Heath Ledger is enjoying the fruit of his labours.

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Heath Ledger is enjoying the fruit of his labours.

Post  Admin on Sun Mar 09, 2008 2:39 pm

Heath Ledger is enjoying the fruit of his labours.

Heath Ledger never even watched movies until he stumbled his way into acting. Now, thanks to a career makeover, he has four films about to hit Australian screens. He spoke with Stephanie Bunbury.

He's our boy, Heath Ledger. Anyone can see he's Australian: he's got that look, the same look as the bloke you see hanging round the burger joint with a board under his arm, the look that involves sandy hair and the particular tan that fair skin gets.

Heath Ledger is from Perth. What would he be doing if he wasn't a film star? "I don't know," he mumbles. "Probably would have done very little. Sat on the beach." He may be working hard, but he still likes to talk lazy.

Nobody at the Venice Film Festival where I meet him believes this, of course. Because, incredibly, Heath Ledger features in no fewer than three of the top-billing films: Terry Gilliam's Brothers Grimm, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and Lasse Hallstrom's Casanova. Three films in one of the biggest festivals in the world, people keep exclaiming.

How does that feel? "It's an honour, but it's strenuous. I'm exhausted," he says, sitting down to yet another interview. He proffers a bottle of red, but no sane journalist drinks in the middle of a packed afternoon. "Ah," he says, with an automatic smile, pouring for himself. "It's half past wine for me." You need strength to be famous.

In fact, he says a little later, he has made five films over the past 18 months. Quite consciously, he has been hammering it: this has been a career makeover.

"It was a need to finally test myself, to prove myself," he says. "In the past, I suppose I felt I was kind of handed a career. I was given these silly movies; they put my face on posters and pressure on my shoulders."

He probably means films such as the Shakespearean high-school confidential 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) or the wassailing The Knight's Tale (2001) - though, it has to be said, most actors have much nastier paintings in the attic than does Ledger.

Perhaps it is the lingering spectre of Home and Away, the soap that made him familiar. His great fear, anyway, was that the roles he had done meant that he would be forever typecast as a teen hunk.

It's not that he regrets that career; that would be pointless. "If you take just one tiny thing out of your past, I believe it will change the position of everything else," he says. "So I try not to have any regrets in life, certainly not about the movies I've made."

But it was not a career he had chosen either, and certainly not one he felt he had earned. "I hadn't done anything. I hadn't done anything to prove myself, anyway. So over the past four years I've been destroying the career that was handed to me and creating one that I've chosen. One that I feel I've deserved."

It's a career that is, you can't help noting, becoming increasingly arty. He made a big impact as a racist young hayseed in Monster's Ball (2001), for example, but he says the turning point was Ned Kelly, made in 2003 by Gregor Jordan. The film flopped. But it was different, he says, "from the point of view that I'd chosen to do it and the level of enthusiasm I brought to it. And from that character, I tried to throw myself around the world."

That much is true: Brothers Grimm, set in southern Germany, was made in Prague; the rompin', stompin' Casanova was shot in the great lover's native Venice; Brokeback Mountain was filmed in Canada, masquerading as Wyoming.

It is this last film, in which he plays a cowboy almost wordlessly in love with his fellow drover, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, that we really see what Heath Ledger can do. Gruff, restrained, yet visibly boiling with the pain of thwarted love, he gives a performance widely tipped for an Oscar. This festival really is Heath's new dawn.

The thing is, when he started acting, he only stumbled into it. "My sister did amateur theatre and did a couple of little guest appearances on TV shows," he says. "And then her agent picked me up.

I was doing high school theatre, stuff like that, and then suddenly I got a TV role and that was it. Doors started opening."

But before my first job, I had no interest in movies. I'd never watched them, nor did I really care about them. My curiosity for film is something that has grown over the years while making them. I never woke up as a kid thinking I was going to be an actor."

His choices are still fairly random. "I don't like to put too much forward planning into it, into the type of role I'm looking for. I like it just to land in my lap. It feels right if it drops from the sky."

If he thought his career was sorted, he says, he would panic. "I wouldn't be able to sit here talking to you."

Besides, he bores very easily, so he has to keep it all moving. "I don't want to settle at one style of acting or film. If I were doing the same thing I wouldn't find any reason to continue. But it helps me to evolve. Every time I do something new, it helps me to mature as a performer and a person."

For Casanova, the ostensible topic of this particular interview, he says he did a lot of research, reading as many of the journals as he could, before he realised the film was going to be a sort of bedroom comedy with gondolas but very little historical veracity at all.

"I threw it all out of the window," he says. "It's a romp, a comedy. I feel I should have sent him up more; I really wanted to go to town and I feel like I missed that boat."

There is a hint, here, of overbearing interest from Disney, the studio that produced the movie; whoops, he has said too much. "I really shouldn't," he mumbles, then laughs uproariously as a helicopter roars above the roof of the grand Hotel des Bains garden where we are sitting. Luckily for him, it is impossible for him to finish that sentence.

He looks to the sky for further helicopters a few times during our interview, whenever he feels he is being put on the spot. He has little to fear, however. Only one aspect of Heath Ledger's life has been judged worthy of gossip: his two-year romance with that other Australian made good in Hollywood, Naomi Watts. They met on Ned Kelly, went out, broke up, got back together, broke up again. She was, titillatingly, 11 years his senior; they both looked fabulous. It was a match made in magazine heaven.

They split finally in May last year, however. For the past 12 months he has lived with the American actress Michelle Williams, who plays his wife in Brokeback Mountain. If this year is as golden for him as every one says, he says, it is mostly so because it has made him a father; his daughter Matilda was born on October 28. "That puts all those films into the pale," he says.

