This story was originally published in the February 21st, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.
He arrived onscreen as if he’d just blown in from someplace else. His face just missed being pretty; there was the clean line of the jaw, the mulish neck and shoulders, the rich tobacco roll of the voice. He was like the senior you hoped to be as a freshman. Two days after Heath Ledger’s death, at the age of twenty-eight, Daniel Day-Lewis halted an appearance on Oprah. “I’m sorry. … It just seems somehow strange to be talking about anything else,” the actor said. “I didn’t know him. I have an impression, a strong impression, that I would have liked him very much, as a man, if I had.”
We count on our performers for many things – as demonstrators of excellence, as figures of monstrous envy – but we rarely expect to feel luckier than they are. Stars embody our dream lives. And Ledger was a star in a very particular way. To stare at him was to receive a sense of power, and potential, a kind of perfectly vivid health and youth. That’s why his death feels wrong, and why the response has felt primitive, tribal. It means youth and vitality aren’t enough. It’s like losing a season.
The story moved swiftly, his body discovered Tuesday afternoon, facedown in his Manhattan bedroom. By evening, the named culprit was recreational drugs, an overdose; pills were reported strewn by his bedside. By Wednesday, these turned out to be prescription meds: Xanax, Valium and Ambien, which made Ledger’s bedroom just like thousands of other homes of the anxious, the ambitious, the sleepless. There was the sight of Michelle Williams – mother of his daughter, Matilda – in a car bound for the airport, resembling a first lady in mourning. By the weekend, New York police were speculating that the medications had accidentally bonded into a kind of cocktail that stopped Ledger’s heart. Gossip columnists darkly hinted of hard partying. Outside the Screen Actors Guild Awards, fringe evangelicals picketed, because Ledger had portrayed a homosexual cowboy. The last we saw of him was in a zippered black bag, wheeling into an ambulance, with sad little bumps for feet and head.
Ledger grew up in Perth, Western Australia – “the most isolated city,” he told me, “in the world.” His father drove race cars, mother taught French, and Heath offered something of their mix, the rugged and the cultural. He wanted to act, and at sixteen he drove to Sydney with less than a dollar in his pocket. It was already a life of bold strokes, simple, large movements and changes of scenery; a life from a movie.
When it happens, it happens fast. Ledger’s Hollywood career began a year before George W. Bush’s election, and did not outlast his presidency. In 1999, Ledger took the lead role in the high school comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. Afterward he refused other teen roles. He had a talent for pausing at the right moment, waiting for situations to develop in his favor. He played Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot. Then he was cast to carry A Knight’s Tale. He was twenty-one. His body still had a kid’s loose, unstringed movements, but it was clear he would become a star. There was the great manly smile, lines racing up from his chin to his ears; when he smiled, his face fanned brutal and turned warm; it was a smile that commanded.
The second part of Ledger’s career was a reaction to stardom: He’d glimpsed the career that was being paved for him; in the middle of a studio meeting, he locked himself in a bathroom. “It was a full-on anxiety attack,” he said. “I was hitting my head, hitting the walls.” From there, he steered his own course, toward darker movies, chillier commercial prospects. He meant to scrape away the glossy coating, replace it with an actor’s raw, flexible skin. “I wanted to take the blond out of my career,” he said, “kill the direction it was going. I was like, ‘How am I going to make this a career I would like to have?'”
Celebrity was impractical. He hadn’t accommodated himself to the deal: You sell the media slices of private life, in exchange for the immense freedoms of the salary. Profiles began to circle around the same words: wary, restless. “For you or anyone sitting here to really know me,” he said to me, “you’d have to sit here for a year. It would take that much time for me to explain it.”
He approached his work with the same hardness; he did not class himself an artist, and never believed he’d been good: “I always want to pull myself apart and dissect it.” Accepting a part, “I go through the process of hating it, hating myself, thinking I’ve fooled them, I can’t actually do this.” Ledger had no formal training, and there’s this to be said for acting school: It teaches you to approach a role as foreign, as a language you’ll temporarily speak. Ledger didn’t have that. He needed to inhabit the part of himself that was the character. “Performance comes from believing what you’re doing,” Ledger said. “You convince yourself, and believe in the story with all your heart.”
On the Brokeback Mountain set, he’d begun a relationship with Williams. They had a daughter – “we just fell very deeply into one another’s arms, our bodies made those decisions for us.” A year later, Ledger said he felt content. “When you’re this happy,” he said, “everything seems to fall into place.”
His best movies tell a unified story, in chapters, about someone learning how to be. Casanova was about how to shift from being a lover to actually loving one person. Brokeback warned of the life where you refuse love, the costs everyone around you must pay. In I’m Not There, he played a man who had – like himself- for reasons he could not explain and couldn’t correct, lost his lover, family and home. As the Joker in The Dark Knight, he’s severed from all connection. A “psychopathic, mass-murdering clown with zero empathy” is how he described it.
When Ledger and Williams split last September, the explanation appeared to be drug use. He missed his daughter. Sleep became a problem. “I need to do something with this head, because sometimes I just don’t sleep, it just keeps ticking.” He was managing just two hours a night. When one Ambien didn’t do the job, he swallowed a second, passed out, came to an hour later, head still whirring. On his last film set, co-star Christopher Plummer said that Ledger didn’t seem to be sleeping at all.
It’s been a time of tributes. Todd Haynes, director of I’m Not There, said, “Heath was a true artist. This is an unimaginable tragedy.” Brokeback director Ang Lee said, “Working with Heath was one of the purest joys of my life.” Dark Knight director Chris Nolan wrote about “charisma – as invisible and natural as gravity … I never felt as old as I did watching Heath.” At press time, there’s no official cause of death, but in a sense it’s right in front of us. Ledger made great demands on his heart, romantically, professionally, personally, physically. And in the end, his heart said, “No.”
Watch below: Heath Ledger’s essential roles, from 10 Things I Hate About You to Brokeback Mountain.