says his agent Steve Alexander. “He was getting very uncomfortable and fidgeting; he finally whispered to me that he needed to leave and get out of the room for a second.” Ledger both craved and was terrified by fame. “Selling the film was the part of the business he was least comfortable with,” Alexander says.
5 He Was Obsessed With Nick Drake
“He talked about Nick Drake, a musician he was absolutely passionate about and wanted to tell his story,” says actor Djimon Hounsou, who starred with Ledger in 2002’s The Four Feathers. Ledger would frequently discuss which visuals he would create to Drake’s songs. “It was all about Nick Drake,” adds Harper. “He had every record. He had interviews. He was completely immersed.” According to friends, Ledger empathized with the musician – who died at 26 – ominously saying that he had a “lot to do” with not much time.
6. He Asked Ben Harper to Write a Lullaby for His Daughter
Having hit it off singer-songwriter Ben Harper, Ledger decided to start an independent record label – Masses Music – with the musician. One day after spending the night playing on Ledger’s grand piano, Harper awoke to the delivery of the instrument; a spontaneous gift from the actor. “It’s supposed to be with you,” Ledger told him. A few weeks later, Ledger asked Harper to write a lullaby for Ledger’s then-unborn daughter Matilda. “I’ve never been trusted so deeply,” Harper says. “Nothing has ever been asked of me that was that precious.” The song would eventually become “Happy Everafter in Your Eyes” from Harper’s 2006 album Both Sides of the Gun.
7. He Was an Amazing Chess Player
Ledger played chess nearly every day, either physically or online. “I always felt that he was five moves in front of me,” says his father Kim. “By the time he was 10, he was pretty hard to beat.” According to Kim, he was only a few points away from becoming a Grandmaster. Ledger hoped his directorial debut would be an adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit, a 1983 novel about a chess prodigy and her battles with drug and alcohol addiction. “He understood that story from the inside out,” says cinematographer Ed Lachman. “He wanted to use chess as a metaphor for the girl’s life.”
8. The Joker’s Constant Lip-Licking Started as a Way to Keep Prosthetics From Coming Off
For the role of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, Ledger locked himself in a room for six weeks to perfect the character’s singular voice, posture and stance. (Ledger would later conceive the white pancake makeup and smeared red lipstick himself.) As the lip prosthetics he wore for the part loosened as he talked, the actor would frequently lick his lips to keep them in place. The pragmatic solution to avoiding more time in make-up would become one of the character’s most terrifying traits.
9. His Death Inspired Bon Iver to Write “Perth”
Amato was directing Bon Iver’s “The Wolves (Act I & II)” the day that Ledger died. “It was no longer about just making a Bon Iver music video anymore,” the group’s singer-songwriter Justin Vernon says. “This was now our chance to be there with Matt as he grieved. It was a three-day wake.” Amato would tell Vernon stories about Ledger that would eventually become the inspiration for “Perth,” the first song on the indie band’s 2011 album Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
10. He Couldn’t Turn His Brain Off
Chronically unable to wind down at the end of the day, Ledger eventually turned to sleeping medications to help him sleep through the night. The actor developed a bad flu in London on the set of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus that exhausted him, yet he confessed that the medications he was taking weren’t helping him. “At times, he would say, ‘I’m just having a hard time laying it down at the end of the day and not thinking about stuff,'” Alexander says.