Heath Ledger actually seems an unlikely heartthrob, despite the surfer-dude looks. He strikes me as a home body, the kind of man who wants a mate and a haven.

Young Heath grew up in a household of women: he had two younger sisters and an older sister who now has twin daughters. He thinks having all those sisters influenced his view of girls as he grew up. "I think it turned women into friends rather than opponents or conquests."

As American actresses go, Michelle Williams seems to have slipped through some kind of net; she is naturally attractive rather than precision moulded in the way Hollywood usually requires.

What is this thing called true love, Heath? "When it's true love, it feels like something you're rekindling," says Ledger, looking hopefully at the sky. "As if you've met the person before."

All this does not make him a very comfortable Casanova. The grand seducer of the script is clearly supposed to be supremely confident that any woman will fall on her back in front of him. Ledger never seems quite sure of that, even when he's transformed by wig and frock coat. His best moments, in fact, are the ones where he is on the verge of being caught out somehow: he particularly relished a scene where he has to conduct a civil conversation over dinner while one of his doxies entertains him beneath the tablecloth. That, he says, is the kind of comedy he liked playing.

Brothers Grimm, which opens in Australia this week, was another matter. Ledger plays one of the brothers; Matt Damon is the other. They are sideshow swindlers who are spared the guillotine by Napoleon's occupying officers on condition that they investigate the mysterious disappearance of young girls in a remote forest.

The fairytales are woven into the plot, which includes murderous trees, sleeping princesses, lusty wolves and the like. Thus is French rationalism pitted against Germanic romanticism: at least, apparently, that was the idea. Terry Gilliam's film is such a muddle of fantastical images and misjudged pantomime comedy, critics have complained, that it is hard to fathom what it is about.

Brothers Grimm came to Gilliam as a studio project with a written script and a budget of $US80 million ($A109 million), but Gilliam twisted the script into something altogether darker and weirder. Of course, he was pursuing his own wild vision and found a like mind in Ledger, whom he honestly adores. The relationship between the brothers was also radically changed; what began as a buddy caper ended as something more like Cain and Abel, a visceral parable of sibling rivalry."

Everyone else is, 'We've got to be nice'," says Gilliam. "I say, 'No, we've got to be not nice, that is the whole key to it'. Because then the wonderful bits are truly wonderful: they go dark."

Ledger loved all this. "I've been the biggest fan of Terry's all my life," he says. "He's been on the top of my list of directors to work with and he's brilliant. I feel like the world is a better place with Terry in it. Working with him, his energy and passion to create is astounding and he really creates a safe environment for you to leap out of yourself.

He dares you to be bad. He wants you to be bad.

He allows you to scream and shout and make a fool of yourself."

I actually ate three bars of chocolate every day to get as hyperactive as Jacob could be, just to get up all that frantic energy. It was six months, including 115 days in Prague, and every one of those days I woke up and went out to have the time of my life."

There is the cruel irony, of course: that Brothers Grimm should be such fun but rated a failure, while Brokeback Mountain is clearly touched with greatness but was, Ledger says, "tortuous" to make. It was a tough, lonely shoot out there in the Calgary wilderness and Ang Lee was a hard taskmaster.

Ledger's character, permanently slouched with misery, was lonelier than anyone and took Ledger along for the ride. He sighs. The mood of a film, he says reluctantly, always takes him over."

In Brokeback, you go home and switch off and have a glass of wine and relax, you know, but the second you lie down to go to sleep and close your eyes, I'm going through what happened the whole day all over again. Every take, every single thing: I recollect everything. You don't stop thinking about it, don't stop carrying it around, and that is pretty hard. For me, anyway. I feel like a sponge when I'm working. That's why Casanova was so much fun.

We weren't taking it seriously so we didn't have to take ourselves too seriously either."

Just before the three films here, he made Candy in Australia, with Neil Armfield directing. "It's a love story between two junkies," he says. "And it's beautiful, by the way. It is really lovely."

It was also, he adds, the first film he had made in eight years that did not require a foreign accent of some kind. "I found I'd forgotten how free it is to act without an accent; everything is so accessible."

At the same time, he says, acquiring a new accent for every part can become a shortcut to finding the character, like putting on a costume. "Once you hear the accent, you start to hear the character and start to feel the character, so it has become a really big part of it."

Despite this, he feels very little difference between making a film in Australia and making a film anywhere else. "Only in the catering," he laughs. "No, really, because my experience of making films really revolves around the slice of time between 'action' and 'cut'. And that doesn't really change; it is always the same place you go to."

He has loved the travel over these past couple of years. Never in a million years, he says, would he have lived for several months in Prague or Venice if he had not done these films.

Fatherhood will curtail that for now, of course. "But that's OK. I'm looking forward to grounding in a couple of bases. Australia, obviously. And as my better half is American, we'll also be in Brooklyn."

They have bought a house there. He was hoping to stop work for two years to be with the new baby, he says, but thinks he will have to make a film next year to pay for the house. Just like normal folks, then.

In the future, he and his partner intend to take turns working. One on, one off. Those off periods - they're what life is about, after all.

There is a tattoo on Heath Ledger's arm. Old Man River, inscribed in block letters like a nameplate.

He had it done in New York. Meaning what?

"It's not the song," he says. "It's got a few meanings, but I'll tell you one. It feels so eternal, just those words. And I feel like I'm at a time in my life now where I'm paddling down that river. I'm on my way and life is about to speed up. Maybe I should slow down and appreciate it."

Maybe he should just go and sit on a beach, for example. Get a Chiko roll and look for the best break. That's our boy.
The Brothers Grimm is now showing. Brokeback Mountain opens January 26 and Casanova opens February 14. Candy opens later in 2006.

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Rest In Peace Heath Ledger
1979-2008
You will be Never forgotten

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